Trial Lawyer Q&A - On the Stand with Paul Hughes - McDermott Will & Emery

On the Stand with Paul Hughes



Paul Hughes serves as co-head of the Firm’s practices focusing on Supreme Court & Appellate Litigation as well as Government & Regulatory Litigation. He has argued 10 times at the Supreme Court of the United States and more than 70 times in federal and state appellate and trial courts across the country.

In this Q&A, Paul shares his career highlights, advice for junior trial lawyers and preparation tactics.

In Depth

What is the proudest moment of your career to date?

Every win—especially at the Supreme Court—is a proud moment. For example, we recently secured a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court for a transgender individual that revived her claims and brought her new, real hope that she’ll be allowed to remain in the United States.

My McDermott team also won a trio of Supreme Court cases that drastically expanded the scope of federal court jurisdiction over immigration proceedings. Dozens of people subsequently won their cases from removal and received protection from persecution in their countries of origin.

How do you prepare for each day when you’re at trial?

I am relentless in ensuring that I am the most prepared person in the courtroom. Preparation is different for me than for most trial lawyers. My “trial,” or oral argument, time is measured in minutes, or at most an hour, and rarely longer than that. To be ready for a 30-minute argument, I’ll often prepare for seven to 10 days.

I spend the greatest amount of time outlining the various issues that may be presented and distilling those down to the most important points that we want to address to the court. Then, I think through what questions are likely to come from the court and how to answer them succinctly and effectively to create a powerful narrative for my client. It’s easy to spend time practicing your strong points. I instead focus on where the court will think our position is weakest.

What advice do you give junior lawyers before their first trial?

You can’t necessarily control the strength of your case or the abilities of the other lawyers. What you can control is the time and work you put in to be the most prepared person in the courtroom.

I tell junior lawyers to think about how much time they believe is necessary to prepare for an argument, and then triple it. There shouldn’t be a question to which you don’t know the answer or a record site that you can’t immediately identify. Credibility matters immensely, and you establish credibility with the court if it believes you know every aspect of your case and that you fairly present it.

What is one thing about your practice that you want people to know?

The appellate team at McDermott dedicates a significant portion of practice to designing affirmative litigation adverse to local, state and federal governments that pose challenges to our clients’ businesses. I work with clients to assess the odds of prevailing through litigation and to develop litigation strategies if they do decide to litigate. In this area of my practice, I help clients use litigation to find solutions to the government regulatory challenges that they face and achieve a business objective, which can be very rewarding.

What do you enjoy about appellate litigation?

Standing at the podium before an appellate court is the ultimate high-leverage situation for a lawyer. It is our profession’s analog to being the closer in Game 7 of the World Series. A tremendous amount of effort—years and years of work—have come before. Yet, at that moment, one lawyer takes the stage and is grilled by the court—with everyone watching. You either perform or you don’t. It is high-pressure, and I thrive on it. I enjoy appellate litigation because I want the client to trust me with the ball when it matters the most.

Check out more trial lawyer interviews in our On the Stand series.