I am trying to come to grips with the fact that it has been almost 48 years since I graduated from high school and nearly 40 years since I graduated from law school. I have been blessed to be a partner in two of the best law firms in Independence and have had what many would consider to be a successful career.
My main interest coming out of law school was municipal law and I served the city of Sugar Creek for 35 years. Coming out of law school in December 1979 I never thought I would be a trial lawyer. I had interest in municipal law, but I did not want to make that a career.
I kind of fell into trial practice in my old firm. I remember sitting in my office at 311 W. Kansas Ave., wondering as a young lawyer what I was going to do and so I just began doing whatever I could get my hands on. I handled a couple of divorces and quickly realized that was not my calling as I was arguing over who would get a wooden duck in one case. I offered to buy one, so they would quit arguing.
I did a bankruptcy for a friend and found that to be too much paperwork. I also handled some municipal court cases and tried a couple of cases until Bob Welch found out and suggested that I should probably find something else to do because he was handling those cases.
After a short period of time, the senior partners thought I should join the trial team and begin handling personal-injury cases. I helped one of the senior partners with his cases. One of my assignments was to find people who had lost part or all of a foot in lawn mower accidents involving a particular kind of riding lawn mower. This particular mower had no brake, and in order to get it to stop you would just throw it into reverse. The problem was that when you did that, sometimes the front of the mower would rise up and then throw off the operator.
It had no safety on it as mowers now have and so if the rider, dumped from the mower, was in the way, the mower would start cutting body parts. Our client lost part of a foot. My boss wanted me to get three or four other witnesses who had similar experience because he wanted to present that evidence to a jury with the hope that he could recover punitive damages. I found three witnesses who testified, and the jury awarded a substantial amount of money, including punitive damages. He later settled the case and tried to blame me for the lower settlement because I had not found enough witnesses. I did what he asked and so it always bothered me that he tried to blame me.
On another case, he asked me to go to Joplin to take the deposition – my first one – of a critical witness in a wrongful death in which our client’s husband was killed when he ran into a truck parked in the middle of the road on an unlit street without any tail lights. I remember going into his office to ask him for some guidance, and he told me that I needed to learn how to take a deposition so I should just look at the police report and go do it. It worked out well and the witness testified at trial, so throwing me into the fire worked out well. I have taken over 1,000 depositions since that first one.
My old boss had a lot of wisdom, but I would not call our relationship a close one. He had been a lawyer for an insurance company earlier in his career and was recruited by my old firm to lead our litigation department. He was a skillful trial attorney because he had tried many cases. He had a good presence in the courtroom, so he did well.
He taught me two lessons that I draw upon over 35 years later. First, he encouraged me to work on bigger cases. He asked me one day that if there was a field full of money and you had a limited time to pick up the money, would you spend more time picking up the $50 and $100 bills or the $5 and $1 bills.
The second lesson he taught me was when I approached him one day on how to handle a problem in one of my cases. He told me that I did not have a problem, but an opportunity. He counseled me to quit thinking about my issue as a problem and to start thinking about it as an opportunity. I wish I could say that I always live by that advice, but it has been useful at many times in my life even outside of my law practice.
When I entered law school I was not the smartest person in my class. Only a handful of my classmates had lower scores on the entrance exam. I remember walking to class each day thinking about the challenges of competing with brighter people. I had been a lazy student in college and I had to flee from my laziness like it was a rabid dog.
I finished in the top tier of my class, and I think law school taught me that there is no substitute for hard work. I spent long hours studying and preparing for exams.
To a certain extent, I am still doing that today. I am not ready to retire because I am having too much fun. Yet, it sure is fun to think about how far I have traveled and that I have miles to go before I sleep.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.