Chris Nace is a personal injury lawyer who focuses on medical malpractice cases at Paulson & Nace, PLLC. Chris is well-known for taking tough medical malpractice cases to trial and having success at all levels of his practice. In addition to serving as Past President of the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan Washington D.C., Chris also serves on the Executive Committees of both the American Association for Justice and the Public Justice Foundation. Lawyer Minds sits down with Chris to discuss his practice, how to establish credibility with the judges, and how to effectively work with co-counsel.
Lawyer Minds: Tell us about your practice and what type of cases you handle.
Chris Nace: We have a small law firm that is mostly family members. I work with my dad and my brother and we handle predominantly medical malpractice cases and other catastrophic injury matters. Everything we do is on the plaintiff’s side, but mostly medical malpractice. We don’t specialize in any particular area. We have handled numerous birth injury cases, ortho cases, emergency room matters, wrongful death, and just about every other type of malpractice case. We probably take a lot of lower value malpractice cases compared to other law firms handling medical negligence matters. But if there is a meritorious case, we are not afraid to take them on. We handle cases predominantly in Washington DC, West Virginia, and Maryland.
Lawyer Minds: I know you and your firm are in the courtroom quite a bit. One thing that we haven’t talked about in these interviews yet is dealing with judges and what lawyers should do to make sure that we’re being good advocates in the courtroom. If I’m a new lawyer, what would you suggest as far as how I should present my case in court?
Chris Nace: I think the most important thing you can do, particularly as a new lawyer, but this follows you your whole career, is establish your credibility.
Your credibility is the biggest advantage or disadvantage you’re going to have in a courtroom. That’s your most valuable currency.
When you walk into the courtroom in front of a judge, you can be certain that the judge down the hallway has talked about you with the judge that you’re in front of on that particular day. That judge, if she’s never seen you before, has done her homework and knows a little bit about you.
And so credibility and candor to the court is very important. They teach you that in law school and you hear about it in CLEs, but when you are in front of judges routinely, and certainly in our practice, we see the same judges day after day, credibility matters. Showing candor and just being honest will get you very far in a courtroom.
That means if you have a weak part of your argument or a weak fact in your case, recognize that’s why you’re in there arguing. Nobody expects you to have a slam dunk every time you go in there, and just being able to recognize your weaknesses, acknowledge them, and be honest about how you can deal with it will oftentimes get you the benefit of the doubt you may need.
Preparation will serve you well before judges. And I don’t mean this in the sense that you have to be prepared just to make your argument.
Preparation buys you credibility with the court. When you come in and you’re ready to go and you have your notes prepared, you can talk intelligently about the facts of your case, that also increases your credibility.
Anyone who sits in courtrooms waiting for his or her own case to be called sees a lot of lawyers. And it may be a simple accident case, but it is surprising how often you see a lawyer who doesn’t know the date that the accident happened when he or she is in front of the judge. Unfortunately, you see a lot of that. It may not be a big deal at that moment and no one gets everything right every day. But, if you do that regularly then the judge is going to question your credibility and your preparedness. The judge might start asking herself, “Can I believe what this lawyer is telling me?”
So, I think those are two real important characteristics. Always being prepared and being upfront and as honest as possible when you’re in front of a judge.
Lawyer Minds: When it comes to preparation, do you do anything to prepare for your argument? Obviously you’re getting familiar with the facts of your case and whatever you’re arguing that day, but do you prepare for the particular judge or that particular courtroom?
Chris Nace: That’s a great question. First of all, when you think about the courtroom, you absolutely want to know where you’re going to be comfortable arguing from. We had a case one time and there was out-of-state counsel that came in to try the case. It was a product defect case and the first thing this out-of-state lawyer did in front of the judge was walk into the well of the courtroom to make an argument to the judge. We don’t do that in Maryland. We argue from the podium. And his local counsel let him down a little bit because the judge reprimanded him right off the get-go and told him, “Get behind the podium, sir. That’s where we argue here.” That kind of thing, again, it’s a little thing, but it’s part of being a professional and being professional at what you do.
So you definitely want to think about those things. You want to know the courtroom rules and the etiquette that that judge likes.
Look, we all belong to organizations, and there’s a reason for that. Reach out to your colleagues, ask them if they’ve been in front of the judge and what the judge prefers. You want to know all the peculiarities for that judge when you go in there.
So definitely doing your homework on the courtroom and the judge is very important.
Also, many of us use technology in the courtroom. You want to know what tech is available in the courtroom if you’re going to use a presentation tool, so that kind of stuff is absolutely important to preparing before you walk into that courtroom.
Lawyer Minds: Some judges don’t seem to like tech when it comes to just hearings and regular arguments. Do you call in advance and ask that court’s clerk or secretary to make sure that you understand what the judge allows for that particular type of hearing you’re going into?
Chris Nace: I think it’s a good idea to know what you’re going into. I learned from my dad a long time ago to try and not call chambers too frequently. What I learned was you don’t want to look like you’re going to them for help too much when there’s usually a rule or another way to find out the information. So if you can find out the information some other way, that’s probably the first way I’d approach it.
But at the same time, if you are preparing a big presentation and you want to have a PowerPoint and you don’t know, you just can’t find out if that judge is going to tell you right off the bat, “I’m not interested in that, don’t put it up,” you better find that out ahead of time because you don’t want to have your whole argument structured around a presentation that you can’t give.
And by the way, if you are going to use tech in the courtroom, you better be ready for when it fails you. Inevitably technology is going to let you down at some point, and you can avoid a disaster and in fact, burnish your image if you can just deal with a problem without any hesitation and know what your plan B is. That’s going to look smooth, makes you look better, and makes you look on top of your game.
Lawyer Minds: You mentioned the one local counsel that let the defense lawyer down in that case, and I know you work cases all over the country and you work with referring counsel or local counsel a lot. What do you think a lawyer should do to be a good local counsel in a case?
Chris Nace: Check in as frequently as you can with the attorney who’s brought you in and that you’re working with. See what they need. What questions do they have? Pay attention to deadlines. I know where I practice, if you’re local counsel, you’re on the hook for the case. We can get into a place of thinking “I am only local counsel,” but serving “only” as local counsel doesn’t give you any less responsibility to your client.
So make sure you’re checking in on deadlines. Make sure you think about the peculiarities of your courts. In some courts in Maryland, for whatever reason, you have to have a 1-1/2 inch margin at the top and on the left with anything you file. That’s probably a nice thing to let your counsel know if they’re from Michigan and you’re their local counsel in a case in Maryland. So just be aware of the little rules that may not be known outside of the area, and make sure that you’re always checking in and giving direction to your partner in that case.
Lawyer Minds: What do you do if you’re local counsel on a case and you feel like the counsel that’s supposed to be handling the case is not handling it appropriately? Have you had that happen?
Chris Nace: I’ve been fortunate as I can’t say that I have had that happen, but I think that that’s where communication comes in. I imagine you don’t want to get to a point where you have to have a conversation with the client, because that gets pretty tricky. But you have an obligation to that client, and so even if it does get tricky and difficult, at the end of the day, we have duties to our clients even when we’re local counsel. And so, I think you have to think long and hard about how to get your co-counsel’s attention in a case like that.
Lawyer Minds: Do you do written co-counsel agreements when you’re local for someone?
Chris Nace: Absolutely. We just spell it out. Who’s doing what, what the obligations are, who’s going to pay for certain expenses. We just spell it all out. And that’s not to say that we don’t counsel with people we trust all the time and it can be a true pleasure to work with lawyers from other areas. But, anytime you can put down how the relationship is going to work, really thinking through it, you can head off a lot of disputes that may arise just by giving it five minutes of thought at the front end. If you just write it out in a co-counsel agreement, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but just something that really shows that you took the time to think this through and talk with co-counsel about how this is going to work.
Thanks again to Chris for taking his time to speak with Lawyer Minds about his practice!