Lessons from Simon Rifkind

Beginning in law school law school I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer. This meant studying trial lawyers. I started with Simon Rifkind. From Rifkind I learned trials are plays.

Simon Rifkind was a Wall Street lawyer and partner in the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind. He was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Federal Judge, Southern District of New York

(1941-1950). He voluntarily left the federal bench because he was bored with poor lawyering which, according to Rifkind, was the rule rather than the exception. He returned to trying cases.

Rifkind’s passion was trying cases. He was a renaissance trial lawyer who tried different types of cases. He tried cases in various areas to learn new aspects of  life.

Once a case goes to trial, Rifkind knows the dynamics of trial take place. To Rifkind, a trial is a play. There is a hero (usually our client) and a villain (usually the opposition). The jury is the audience, the judge, lawyers, and witness actors. The lawyer has a unique position as he is both an actor and producer of the play. Rifkind teaches, trials like plays, must have a theme. The theme should announce the client’s cause with the ends of justice.

Rifkind is right, a trial is like a play. From a client standpoint, the biggest mistake occurs when the client appears to be too involved in trying the case. This is off plot. The lawyer is the person who is expected to try the case. When the client appears over involved the client loses the image of the hero and becomes a wanna be lawyer. 

The lawyer is like a duck, calm above the water, below the water paddling to stay afloat. The lawyer keeps a cool demeanor in the face of adversity occurring at trial. The lawyer shows professionalism to opposition counsel, witnesses, and the judge. The lawyer is neither a bully nor out of control. There is nothing wrong with destroying an opposition witness, and this at times needs to be done, with jury permission and professional firmness.

It is important to recognize that unlike a play the stage in trial is anywhere a juror may observe the client, lawyer, or witnesses. Rifkind would agree to dress and act like going to and being in church at all times anywhere in or even near the courthouse. Lack of professionalism observed by a juror harms the case.

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