Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A trial lawyer’s worst nightmare: a story from the trenches

I was defending a contentious age discrimination case. At trial, the plaintiff called as her first witness the president of the small non-profit defendant. For more than three hours, he took what can only be described as a verbal beating. The cross-examination ended with this bang:

  Q: And you admit that you take age into account in every employment decision you make at the foundation?

  A: Yes.

The admission was shocking because the question had not been previously asked in any deposition. The plaintiff’s lawyer took a flyer, but must have felt he had softened the witness up enough after three-plus hours. The damning admission hung in the courtroom for a week until I had the chance to try to rehabilitate my client as part of my case. By that point, no one cared that he was trying to answer the question honestly—that this 70-year-old man equated age with experience, and usually tried to hire older. While the jury returned a big number (the worst defeat of my career), it was half of the plaintiff’s final settlement demand (which I call a win nonetheless).

I was reminded of this story earlier this week by reading a two-part series in BLR’s HR Daily Advisor, 9 Things You Don't Want to Have to Admit in Court (part 1 and part 2). No amount of preparation could have stopped my witnesses from making the admission he made. Nevertheless, the takeaway from these stories is that preparation is the key to any successful testimony.

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