Litigating on Opposite Sides of the Courtroom

Back to Career Services News

Colgate parents Matthew Myers P’24, a criminal defense attorney, and Brenda Fischer P’24, former chief of the Cybercrime and Identity Theft Bureau of the New York County District Attorney’s Office, led a virtual discussion on March 18, 2021, to offer advice to students exploring legal careers. Made possible through the John A. Golden Fellowship, the webinar allowed students to acquire insight into both sides of the courtroom. 

A prosecutor for 23 years, Fischer described her experience as dynamic. “It was so exciting right out of law school,” she said. “I was in the courtroom within a week and [gained] on-the-job learning from others who were supervising me. Every day was different — every case was different, every experience was different.” 

Photo of Brenda Fischer and Matthew Myers

Myers’ career started in the public defender’s office. He worked his way through 50–70 felony trials before entering private practice for the past 20 years. “I have handled a whole host of different kinds of crimes,” he said. “I’ve represented everybody from cartel members from Colombia to some kids who obstructed the government in the Boston bombing to rapes and murders in the five boroughs.” 

Fischer and Myers spent time detailing the differences in their careers. “As a prosecutor, you do a lot of work in the courtroom but you do a lot of work outside the courtroom, too,” Fischer said. “In preparation for your cases, you’re researching, you’re writing, you’re interviewing witnesses, you’re speaking with police officers. During the 9–5 hours, you’re generally in court in an all-purpose role where you’re filing motions and making small arguments. At the end of the day, you go back to your office and that’s when you get to work on your own cases.”

The process of cross-examination exemplifies the varying skill sets required, Myers pointed out. “Prosecutors don’t experience a lot of times when they have to attack a witness,” he said. “They are more or less orchestrating a presentation to try and get the witness found guilty. The defense is trying to undermine that.” 

According to Myers, serving as a criminal defense attorney entails visiting jails, interviewing witnesses, and sending out investigators. “This may come as a surprise, but most of what the defense attorney does comes down to negotiating a case down,” he said. “If I have a first-time offender, I handle the case a lot differently than I would if I had a 4-time offender.”

Fischer explored the truth behind commonly perpetuated myths about legal careers. “All of the skills necessary for a career in litigation can be learned,” she noted. “You might not be as comfortable as the next person in a certain scenario — courtroom is nerve-wracking, the stakes are pretty high — but you can learn.”

Fischer explained the importance of a flexible mindset, both in and out of the courtroom. “You have to be able to pivot,” she noted. “There’s no situation that turns out the way you expected. No matter how much preparation you have done, no trial unfolds the way you think it’s going to.” 

Both Myers and Fischer emphasized the value of attending law school. “It’s an amazing learning experience even if you come out on the other end and don’t feel like practicing as a lawyer,” Fischer said. “The skills that you learn are important and can be used in many different careers.”

For Myers, law school presented the opportunity to gain a new mode of thinking. “The three years of law school really teaches you to be much more of an organized analyst,” he said. “You learn not only hyper-alertness but critical hearing — to listen with a different ear.”

Myers also recommended law school to those who may not wish to pursue a career revolving around the courtroom. “There are a vast array of professions within law that don’t mandate you go to court or be skillful on your feet or be a great public speaker,” he said. “I know there are great writers at Colgate who may be thinking, ‘I can’t do the stuff I see lawyers do on TV.’ You could absolutely be a phenomenal lawyer and never see the inside of a courtroom. Don’t pigeonhole your thinking. You could be the finest corporate lawyer in the world and you’d never have to stand up in a courtroom in front of a jury.” 

Near the conclusion of the webinar, Myers compared trial lawyering to storytelling. “How do you tell a story when you’re cross-examining, or when the prosecutor’s directly examining their witness?” he said. “If you’re a good storyteller, you can weave a good story through a trial and defeat the other person’s case.”