I was fortunate to interview another one of the greats of our profession, Anita Ventrelli. Anita is a Senior Partner at one of America’s preeminent family law firms: Schiller, DuCanto and Fleck. She is also one of the directors of the ABA/NITA Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute and a nationally recognized divorce Top Gun.
I met Anita when we were both young lawyers and students at the ABA Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute. I know we were both inspired by that program. She has achieved remarkable levels of success. Here are some notes from my interview.
Full disclosure: I am biased. Anita and her husband, Mario Ventrelli (A Top Gun Divorce Lawyer in his own right), are two of my long time friends and some of my favorite people in the world.
Practical Takeaways From This Interview:
- Develop and hone your instincts, then follow them.
- Learn by asking questions. Keep asking until you understand.
- Don’t sell out your client to build rapport and camaraderie with your opposing counsel.
- Good client communication is critical to a successful relationship.
- Make yourself indispensable by working hard to be great at what you do.
- Listen to both to what is being said and what is left unsaid. Helpful insights reside in the silence.
- Use your pleadings to reinforce your theory and theme. Learn what works and doesn’t work with the judge early in the case.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for time to think about something. Few judges will deny you a few days to consider a last-minute offer.
- Know when (and when not to ) go full Roadhouse on somebody. Rage should be deliberate, not reactive.
- Write and speak simply and clearly.
- Context is everything.
- Be a friend to the court; advocate in ways that appeal to the judge. Bait the hook for the fish.
- Teaching is the best way to learn.
Keeping her clients happy.
Anita emphasized the importance of listening to clients to better understand their motivations, fears, goals, etc. Early in the relationship, she identifies the client’s preferred means of communication. Some like to talk on the phone, and others prefer email exchanges. We should all cater to the client’s preferences, not our own. Anita’s focus on client service is reflected by a stable of past happy clients (and referral sources).
It’s always important to understand why the client wants something. “Why?” is the most important question you can ask. Listen to better understand. Explain the consequences of any particular course of action. Don’t just rubber-stamp client requests without fully understanding what motivates them and whether it can be achieved. Good lawyers need to filter their clients’ sometimes self-destructive impulses.
In general, it is important to educate clients. Educate them as to what the law permits and doesn’t permit. Explain your arguments, so they understand your thought process. If the client will be attending a hearing, explain the mechanics of the hearing and why you will be taking a particular stance. Explain that part of your job is to look good for the judge, and sometimes that requires you to be respectful to the other side.
Managing client relations is essential to a successful result. Empathizing with the client while at the same time, maintaining critical distance is the key to a successful relationship. Clients sometimes want some righteous anger from the lawyer, and it’s okay to share that with them, but explain that unrestrained rage may be counterproductive in the long run. A five-minute courtroom tirade may feel good at the moment but result in a negative backlash.
One of the ways to maintain good relations with the client is to maintain regular contact. The best way to build trust is to update clients regularly, providing context and insight. When something potentially upsetting is received, it’s good practice to call the client first to give them a heads up and invite a discussion after they review it. This will soften the blow and make it easier for the client to process rather than a, please find the enclosed letter. I call this a “pour a glass of wine” call to prepare them for something potentially upsetting.
Anita advises the client early in the relationship that if they don’t hear from her immediately after court, that means everything went fine. Anytime Anita sends the client of court order or information, she explains in detail what it means and what the next steps are.
While we take routine court appearances or events for granted, for many clients, almost everything is “life or death.” We need to keep that in mind and follow Anita’s lead by being legal counselors and educators for our clients. Keep them updated and informed, guide, and educate them, and you will have a happier client and a more productive relationship.
Pupil and Teacher
Anita was blessed by outstanding mentors. She was schooled by some of the greats of our profession: Donald Schiller, Arnie Stein, and the late Joseph Du Canto. She told me that from them she learned certain valuable principles of good lawyering: first, be a problem solver, look for the solution rather than fixating on the problem. She was urged to ask questions and was nurtured in an environment that permitted (and rewarded) curiosity. Anita also learned the importance of loyalty. She was advised not to sell out the client to develop a rapport with the opposing counsel. She was taught that one should never compromise fidelity to the client for the sake of camaraderie.
From pupil to teacher. I asked her how she mentors new associates, and she literally has them tail her, sunrise to sunset, during their initiation to the practice. She shares all of her daily experiences with them, modeling how she thinks, prioritizes, and why she does what she does. For example, if she is drafting a pleading, she will explain the significance of particular allegations or intentional omissions in the drafting. If she has a phone conference with the client or opposing counsel, she will deconstruct it for the associate to help him or her understand her thought process. This is a more effective way of training new lawyers rather than throwing tasks at them with little guidance.
Anita is a born teacher. Those learning from her are fortunate. She is not only knowledgeable about divorce law and practice, but she is a guru of human nature and motivation as well. The importance of having good teachers and mentors can not be overestimated.
Nobody ever gets into trouble listening.
A common theme from our discussion is the importance Anita places on listening: to clients, opposing parties, their lawyers, and the judges. I would describe this as one of her superpowers. This skill leads to the wisdom of empathetic understanding. By listening both to what is said and what is not said, one can better understand the full zeitgeist of each issue. Knowledge and insight come from the ears and the heart, not from the mouth. While we all want to be heard, more can be gained from listening. One of my former mentors once told me that “nobody ever gets into trouble listening.” Good advice.
While there are many programs teaching trial advocacy, there is an absence of training programs for family lawyers doing motion practice. This is unfortunate.
Anita explained her methods of preparing and arguing a motion. Always start with the law and what you want to achieve on behalf of your client. Have a clear eye on the target and what the law permits before undertaking any legal task.
When preparing for a contested hearing, Anita rereads all of the pleadings. She critically evaluates where the other side is persuasive and develops counter-arguments. Don’t become so mesmerized by the brilliance of your own argument and lose sight of the strengths of the opposing argument.
Anita looks for the assumptions embedded in the opposing party’s argument. She defines an assumption as a premise that is unspoken that if knocked down, will make the entire argument fail.
Anita relies on an exercise that she calls the 10-minute rule. “If I only had 10 minutes, what would I say?” Another way of doing this is the Twitter approach. If I had to convey my message in a tweet, what would I say? Condense your arguments, so they are punchy, direct, and persuasive.
Motion practice should be conversational. While it’s okay to rely on notes, don’t read from them. The court has already read the pleadings and doesn’t simply reiterate the pleading. Focus on the main ideas and don’t wander off the path into the weeds.
Anita pointed out that even if a motion is not successful, it can be valuable to educate the judge regarding the theory and the theme of the case. It also is a way to test the judge’s receptivity to your theory early in the proceeding. If it appears that you are going nowhere, you can change your approach if necessary. Good trial lawyers are flexible and pragmatic.
While Anita is an exceptional court advocate, she works hard to settle her cases. Someone once said that a bad settlement is better than a good verdict, and there’s some truth to that. From what I observed, this is where Anita’s wisdom and people management skills shine. Her skilled listening and knowledge of human motivation bear fruit in settlement negotiations.
As Anita points out, cases are settled in gray areas. While trends in our law are to use formulas because they promote consistency, formulas sometimes impede settlement because they can be zero-sum. Settlements are achieved by everybody getting something. But, as she observed, to get there, you sometimes need to “hide the vegetables in the mashed potatoes.” Creativity and framing are valuable tools to get to “yes”
Unlike many lawyers who fail to consider the needs of the opposing party, Anita realizes the need to understand what makes the other side tick. This helps get cases settled. She tries to figure out the motivations of the opposing party, their hot buttons, and what they need or value to resolve the case.
Figuring out the other side’s motivations is an art form. While mediation is sometimes futile, Anita thinks it has inherent benefits because it allows a “free peek at what the other side is thinking.” Likewise, pay attention to the lawyers who argue and quarrel in the hallway. They may be testing you to see how you respond to their arguments. Don’t take the bait and show your cards too early. Anita carries a notepad with her and writes down anything the other side says for a future reference.
Trial Advocacy: Less is More
Anita and I subscribe to the same theory: that it is important to be a friend of the court. This means crafting shorter arguments, being more direct, and cutting through fluff to help the judge do his or her job. She firmly understands the importance of ethos, the notion that your credibility is an integral part of your arguments. She is prepared, concise, and direct with her arguments. This makes her more persuasive and effective.
It’s incumbent for attorneys to explain to the client prior to trial (or any court appearance) their thought process. For example, if the opposing attorney can’t find an exhibit, and you have one handy, your sharing is not designed to be conciliatory. It is designed to show the court that you are a good person trying to help move the case along.
Anita’s trial advocacy can be summarized as follows; be prepared, be concise, and be smart. A winning formula.
To watch the full interview of Mrs. Ventrelli, please click here.