A VIEW BACK OVER A LIFE TIME AS A TRIAL LAWYER

A VIEW BACK OVER A LIFE TIME AS A TRIAL LAWYER

I’m taking a personal privilege to share facts about my life as a trial lawyer in this post. That’s because, this month, God willing, I will have lived on this planet for eighty-six years. I was born in 1935 on the 21st day of February at the Anacortes Hospital. I was the third born to Mary Babarovich Luvera. My sisters Phyllis and Anita preceded me. My parents owned and operated a family grocery store on Commercial Avenue. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. A gallon of gas cost $.19 cents, a first-class stamp $.03 cents and movies cost $0.25 cents. I graduated in 1953 from Anacortes Highschool and attended the University of Washington on a basketball and football scholarship. I joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity, lettered in both sports and obtained acceptable grades.

My parents Paul & Mary Luvera. Mount Vernon Superior Courthouse 1959 on the day I was sworn in as a lawyer

That summer I again worked purse seining salmon in Alaska and the San Juan’s,  as I had each summer since junior high. But that  summer was a record Sockeye run and I was making a lot of money on the boat Welcome from Gig Harbor, so I skipped Fall football turnout. When I did come back to school, I was inspired by Father William Dooley at  Newman Club to test a vocation to the priesthood. I was able to transfer to St Martin’s College in Olympia for a seminary program where I finished the year. After deciding I wasn’t going to be a priest I enrolled in Gonzaga University night law school the following Fall. Classes were held from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm Monday through Friday.

Most of the students in night law school had jobs during the day while going to school at night and worked summer jobs as well. During my law school I had daytime work including parking cars  at the Ridpath Hotel in Spokane until I was hired by insurance defense lawyer Clare Turner to do legal research, office work and assist him on cases. It was a four year program which I generally enjoyed. Without a lot of ceremony our graduation took place in a movie theater in downtown Spokane on a Sunday morning. The twenty one members of the graduating class and our families gathered at the Fox movie theater where the graduation ceremony took place. On the theater stage we received our diplomas (written on large parchment paper in Latin with  a huge ribbon & seal).  All of us, that is, except the fellow sitting next to me. When he unrolled the paper, he found it was a blank page with note inside advising that until he paid a bill, owed to Gonzaga, he would not get his diploma.

I took the bar examination and passed. I was sworn in as a lawyer that Fall at the Skagit County courthouse in Mount Vernon.  Judges Charles Stafford and Art Ward presided. Alfred McBee presented me, and Robin Welts presented his son David. The state bar association was significantly smaller in 1959 when I became a lawyer. When we were admitted to the bar, there were only approximately 3600 lawyers in the whole state compared to the over 30,000 we have today. The bar office had only one executive secretary, instead of the enormous staff of today. Alice Ralls was the executive secretary of the Bar  Association. She had graduated from the University of Washington law school in 1931 and essentially constituted the entire paid staff of  the Washington State Bar Association.

I looked for a job with the lawyers in my hometown of Anacortes, but was told there were enough lawyers there already. I’ve always suspected it was my father who had his political friend Walter J. Deierlein, Jr. offer me a job as a part time deputy prosecutor for Skagit County. I was replacing Stanley K. Bruhn who went into private practice and joining the deputy Harry A. Follman. The interesting fact is that all three, Jack, Harry and Stan later became Superior Court judges.

Mrs. Cook was the only secretary in the prosecutor’s office. She was the secretary for all of us. Since under the law we all were all only part time prosecutors we all had a private practice in addition to our prosecutor’s duties. Mrs. Cook had been a legal secretary for years and was fully informed about prosecution work as well as civil practice. In fact, recognizing I was a new and inexperienced lawyer, no matter what I dictated she would type what she believed was the correct dictation and would totally ignore what I had dictated. I quickly learned to accept the fact she knew a lot more than I did about  the practice of law.

 My primary role  was to prosecute cases in city municipal courts and Justice Court which handled minor violations and misdemeanors . I also assisted on cases in superior court. These justice courts no longer exist in Washington, but at that time the law did not require judges in these lower courts to be lawyers. In fact, there was only one lawyer judge serving in the county. As a result, I tried cases to judges who were not lawyers including one judge whose occupation was engine mechanic at a  car repair shop. The judges were paid a percentage of any fine assessed. As you might imagine conviction rates imposing a fine was very high in those courts. I also learned the value of simplicity and brevity.

We had no public defender in Skagit County, but we did have John Brisky. In middle age,  John had clerked his way to a law degree without ever going to law school. He had a generous spirit and represented many defendants in criminal cases both in Justice court as well as Superior court primarily because he was willing to accept a small down payment and a promissory note for the balance. As you might imagine, he rarely was paid for the promissory note balance. In these lower courts, the judge would call out the names of defendants as their cases came up, I’d watch John finger his way through a stack of promissory notes in his coat pocket and if he found a name, he would respond that he was the attorney for the defendant. That seemed to be the extent of his pretrial preparation for the case.

Before I was hired no one from the prosecutor’s office appeared in the justice courts regularly. As a result, the custom had developed of allowing  the arresting law enforcement officers to prosecute their own cases. Law enforcement officers would make a brief opening statement, testify, cross examine and sum up the case. Some became rather sophisticated. In one of my first prosecutions fisheries officer William Gufler poked me in the side and whispered: “object – hearsay.”

Judge Charles Stafford and Art Ward were the two Superior court judges in Skagit County. Both played a significant role in my continuing education as trial lawyer. Judge Stafford was a student of the law. He was the first judge to ever serve on all three court levels of Superior court, Appellate court and Supreme court. Judge Ward was a very bright lawyer who had been a plaintiff’s trial lawyer for many years in Sedro Woolley. Both judges considered it part of their responsibility as a judge to educate lawyers who appeared before them. Judge Stafford required legal briefs on every conceivable issue in the case and was a stickler about rules of evidence. Judge Ward had little patience for poor trial tactics and unprepared lawyers. Neither were reluctant to point out during the trial their dissatisfaction with the work or the conduct of lawyers who appeared before them. In addition, as part of their educational process, if you asked, and sometimes even if you didn’t ask, they would advise lawyers about proper trial procedure or trial tactics during recess or after court.

There was an open and friendly relationship between lawyers and judges. In fact, lawyers would often wait for the jury verdict with the judge in his chambers in the old courthouse building. When you heard sounds of toilets continuously start flushing in the next-door jury room, through the wall, you knew  the jury had a verdict. 

When I started the practice of law, lawyers in the county were always ready to help young lawyers. For example, Ruben Youngquist had the largest probate practice in the county. When I had a question about probate, I went to Reuben who would open one of his metal filing cabinets, search around and pull out a file which he would hand to me and say: “Here, follow this file and copy the forms.” Then he would carefully explain what I needed to do. George McIntosh was an outstanding lawyer and a great defense attorney with his low-key down to earth approach. He had a great skill of simplifying and organizing. He taught me the benefits of a three-ring notebook with dividers and notebook paper long before lawyers were advised to use a trial notebook. Another example of the relationship between lawyers involved Clyde Fowler who was a local lawyer who had had an office in the same building. He once was my ghost writer in a successful negotiation. I had a plaintiff’s case against an experienced defense lawyer I was trying to settle through correspondence but without success. I asked Clyde for assistance. Clyde advised me what to write and how to respond. As a result, the negotiations ended favorably for my client. The Seattle defense lawyer never found out who was the real brains behind the skillful negotiation.

I don’t think I ever missed an opportunity to spend some  time watching jury  trials in Mount Vernon whenever an out-of-town lawyer was involved. I watched some of the leading lawyers from around the state try cases in the Mount Vernon courthouse. Many of them were willing to discuss trial with a young lawyer during the noon recess or after court. The trial judge was always willing to give advice after court as well. I remember one trial when a Seattle lawyer found out that a prospective juror was a distant relative of his opponent, Mount Vernon lawyer Alfred McBee. He asked the juror  if he thought that fact  might influence the juror. The juror said “Well, I should hate to see Alfred lose.” Robin Welts was one of the finest trial lawyers I observed in trial. He did both plaintiff and defense work as well as maintaining a general practice. Most lawyers had a very general practice in our county. Robin was an exceptional trial lawyer who was always willing to give advice and help. Both he and McBee also were elected president of the Washington State Bar Association from Mount Vernon.

After three years in the Skagit County Prosecutors office I left to join Harwood (Bill) Bannister and Stanly Bruhn in a partnership in Mount Vernon, Bannister, Bruhn & Luvera. Our general practice continued for several good years after which I left to open a sole practice in town. I practiced alone for some time until I added associates. Gil Mullen, who later became a superior court judge, David Benninger, who is still in the firm today and my wife of over forty years, Lita Barnett. I also had the invaluable assistance of my friend Bob Davis whom I hired as my investigator, but who was more of a teammate with me in the practice. After his retirement Nick Petrish, a childhood friend took his place. Both had backgrounds as insurance adustors.

As the practice grew I added associates, Ralph Brindley, Joel Cunningham and later Robert Gellatly. We opened a Seattle office and added associates over time, Patti Anderson, Debra Martin, Andrew Hoyal and John Gagliardi. We limited the practice to plaintiff damage cases. The Seattle office of the Luvera Law Firm became the central office. As a result, Lita and I moved from Mount Vernon to Gig Harbor, where we live today, to be closer. Lita and I retired in 2014, but the Luvera Law Firm is actively functioning today.

One of my most fortunate breaks in learning how to try cases was when I was associated as local counsel by Seattle lawyer Hugh Miracle and his partner Howard Pruzan. Carabba v Anacortes School District 72 Wn 2nd 939 (1967). A young wrester had a broken neck during a match. Thirty-eight witnesses during twenty days of trial. A record for the time. The case was defended by Robin Welts, Tom Lee, and Earle Zinn, all outstanding lawyers  and other outstanding lawyers. Stan Soderland, a former outstanding plaintiff’s lawyer was the judge. I sat there daily getting a legal education about trial work that was unique. Plus, the judge and lawyers were willing to talk to me after court and answer questions that were appropriate for learning. I kept a journal and even photographed exhibits with notes about using them. I am thankful for that early experience from which I learned so much about trials.

The practice at that time was significantly different that today. When I began the practice of law, we used code pleading – not notice pleading which we use today. The difference is that code pleading was very technical and the motion practice challenging the complaint wording as mistakes were often fatal resulting in a dismissal of the case. One had to be careful about the wording of a complaint and all pleading.

It was standard practice for defendants to file a “demurrer” to a complaint which was a motion alleging such a technical failure to plead correctly and to dismiss the complaint. There were no interrogatories, but you could file a “bill of particulars” which allowed a very limited inquiry for more information than was in the complaint. There was no disclosure of  the name of witnesses to be called at trial. Depositions were limited to parties primarily. There were no expert depositions or disclosures. Trial by ambush was the normal way cases proceeded. A trial was a series of surprises. You didn’t know who was going to be called or what they were going to say until they were testifying. You didn’t know what the defenses were other than what was in the pleadings. You  had to be quick witted as well as listening intently.

As a result lawyers had to investigate cases and often used investigators to find witnesses and spy on the other side. It was not unheard of to have some lawyers pay for a witness to go on a trip before trial so the opponent couldn’t find them. One plaintiff’s firm in Sedro Woolley was known for having an eyewitness to every accident who was always the same man who just happened to be walking by or driving by etc. Lawyers who couldn’t quote scripture, Shakespeare, poetry or great literature in argument were not regarded as trial lawyers. There were no time limitations for jury selection or anything else and there were no jury  trials in the summer which is when plaintiff’s lawyers went on vacation. There was no television, and the courtroom would have many people attending trials just for the entertainment. All objections were speeches to the jury with drama.

In these before television and computers, when radio and movies were the chief entertainment,  people would come to watch significant trials as a form of entertainment. Oratory was required. The whole pace was slower. Things were simpler. It was a very different era then today. Jury trials, in general were shorter then today. A two-to-three-day jury trial was common, and some lawyers would try several cases a month. I tried many dozens of jury and bench trials during that period. In addition, the amounts involved were significantly less. A common auto policy was the “nickel and dime” policy of $5,000 per person and $10,000 per occurrence which was considered more than adequate coverage. There were no million-dollar verdicts. In fact, when Melvin Belli achieved a $100,000 jury  verdict in California it was national news as a record verdict.

I’m thankful that I started out as a lawyer during this time. The stress level was high, but the consequences far less significant financially. A time of fewer lawyers, closer relationships and virtually no specialties in law. It was a time before advertising lawyers looking for work, a time where the usual consequences of cases was not an overriding concern and the relationship between judges and lawyers was much more casual as well as friendly. I am thankful for all the lawyers and judges who help educate me and the clients who entrusted me with their lives.

2 thoughts on “A VIEW BACK OVER A LIFE TIME AS A TRIAL LAWYER

  1. You have given so much more to life, and the profession than you have taken. That’s the highest compliment a trial lawyer can receive in my opinion. Thank you for sharing this.

    Continue enjoying life and educating us.

    Michael

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