Lessons from Simon Rifkind

 The late 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, 19604344_SSouthern District of New York, where he served from 1941-1950. He voluntarily left the federal bench because he was bored by poor lawyering which according to Rifkind, was the rule rather then the exception.

Mr. Rifkind’s passion was trying cases. He was a renaissance trial lawyer in that he never wanted to try the same type of case more then once. Rather he wanted to try cases in differing subject areas so he could immerse himself into the area. This allowed him to learn about new areas of life and law through trying cases.

Once a case gets to trial, Simon Rifkind believes the dynamics of trial take place. To Rifkind, a trial is a play. There is a hero (usually his 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 with their lawyer in trying the case. This is off plot. The lawyer is the person who is expected to try the case. When the client appears to be telling the lawyer what to do, or when the client appears too strident, jurors dislike the client; the client loses the image of the hero and becomes a wanna be lawyer. The client will lose when
this happens.

From a lawyer’s perspective it is essential to remain like a duck. A duck looks calm above the water, but below the water unobserved the duck is paddling briskly to stay afloat. The lawyer must keep a cool demeanor in the face of the adversity that will occur at trial. The lawyer must also show professionalism to opposition counsel, witnesses, and the judge. The lawyer should never appear to be a bully or out of control. There is nothing wrong with destroying an opposition witness, and this at times needs to be done, but it needs to be performed calmly, methodically and with professionalism.

It is also important to recognize that unlike a play, the stage in a 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. This will not in and of itself win the case, but if lack of professionalism is observed by a juror this harms the case.

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