Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Secret to Winning

What’s the secret to winning? Gerry Spence wrote a post on the subject, which prompted Gideon at A Public Defender to start a game of tag to gather other opinions. Scott Greenfield tagged me, so here goes... Since, unlike Gerry Spence, I can’t dazzle you with my own record, I’ll turn to what has stuck with me from places like NCDC, TLC, and even UNK.

Don Fiedler, who passed away recently, is a hero to me and remains a legend at NCDC where he taught for decades. When I think of winning and the secret behind it, I think of Don standing before us, telling a story about the composer Leonard Bernstein. Don doesn’t just tell the story, he acts it out, taking on the characters, showing us the scene in which the maestro is asked and then answers questions, not about winning, but about what his favorite moment is as a composer.

Don first acts out an observer asking Bernstein, “Is it the end of a great performance, Maestro?”... “No,” says the accented, thoughtful composer, after first pausing to consider it.

“Is it the moment you take the stage and first wield the baton, sir?”... “No,” he says again, after first looking into space, pausing to consider it.

“What is it then, Maestro? Will you please tell us your finest moment as an artist?”

“I’d have to say,” says Don as Bernstein, “it’s that moment, when I’m in my study, and the notes fall perfectly into place, that moment when I hear, for the very first time, what I’ve been looking for, the perfect ‘ba, ba, ba, boom.” Once I discover those perfect notes, the rest of the music flows.”

Don goes on to tell us that we have to look for something similar to win our cases, the perfect theme that summarizes our client’s story, upon which our cases are built. . The way Don commits himself to telling this story makes us want to not only win, but to be as playful and heartfelt along the way as the old man standing before us who clearly loves being a criminal defense lawyer almost as much as being able to show us what he’s learned along the way.

We hear that the moment we are to strive for doesn’t come in the courtroom spontaneously. It comes through hard work, in our “studies” where we both work and play, working like artists examining real life rather than as scientists carving up a cadaver. It’s not enough to have talent, we learn; we must combine talent, work and even luck, until the muse visits us and gives us that perfect string of notes, that theme, that builds our case, uncovers our client’s stories, and gets us to “not guilty.”

I really didn’t do justice to the way Don told this story, but it was magical. Because of the commitment of the storyteller, I’ll never forget the story. Because I can’t forget the story, it’s lesson remains as well:

Work hard, behind the scenes, until the performance on the stage looks effortless and perfectly summarizes your client’s story for the jury.

Some day soon I’ll describe the rest of this story, how at NCDC and at TLC we learned that the way to get to the “ba, ba, ba, boom” Don Fiedler described was to discover our client’s stories. I don’t mean that we make them up, only that we realize that the police report is nothing more than a story, the one the officer observed and shaped, the one the prosecutor took as truth and the one she’ll tell at trial.

Only when we refuse to be defined by this “story” and discover the real story behind our client’s sometimes rough exteriors will we discover the secret to winning.

I wish I knew how to get there every time, but I haven’t learned that secret yet. Until I get there, I fall back on the words of my poetry teacher, another Don, who described winning the way I’ve experienced it:

I fight to keep the bastards from winning.
The bastards keep winning, and I keep fighting.

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