Douglas Baek - Judicial Extern for Hon. Otis D. Wright, II '80, United States District Court for the Central District of California
"What is your recommendation?" I have never been shy about giving my opinion or making a recommendation when asked to do so. Colleagues, friends, and family members often rely on my recommendation in choosing where to go for the freshest sushi, or the best spot to catch the perfect wave. But it is quite another thing, when a presiding federal judge asks for your recommendation on how he should rule on a case.
I started my externship with the Honorable Otis D. Wright, II of the United States District Court on January 7. In order to secure a full-time judicial externship, I had to carefully plan my law school career from day one. I wasted no time before talking with the helpful staff at the Externship Office, where I learned that a full-time externship would require an extensive time-commitment. Therefore, I took a class during both my first and second year summer breaks, and took a full load of classes throughout my first and second year of law school. Upon entering the spring semester of my graduating year, I only needed ten (10) more units to graduate. With a full-time externship, I would be able to complete the remaining ten (10) units without having to take another class. The table had been set, and after having acquired two and a half years of law school education, I was finally ready to apply this newly acquired knowledge to make the ultimate recommendation.
For my first case, I was not asked to save the world, nor was I expected to solve the greatest mystery of our time. Instead, I was asked to make a recommendation on a trademark infringement case. I would be the first to admit, it was not the most exciting first assignment. Little did I know, this seemingly mundane assignment would be the vehicle for the greatest lesson of my entire legal career.
In order to make a recommendation, I reviewed the case file and the moving papers submitted by each party. Immediately, I noticed that the plaintiff's arguments, in its moving papers, were extremely convincing. At first glance, the plaintiff's moving papers appeared to be foolproof. The defendant's moving papers, on the other hand, did not sound as convincing. In fact, the defendant openly conceded to weaknesses in their case. The defendant pointed out that, although the binding law in our jurisdiction supports their side, it also supports the plaintiff's side. Unlike the plaintiff, who argued that they were 100% right, the defendant was asking us to make a value judgment and rule in their favor because the law and facts supports them more than the plaintiff.
Upon conducting an independent research on the relevant laws in our jurisdiction, I quickly realized that the plaintiff's overly confident arguments were seriously flawed. The plaintiff failed to acknowledge the inevitable weaknesses in their case, as the defendant had done in its moving papers. The law was clear, but the specific facts in this case made it a close call, and the case could have easily gone either way. I made my recommendations to the judge accordingly, and the hearing date was set for oral arguments.
LESSON #1: ALLOW THE JUDGE TO TAKE YOUR WORD TO THE BANK. After the hearing, the judge explained that he is always looking to see if he can trust the lawyers that appear before him. However, when a lawyer tries so hard to "hide the ball" and over-sell his arguments, it's hard to believe anything else he is saying. Instead, if you take the time to concede to inevitable weaknesses that exist in your case, you end up building up your credibility with the court, and the judge is more likely to believe everything else you present to the court. You can make a great argument by knowing your case and the law, but you win your case on your credibility.
This lesson was priceless; a lesson you cannot learn by reading a textbook or a case. Each day spent at my externship is another opportunity to learn another "unwritten rule" of the courtroom. I look forward to having many more opportunities to acquire inside knowledge of what it takes to win a case. I hope to take the skills and knowledge acquired from my externship to become an effective trial lawyer who can be trusted, allowing the judge to take my word to the bank.