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April 21, 2010

Section of Litigation Annual Conference Offers Opportunities to Enhance Skills, Business Acumen

Presentations from leading national litigators such as Robert Morvillo and David Boies, as well as guidance from top national legal reporters like Adam Liptak of the New York Times, Dan Abrams of NBC News and David Lat of Abovethelaw.com, were among highlights of the _ Section of Litigation Annual Conference.

In addition to hearing from the leading personalities of the legal profession, attendees of this year’s meeting in New York learned practical tips to hone their skills and fill their toolboxes so they can better serve their clients.  In particular, three high-profile sessions drew a lot of attention from the record number of 950 attendees.

Luminaries of the Trial Bar Share Best Practices

“Great Openings and Closings—By the Lawyers Who Gave Them” provided front row seats to hear passages from winning jury addresses given by nationally known litigators Robert S. Bennett, David Boies, Willie Gary and Robert Morvillo. Judge Denise Cote of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York was the moderator, who led the panel through a review of their top opening and closing arguments, and provided frank critiques and commentary.

Cote provided attendees with some general advice. From what she called her “view from the bench,” Cotes said, “Establishing your own relationship with the jury is probably as important as anything else that you will do in an opening statement.”

Boies reenacted his opening statement on behalf of Westinghouse Electric Co., in a case where the company was charged with offering former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos a “piece of the action” in return for his help in securing a 600-megawatt nuclear power plant.

Unsure if his client would testify, Bennett noted that he had to temper his opening remarks, in his case defending “Dancing with the Stars” champ Helio Castroneves, who was charged with tax evasion.

“You want your words echoing in the jury’s ears,” said Judge Cote, describing one of the three hallmarks of closing arguments, which she said “should shape the development of the entire summation from beginning to end.”

Morvillo used the Martha Stewart case to illustrate what works – and doesn’t work – in a closing argument of a high-profile trial.

In his closing, Gary used PowerPoint to help him walk the audience through a case in which he championed a small local funeral business in Biloxi, Miss., against a large corporation that was moving in on that family funeral operation.

Legal Press in a Changing Media Environment

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George Freeman, The New York Times Co., moderated the discussion

The opening plenary focused on the relationship between the courts, lawyers and the news media.  Explaining the program’s benefit to attendees, moderator George Freeman, New York Times counsel, said that “a good lawyer has to represent his client not just in the courtroom, but in the realm of public opinion as well, and that proactively dealing with the press on behalf of his client is an important part of his job.”

To help attendees develop these skills, “How the Media Covers the Law – and How Lawyers Should Deal Ethically with the Media” brought together panelists Dan Abrams, NBC News; Alison Frankel, The American Lawyer; Ashby Jones, The Wall Street Journal; David Lat, Abovethelaw.com; and U.S. Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak, New York Times. Joining them was Judge Kimba Wood, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

With the rapid rise of legal blogs, social media like Twitter and other new communication tools, the session gave attendees an opportunity to hear directly from the top voices in legal news about the changing media environment.

Panelists lamented the changing nature of the news business: newsroom staff cuts and a 24/7 demand for fresh news are giving reporters less time to verify facts, comb through briefs and court documents, and become experts. The reporters commonly shared that they are now expected to cover more subject areas than ever, making them generalists, more than specialists. With less specific “beats,” reporters are increasingly relying upon their sources for story background, panelists shared, reminding attendees of that the media still shapes public opinion and the time that attendees spend with reporters is still valuable.

Wood shared the value of relationship building with reporters, telling attendees of her informal and regular meetings with them. She said that such discussions are mutually beneficial opportunities, where judges can express their issues with the media, while also getting feedback from reporters.

With shorter deadlines, reporters told attendees to focus their pitches on newsworthy stories with strong human-interest angles. Tell the stories behind the cases, panelists urged.

As evidence of the shifting media landscape, Freeman asked attendees to indicate their preferred way of getting news.  A show of hands demonstrated that a majority still get their news from newspapers.  Only a handful relayed that TV was their primary source, while almost every attendee indicated a reliance on the Internet for news.

Learn more about the meeting at www.abanet.org/litigation/sectionannual