After completing the required courses during the first year of law school, upper-level students get the chance to add more variety into their schedules and try different legal courses and simulations. For a lot of students, these courses provide great opportunities to develop interests in different legal fields. In my case, I used my 2L classes to explore a newly developed passion for trial advocacy. As a rising 2L, I had a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly to pursue a career as a trial attorney. What kind of classes would prepare me for a trial advocacy career? What kind of internships would help me build my advocacy skills?What should I be doing during law school to prepare for a litigation career? Fortunately, throughout the year I was connected with people and resources that helped me answer all of those questions: but that was only because I went looking for them!
For this interview I sat down (via Zoom) with Malini Dhanraj, a trial attorney and 2016 Pace Law graduate. During our interview I asked Malini about her experience at Pace, her career path, and if she had any advice for current law students who want to be trial attorneys. I wanted to help give students who are thinking about careers in trial advocacy a head start on getting their questions answered!
Since graduating, Malini has been working as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the New York City Law Department. In August of 2016, she started as a pre-trial attorney in the Brooklyn Tort Division and made it known early on that she was very interested in trying cases. She found that she gained incredible experience as a pre-trial attorney at the Law Department, such as having the opportunity to try two cases! In April 2019, Malini was offered a position as a trial attorney in the Bronx Tort Division, and she jumped at the opportunity. Since then, she’s continued to develop her skills in the Queens Tort Division, where she works currently.
Q: Was being a trial attorney something that you knew you always wanted to do?
A: I’ve known that I wanted to be a trial attorney for a long time. I tried out for mock trial in high school and stuck with it for all 4 years. It’s something that I continued in college and never lost interest in. I loved trying cases and I still do today.
Q: What about once you got to law school?
A: The Pace Law Advocacy Program helped me build on what I knew about oral advocacy and helped me build a strong trial advocacy foundation. Everything that I learned from Trial Advocacy, Evidence, and being on teams proved to be incredibly beneficial. After graduation, I realized that I was ahead of the game having already learned all of this.
Q: As some of our readers may remember from their 1L classes, Torts are tried in the civil sector. Did you always know that you wanted to practice civil law?
A: Actually, no. When I got to Pace, I thought that I wanted to be a prosecutor. A lot of the classes I took during my 2L and 3L years were geared towards a career in criminal law. I wanted to be a prosecutor.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: It’s not so much a what, but a who. My mock trial coach, Eylan Schulman suggested that I look into the Law Department. He knew that I was interested in criminal law, but he thought the Law Department would be a good fit for me. And he was right! When I interned with the Law Department second semester of my 3L year, I loved it!
Q: That’s great! Now I know that you mentioned you originally wanted to be a prosecutor, but did you get an opportunity to explore the private sector?
A: I did have the opportunity to explore the private sector a little bit, but I ultimately decided it wasn’t a good fit for me at that point in time. As a new law school graduate, the thing I wanted the most that early on was experience. I knew that working in public interest would give me the most litigation experience quickly. That’s not to say that working for the government is the only way to get experience, but personally, it was the best move.
Q: Would you be able to elaborate on that a little bit? What kind of experience did you get as a young attorney at the Law Department?
A: As a young attorney, I wanted to advocate for myself to learn as much as possible. I made it known that I was interested in trials from the beginning, and my colleagues at the Law Department were enthusiastic about giving me the opportunities to learn and develop my skills as a trial attorney. I participated in an intensive trial advocacy program run by the Law Department, had the opportunity to argue motions in limine before a judge, act as a “second seat” for attorneys at trial, and make requests for charges. After I got my trial rotations, I continued to advocate for myself, and it led to me getting the opportunity to try two cases as a new attorney working in a pre-trial division. In my opinion, there’s no better way to get experience.
Q: Were there any classes you took at Pace that prepared you well for a career as a trial attorney?
A: Evidence is such a critical part of being a trial attorney. If you can’t lay the foundation for a crucial piece of evidence, your entire defense may be in jeopardy. If you want to preclude a document from coming in, you need to understand evidence. I loved taking Evidence with Professor Gershman. He’s so talented in Criminal Law and I loved every minute of his class: he’s truly a master in the area of evidence. His class was one of my favorites during my time at Pace. If you’re interested in trial work, taking Evidence is a must!
Q: Were there any classes that you wish you took, but didn’t?
A: Settlements and negotiations. I didn’t know that I wanted to do civil litigation until fairly late in law school, but settlements and negotiations are a decent part of my job. I prepare for every trial, but a lot of cases actually settle. Settlements and negotiations—and how to facilitate them is a large part of being a trial lawyer. I learned through my experiences, but I wish I took a class.
Q: What opportunities should current Pace Law students take advantage of while in law school?
A: Moot Court and Mock Trial! They were my favorite part of my law school years, and I loved every minute of it. If you haven’t tried out for a team yet, you definitely should!
Q: What about outside of law school?
A: Outside of law school, I’d encourage current students to seek out an internship! So many public interest offices are hiring! Getting out there and working under a student practice order is a great wat to get hands-on experience. I did a number of different internships during my time at law school, and I highly recommend all students do one.
Q: So this might be the understatement of the century, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world looks very different nowadays. What was an average week as a trial attorney like for you pre-pandemic v. now?
A: Before COVID-19, every Monday I was either continuing a trial or getting assigned a new trial and being sent out immediately for jury selection. The case stays with you until a verdict or settlement is reached, and then you start all over with a new case! For each case, you select a jury through voir dire (French for “to speak the truth”), argue pre-trial motions in limine, do your openings, examinations, closings, verdict sheets, and then any post-trial motions.
Q: How long would each trial last?
A: I’ve seen trials last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks. It all depends on the intricacies of each specific case, and how serious it is.
Q: What does an average week look like for you during COVID-19?
A: Right after the pandemic started, New York City pretty much went 100% remote. Because we couldn’t appear in court physically due to the pandemic, my focus has shifted to reviewing and assessing open cases to see if settlement would be appropriate.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a trial attorney?
A: I think my favorite thing is being surrounded by the people I work with. I’m extremely lucky to be surrounded by seasoned attorneys who want to mentor younger, newer trial attorneys like myself. I’m lucky to have such a strong trial team in the Queens Tort office where I work, and to have Jared Hatcliffe, a senior trial attorney, as a mentor. Anyone would be lucky to learn from him. My Deputy, Pat Mantione is one of the finest trial attorneys I’ve ever met. My whole team is so seasoned and kind. The best part about being a trial attorney is having a great team like them to support me through every stage of the trial process.
Q: And in true law school fashion… just to play devil’s advocate: what do you find to be the most challenging aspect of trial work?
A: Being thrown a curveball by opposing counsel or a witness is definitely a challenging aspect of the job. There’s always something that may not go according to plan. And while that’s frustrating, it’s also what drives me to be a trial attorney. I love the fast-paced environment that causes me to think quickly on my feet.
Q: What’s the best piece of career-related advice that you’ve received, and who gave it to you?
A: My mock trial coach, Eylan Schulman, told me to embrace my personality and be myself in court. I really have to give him credit for making me the “go getter” I am today in the courtroom. Being yourself is a huge part of being a successful trial attorney.
Q: Finally, in your opinion: which qualities do you think make for particularly strong oral advocates?
A: Being confident in yourself is key! If you want to be a trial attorney, you need to have a presence that’s your own. You don’t have to be the loudest person speaking, but you have to be able to make your point and tell a story to the judge and the jury. Trial attorneys need to be comfortable public speaking. That level of comfort can only build with experience and time; the earlier you start, the better!
Trial advocacy is an incredibly rewarding legal career. If you’re interested in becoming a trial attorney, know that the Pace Law Advocacy Program has an incredibly robust trial advocacy curriculum. Classes such as Trial Advocacy, Evidence, and other litigation simulation courses provide students with an excellent foundation for their students to go on and become excellent trial attorneys. The Pace Law Advocacy Program also allows students to put their trial skills to the test through their highly competitive trial competition teams. If you have any questions about mock trial competitions or careers in trial advocacy, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org!