In this Q&A, Richard shares why being a nice person matters during trial, how he helps clients overcome pretrial jitters and why clients should add him to their trial team at the eleventh hour.
How has your career evolved since you became a lawyer?
I started as an appellate lawyer. I clerked on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit after law school, and I loved everything about it. After my clerkship, I joined the issues and appeals group at a global law firm. I hadn’t thought much about trial work and being a trial lawyer. But as I attended trials as appellate counsel, I watched the trial lawyers and thought, “I can do that. That looks like fun.” In fact, before law school, my background was in theater and film. I almost got a Master of Fine Arts in film. I had more experience as a director than an actor, but I understood the art of performing in front of an audience and telling a story. It’s all very similar to being a trial lawyer.
The real transition happened eight or nine years ago when I went to trial with a major client as their appellate lawyer. At the hearing right before trial, the plaintiff’s lawyer was bullying and pushing around the lead defense lawyer, practically eating his lunch. The client pulled me aside afterward and decided on the spot to appoint me first chair for the three-week trial on 72 hours’ notice. I went back to the hotel, called my wife, fell apart for a few hours, picked myself up, tried my first case, won it and never looked back.
And now, years later, I’m building out McDermott’s complex litigation and trial practice in Texas. The Texas market is expanding with a diverse array of client needs, and it’s an exciting step in my career to be part of broadening our client base while doing what I love.
What is one thing every trial lawyer should know about being in the courtroom?
Every moment you’re around the courthouse, you’re being watched. Your behavior outside of the courtroom matters—even in the parking lot. If you skip into the courthouse while a paralegal struggles to carry eight boxes, the jury sees that. If you’re rude to a security guard, the jury sees that. If you react in a certain way to opposing counsel, the jury sees that.
When I’m in a public area of any kind during trial, I make sure I am the most respectful, kind and pleasant human being. Of course, that’s how we should always act no matter who is watching! But with the jurors, perception is everything, and they form opinions based on split-second and sometimes unfair observations (including your resting face). I don’t want to exhibit any signs that could come off as offensive to the jury in any way.
How do you prepare for each day when you’re at trial?
Being prepared means knowing as much as possible so you are never surprised. It needs to feel spontaneous, but it is based on hundreds—if not thousands—of hours of preparation.
It’s also critical to maintain emotional balance, which is not always easy during trial. I have a tradition to support that balance: The first thing I do when I finish trial each day is go for a run and clear my head. I also FaceTime my family each evening. Then I feel like a human being again, and I can resume making sure I’m absolutely prepared for the next day. There are many far more important reasons to do this, but if you need a purely Machiavellian reason, the simple truth is jurors don’t connect well with soulless cyborgs.
What is a common issue you see clients face going into trial, and how do you handle it?
I often see a lot of anxiety. In the days and weeks leading up to jury trial, many clients start to panic. They imagine worst-case scenarios and runaway jury awards. No matter how strong their case is, as the clock ticks closer and closer, they get scared and want to settle on terms they never would have rationally considered. Pathos overrides logos.
Part of my job is to reassure the client that we’re ready. I help them understand that we’ve already addressed those fears and anxieties—we’ve known about them for months. If there are surprises, we’ll be ready.
It all boils down to preparation. Preparation is the antidote to fear and terror, which is what most clients feel in the moments leading up to trial.
What is one thing about your practice that you’d like people to know?
I can jump into cases really close to trial. It’s a distinct skill and doesn’t faze me.
I joined more than half of my 13 first-chair experiences within two to three months of trial, and that’s uncommon. In another half-dozen trials that I jumped into, we resolved either with a settlement or on motions immediately before trial—sometimes even after picking a jury. Very recently, I entered a case in Texas with just a month to spare. I believe it’s an advantage, because I’m seeing the case the same way the jury will, without years of history and minutiae (none of which the jury will care about) weighing me down as I prepare.
No matter when I join a case, when I’m going to trial for a client, that client is my absolute priority. I am there for that client before anything else, and I am not simply doing a job. I am invested, and I care. Their priorities are my priorities. Being completely in sync in that way is essential.