Posted Nov 24, 2006 11:22 am CST
For 13 years, Richard Waites enjoyed trying cases. He was a successful partner at Adams and Reese, a New Orleans-based law firm, opening its Houston office.
But as more cases were being resolved by alternative dispute methods, trial opportunities diminished. Waites decided to turn to trial consulting. It was a good fit for Waites, who had an undergraduate psychology degree, the better to understand the mind and motivation of a juror. Today he is chief executive officer and chief trial psychologist for the Advocates, a firm of 18 trial consultants based in Houston.
It’s uncertain how many attorneys leave practice for work as consultants. Yet, lawyers now work not only as trial consultants–helping to shape juries and their verdicts–but also as consultants in legal technology, law office management and litigation communication, helping lawyers communicate their cases to the public.
The same skills needed for practice are essential in consulting. For example, consultants must be able to market themselves to clients.
“These days [consulting firms] are looking for trial consultants who have exceptional skills and also have rainmaking ability,” Waites says.
Trial consultants have a wide range of experience, from law and theater to psychology.
“Trial consultants may be very good at helping a trial team understand what a juror or arbitration panel will think,” Waites says. “They can help craft a trial presentation so that it is most persuasive.”
Before making the switch, inventory your experience, he says. Junior lawyers with limited trial experience should observe cases. “It doesn’t cost anything to spend time at the courthouse,” says Waites. “Sitting in trial listening, watching and observing is the best way to understand what is going on in that room.”
Theater training helps to hone attorneys’ and witnesses’ presentations. Waites took three semesters of theater. “It was a rich experience,” he says. It taught him how he was perceived by others.
Another growing consulting area is litigation communication. Tilden Katz practiced law at Chicago’s Sey farth Shaw before changing careers. He founded a consulting business before becoming managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Chicago office. Although communication consultants include reporters and spokespeople, Katz says being a lawyer gives him extra credibility with clients and their outside counsel. “They are attracted to lawyers because of their ability to write and to speak.”
And many lawyers need his expertise. Lawyers are good at making arguments to a jury or to a judge, he says, but communicating information to the press and the public often is different.
“You have to take the same block of information and be aware that you are speaking to a different audience,” says Katz. “The things that win legal arguments often are not the most persuasive when you are talking to the public.” For example, the public would be uninterested in the fine points of procedure. Those subtleties would need to be explained more broadly.
Many of Katz’s lawyering skills, such as the ability to analyze information and to write persuasively, were transferable.
But he cautions that the lifestyle is similar to that of a law firm lawyer. Litigation communication consultants bill by the hour, says Katz. “It’s keeping the client satisfied,” he says.
To determine what type of consulting firm might fit, he encourages prospective job seekers to size up firms the same way they would assess law firms. “If you were dissatisfied at a monster law firm, I would think twice about going to a monster [public affairs] firm.”
Applicants should speak not only with someone who works for a firm they are considering but also with clients. “It is almost more important to talk to the client than the employee of the firm to size up whether you have the temperament for the firm,” Katz says.