After I had been a lawyer for about 10 years, I started attending the national convention of the American Trial Lawyers Association.
After I had been a lawyer for about 10 years, I started attending the national convention of the American Trial Lawyers Association. The first one I ever attended was in Kansas City and I became an immediate convert. The meetings rotated from the Midwest to the east and west coasts, and we always went to nice places. On the east coast, it was always in either Washington or Boston, and on the west coast, it was always in San Diego or San Francisco. In the Midwest, it was more often than not in Chicago.
I always loved big cities and so the opportunity to spend a week in a big city learning the tricks of my trade was quite appealing. Some of my best friends today are trial lawyers I met at these annual conventions. Pepe Roskin and John Wallach from St. Louis, Roger Brown from Jefferson City, and the late Rich Miller and a number of others from Kansas City became close friends as a result of our experiences at the national meetings.
We took the meetings very seriously. The seminars started early in the morning and usually ended right before the dinner hour. The educational programs were usually very informative and quite entertaining. I especially enjoyed the demonstrations of closing arguments and opening statements by some of the best lawyers in the country. Sometimes, there would be 1,000 lawyers in the room and all eyes and ears were on the speaker. I learned a lot that helped my clients’ cases at those meetings. My former partners sometimes rightfully questioned the need to attend the meetings, but I was always able to show them how I made them money with knowledge I gained. I always returned energized; an energized lawyer is a profitable lawyer!
I learned a lot also. When I graduated from law school, I did not think I wanted to be a trial lawyer, but I quickly learned after attending these meetings that it was my calling. My former partner, now Judge Michael Manners, and I would usually attend the meetings together and room together. Some of my best memories as a lawyer are times I spent with Judge Manners at these meetings. Usually, a bunch of us would go to dinner, and the fellowship and kinship we developed at those dinners was incredible.
We would sometimes talk about our cases or what we had learned that particular day, but usually our conversations had nothing to do with the practice of law. Some of the states, such as Texas, had huge parties periodically with free food and beverage, so we would attend those parties as well.
Every once in a while we would get to hear Gerry Spence speak. I personally believe he is the best lawyer in the history of our country. He never lost a criminal case and represented some high profile people. Spence feared no one, or so it seemed. Yet, he would talk to us about fear. I can see him now writing the word “fear” on a big white board and telling us that he was scared to death most of the time when he was in front of a jury. None of us believed him because he was always at ease.
Yet, he inspired us to confront our fears, usually of failure, and to become the best lawyers we could be.
I still have an audiotape of one of his speeches, entitled “To Those Who Love Mother Earth.” In the speech, he covered a number of topics, but the general theme of the speech was to encourage us to take on environmental law cases, because corporate America was raping our country and we needed to do something about it. The speech is laced with profanity; Spence never cared much who he offended. Yet, it was one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever heard. He encouraged us to take time to be with our families, to bring balance to our lives, and to think creatively how we were going to represent our clients.
One of the lessons he taught us was to spend more time with our clients. He encouraged us to go our client’s homes and to have dinner with them in their own environment. I tried it shortly after his speech. I happened to be with an Italian Catholic family I represented on Ash Wednesday, a day that doesn’t have much meaning to this Southern Baptist, but was very important to this Catholic family. They invited me to join them at dinner and that night we bonded in a marvelous way.
I can honestly say that I was able to achieve a better result because I spent an evening with them finding out what life was like for them.
I developed a passion for them and undoubtedly worked harder for them because of my dinner experience. I would never have done this had I not gone to San Diego and listened to Gerry Spence.
Gerry Spence is now 80 years old and he quit trying cases after he represented Geoffrey Feiger, the former gubernatorial candidate in Michigan and the lawyer for Jack Kevorkian; Feiger was charged with illegally funneling money to John Edwards’presidential campaign fund and he was acquitted. Spence won the case and announced it was his last.
A lot of sadness accompanies the retirement of Gerry Spence. He still conducts a trial college in Jackson Hole, Wyoming every summer and has helped countless lawyers, including me, to become better lawyers.
I have not been to an ATLA convention for 10 years. The last few I attended were not the same. My friends quit attending and Judge Manners was no longer there, so it did not seem the same. The speakers were younger and frankly not very informative or inspiring. I should call up my friends and try to have a reunion this year. The meeting is in Vancouver in July. I might learn something and maybe Gerry Spence will be there.