What does making and freezing 30 breakfast burritos have in common with trial?
Last weekend, as I found myself standing in the kitchen, elbows deep in scrambled eggs, bacon, and tortillas, my mind wandered to a topic that I thought might be a fit for this blog — proper preparation and being ready for anything.
Most people living where we live in Missoula, Montana, surrounded by blue-ribbon Rocky Mountain trout streams, find themselves often heading to the rivers to play. Over the years, as my family and I have been drawn further and further toward the water, we have dedicated ourselves to spending as much time on rivers as possible, so much so that we now tend to organize our entire annual vacation calendar around several self-supported multi-day river trips every year. Mostly, our trips stay close to home where the water is cold and clear, the rapids are lively, and the camping along the forested banks is ample and secluded. But sometimes we venture to areas far from the familiar mountainous setting of Montana. This year, some friends of ours from Arizona were fortunate enough to draw a permit to float the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons in southern Utah and, thankfully, they invited us to join them. We leave next week and are in the midst of major prep mode, more so because we are headed for a relatively unfamiliar destination.
Even on a late summer trip at low water flows with mellow rapids, all rivers come with a degree of risk and potential for peril, particularly on more isolated extended self-support trips like the Green. Such trips require considerable forethought and effort, and getting things dialed-in and ready with a family of four is no small task. For the Green River in August, the forecast says the temps will range from a high of over 100 and lows in the 60s. There are of course no hotels or shops or restaurants or pubs or grocery stores, so we need to have all our river gear, camping gear, and safety equipment packed carefully in our rafts, along with (most importantly) enough food and water (and ice) for 8 days in 100-degree heat. Of course, we tend to eat well on these trips and with large groups (18 people on this one) meal preparation is key. In organizing the trip menu, each family or group will typically be assigned a dinner or two and/or a breakfast or two. Hence the breakfast burritos. Over the years, we have found that fixing some of our meals in advance and then deep freezing them solid to be thawed out later on the river is a nice way to eliminate some of the work at camp after a long day of rowing and playing. For our breakfast with a group of this size, I personally like to make 30 or so breakfast burritos.
So, what in the world does any of this have to do with the practice of law? While I was making our burritos and packing them in icy coolers this year (as well as getting all of our other food, camping and rafting gear, and other equipment organized and packed), I thought about the considerable work it actually takes to be prepared and whether all that work is worth it at the end of the day. The idea is to work as hard as you can to have every foreseeable contingency accounted for before you hit the road and to be ready in order to make the tasks and challenges faced during the trip simpler and to hopefully reduce or eliminate surprise or crisis that can come up on the river. River trips are incredibly fun and memorable, but a shortage of food, miscalculation of the weather, underestimating the river, or inadequate and mismatched gear and equipment can quickly ruin a trip, make everyone miserable and mad at you, risk injury, and just be an all-around unpleasant experience. This is precisely the same reason attorneys work as hard as they do in preparation for the tasks in front of them. The vast majority of an attorney’s practice is preparation. The trial of a case, in particular, justifies the months and sometimes years of painstakingly detailed planning and preparation. Through the process, each attorney is working to ensure that when the trial comes, everything will have been accounted for and considered previously and that both the attorney and the client are ready to paddle through whatever water the river throws at them without flipping over.
During my time at ALPS, I have been surprised to see the number of serious claims that boil down to a simple failure to properly prepare. Sometimes it is a client caught fielding questions she has never considered before or a surprise mid-trial motion in limine seeking to bar key evidence supporting a client’s position. Inadequate preparation can result in errors, an unhappy client, dismissal, or other bad results, including legal malpractice claims. Every trial (and river trip) comes with its own challenges and success is based largely on being ready for everything. Interview every witness, spend at least a full day or two in advance prepping with your client or an expert instead of getting coffee the day before. Know the law up and down and stay current on changes, even on the eve of trial. Of course, the river (like trial) has turns and features that might be unexpected but being ready will help you avoid a lot of the big errors we see in claims.
My suggestion? Ask the crazy questions and never assume there is something “they will never ask.” Do your best to go one step further every time. Finally, I’ll leave you with a good rule of thumb I use when I’m getting ready for the river – no one ever complains that they brought too much toilet paper on a river trip. If you are ready for trial and ready for that big moment on the river, you’ll be relaxing in the sun on a beach when it’s over. Just always bring enough toilet paper.