The Courage to Try the Case

Trial Excellence: Volume 9, Number 5, May 1997

Question: Tell me a little about your background, how long you've been doing what you're doing.

Answer:   I went to the University of Colorado Law School and graduated in 1975. I became interested in trial practice while I was in law school and did some freelance clerking with a trial lawyer in Denver. I was asking myself, "What's law school all about? What's the point of this?" Then when I wound up doing some work with him, the light bulb came on and I said, "Oh, this is why I'm going to law school. I love this stuff."

He was doing cutting-edge product liability work. I remember one case in particular where I got involved and basically helped deal with the client and run errands during the trial. It was a very sad case involving a young man who had lost his hand in a large paper-roller machine. The lawyer told me it was a tough case because he was basing it on what were then new theories in Colorado of strict liability. I was just completely fascinated by the prospect that you could actually help injured people with your trial work.

Question: In terms of learning how to do trials, it sounds to me like you've had a little bit of mentoring but basically learned it on your own.

Answer: Well, I spent a lot of time and a lot of effort going to seminars and various trial lawyers schools. For example, I attended both the basic and the advanced National Institute for Trial Advocacy courses and actually wound up being an instructor for a number of years in the Denver Regional NITA Program. I attended numerous ATLA Seminars and over the years have continued my association with ATLA by being an instructor in the National College of Advocacy.

I went to a fine school at the University of Wyoming called the Western Trial Advocacy Institute, that had a lot of really good lawyers on the faculty. I did have a hero mentor - a fine lawyer from San Francisco who did some cases with me in Wyoming. I stayed in touch with him and frequently called him and ask him for advice on tactics and so forth. And over the years I've worked with a lot of fine lawyers and I am not the least bit hesitant to call them and ask them for advice and suggestions about tactics. So while I haven't had a direct mentor in my office, I haven't been shy about using people as mentors.

Question: What were some of the early lessons you learned stepping in front of a jury?

Answer: The earliest lesson I ever learned was: Do the field work. Go to the scene. I learned I needed to get out of my office. Cases are not won in the office. They are won out in the field with thorough investigation. They're won with meeting the people who are witnesses and getting a thorough understanding of the case. For example, in a wrongful death case, I need to know who the person was and what he or she meant to the family. That's something you're not going to learn from any interview in the office. I go to the house.

I have a picture on my wall of a lawyer named Gus Kolius. Gus Kolius is on my wall because he said to a friend of mine, who passed it along to me, "You don't win cases in the office." So I have this picture on my wall by the light switch. I see it on my way out the door every night. It reminds me to get out there, meet the people, figure out the case, learned the facts firsthand.

Question: How about the differences between picking a jury 20 years ago as opposed to today? Do you notice any marked differences in the attitudes of jurors?

Answer: Absolutely. Jurors are hostile now to the claims of injured people. Some of them are almost bitter. many of them do their best to try to get seated on the jury so they can affect the verdict. So I spend a far amount of time trying to bring that information out, and then weed out those people on challenges for cause, or use my preemptories if I have to.