By Charlotte Morris
Although few consultants were talking openly about it at the time, around 2009 the business of law was suffering along with the rest of our global economy. For many lawyers, the difficult economy meant cutting costs, which often included cutting trial consultants. While I sweated through that summer about whether to take a part-time job at Starbucks so that at least my habit for half-caff mochas could be subsidized, the most encouraging e-mails I received were from attorney-clients who said "I'm thinking of you. I wish I could hire you. But my case load is down, my budgets are slashed and I'm just trying to get through the recession like everyone else." Strangely, my misery loved company.
That moment in time - and it felt like an eternity - turned out to be a great opportunity for my consulting practice. It forced me to start articulating how my clients could still benefit from my work in cost-effective ways. There were the obvious practical considerations for cutting expenses, such as file-sharing and video conference calls to accomplish at least some of what we used to do in face-to-face meetings. Many consultants are working with attorneys to prepare witnesses, generate and develop demonstrative exhibits, and conduct strategy sessons this way to dramatically cut the cost of travel.
Still, I routinely hear from lawyers I meet at CLE programs who say, "I don't have the kind of cases that would justify the expense of hiring a trial consultant." Here's my response: I've got nearly twenty years of consulting behind me. Every mock trial, every focus group, and every post-verdict interview has taught me something about persuasive legal communication. Certainly, I need to keep doing pre- and post-trial research for case- and venue-specific reasons, and I make the effort to get continuing education. But I'm going to apply what I know from my experience whether a particular client can afford to pay for the full range of my services or pre-trial research in every case. I'm not going to wall off what I learned yesterday from a client who needs my services today.
What can you expect from an experienced consultant, even on a limited budget?
- Experience in the venue and/or case type;
- Identifying case strengths and weaknesses;
- Ideas that will help you prepare your witnesses for deposition or trial (sooner is almost always better);
- Strategies that make your own work more efficient;
- Establishing clear goals for depositions and working themes for the case;
- Ideas for using key documents in discovery and turning them into compelling demonstrative exhibits for mediation or trial;
- Identifying the topics you must address in voir dire;
- Collaborating on an opening statement or the presentation of your argument for an important pre-trial hearing; and
- Considering how legal instructions and verdict questions factor into your discovery and trial plans
All of these can be explored in the initial engagement, which will give you a great sense for the experience of the consultant you have hired. Consulting is - and should be - a "kick the tires" proposition. I'm confident that you will learn more about what I can do in a 30-minute phone call than anything my CV alone would tell you.
For some lawyers the low-cost, limited engagement is just enough and they don't need more. But in a short time they have learned they can depend on me for good advice and solid work-product. For others, it highlights the need they have to invest more time and money in certain areas - witness preparation, jury selection, or pre-trial research, for example. Regardless, the attorney-consultant relationship has either gotten off to a good start or become even more important, and that increases the likelihood that we will work again together on this case or a future case.
I feel a sense of duty to provide high quality consulting within the limits of a budget. I see cost-conscious work as an opportunity for attorneys to make informed decisions about who to hire based on results, not just reputations. I also see it as an opportunity to lend our expertise to clients, cases and causes that don't have multi-million-dollar legal budgets. In many instances I and other ASTC consultants also offer our services pro bono. (You can find consultants working in your area at http://www.astcweb.org under the heading "Consultant Locator" and refine your search to include those who provide pro bono services).
The more trial consultants provide quality cost-effective work, the farther we come out of the shadows to occupy our legitimate place at the legal table and the less likely it is we will be considered an expensive add-on that should be eliminated in the next recession.
Charlotte A. (Charli) Morris, M.A. is a trial consultant who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and works wherever the cases take her. She has been helping lawyers and their clients since 1993, in civil and criminal matters, across a wide variety of cases. She is co-author of The Persuasive Edge, Second Edition (2006) and frequent contributor to ASTC's The Jury Expert. You can find out more about her at trial-prep.com. Or go ahead...send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask for an opportunity to "kick the tires."