John Tolley, how to be a top trial lawyer
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John Tolley: How to Be a Top Trial Lawyer in Your Niche

By Chere Estrin

What does it take to become a successful lawyer in your particular niche? In a series of in-depth interviews for the Estrin Report, Chere Estrin profiles top lawyers from all types of practices. In this column, we highlight their top tips. This week, we feature criminal defense lawyer John Tolley, who has tried more than 45 jury trials and handled thousands of cases. 

John Tolley

Founder and Partner
JT Law Firm
Brooklyn, NY, and Boca Raton and Orlando, FL

After beginning his litigation career as an assistant state’s attorney and as an insurance defense attorney, in 2019 John Tolley decided to form his own firm, JT Law. JT Law is now a three-partner firm that handles insurance, civil litigation and immigration cases in Florida, New York and New Jersey. Tolley’s personal practice focuses on homeowner/commercial property insurance claims and criminal defense.

What Does It Take to Build a Successful Law Practice?

“Hardworking, determined, and able to think outside of the box” are the three attributes most instrumental for building a successful law practice, says Tolley.

I know everyone says ‘hard work,’ but you have to be about it, not just talk about it. There are no cutting corners; you get back what you put into it.

“Determination goes hand-in-hand with hard work. If you want to be successful, you have to be determined. It is easy to skip that networking event, go home and go to sleep. It is easy to pass on a phone call with a potential business connection because you just want to go to lunch. But you have to put that mindset aside and push through. That is what, in my opinion, separates a successful attorney from any other.

“Thinking outside the box is probably the most important trait. It can help you with legal issues and arguments but also in business. You can’t look at everything in black and white, you have to see the gray. If you do, the results will come. You can’t just read an arrest report and take it as it is. You have to read into why certain words are used or the other facts surrounding the arrest.”

It’s the same with business, Tolley says. “If you don’t read between the lines and think outside of the box, people can take advantage of you.”

Five Things You Need to Be a Top Trial Lawyer, According to John Tolley

According to Tolley, top trial lawyers need to develop these traits and good habits:

1. You need to be a problem solver.

As I said before, you have to think outside of the box. If you can do that, you can succeed in business and in law. For instance, I had a client who was charged with a DUI. He was passed out behind the wheel, parked on the side of the road. There was a bunch of alcohol in the back of the car. The case looked bleak, but then I realized no one knew where the keys were. The only person that was able to find the keys was the wife after the car was towed. The keys were in the engine compartment because my client threw them out the car window when he parked. Because of that, I was able to file a motion to dismiss because the prosecutors could not show my client was in actual control of the car.

2. You need to be able to listen.

Most people think of lawyers as talkers, but the best lawyers are listeners. We take everything in, we listen, and when the time is right, we speak.

3. You need to polish your interpersonal skills.

You need to be able to communicate and connect not only with other attorneys but also with your clients and the jury. Being personable and friendly is so important. People assume we’re just trying to steal their money and not do anything for them because of all the bad stereotypes surrounding lawyers. That is far from the truth. Most of us do this to protect people and give them a voice and their day in court.

4. You need to study.

Studying does not end when you graduate and pass the bar. You have to study your field of law, as well as other areas of law that may overlap with your practice and other trades. I depose and cross-examine several experts in engineering. If I don’t study engineering, they can run circles around me. You have to make sure you study not just law but all the other fields that go into the type of law you practice.

5. You need to stay on top of current events and politics — locally and nationally.

Lastly, if you want to be a good trial lawyer you have to be able to select the best possible jury, and that means you need to be up to date on current events. Jury selection is the most important part of trial — it’s the only time you have to speak to the jury and let them answer you back. You have to be aware of the political makeup of the jurisdiction you are in. You have to stay up to date with their local politics as well as statewide and national politics. This type of forward-thinking can really help you pick the best jury for your client.

Read the full John Tolley interview on Thrive.

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Chere Estrin

Chere Estrin is CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing (@estrin) and its medical records division, MediSums, and President and co-founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals, a legal technology training organization. A former administrator for two major law firms, she has held executive positions in law firms, litigation support companies and as senior VP of a legal staffing division of a $5 billion publicly held corporation. She publishes the digital magazine KNOW, the Magazine for Paralegals, and is former editor-in-chief of Sue, the Magazine for Women Litigators.

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