FIVE LESSONS EVERY TRIAL LAWYER CAN LEARN FROM BRAZILIAN JIU- JITSU
By John W. Dill, Esquire
Trial is combat. So is one of the most effective martial arts ever developed:
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Although the tatami mats of Rio and the courtrooms
of America seems light years apart, the similarities and lessons to be
learned from this combat sport will help every trial lawyer. Translated
from the Japanese as “the gentle art”, Jiu-Jitsu borrows from
Judo and expands into grappling so that a weaker opponent uses the aggressor’s
force against him. In 1920’s Rio De Janiero, street urchin Carlos
Gracie met Japanese master Count Koma and made history. Gracie and his
family developed the modern sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that serves as
the foundation for the worldwide sensation of mixed martial arts and the UFC.
A trial lawyer may be asking what this sport has to do with trying lawsuits,
and the answer is simply "everything". Below are five lessons
taught by BJJ that translate into our practice as trial lawyers.
THE EGO IS THE ENEMY
Ego drives all of us. A BJJ player wants to be the best. To be a champion,
a player must take risks and train relentlessly. The ego provides the
fuel for this fire. But ego can undo a BJJ player. It can blind him to
opportunities to find weaknesses in our training. It can cause us to roll
only with those we know we can beat. To win at BJJ, the player must put
the ego aside and be objective about the weaknesses in our game. If our
bottom game is weak, we need to ignore the ego and drill it. If our conditioning
falls short, we must silence our ego and get up early and get after it.
If we lack in fundamentals, we should tune out our ego and get back to
basics. The ego can lie to us to make us feel better. Only if we make
the ego our enemy can we truly improve.
Ego is no different for the trial lawyer. It is what makes us compete at
trial and give our all for our clients. It also can blind us to our weaknesses
and prevent us from improving. The ego makes us get up in the morning,
but it can also prevent us from seeing that we are missing the weak points
of our case. Many trial lawyers allow ego to overcome their objective
analysis of the weaknesses of their cases. Does you case have a massive
liability problem? If so, stop hoping that your damages presentation will
blind the jury to the truth about the case. Is you client unlikeable?
Tune out your ego telling you that you will destroy the defense expert
and work on your client’s presentation. Make the ego the enemy and
find the true key to victory in both a BJJ match and trial.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
Training BJJ hard every day sucks. Real trial preparation sucks as well.
No shortcuts exist to training and preparation. In Jiu-Jitsu, we can find
ourselves with an opponent in a superior position like mount or knee on
belly. Sometimes we fight for oxygen or have to think about the best way
out of a kimura that could break our arm. Often, in these moments of desperation
we find out opponent has overcommitted his body weight and we can sweep
for two points and reverse our situation.
In trial, we have to face the tough facts of our case and embrace them.
It can be uncomfortable admitting our own clients suffered from pre-existing
conditions, or conceding they acted negligently under the circumstances.
As trial lawyers, we cannot shy away or ignore inconvenient truths. The
key to victory in trial lies with us being honest about the bad facts
of our case and finding a way to reverse them to our advantage.
Right before a recent match in a tournament in New York City, my professor (a 4th degree black belt and champion) approached me and told me to relax. Another
black belt from my academy (known as “The Kraken”) gave the
same advice. By the time three of my teammates told me to settle down,
I realized that my historical excitement during a roll likely prevented
me from performing at my best. I focused on “helaxing” during
the match and found success.
In trial, I often tell my client and co-counsel to calm down at counsel
table. We should act like nothing bothers us, no matter what lies we hear
from the testimony. An old trial adage states that if a witness puts a
dagger in your heart, you must act as if you wake up with the dagger in
your heart every day. I tell my clients and co-counsel that “being
cool” goes a long way. Jurors look to the table to see if bad facts
hurt. When we act like they do not, we “helax” and make the
bad events non-issues and the jury moves on.
YOUR OPPONENT WILL TELL YOU HOW YOU CAN PREVAIL
In Jiu-Jitsu, our opponent can over-commit and give us the way to victory.
For example, when attempting a choke from the mount our opponent can push
his weight too far forward and allow us to buck and sweep for two points.
An experienced BJJ player can feel when his opponent overcommits, and
can turn a bad position into a winning submission.
In trial work, I relish getting to the defendant’s case. Often our
adversaries over reach and demonize our clients. If we can make the case
about whether the defendant’s theory is correct, we stand a better
chance of winning. When the defense attorney demonizes our client as a
liar, we can make that case about that. When the defense attorney claims
our client already suffered from an injury, we can flip the case into
a matter of aggravation. No matter what the defense attacks with, we can
create an advantage for our clients.
THERE IS NO LOSING, ONLY LEARNING
Carlos Gracie, Jr. famously stated that in Jiu-Jitsu there is no losing,
only learning. Most world champions have lost matches and learned from
the experience. In BJJ, we learn more from our defeats than our wins.
Losing in a tournament can often create the self-reflection and changed
training for a victory in the next match.
After a loss, many trial lawyers become gun shy and accept a low settlement
in the next case rather than tasting defeat again. However, we should
look at our trial as a body of work. Ignore the losses and only work to
improve for our clients and prevail. We should always realize that a career
is made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of trials. Do not treat a defense
verdict as a loss, but a means to improve and move to the next level of advocacy.