Professor Michael Begovich has taught Advanced Trial Advocacy and Trial Practice at TJSL since 1996. An AV-rated attorney by Martindale-Hubbell, Mr. Begovich is Deputy Director of the San Diego County Office of Assigned Counsel—one of the largest conflict panels for indigent criminal defendants in the U.S.A. As a Deputy Public Defender, Professor Begovich has tried approximately 190 trials including 10 murder trials to verdict.
1. What can law students do while enrolled in law school in order to learn the skills necessary to be a trial attorney?
Three things can be done during law school to learn rudimentary trial practice skills.
First, take Trial Practice and Advanced Trial Advocacy. All Professors teaching these classes at TJSL do an outstanding job. The art of trial practice requires “learning by doing.” The more experience, the better. Students often can tell during their Trial Practice class if being a trial lawyer is what they want to do.
Second, enroll in an internship at the Public Defender’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, or City Attorney’s Office. There are wonderful opportunities to interact with witnesses and clients. If you are a State Bar Certified Legal Intern, you may appear in court to argue motions, argue at sentencing, and also conduct Preliminary Hearings. Some students have completed misdemeanor jury trials at the Public Defender’s Office. The “in the trenches” experience of appearing on the record in court—is invaluable.
Third, join the Criminal Law Society at TJSL and similar student-based organizations that involve trial attorneys and trial practice. Excellent Continuing Legal Education lectures are provided so students can learn from top trial attorneys and also engage in some networking.
2. Can you recommend any books that students interested in becoming a trial attorney should read?
The books that are required reading for your Trial Practice and/or Advanced Trial Advocacy classes should be sufficient reading.
Students and newer trial attorneys often have difficulty with preparing and presenting direct and cross-examination for expert witnesses. Some students and attorneys have benefitted from a practice-oriented work that I authored: Chapter 3, “Preparing & Presenting Expert Testimony on Scientific Evidence,” in a 2011 CEB book entitled, Scientific Evidence in California Criminal Cases.
3. What are the three most important traits of a successful trial attorney and why?
Preparation, preparation, and preparation.
Preparation involves training for the trial lawyer. Training for a trial attorney never ends. Taking Continuing Legal Education classes, reading key books and other sources, trying cases, and watching other excellent trial lawyers try cases are necessary things for one to improve.
Preparation also requires a thorough work-up of the case-related materials. Unanticipated things frequently “pop up” during trial. Being prepared is the tool we use to “fix” the unforeseen problem.
So what does proper trial preparation involve? First, a thorough client interview where trust and rapport are quickly established. You must keep your client advised of key events during the case. Investigation is critical. Hiring expert witnesses for trial—and then working with them to prepare expert testimony persuasively—is important; trial presentation is integral to a successful outcome and it can involve PowerPoint presentations and/or effective courtroom exhibits.
Preparation finally involves personal planning. Schedule appointments and other matters before or after the trial; continue to exercise consistently; eat properly, and budget in “quality time” with the people that mean the most to you.
4. What is the most difficult skill in regards to becoming a trial attorney for young lawyers to learn?
From my observations in the courtroom and in the classroom, Voir Dire presents the biggest challenge for new trial attorneys. How can one improve?
First, ask your supervisor at your internship who an excellent trial lawyer is that is currently picking a jury. Go and watch in the courtroom. You will see what to do and what not to do.
Second, here are some sources that can assist with jury selection generally:
• Jo-Ellan Dimitrius & Wendy Patrick Mazzarella, Reading People (Random House: 2008).
• Michael Begovich, “Jury Selection” in Chapter 29 of California Criminal Law: Practice & Procedure (CEB: 2011).
• Jo-Ellan Dimitrius & Mark Mazzarella, Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You (Scribner: 2000).
5. Do you have any general advice for students who are aspiring to be a trial attorney?
Taking the classes and internships noted above, and/or participating in mock trial, and/or working in a law firm where you can assist the trial attorneys, are all things that can make you more competitive when you apply for a job—after you pass the Bar Examination.
In addition, the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office have “Post-Bar” positions that you can apply for when you are a Third Year Student. Many “Post-Bars” have gained fulltime employment as Deputy Public Defenders and Deputy District Attorneys over the years. Please check with TJSL’s Career Services for more information.