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Mastering the art of trial advocacy with Jeffrey Breit

  • Master class:
    Master class:  Breit, a veteran of more than 200 jury trials, has coached the Trial Team through 13 seasons. In January, William & Mary law students under his tutelage bested a field of 106 teams from law schools across the nation to win the ABA Labor and Employment Law National Trial Competition.  Photo by David F. Morrill
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On a fall afternoon at William & Mary Law School, members of the Trial Team have gathered for Jeffrey Breit’s Trial Advocacy class. A quartet of students are recapping their most recent performance, having successfully vied against teams from 15 other schools to take first place in the past weekend’s tournament. Breit quizzes them: “Crosses were good? Tight?” When they reply affirmatively, he feigns surprise and asks, “Someone learned how to do that?”

The playful tone continues as he asks the competitors about the judging, if they correctly anticipated objections and how other teams adapted to their defense. Then, with a smile, he declares, “Enough gloating,” and invites Jennifer Quezada, a second-year law student who will compete for the first time in an upcoming tournament, to join him in the well of the amphitheatre-style classroom. Breit asks her to begin the cross-examination she has prepared. “Good afternoon, Ms. Martin. I have a couple of questions for you,” she says, addressing the “witness,” who is a classmate familiar with the facts of the fictitious case.

It is soon clear that Breit, who has coached the team through 13 seasons, has more than a couple questions of his own. Quezada is on her fourth question when he presses her to explain its purpose. “What are you getting at?” he asks. “Why does that help you?” Moments later he urges her to challenge the witness’s reply. “Listen to it,” he tells her. “Don’t be afraid of yourself. Challenge this son-of-a-gun with a little something.” Throughout the practice, he is never far from Quezada’s side. He listens intently as she continues, regularly punctuating her cross-examination with his feedback: “Make the point, don’t be so subtle”; “Be stronger, be meaner, get tough”; “Too many words, too many words, rephrase that.”

Breit, an adjunct professor of law and veteran of more than 200 jury trials, knows his coaching style is intense. That intensity is matched by a hefty commitment of time. He blocks out about six hours every Tuesday for class, which includes an informal office hour in the lobby beforehand and a two-hour (or more, given traffic) round-trip drive from his Virginia Beach office. Many Sunday afternoons, the squad competing in the next tournament joins Breit and his family for dinner. He and the students then spend hours sifting through the case facts that are provided in advance by tournament sponsors, huddling around the table or occasionally walking in the neighborhood with his golden retriever as they talk through a strategy. They go over in painstaking detail opening and closing statements, direct and cross-examinations, where to stand, where to look — things that are second-nature to Breit. He also travels to as many tournaments as his client and family responsibilities allow, often treating the team to dinner at restaurants that are far above a student budget. In class, in coaching sessions, while sharing a meal, he tells stories about the lessons he has learned from 35 years of practice and from life.

Breit with studentsThe team’s achievements under his tutelage are impressive. They have been tournament champions, finalists, or semi-finalists in 29 competitions over the past decade. Most recently, in January, the team bested a field of 106 teams to win the American Bar Association Labor and Employment Law National Trial Competition. Their championships also include five top finishes in the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) Mock Trial Competition (previously known as the Gourley Competition) and back-to-back championships at the National Pre-Trial Competition and the Phi Alpha Delta Mock Trial Competition.

Professor Louis J. Barracato coached at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law for more than four decades before his recent retirement, making him arguably the nation’s longest serving law school trial team coach. William & Mary competitors “were the kind of team that when the round was over — win or lose — you could always go out for a beer with because it was always a fair trial,” he recalls. “Can’t say that about all the schools but with Jeff’s team that was always the case. He taught his students to be professional in preparation, delivery and ethics.”

Breit’s team is “extremely well prepared, well polished, and obviously well coached,” said Professor Yuri R. Linetsky, who has seen them in action over the years at the Allegheny (Gourley) tournament. He adds that it was obvious that the students “absolutely adored” their coach. Linetsky is a coach of the University of Alabama School of Law team, and previously coached at Case Western Reserve University’s law school. “The time and resources that he obviously devotes to preparing the team to do well at every competition is remarkable,” Linetsky says. “I think very few people would be able to do that while maintaining a well-known national practice.”

Joshua Whitley J.D. ’08 practices in Charleston, South Carolina, at Smyth Whitley, a firm he co-founded, and says that under Breit’s tutelage he “grew in every way you would want a team member to grow: analytically, confidence level, and real-life trial skills.” His appreciation for Breit’s role in his career success and for Breit’s devotion to the team has grown exponentially since he graduated. “I now understand that every minute Jeffrey took away from his law practice to help us at the Law School was revenue lost from his firm, and while we all do extracurricular activities [as lawyers], many do it for the reason of client development,” he says. “Professor Breit did not develop clients by teaching at the Law School; he was paying it forward to the next generation of trial attorneys, and doing what we should be doing as citizen lawyers of William & Mary. That is a substantial and selfless contribution.”

'A learned art'

“I have never had a student who I thought couldn’t become a good trial lawyer,” says Breit, a past president of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. “Every student has qualities I can work with. The ‘art of persuasion,’ which is what I teach, is a learned art. Learning how to tell a story is a learned art. Learning how to examine a witness so that someone else wants to listen is a learned art.”

The family dinner table was probably where he first heard about that art from his father, Calvin Breit J.D. ’51, a plaintiff’s attorney in Norfolk.

That education continued for the younger Breit in New Orleans. During college and later law school at Tulane University, he juggled his studies with two jobs:  giving tennis lessons and working in the chambers of a federal judge. The perks of the latter job included a ringside seat in the courtroom, which further fueled his appetite to become a trial lawyer.  “This is competition like sports, but you get to use your brain,” he recalls thinking as he watched proceedings.  “This is fun.”

He returned to Virginia to practice law with his father, later opening his own firm, now known as Breit Drescher Imprevento, with colleague Jack Drescher and brother Billy Breit J.D. ’78.  Breit has brought home multi-million dollar verdicts for many clients over his three-and-a-half decade career, and in 2010 was among 15 lawyers appointed by a federal judge to serve on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee for the BP oil spill multidistrict litigation.

The effort and energy required for a case never diminishes, regardless of how much experience you have, according to Breit. “No lawyer on the other side of a case will work harder on my case than I will. I try to explain that to my students. There is no casual way to be a trial lawyer. It is challenging — physically, emotionally, mentally,” he says.

While he is pleased for his students when they win competitions, the trophies and bragging rights are beside the point for him. His goal is to prepare them so that they “can walk into any courtroom in the country and try a case with excellence,” he says.

Sanding away rough edges

Janie Brittan J.D. ’16 competed on the team and also worked closely with Breit as the team’s Chief Counsel during her third year of law school.  She now practices at Paul Hastings in Washington, D.C. She describes Breit as “boisterous, and kind in a way that you wouldn’t expect.”  In class and in practices, “he jokes around a lot and is very sarcastic, but at the end of the day he really wants you to win but be the best version of yourself that you can be,” she says. “He tries to get you there.”

Breit is a “stickler for detail,” says Michael Broadus J.D. ’05, a solo practitioner in Tampa, Florida. Earlier in his career he was an Assistant State Attorney in the State Attorney’s Office in Hillsborough County, Florida, and Assistant Attorney General in the Office of the Florida Attorney General.

Breit started coaching the Trial Team in the fall of Broadus’s third year of law school. The team had gone without a coach the previous year.  During practice one day, Breit stopped him only a couple of words into a cross-examination he was practicing. Broadus was unconsciously stomping his foot whenever he wanted to emphasize a point. “Broadus, are you a horse up there or what? What are you doing? Every time you stomp, I’m going to throw something at you,” Breit said. Although he didn’t make good on the threat, Breit’s admonition helped him curb the habit and left a lasting impression. “From that point on,” he says, “I started paying attention to not only the content of what I was doing at a particular stage in a trial, but how I was doing it. “ During a trial in real life, “you notice that other attorneys do these little things that are very distracting for juries,” he says. “I learned not to do them when I was with Jeff.”

Breit likens his coaching process with students as “burring their edges.” If he hears or sees them making mistakes, his feedback is unvarnished and instantaneous. “It doesn’t help students to be patted on the back when [what they are doing] is not what you would like to see,” he says.

In his estimation, he has been given “the gift of some really bright students, who are obviously a cut above” their peers. “I try to take them outside their comfort zone, constantly pushing them,” he says. “I teach them how to fix their own excellent qualities.”

Maximilian Meese J.D. ’15 works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is an associate at The Webb Law Firm. He says he usually could tell just by looking at Breit when someone got something right in practice or during a tournament.  When “you hit something right on cross-examination, or you were doing your statement right, he would start beaming. He wouldn’t say a word,” he says. “I think that spoke louder than words.”

Like a number of the team alumni interviewed, Meese credits Breit with giving him a helping hand in the transition from student to lawyer.  Breit, he says, knew Meese wanted to practice in Pittsburgh, his hometown, a very competitive job market for fledgling lawyers. Breit picked him as a 3L for the team sent to the Gourley Competition, held each year in the city. Meese and teammate Michael Collett J.D. ’16 returned the favor. They ran the table for their coach, Meese says, not only placing first, but also receiving both best advocate awards in the competition, which are scored by local trial lawyers and federal judges.  “Out of that, I was able to reconnect with attorneys in the city, and it started opening up doors again,” he says.

The essential Breit

Elizabeth Ryan J.D. ’07, a partner at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas, is among three trial lawyers in her family, along with her father and brother. Her sister Meghaan McElroy Madriz J.D. ’09 is a labor and employment law attorney in Houston.  Ryan says Breit is an “exceptional trial lawyer, head and shoulders above the majority of the bar.”  She credits him with giving her the skills needed to bridge the “chasm between being a good law student and a good lawyer.”

During her second year of law school, she received news that her mother had cancer. Breit was on the phone with Ryan only hours later, asking what he could do to help and offering to contact doctors he knew around the country. While he was immensely supportive during her mother’s illness and her death only months later, she recalls that he never stopped urging her to perform to the best of her ability in school and on the team. He was “a great mentor and a positive force in my life when I really needed one,” she says. She and teammate Joshua Whitley J.D. ’08 were the first William & Mary students to win the Gourley Competition and were the school's inaugural winners of the tournament's top advocate awards.

Following a clerkship with a federal appeals judge, Ryan asked Breit to serve as a reference for a job at a firm. Breit called the hiring partner, a well-known and highly regarded trial attorney in Texas, and, as the partner later related to Ryan, provided a succinct and memorable recommendation. Ryan recounts the story. “Do you know who I am?,” Breit asked the partner. When the partner said he did not, Breit quickly outlined his credentials in bullet points.  Then, in his signature style, he cut to the chase.  “This is the deal,” he said. “I could tell you all the great things I could say about Liz, but what I need you to know is that you need to hire her. If you don’t hire her, I am going to call all my friends and tell them they are going to hire her.”  She got the job. “Yes,” she recalls telling the hiring partner who related the story soon after she joined the firm. “That would be Jeff.”

Jessica J.D. ’10 and Arpan Sura ’09 say they think of Breit as family. The couple lives in Northern Virginia. Arpan works for the Sprint Foundation; Jessica works at Blankingship & Keith.

Arpan first saw his future wife when he was a 2L team member and she was a 1L trying out for the team.  She was “so good, so confident during that tryout that I became smitten with her,” he says. He later intensely lobbied Breit to send the two to compete together at a tournament in Puerto Rico.  The match led to marriage, and Breit spoke at their wedding.  Jessica says he encouraged the couple to name one of their kids after him. The couple now has two. “It hasn’t happened yet,” Jessica jokes, “but I guess there is time.”

Breit suggested that Jessica be asked to describe for this story what he called a “pep talk” he gave her between rounds of the Gourley tournament her 3L year.  When asked about it, she says a person would have to have a “pretty thick skin” to call it a “pep talk.”

She sets the scene: Looking back, her own performance was lackluster on day one, but fortunately, she says, her co-counsel Michelle Jacobs J.D. ’09 more than carried the preliminary round. Breit had travelled to see them compete. “What the heck are you doing out there?” Breit demanded. He did not miss a beat before he continued.  “You know how to do this. You are asking stupid questions and you are getting beat up for it. Think a little bit. Quit being an idiot.  If I wanted to bring an idiot, I would have brought [team member back in Williamsburg] to the tournament.”   She “killed it,” when the proceedings continued, she says, and both she and Jacobs enjoyed a terrific final round, finishing the competition in first place.

Breit “is nothing but heart” in her estimation. “Jeff more than anyone else taught me to be true to myself and to figure out the best way for me to be a good lawyer. I could never be like him. I could never pull that off. But I could be just as effective if I could do it my own way, and that is a message he sent loud and clear.”

Her husband Arpan adds that Breit does not let obstacles get in the way of his goals. “He exemplifies that in the way he teaches, and in the way he lives his life. There are just no excuses with him,” he says. “That was an important lesson for me to learn as a lawyer.”

Coach Breit and members of the 2016-17 National Trial Team

Justin Hoover J.D. ’11, Brianna Coakley J.D. ‘11 and Richard Clausi J.D. ’12 were teammates, and now all three are Assistant State Attorneys for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, one of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s offices.

Hoover describes an exercise that Breit uses early in the semester. Each student is invited to tell a story from his or her own life. Breit then splits the students into pairs and tasks each person with retelling their partner’s story.

Hoover was paired with Amanda Ritucci J.D. ‘11, who now practices at Wicker Smith O’Hara McCoy & Ford in West Palm Beach. Ritucci’s story was earnestly told and moving, and Hoover found it difficult to recount to the class. “I had never been the kind of person who talks about emotions to people that I didn’t know,” he says. (It was a fortuitous pairing—the two are now married.)

In his work as a prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit, Hoover handles sexual offenses and crimes against children. In 2016 he took on a case involving horrific abuse.  While giving the closing statement, “it might not have been outwardly apparent, but I actually felt myself becoming emotional,” he says. As he looked at the jury, he knew his words were resonating with them. “I could see in their faces that they were connected, and they were engaged, and they were absorbing the victims’ story,” he recalls. Having the ability to convey that kind of passion, he says, is essential when it comes to jury trials. “That was not me before Jeff Breit. That was definitely not me,” he says. “Jeff gave me that ability.”