What does it mean to be sitting first chair at a trial?

By Jedidiah McKeehan

If you have ever watched a lawyer tv show or movie, at some point there was probably a court scene involving a lawyer sitting at a table during their trial. Sometimes the lawyer is sitting next to their client, sometimes the lawyer is sitting next to another attorney and sometimes the client is sitting between two attorneys.

In the lawyer world, we have names for the chairs in which people sit and with those names come a level of importance. When a lawyer is sitting “first chair” during a trial, they are the lead lawyer on the case. Candidly, ninety-five percent of the cases are only handled by a single attorney.

There may be times, when a case is big and important, or when a young lawyer is still learning, when there may be more than one lawyer working the case. When that occurs, the second lawyer is sitting “second chair” on the case. Some lawyers derisively call that person “the file carrier.” If there are any other lawyers on the case, they are “third chair,” “fourth chair,” etc.

How do you know who is the first chair lawyer? The lead lawyer is typically the one talking the most so they are likely sitting on the end of the table closest to the middle of the courtroom so they can stand up quickly and move to the podium.

Some examples you have probably seen of two lawyers or more on a case are:

“Law and Order” – there are almost always two prosecuting attorneys sitting at the table

“A Few Good Men” – there were actually three attorneys on this case for the defendants

The OJ trial – I think they were up to four or five attorneys on the case before it was all said and done

From a lawyer’s perspective, having a second chair lawyer to help on a case can be incredibly helpful. They can pull needed documents, they serve as a second set of ears and eyes to observe the demeanor and behavior of witnesses and jurors and they can even handle questioning of some of the witnesses.

Most cases will never need more than one lawyer working them at a time. However, the occasional case will need to be handled by someone sitting first chair with another lawyer helping from second chair.


Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  Visit attorney-knoxville.com for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.