Kostelanetz LLP brings extensive trial experience to its work for firm clients. Two of our ten partners — Sharon L. McCarthy and Jay R. Nanavati — are Fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers; Best Lawyers named us “Law Firm of the Year” for Tax Litigation in 2021 and 2022 and ranks us in Tier 1 for Commercial Litigation in New York. Sharon, Claude M. Millman, and Caroline Rule are also Fellows of the Litigation Counsel of America.
Our recruiting places a premium on courtroom experience. In hiring lawyers, we consider trial experience, and in hiring paralegals, we value mock trial experience. Associate Daniel (Dan) Cady Davidson, for example, is a former prosecutor who served for three years as an Assistant District Attorney in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office after graduating from New York University Law School. Paralegals Michelle Dubovitsky, Liz Grant, and Jacquelyn (Jackie) A. Sideris, all were members of their undergraduate mock trial teams.
We asked Sharon, Jay, Dan, Michelle, Liz, and Jackie to reflect on why trial experience is so vital to the work they do, even if a matter never sees the inside of a courtroom. Here’s what they told us:
Q: Sharon and Jay, as former federal prosecutors, why might it be important for attorneys to have trial experience, and why do you value mock trial experience in new hires at Kostelanetz?
As a criminal defense lawyer, it’s important to be able to communicate well, whether with your client, your opponent, or the court. I can’t think of any better training than mock trial and, later on, actual trials to hone communication and presentation skills.
Trial is more than just standing up in court and presenting your case. The real meat of the experience is the intense work leading up to trial, which is when you must dig deep into the evidence and search for anything and everything that may be helpful to your client. Nobody can do that for you – you must roll up your sleeves and spend the time required to know the evidence backward and forwards. It’s a painstaking process, and it can sometimes seem overwhelming, but there is no better feeling than showing up the first day of trial with a mastery of the facts and a clear path to your client’s defense. Lawyers and paralegals who have experienced this intensity of focus are well-equipped to tackle the day-to-day challenges of criminal defense work.
Trials are the culmination of the litigation process. Knowing what it takes to prove your case at trial informs your handling of all the earlier stages of the process, including analyzing documents, interviewing witnesses, dealing with opposing counsel, and counseling your client. Preparing as if you’re going to trial, regardless of whether the case settles, forces you to focus on the issues and evidence that matter, which is essential when dealing with events that span years, numerous witnesses, and millions of pages of documents.
Q: Dan, you spent three years in and out of the courtroom as an Assistant District Attorney in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. What advice would you give to students who want to be trial lawyers?
First, do your research. Conventional wisdom is that if you want to do trials, you need to be a prosecutor or public defender after law school. Those are both great places to get trial experience, but there are certain civil litigation practices where trials are more common than average, as well as myriad other opportunities where you may not get a trial but will gain experience honing trial skills — for example, in practices where depositions or administrative proceedings are common.
Second, be patient. Even in a trial-focused practice, trials are rare. You may not get an opportunity for a while. But all the preparation you do on your cases that get resolved pre-trial is making you a better trial lawyer.
Q: Sharon, Jay, and Dan, what would you say has been the most memorable part of your trial experience?
There has been nothing more exhilarating, emotionally draining, or memorable than standing next to clients as a jury pronounces them not guilty of all charges. I find it fairly impossible to read jurors, and I try not to read the tea leaves of jury notes to attempt to divine which way the jury is leaning. I also try to avoid conversation with anyone who engages in that practice. I find it too nerve-wracking, and trial is nerve-wracking enough, in my view. When the judge announces that the jury has reached a verdict, it may only take a few minutes to get the parties assembled and to have the jury brought into the courtroom to announce its verdict. Those few minutes always feel like an eternity because so much is riding on the jury’s decision. In that time, you find yourself standing next to the client who put his or her trust in you to convince the jury that they are not guilty of the charged crimes. That client’s liberty is on the line. When the foreperson stands to announce the verdict, it is hard to describe how difficult those moments are. Hearing the words “Not Guilty” causes a rush of relief so intense that the client (and counsel) may be brought to tears. That moment makes all the late nights, lost weekends, and missed family events worth it. The case is over, and the client can walk out of the courtroom a free person.
One thing that stands out to me is the fact that in every trial, all of the nerves and worry seem to melt away the moment I enter the courtroom to start the trial. At that moment, I no longer anticipate the trial; I’m part of it. That’s when I achieve something like a “flow” state.
No trial is won without a strong team effort. Many of my fondest memories of trials involve the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues. Their hard work ensured I was prepared to provide the strongest advocacy possible and enabled me to overcome the unpredictable obstacles that invariably arise during the course of a trial.
Q: Michelle, you competed in mock trial while you were at Georgetown. Are there any skills that you learned in mock trial that are applicable to your paralegal work at Kostelanetz?
Definitely. Beyond learning useful legal terminology, becoming familiar with the way trials work, and getting comfortable reading legal documents, probably the most useful skill I learned from my undergraduate mock trial experience was understanding my purpose as defense counsel. (I always gravitated towards the defense side of things in mock trial, which definitely informed my decision to work at Kostelanetz LLP.)
On the surface, the purpose of defense counsel seems obvious — to defend your client, of course. But in cases with very complex fact patterns, which can drag on for years, paralegals may have to perform tasks that seem minute or mundane in the grand scheme of things. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds and miss the forest for the trees. As a paralegal, it is your job to keep track of all the small details in the case and act as the support system for the attorneys so they can craft the best possible arguments in favor of our client. Truly understanding and appreciating that — even though you personally are not representing the client, you are still working together with the attorneys toward the common goal of achieving the best possible resolution for them — is crucial to staying focused, staying motivated, and working productively in a team. At the end of the day, everything you do is a building block towards the ultimate goal of client advocacy, no job is too small, and all efforts are equally indispensable.
Q: Liz, you were ranked No. 5 in the country for mock trial when you competed at Stanford and you coach mock trial at the University of Maryland. What benefits do you get from continuing to stay involved with the activity?
The team dynamic of mock trial has always brought me a lot of joy. Of course, it makes doing hard work more fun, but it also benefits the work product we create together. Seeing a case from someone else’s perspective can change how I think about a legal issue or argument, and it’s taught me to keep an open mind. I also really enjoy how challenging it is. In mock trial, you sometimes have just a few weeks (or, in some cases, days) to put together a case and deliver it in front of a jury, and I’ve found that the pressure can lead to incredibly compelling arguments.
Q: Jackie, you competed in mock trial at Georgetown. Have you found that the skills you learned in mock trial were applicable during your post-graduate work in Philosophy?
Absolutely. Among other things, mock trial requires pretty intense critical reading and analysis skills, as well as the ability to craft a good (or, hopefully, great!) argument; without those things, it’s difficult to interpret and work with the complex sets of facts presented to the collegiate competitors or convince the judges of your position. These skills are crucial to many professional fields, not just the legal field. For example, during my Masters program, I found that the tools I learned through mock trial enhanced my ability to analyze, distill, and create arguments around the intricate philosophical texts I was assigned.
Q: Michelle, Liz, and Jackie, what were some of the most valuable skills that you learned in mock trial that you believe might be applicable to trial litigation?
Cultivating credibility is the number #1 skill I learned (and am still learning and will probably keep learning throughout the rest of my life and career) in mock trial. Figuring out how to have people listen and stay engaged while you speak is one thing, but to have them trust you is something else entirely. Mastering the ability to foster trust in your words, character, and abilities is critical when trying to convince 12 people to believe in your arguments while your client’s fate hangs in the balance. But it is also just as applicable to life outside of the courtroom.
I’ve found that confidence can be a skill, and it was certainly one that I fostered in mock trial. Learning how to communicate with precision is something I’m still working on, and I hope it will continue to be helpful by the time I get through law school.
Critical reading; public speaking (!!!); thinking on your feet, especially during objection battles and closing arguments.
Q: Jackie, how has Kostelanetz fostered mock trial and trial experience for paralegals and new associates?
Our paralegals and new associates are always encouraged to pursue any and all trial-related practice opportunities that they’re interested in, be it mock trial or an actual jury trial. Myself and a few other paralegals have gotten involved in coaching collegiate mock trial teams since we graduated from undergrad, and a number of our attorneys and paralegals have judged mock trial competitions at local tournaments. Our partners and senior attorneys are always looking to bring our associates into trial preparation and, in many cases, the trials themselves, whether by asking our associates to lead depositions, offering them the opening statement in their trial, or mooting them in preparation for questioning before a judge. If one of our attorneys or paralegals shows interest in learning more about trial work, Kostelanetz will do everything it can to foster that interest and work with the attorney to continue honing their skills.