How to be a Great Trial Lawyer: Lessons from Jonathan Bunge – Managing Partner at Quinn Emanuel and Co-Chair of The National Trial Practice Group 

When it comes to being a great trial lawyer, there are certain skills and traits that separate the best from the rest.

What you will find below are some of the qualities that define a great trial lawyer – a road map to how a litigator can distinguish himself or herself from the herd.  

A former federal prosecutor, former Deputy Chief for the General Crimes Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago and, currently, the Managing Partner (Chicago) at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP – Jonathan Bunge (‘Jon’) has excelled in both the public sector and in private practice. 

In a career spanning over 34 years, he has tried cases in many areas, including commercial disputes, non-compete and trade secret disputes, products cases, environmental matters, white-collar criminal matters, and securities and financial disputes. During this time, he has learned first-hand what it takes to excel as a trial lawyer. 

Be Curious

When asked what single word his closest friend would use to describe him, Bunge said, “Curious.” 

The right amount of curiosity is essential for success in any profession. In a legal career, it helps you ask the right questions, uncover new facts, and explore alternative arguments. 

It’s the foundation of effective research and a critical component of trial preparation. A curious mind will also help you stay engaged and motivated throughout your career.

“I try to think through cases and problems from all angles,” said Bunge.

Gain Relevant Experience

Practice is crucial to becoming a successful trial lawyer. It is essential to gain experience in a courtroom, whether through internships, clerkships, working for the government, or as an associate at a law firm. 

The experience will help you become accustomed to courtroom procedures and learn the art of persuading a jury. 

Fresh out of college, Bunge landed his first assignment as a judicial law clerk, serving the Hon. James Buckley in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The following year, he began a clerkship with Justice Byron White at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Standing on the shoulders of giants allowed him to observe oral arguments in landmark cases and taught him how to analyze complex legal issues while writing clear and concise legal opinions and memos.

Over the course of his legal career, Bunge has handled over 20 appeals in various federal and state appellate courts, including four arguments on civil matters before the California appellate courts. His early career experiences played an important role in his success in the vast majority of these appeals.

Become Good at The Craft of Lawyering

As a trial lawyer, three skills will ultimately determine your chances of losing or winning a case. Learn how to write and argue persuasively and learn how to cross-examine witnesses effectively. 

From drafting pleadings and motions to crafting opening and closing statements, writing is an essential part of trial lawyering, and building persuasive oral arguments using the art of storytelling sets all great trial lawyers apart.

Finally, not all expert cross-examiners are great trial lawyers, but every great trial lawyer is an expert cross-examiner. Most trials are won or lost on the outcome of cross-examinations. Building your cross-examination skills requires three things: Studying trial transcripts to learn effective ways to conduct direct examination and cross-examination; practicing cross-examination skills outside of court; and preparing diligently before a trial. 

While working as the lead prosecutor in a series of high-profile cases at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Bunge learned how to be resourceful and quick on his feet. However, mastering these three skills was crucial to his success.  

Find A Mentor

Mentoring is a valuable process for any aspiring trial lawyer. It involves a partnership between an experienced lawyer and a junior lawyer, with the aim of enhancing the latter’s skills, knowledge, and career growth. 

A mentor can offer guidance on how to handle different situations, how to interact with clients, and how to conduct oneself in court. 

Trial lawyers must possess excellent oral and written communication skills as well as the ability to think on their feet. These skills can be honed through the guidance of a mentor who has been in the field for many years.

Develop Your Moral Compass 

Bunge drew inspiration from several influences while growing up. His maternal grandfather, an Episcopalian priest, was an important influence, acting as his moral compass. Bunge learned several important lessons from him, such as living a life of integrity and treating others with respect. 

This moral compass has served him well in a distinguished legal career, guiding his decision-making and helping him maintain a strong sense of ethics. 

Having a strong moral compass is essential to being a great trial lawyer, as it helps you make sound judgments and build trust with your clients and colleagues.

Balance Work and Life

It’s essential to find a balance between work and life outside the office. Having hobbies and interests outside of work helps you stay grounded and avoid burnout. For Bunge, skiing and spending time outdoors are his go-to stress relievers. When at home, he resorts to reading fiction and historical accounts of the American Civil War.  

He also sets aside time to spend with his wife and children – who are perhaps the greatest influences in his life. 

Finding a good work-life balance also means setting boundaries and being disciplined in managing your time.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

“One thing that is difficult about being a trial lawyer is that there is a very real risk of losing—especially in the cases for which we get hired. I have had some hard losses. I’ve tried to overcome these by learning whatever lessons I could from the experience and moving on,” said Bunge. 

Never Stop Learning

Continuous learning is essential in the legal profession. Keeping up with changes in the law and staying abreast of legal developments is critical for success as a trial lawyer. 

This means staying up to date with legal journals, attending seminars and conferences, and seeking out mentorship and guidance from experienced lawyers.

Being a great trial lawyer requires a combination of skills, traits, and values. Curiosity, a strong moral compass, effective writing skills, work-life balance, and continuous learning are all essential components of success in this field. By embracing these principles, you can become a great trial lawyer and achieve long-term success as a litigator.


Article Editor

Pamela is a television journalist, humor writer and novelist. Her first novel, Allegedly, was released in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She and her husband, Daniel, have a 3-year-old son, Carter.

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