Our Time to Take Back the Courtroom

by Vernon Sumwalt, 2019-2020 President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice

Trial lawyers are losing the ability to try cases. 

Yes, you heard me right.  The president of the NCAJ, formerly called the NCATL (remember what the “TL” stood for?) just said that. 

Now, I’m not the first to say this.  U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Anderson’s Where Have You Gone, Spot Mozingo? A Trial Judge’s Lament Over the Demise of the Civil Jury Trial, 4 Fed. Cts. Law Rev. 99 (2010), expressed concern about the decline of civil jury trials almost a decade ago.  North Carolina’s own federal bench has said the same about federal criminal trials.  See Conrad, Robert J. & Clements, Katy L., The Vanishing Criminal Jury Trial: From Trial Judges to Sentencing Judges, 86 George Wash. L. Rev. 99 (2018).  Why are trials running the way of the dinosaurs?  Fewer jury trials means fewer juries.  Fewer juries means fewer guards left standing on the last line of our Constitutional system of defense, where our Founders put 12 representatives of our communities—the only unelected ones under our Constitution—to protect the shores of justice from the erosion of popularity, power, and indifference.  There are a ton of excuses for this decline: arbitration (and ADR in general), sentencing guidelines, increasing costs of litigation and extensive discovery, inexperience of new lawyers, risk aversion of old lawyers, risks of conviction, dispositive resolutions, the list goes on.  Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have tried over 3,000 cases in 25 years as a trial lawyer—about 120 trials a year—didn’t have these obstacles.  Neither did most trial lawyers just 30 or 40 years ago.                   

We, as trial lawyers, cannot excuse this trend to end trials, or else we will lose our Constitution.  What’ happened?  What can we do to fight back?  This is the task of trial lawyer groups — NCAJ included —t oday.  To revitalize trial, rebound from this loss, and rebuild our last line of defense for Constitutional integrity. This is our destiny. Who trial lawyers are meant to be.      

So, if the hair on your neck stands up or your heart starts to race when I say, “Trial lawyers are losing the ability to try cases,” then good.  Very good.  It’s time to fight back.  We need the fire in your belly to throw NCAJ into hyperdrive to train new trial lawyers.  We need you now.

Things are moving at light speed at NCAJ.  While gradual, our CLE offerings launch into the realm of practical trial skills on Thursday, September 26, 2019, when William Goldfarb conducts a seminar with two live focus groups in Charlotte.  We have a depositions course planned in January 2020 to tackle North Carolina-specific practices and black letter law.  Meanwhile, we welcome Mark Kosieradzki to our Sustainer Summit at the Grove Park Inn in October.  Koz is a national expert on 30(b)(6) depositions and countering abusive discovery tactics.  NCAJ is test driving its first applications for its new focus group program before we open the doors for everyone’s consumption.  Our listservs and moot court participants continue to debrief their experiences and share takeaways, so others can experience the ride as close to a “real life” driver’s seat as they can be.  We are building better trial lawyers to try cases like they have nothing to lose, because all we have to lose is time.  Because the fear of loss holds us back from being who we are and what we are meant to be. 

We are trial lawyers.

Vernon Sumwalt is the 2019-2020 President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and a partner at The Sumwalt Law Firm in Charlotte. Sumwalt is a North Carolina State Bar Board Certified Specialist in Appellate Practice and Workers’ Compensation Law and has served in numerous leadership positions for both the NC State Bar and NC Bar Association’s workers’ compensation committees and sections.

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