MUSINGS ABOUT BEING A TRIAL LAWYER

Poulsbo is a quaint town of about 9500 people and a drive of about one hour and a half from Seattle. It’s a Scandinavian seaport fishing town located right on the salt water.

In 1983 I received the “Small Town Lawyer Made Good” award from the Poulsbo Bar Association. The award was the brainchild of  Paulsbo lawyer Jeff Tolman. As I recall, the Poulsbo Bar Association had approximately 13 members at the time. However, Jeff had created this award and then was successful in talking some nationally known people to travel to Poulsbo to receive the award and participate in the daylong seminar as well. The guests who agreed to show up included several members of the United States Supreme Court, Gerry Spence and local lesser-known lawyers like me. Lawyers came from all over the state to attend the seminar and listen to the person Jeff had induced to come to Poulsbo.

I bring this up because it represents to me a picture of what a lawyer should represent.  Here was this creative  lawyer  in a small  town  who  managed to  establish  a seminar  involving  some  prominent  people  who were willing to travel  in some cases a great distance  to participate  in  a gathering of  other lawyers . Everyone had a good time and it was educational as well. He had done some important good work for the community and the bar. So, I got to thinking about lawyers and what they should be like. Here are some rambling thoughts.

Some years ago there was an article in the Alaska Bar newsletter written by an Alaska lawyer about why he became a lawyer.  He said that his father was a lawyer and that he would, on occasion, go to court to watch his father. One time he was there during a trial against another lawyer who was disliked by his father and the feeling was mutual.  The other lawyer had cross-examined a witness and as he came back to counsel he leaned over and said to his father in a stage whisper:  “How did you like that, you little pissant.”  His father reached up, grabbed his opponent by the necktie, pulled him to the table and the two of them begin rolling around on the floor while the judge was banging his gavel.  He said: “That’s when I knew I wanted to become a lawyer.”

One description of the role of a lawyer is to: “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”  Some people see the role of the lawyer like the story about W. C. Fields, the famous comedian of the 1930s who was a well-known atheist.  One day someone saw him reading the Bible and asked him why he was reading the Bible.  He said: “looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes!”

Many years ago I participated in seminars about law office management with a number of lawyers from around the country.  One of them was Harris Morgan from Greensville Texas. Harris spoke about attorney fees. The story he would tell was that his father was a lawyer and that as a young man he would work at his office.  He would overhear his father talk to clients about the fee. He said his father would tell the client: “Mrs. Smith I’m so delighted that you have enough confidence in me to hire me as your lawyer.  I intend to do the very best I possibly can for you. However, there is one thing you should know about my limitations.  I can only concentrate on one thing at time.  Therefore, we need to talk about the fee so I won’t be distracted while I’m representing you.” Harris would use this story to emphasize that it was essential the lawyer brought the fee up first, had a clear understanding about the fee and costs and confirmed it in writing as well.

As to fees, the famous Texas criminal defense lawyer Percy Forman was fond of saying: “I never charged a client more than he had.”

One thing I do know about being a trial lawyer is that if you want to be loved, find another field of practice. It’s not your role to please other people, be loved by your opponent or the judge. It is your role to do the very best for your client you are capable of doing within the rules. As Harry Truman has said, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” If you want to be loved as a trial lawyer, buy a dog.

I realize there’s little here that is helpful, but I thought I’d pass it on anyway. Next time I’ll use something practical.

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One Response to MUSINGS ABOUT BEING A TRIAL LAWYER

  1. Max Kennerly says:

    I’d say it’s quite helpful. Given that much of our work boils down to a street fight over the course of years, any sort of inspiration is appreciated.

    Yesterday in a wrongful death case, I deposed the general manager of major facility for one of the largest corporations in the country (it’s in the top 10 on the Fortune 500), sitting as their corporate designee, the same person who signed their answer and discovery responses. Under questioning, he admitted that he had never seen the complaint, that he had signed the answer making detailed factual allegations without knowing what was in it (“I just signed what the lawyers gave me”), and that he had seen my request for documents attached to the notice and so had reviewed those documents before the deposition but had not brought them. He estimated that one set was about 8 pages — the same documents that the lawyers had objected to in my discovery requests as “overly broad, unduly burdensome, ambiguous, vague, blah blah blah.”

    Their conduct has been an offensive joke, nothing but pure obstructionism coming from both the lawyers and the client, and lies about everything from the facts they “knew” — i.e., lawyers made up, and corporate officers then claimed they personally knew were true — and what they had in their possession.

    It’s not supposed to be this way. This isn’t supposed to be what litigation’s about, it’s supposed to be about who is factually and legally right, not who can best hide the truth. More than half of our job as plaintiff’s lawyers should be superfluous, but it isn’t, because of the billions invested in building obstacles to the truth.

    But if it takes me a couple years and hundreds of hours of work to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable,” then so be it. Thanks for posting.

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