Skills of a Top-tier Trial Lawyer: The Five Lessons We Learned from Alumnus J. Michael Hennigan’s Neumann Lecture

April 21, 2022

The annual lecture seeks to train the next generation of trial lawyers.

University of Arizona alumnus J. Michael Hennigan (JD ’70, BA ‘66) joined a long list of influential guest speakers as he delivered this year’s Peter Chase Neumann Lecture on Civil Justice. During his talk titled “Things You Learn in the Courtroom, Not the Classroom” Hennigan shared experiences from his 50 years as a trial lawyer in California and Arizona, where he established himself as a leader in the litigation of nationwide consumer class actions and commercial fraud cases. 

A fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Hennigan has been consistently identified in prominent legal publications as one of the country’s top trial lawyers, including Chambers USA, Chambers Global, Who’s Who in American Law, and The Best Lawyers in America. Chambers USA ranks him among the top litigators in California and the country, describing him as a “classic trial lawyer” who is able to “see very well which elements will resonate and use the arguments to good effect.”

Donning his signature bowtie, a nod to the late College of Law Dean Charles Ares (’52), Hennigan outlined skills he has perfected over the years through his time in the courtroom. Here are the key takeaways from his lecture:

Identify and Explain the Themes of Your Case

One of the most challenging aspects of being a trial lawyer is finding ways to simplify the facts of the case. One way to do this, Hennigan described, is to break the case down into three or four main themes.   

While describing the themes in court, Hennigan would adopt a simple listing hand gesture, lifting one finger up for theme one, two fingers up for theme two and so on, in order to maintain audience attention and to help with recall.

“This is what I typically use in my voir dire, it's what I close with, and I frequently examine witnesses using this technique,” said Hennigan. “I knew it was working during one trial, when my opponent came in with exhibits of my fingers…and indeed we did we did win that case.”

Your Opponent is Not Your Enemy

Whether in oral or written argument, Hennigan advises to never malign or belittle your opponents or their position. Treat opposing counsel with respect, regardless of whether you feel they deserve it. This is a fundamental rule of courtroom etiquette and common decency.

“Your opponent is not your enemy. He's not a bad person because he's your opponent,” said Hennigan. “You can be nice to him, you can be polite in the hallway, because eventually you're probably going to settle with him anyway.”

Develop a Relationship with the Jury

For trial lawyers, the relationships established with jurors extend far beyond jury selection. Opening statements, examination of witnesses and closing arguments all involve opportunities to build a rapport with, communicate with, and persuade, the jury.

“You have a relationship with [the jury], whether you like it or not,” said Hennigan. “There are going to be some that will readily get your attention and you can talk to them. But then there are some that you can’t get through to. Those are the ones you should focus on and over time you'll find that usually they come around.”

Don’t Use Notes

Notes can be a helpful way to keep track of your questions, but Hennigan cautions against using them during a presentation. The ability to read the room and understand the motivations and concerns of the people you’re speaking with can help you adapt and make changes in strategy more easily, explained Hennigan. Notes can take your focus away from that skill.

“You can look them over at the end to see if you’ve missed something, but don’t use notes during your presentation. It will interfere with your spontaneity and with the effectiveness of your presentation. In the end, if you have to take a minute to look over your notes then it won't hurt you.”

Exhibit Confidence

As lead counsel in more than 45 major jury trials in state and federal courts, where he litigated judgments and settlements of more than $8 billion for his clients, Hennigan has mastered the art of the jury trial. Confidence, he says, has played an important role in those wins.

“Your attitude, the way you bear yourself and the expression on your face is part of what makes the case winnable or not…The attitude that you bring to the courtroom will often even determine the outcome of an objection and very frequently an examination,” said Hennigan. “And there's no substitute for it. If you're insecure it'll show, so you’ve got to figure out a way to get through that.”

Bonus: How to Pass the Bar

Before ending, Hennigan took time to share the best advice he ever received on tackling the bar exam from then College of Law professor Winton D. Woods.

“You’ve been in law school for three years. You can spot an issue. Read the question and identify the issue,” said Hennigan. “Then you can explain how judges have affected this issue, because there is probably some court out there who has ruled that way. Next, how some courts have ruled the other way, and finally offer an explanation on a better rule to target that issue. I can’t tell you how many questions I answered that way, but it was several.”

When it came time to learn his score, Hennigan was told he had received the second highest among bar takers in Arizona that year. A remarkable beginning to a remarkable career.

A recording of Hennigan’s full lecture can be viewed here.

About the Peter Chase Neumann Lecture 

The Peter Chase Neumann Lecture on Civil Justice is part of University of Arizona Law's Civil Justice Initiative, which seeks to elevate the American civil justice system and train the next generation of great trial lawyers. 

The lecture series began in 2013, with past speakers including Patrick J. McGroder, Richard Fried and Randi McGinn. University of Arizona Law alumnus Peter Chase Neumann (’64) endowed the lecture in 2016.