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Experience is Important, But So is Preparation

Yesterday, I had a hearing in federal court, settlement approval of an FTCA wrongful death case.

Over my career, I have handled at least 200 such hearings, probably more considering that when I was a young lawyer in southwest Virginia I did two or three of these a month.

Such a proceeding is not a high stress event for me. It's not my first rodeo, so to speak

The judge was someone known to focus on fees and costs.

One somewhat different feature of this settlement was that trusts were being set up for the minor beneficiaries. Of course, I did not do that myself. We retained the very capable Shannon Laymon-Pecoraro, CELA to do so. She's great and I highly recommend her.

I might be a lawyer, but reading those 20 page single spaced trust documents was a bit foreign to me - you know that old expression about the words being English, but having no idea what it says.

Of course, I am exaggerating, but not hugely. Digesting those documents required some effort on my part, and I will not claim any sort of expert understanding.

Turns out that that hour or so of my time was well-spent. The judge had also read those documents and he had a lot of questions about the trusts. I was able to answer them reasonably well.

Knowing about this judge, I had spent considerable effort on the fee portion including obtaining (at the court's request) an affidavit as to the reasonableness of our fees and expenses. Fellow FTCA lawyer, Peter Bertling, was a great help in that regard.

After we got through the trusts and some other issues, I mentioned fees and costs. The judge just waved his hand and declared them entirely reasonable.

The settlement was approved as proposed.

The lesson here:

Even the simplest matter requires appropriate preparation. It was a busy morning. I could have opted to "wing it" on the trusts. I knew the basic terms. That would probably be enough. Good thing I didn't take that approach. It would have been quite embarrassing if I could not have answered those fairly specific questions.

It is also worth remembering that what you think will be the primary focus of the court may not be what the court focuses on. Hence, you need to be ready for more than just what seems likely. Yesterday, I was concerned about fees and costs. The judge was not.

Experience matters for trial lawyers. I have a lot of it and I like to think that is a huge benefit to my clients. Experience, however, is never a substitute for focused preparation. Even the most mundane event - like a settlement approval hearing - requires that you be prepared for that particular event.

When I start forgetting or ignoring that reality, it will be time to retire.


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