The following are notes and impressions on St. Thomas University School of Law’s recent forum “All-Stars of the Courtroom,” a two-day, event hosted by Jose A. Baez and some of the top advocates in the country, including Benjamin Crump, Joe Tacopina, Arthur Aidala, Ronald Sullivan Jr., and famed journalist Jean Casarez.
Topics included Opening Statements (Jose Baez, Esq.), Dealing with Race in Trials (Benjamin Crump, Esq.), Cross Examination (Joe Tacopina, Esq.), Closing Arguments (Ronald Sullivan, Esq.), Pushing Back at the Bench (Ronald Sullivan, Esq.), Having a Case in the Media (Arthur Aidala, Esq.), and Trials of the Century (Jean Casarez, Esq.).
One quality the advocates shared is that they are all zealous advocates, aggressive in destroying their opponent’s arguments, a pitch of disputation perhaps more suited to criminal defense than other areas of law. They all spoke with and radiated confidence. Jose Baez said, “Nobody can match my passion or outwork me,” but grounded his confidence, urging that we study and learn from the best, saying that he for example learned from Joe Tacopina how to be relentless.
Joe Tacopina also spoke of passion and hard work, referring to it as “the magic elixir,” and described how during trials he does not stop thinking about his cases, often sleeping next to his notepad. Quoting Cicero’s axiom, “Preparation, Preparation, Preparation,” he said that for each hour of cross-examination, he might spend seven hours preparing. An amount of preparation that, it must be said, is a luxury usually reserved for those who have deep pockets and are in deep trouble.
Benjamin Crump discussed how implicit cultural biases about minorities too often infringe on their rights to obtain a fair trial. One of Crump’s approaches to dealing with this issue, is to emphasize the juror’s constitutional duty that they have to guarantee equal justice, and the importance of the decision they are being entrusted to make. That they should “vote their conscience.” Crump also stressed the importance of sincerity and credibility in trying to overcome biases.
Ronald Sullivan also spoke of constitutionalizing issues, specifically when you are challenging a judge’s rulings or treatment of your client. He advised, “Don’t be afraid to challenge the bench, where appropriate; it’s the judge’s duty to administer equally.” Sullivan also said, “If you are going to express indignation, you have to earn the right to your indignation.” That you should not “be banging on the table from the get go.” An example Sullivan offered was having submitted a 120-page Motion to Suppress, impliedly to demonstrate his effort and depth of competence on the issue, thus earning his right to wrangle over the ruling indignantly.
I can’t help but note that the notion of submitting a 120-page motion in an action other than a securities case, practically a per se act of provocation, reminded me of the infamous case of Mylward v. Weldon, where in 1596 an attorney submitted a 120-page pleading to the Chancery Court of England, inciting the court to order a hole be cut in the middle of the “engrossed” pleading, and placed around the attorney’s neck so that he could be paraded about the courts in front of the Bar, and afterwards fined and imprisoned for his “abuse” of the court’s indulgence and his client’s pockets.
Arthur Aidala spoke about having cases in the media, on how, in our age of social media, jurors can see stories about trials on their smart phones, which erodes the presumption of innocence, especially in cases where the media assumes the defendant is guilty. An interesting piece of advice Aidala shared is that an attorney should always wear a suit because you never know who you might meet or where you might end up that afternoon. For example, he once found himself on TV representing a high-profile client only hours after he first got the case.
Jean Casarez spoke, not so much in the role of a zealous advocate but an impartial legal journalist, perhaps the most well-known in the country, having covered many of the most famous trials of our time. Casarez spoke of her journey, of how after law school she recorded six albums of Tejano music as Jean Le Grande, and later seized an opportunity to become a journalist. Most notably, she was a court reporter for Court TV and CNN. Her talk highlighted not only the power attorneys have to change the world for the better, but also how as an attorney you never know what you will end up doing, and it probably will not be what you expected.
The above photo of Jose Baez goes to another theme from the forum, the importance of performance to effective advocacy. “Voice inflection is everything,” said Baez, after showing us video of his performance in the Casey Anthony trial. The photo is of Baez demonstrating the point by comparing his performance with that of an actor auditioning to play Baez on a movie version of the trial. The difference between the real and pretend Baez’ performances can, like all performances, only be compared by the eye and ear, but undoubtedly the Baez’ performance was in great part born of confidence. I had to share the picture because the image of an attorney become famous on TV comparing himself to an actor auditioning to play him on TV, struck me as a choice specimen of postmodern irony.
In conclusion, it was a remarkable two-day event that was enjoyable and informative. The speakers were very friendly and generous in sharing insights into their craft. I look forward to St. Thomas hosting many more All-Star Forums in the future, and continuing its rise as one of the top law schools in Florida.
St. Thomas University School of Law is located in Miami, Florida. STU’s “All Stars of the Court Room” forum was held on STU’s campus on November 2nd and 3rd, 2019.
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