3 Ways to be a Good Second Chair at Trial
Trials are stressful. They can be made less stressful by having someone at your side who is going to make it easier for you. A good second chair is an invaluable asset. Being second chair at trial is like being a relief pitcher. You’re not going to get credit for the win or the loss, but you can absolutely affect the outcome. Here are some ways that you, in your role as second chair, can best serve your trial partner and ease her burden.
Second chair is a support role. You need to anticipate the needs of your partner by being attentive what’s going on. Are there documents that might be needed to support a motion in limine? Are there photographs she needs during the examination of a witness? Have deposition transcripts pre-marked with tabs so that if a witness needs to be impeached with his prior testimony, you and your partner aren’t having to thumb through pages or scour the index? Instead, as your partner comes back to the table, you’re ready to hand over the transcript already open to the needed page.
Your second chair support role does not end with tangible things. You are also tasked with mental and emotional support. People handle trial stress in different ways. Some better than others. I have tried cases with several different lawyers, each of whom needs a different kind of support. Some of your trial partners will get really keyed up, and you need to talk them off a ledge. Some will begin to doubt strategies and tactics, and you will need to convince them to stay the course. Others will need encouragement and reassurances. Then there are those who will start to get brash about what they want to do, and need to be reined back in. Being a good second chair requires you to be mindful of your partner and attentive to his needs.
Things can change on a dime at trial. There is no better example of this than the OJ Simpson trial. At the outset of trial, Marcia Clark and Bill Hodgman were set to first and second chair the prosecution team. Then Hodgman collapsed … during trial. Clark pulled up Chris Darden to replace Hodgman during one of the most high profile cases in American history. Darden was malleable and adaptable and ready to fulfill his new role.
To a much less notable degree, these types of things happen all the time at trial. Witness testimony frequently goes differently than expected. The judge rules on the admissibility of evidence in an unanticipated way. I have been in trials where I have had responsibilities added and others where I’ve been relieved of them. In none of those instances were the changes a result of something I had done. There was no time to either gloat or pout. Only to adapt and prepare for the next phase.
Be Low Maintenance
Most importantly, you cannot be a good second chair if you require lots of attention. Trial is not the time for you to ask your partner all the questions your inquisitive, hungry mind contrives. When I was a clerk at the St. Clair District Attorney’s office, the District Attorney was trying a capital murder/sexual torture case. During one of the breaks, I approached the DA and asked if he could answer a question. He said, “No,” and turned his back to focus on something else. At first, I was mildly offended. But later, I understood that he wasn’t being rude; he genuinely wasn’t in a place to answer my questions about why it was so important to the defense to bring out that the defendant had been drinking the night of the murder. The DA was focused and in his trial zone, no different than any athlete during a game.
Trial is not the time to pepper your partner with impertinent questions, ask insecurely whether you’re doing a good job, or sulk that other associates are getting more responsibilities (or alternatively, have lighter workloads) than you. Trial is the time for you to be on top of your game and be prepared to meet your trial partner’s needs in anticipation of them arising. It is the time for you to execute your own responsibilities without giving your partner any cause for concern.
Being a good second chair is an exercise in servant-leadership. It’s a time to put into practice the lessons you’ve been learning. But mostly, it’s a time for you to be an asset and resource for the person occupying the first chair.
Photo by Clyde Robinson.