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Looking like a movie version of an old-time lawyer in shirt sleeves and wide suspenders, Jim M. Perdue mesmerized a courtroom full of public interest attorneys earlier this month with his tales of how to win over a jury. “A lawsuit is a competition of stories, and the strongest story will prevail,” said Perdue, who ticked off tips on how a lawyer can tell a client’s story more effectively and avoid getting bogged down in scientific facts. “Your job in the opening statement is to create a picture in the jury’s mind of what that case is about, and it’s not about sterile science,” he said. Perdue, a partner in the Perdue Law Firm in Houston, was one of about a dozen American College of Trial Lawyers fellows who put on an innovative continuing legal education course in the Eidman Courtroom at the University of Texas School of Law. The ACTL and Texas Lawyers Care, a department of the State Bar of Texas, sponsored the course, “Trial Skills for Public Interest Lawyers,” as part of the 2002 Poverty Law Conference in Austin. “The purpose is to provide very high quality CLE on trial advocacy skills for public interest lawyers who spend their time representing the underprivileged and the poor in the state,” says course director Terry Tottenham, a partner in the Austin office of Fulbright & Jaworski. While several other states have offered similar courses, Tottenham says the Texas course is the first to have a heavy concentration of public interest lawyers in attendance. “We hope this program will spearhead an effort by the American College [of Trial Lawyers] to utilize its members throughout the country to sponsor programs similar to this in every state,” he says. The faculty for the Texas course included well-known trial lawyers who dispensed advice — some of it just common sense — on a number of trial-related topics. “Avoid talking when you ought to be listening,” State Bar President Broadus Spivey advised the course participants. Spivey, a shareholder in Austin’s Spivey & Ainsworth, also suggested ways to question a client that are more likely to elicit a truthful answer. “Never ask the question, ‘Did you shoot the fellow?’ ” Spivey said. Instead, he suggested, ask the client, “ What are the police going to say you did?” Another of Spivey’s suggestions is to provide clients with copies of motions or pleadings filed in their case. “They want to know something’s happening in the case,” he said. Don Davis, a partner in Austin’s Byrd, Davis & Eisenberg, told the participants that selling a suit is analogous to selling a used car in that both have to be cleaned up before being presented. In legal strategy, he said, a “real dent buster” is the motion in limine, which asks the court to instruct counsel and witnesses that certain matters are not to be brought up unless it is shown to the court that those matters are relevant. But Davis cautioned against trying to include too many issues. He cited a federal case in which a party filed more than 300 separate items in a motion in limine and was told by the judge that the suit would be dismissed unless a competent attorney was retained to try it. “That’s busting too many dents,” Davis said. U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn of Dallas also presided over a demonstration of how to qualify or disqualify an expert witness. The witness was questioned by Otway Denny, a partner in the Houston office of Fulbright & Jaworski, and Jorge C. Rangel, of the Law Offices of Jorge C. Rangel in Corpus Christi, Texas. The course was applauded by participants interviewed by Texas Lawyer. “I think it’s been extremely beneficial to hear what some of the older pros have to say about things and the way they proceed through the course of a trial,” says Stephen Raynor, an attorney with the Southeast Dallas Legal Clinic. Raynor says he appreciated advice on the little things involved in planning for a trial that can’t be gotten out of a book. “It’s kind of like trying to ride a bike,” he said. “You can’t learn how to ride a bike out of a book. You’ve got to go out and do it.” Catherine Whitmore, who got her law license in November 2001 and is an attorney in the Houston office of Lone Star Legal Aid, says the advice provided is helpful to her as a new attorney. While she practices family law and doesn’t have many trials, Whitmore says that she is required to make frequent court appearances for which the skills taught in the course are extremely relevant. “The skills that one needs for trial are ones you can use in a temporary orders hearing [and] in a show-cause hearing,” she says.

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