When one thinks of a lawyer, most imagine the television kind. The Atticus Finches, the Perry Masons, the Jack McCoys. Those guys are not your behind-the-desk, paper shuffling types.

They are trial lawyers.

And they do exist in real life, though it is not as easy as it looks on TV.

Trial lawyers are a special breed who think quickly on their feet, who can break down a situation and a person in real time. Of course, they only get to the breaking the witness point by first breaking down the mountains of information lurking in the background of any legal battle.

The group we’ve gathered here are giants in the courtroom. Their peers are in awe of how they operate, and their reputation brings them the best, most complicated, bet-the-company cases.

It is hard to put your finger on what makes a great trial attorney, but one thing is definitely true. Although toughness of mind is important, it’s impossible to bring home wins if the jury does not like you. We’ve highlighted some of their biggest cases and talked to several of them about what makes a trial lawyer a great one.

Phil Beck

Firm:Bartlit Beck

Awards: Recognized by The National Law Journal as Lawyer of the Year Runner-Up in 2001, for Top Defense Verdicts in 1994 and 1997, and as a “Winning Lawyer” in 1997 and 2003.

Greatest Hits:Stopped the recount, a victory that eventually won the presidency for George W. Bush. In 2003, he defended Bayer in a lawsuit over the drug Baycol, when the stakes were so high that a win for Bayer caused its stock price to jump 40% in half an hour. In November 2009, Beck handled a defense of Ernst & Young, fending off a claimed $300 million in damages.

What’s been said: “When you look at David Boies and Phil Beck, you are looking at two of the greatest lawyers in the United States. Neither one of these guys are fire and brimstone. They don’t invoke thunder and lightning and the Lord. They just cut away and cut away — and kill you with a thousand paper cuts.” — Arthur Miller, a litigation specialist at Harvard University School of Law

What Beck told us it takes to be a great trial lawyer: The ability to think like the jury and to “make complex matters understandable…without being condescending;” a talent for anticipating the ways the examination of the witness can go wrong and having a contingency plan for all of them.

Beck (left) consults with David Boies during Bush v. Gore.

David Bernick

David Bernick

Firm: Kirkland & Ellis

Awards: Recognized as a Leading Individual Trial Lawyer in Chambers Global, 2007; one of the Best Lawyers in America for Business Litigation by Woodward & White; and a Super Lawyer in Law & Politics World’s Media.

Greatest Hits: In 2009shut down thousands of asbestos injury claims through defense of W.R. Grace. In the last twelve months, he also represented Dow Chemical in its M&A dispute with Rohm & Haas; on eve of trial, Rohm agreed to invest $3 billion in the combined company. He has also represented Apple in hearing loss litigation related to the iPod and General Electric and Philip Morris against injury claims.

What’s been said: “…a 5-foot-6 dynamo who has defended tobacco companies and breast-implant manufacturers with equal fervor.” — Forbes, Jan. 7, 2008

What Bernick told us it takes to be a great trial lawyer: The ability to conceptualize the themes that “marry the applicable law with what will be the key and undisputed facts in a way that “will resonate with jurors as embodying fundamental fairness.” The lawyer also must have “total conviction and the ability to show it while maintaining a demeanor of balance and credibility.”

David Boies

David Boies

Firm:Boies, Schiller & Flexner

Awards: Named the Lawyer of the Year by the National Law Journal and runner-up for Person of the Year by Time Magazine in 2000. Also recognized as The Antitrust Lawyer of the Year by the New York Bar Association and Commercial Litigator of the Year by Who’s Who.

Greatest Hits:Eviscerated Microsoft in an antitrust case. He represented Al Gore in the litigation relating to the 2000 election and won $4 billion for American Express in an antitrust case against Visa and Microsoft. Boies is currently in trial in San Francisco, representing the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 trial. 

What’s been said: “The Boies memory is one of the first things cited when people discuss his strengths. What’s most impressive about that gift–focused as it may be by the intensified concentration that his dyslexia demands–is Boies’ uncanny ability to recall a key fact, legal citation or piece of contradictory testimony at moments of the most intense pressure.” — Time Magazine, Dec. 25, 2000

Evan Chesler

Evan Chesler


Awards: Recognized in Chambers USA 2009: America’s Leading Lawyers for BusinessBest Lawyers In America – 2009; and as a Leading Trial Lawyer in US Legal 500 – 2008.

Greatest Hits:Defended IBM’s ALT key against patent-infringement claims, and joined Thomas Barr in IBM’s 13-year antitrust battle. Also represented Time Warner, Novartis, Alcoa, Xerox, and American Express in antitrust and intellectual property cases.

What’s been said: “He sits on top of one of the most successful law firms in the country, and he can talk to you almost like you’re a next-door neighbor.” — Former Alcoa VP Thomas Meek, Oct. 2009

What Chesler told us it takes to be a great trial lawyer: The ability “to understand people,” “to be sensitive to the audience and to the messages they are sending.” Diligent preparation is a requirement, but “preparation without keen attention to how you relate to the particular audience you are facing will not typically work.” And, when questioning witnesses, a great trial lawyer always adapts to the particular witness.

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