Like anyone who has achieved mastery in his or her field, attorney John Conard makes trial advocacy look like poetry in motion. His art is trial story, and like all good storytellers, Conard believes that a well-crafted narrative matters. It is the essence of trial practice, the substance from which persuasion and victory are born.
“What I do is a craft, and I spend a ton of my time working on it,” he said. “It’s not about manipulation; it’s about crafting clear, persuasive communication that works in the limited time frame and limited environment of a trial.”
A preeminent trial lawyer in white collar and criminal defense practice, Conard is a board certified criminal trial specialist and a nationally recognized authority on the use and examination of forensic evidence in trial and cross examination of expert witnesses. He holds a 10.0 Superb AVVO rating, and has achieved favorable results for clients in a number of high-stakes matters, including conspiracy, drug crimes, felony assault, sex crimes, wire fraud, and even murder.
What I do is a craft, and I spend a ton of my time working on it.”
Conard honed the art of trial advocacy at the feet of the master — Gerry Spence. Since 2015, Conard has worked as one of the elite instructors at the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyer’s College. He is among the few faculty members selected by Jude Basile and Spence personally. He described Spence as a someone who can “be real in a way few can. I had a tough loss once. He sat with me just to be kind, and talked me through it. With the ecosystem of prominent lawyers around him and all the people who want a piece of his time, he spent hours with me, a nobody, because I was emotionally devastated by the loss of a trial. That’s who he is.”
For Conard, the law was a second career, although not an afterthought. He explained, “There were two things I wanted to do in life: race cars and become a lawyer. You have to race while you’re young, so I did that. I also had a good job selling large tech contracts to C-suite clients. I met some cool people and saw some cool things — all good stories to tell when I retire.”
In seventh grade, Conard participated in a mock trial program under the direction of his first mentor, the Honorable Mike Moon. His interest in law and order was no doubt a relief to his parents, as he was a restless youth. He went on to receive a scholarship to Central College in Iowa, where Dr. Donald Racheter had founded the American Mock Trial Association, and where Conard became the first student from the institution to win the National Attorney Award. Finally, at 30, Conard set about earning his law degree at William Mitchell College of Law, where he graduated summa cum laude, third in his class.
Conard spent time as a public defender, county prosecutor and partner in a prominent law firm, but finally decided that he was born to fly solo.
“Everywhere I’ve gone,” he said, “I’ve been surrounded by great people who had something I could learn.”
Between Conard’s remarkable repertoire of skills and his individualist practice model, he is also in high demand as a trial consultant.
“A lot of lawyers don’t get to trial that often, or they have a settlement practice. People call and ask if I can help them with a voir dire or with crafting the trial story they need to tell, whether it is to get an acquittal or maximize damages.”
I’d say that most of us are capable of all the things we accuse others of doing, given the right circumstances. I like standing next to the guy or gal everyone has decided they’re going to hate, this human being we’ve all promised to give dignity and justice. They’re going to have to come through me first. I like that.”
When asked why criminal law so inspires him, he said, “I’d say that most of us are capable of all the things we accuse others of doing, given the right circumstances. I like standing next to the guy or gal everyone has decided they’re going to hate, this human being we’ve all promised to give dignity and justice. They’re going to have to come through me first. I like that. I also do a lot of consuming plaintiff contingency work, and I enjoy that too. A lot of the power dynamics are the same.”
THINKING LIKE A TRIAL ARTIST
A student of narrative form, cognitive neuroscience and messaging research, Conard says that true trial lawyers need to change the way they think about their work.
“Even lawyers don’t think the way lawyers think. As humans, we make decisions intuitively and backfill with reason. There is a gap between what we perceive and the way we come to believe things are true. The trial itself is a living thing on its own. It is cultivated. As a lawyer, you give birth to it, raise it and put it to bed. You feel the tuning fork go off when you get it right.”
According to Conard, “Brevity both honors your audience and your subject.” He takes a less-is-more approach in the courtroom, stating that “the real art of trial is getting rid of facts. Even great facts that don’t move the story forward must be sacrificed. You must leave room for the jury to connect the dots for themselves.”
By way of example, a favorite teaching piece he often uses is the Norman Maclean short story, “A River Runs Through It.”
“In my opinion, it is vivid and luscious, with not a single wasted word. It’s dense and rich, but it’s all for the audience. It’s perfect. In trial, you have a story, a narrative and a counter narrative that you’re framing, reframing and counter framing. When you learn about all that stuff, it’s like a shiny new toy, and it’s easy to forget that it’s all designed to suit one purpose: to give our decision makers what they need to do the thing they need to do, that we need them to do.”
Conard prepares comprehensively so that he can “teach” a jury. The role of teacher in trial requires earned credibility. “Once I learn a case fully, often taking thousands of hours, I think about how I’m going to explain it in less than 100 hours of jury attention by having a conversation with somebody else in front of them. Jurors learn intuitively and often by attaching new information to old threads. There is rigorous academic work being done right now in the marketing and education sectors on how people come to believe things, how they support a decision. Being a trial lawyer is all about how to help jurors as they reach the decision they have to reach. What do they need to know to get it right?”
He added, “I assume that jurors are honest, sincere and committed. After many dozens of trials, I have not yet met a jury that does not absolutely care about getting it right. They desperately want to do the right thing. If I have a criticism of our legal culture, it’s lawyers who say, ‘Stupid jury this,’ and, ‘Stupid jury that.’ I think that’s just an excuse for losing, and I don’t allow that energy inside me.”
Another element of Conard’s trial art is his genius for assembling ace legal teams. Through the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyer’s College, he has access to some of the profession’s greatest talent, much of which he says comes from small or solo firms. “I don’t have a problem building teams ad hoc, and there is a freshness and excitement about it. When you bring a new team together, everybody is very intentional about the choices they make. I’ve had good luck so far.”
Conard’s good luck is evident in the power lineup he recruited for defense of former Starkey Laboratories President Jerry Ruzicka in one of the biggest white-collar trials of the last decade. The Starkey team included more than half a dozen lawyers and professionals who worked together over a period of two years, from California to New York, with stops in Baton Rouge and points between. “When you put together a team for this game, you do it with the knowledge that the client only gets this one game. I need at least one member on my team to be as different from me as I can find. I need someone with experience I don’t have, to make sure we identify the blind spots. Once we have the right people in place, everybody knows their role. There’s no supplemental auditioning — the focus is on the client.”
Once we have the right people in place, everybody knows their role. There’s no supplemental auditioning — the focus is on the client.”
Another interesting insight about Conard: When the Starkey trial was over and most of the lawyers moved on to their next cases, he took the summer off to volunteer, teach and meditate from select mountaintops across Montana, Wyoming and Utah. He says that cultivating interests outside the law and centering himself as a person is vital to his efficacy in courtroom. He meditates daily.
“After Starkey, I was tired. I was worn out. I make sure that no one ever walks into the courtroom more prepared than me, and I’m never up against opposing counsel who knows more about the story that will be told. So I need the other stuff I do in life to clear the slate so I can come back whole, centered and present.”
The truth is, nobody is harder on Conard than Conard. After every case, he dedicates time to self-reflection that he terms both unforgiving and precise. “I analyze everything brutally even when I win. The hardest part for me is when I have to look clear-eyed at mistakes I made that somebody else has to pay for. I’ve made mistakes and thought later that I wished I had been a better attorney in that moment than the one who showed up. I work hard to stay honest about the work, so I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
What is one word Conard would use to describe himself? Invested. “I am one of the lucky few who do the work they feel is their calling. I have found home.”
One thing you can say for sure about Conard is that he is the protagonist of his own life. He is eager, intrepid, yet thoughtful about his engagement with the world and the people in it. As his literary hero Norman Maclean wrote, “… life every now and then becomes literature … as if life had been made and not happened.”