When I was young, Perry Mason was the hit show on television. A criminal defense attorney, court scenes, cross examination, the truth. Trial lawyer. I wanted to be that guy.
But no television show can ever convey the real price of a serious trial. And trial lawyers never really talk about it. They feel it.
Stress. Fear. Doubt.
The trial where many more lives than just your client will irretrievably be altered. The one where the consequences will reshape the path of generations.
The trial where future victims, you will never know or even hear about, suffer if you don’t force a policy change to stop it now.
The tentacles of disaster reach long and deep.
Serious trials change many lives. Forever.
I never escape these cases. At the gym I text my staff right from the bike. On vacation they are there. At night they wake me up. Or they keep me from sleep. My office is huge dry erase boards and flip charts full of thoughts and strategies that start appearing 2 years before I walk into the court room. I think about the next trial every hour of every day. Starting about 4 months out. Before that I think about it every other day.
When I was a new lawyer, I was listening to a lecture about trial preparation and the speaker said you never stop thinking about your trial. I thought that comment was seriously exaggerated. It wasn’t.
Sometimes the image, seen from above, of a person dangling off a bridge with one hand gripped around their wrist to keep them from falling into the abyss comes to my mind. I don’t know when or from where that image first came to me, but now that it is here I can’t shake it.
It is my hand. It scares the hell out of me.
Thirty years ago I was defending a young mother accused of murder in St. Louis
County. The family ran out of money before they had paid for half of the first trial. But I stayed on. Three trials, sequestered juries, 6 days each. The first jury hung at 11-1 for not guilty. The next jury hung at 7-5 for not guilty. The third jury convicted her. She spent 20 years in jail and her daughter grew up without her.
I remain convinced she was innocent. But I was not good enough. By one juror.
My hand slipped off her wrist and that whole family fell into the abyss.
I don’t do criminal defense any more but I still replay those trials in my head, picking apart what I could have done differently 30 years ago.
The wins fade to the point you don’t even remember the names. The losses always happened last week.
Nowadays I have gone back to my roots as a prosecutor. I have gone back to protecting the community. It’s what I know. It’s how I cut my teeth as a young lawyer. But the stress and fear are worse. More money and more lawyers on the other side in a serious civil trial. I once had ten lawyers from three different law firms sitting across from me. To their insurance client it was about money. To me it was about accountability and change.
Today it is no longer the young mother charged with murder. It is the girl who would have been a doctor but never made it out of high school because her family disintegrated when her dad died in a work accident and her mom couldn’t do it without the extra income. It is the 20 year old shot to death, who could have been a college quarterback. Instead he was out on the street when both parents died in the truck wreck. He leaves behind a 2 year old son. The tentacles of disaster don’t skip generations.
When will these stories be written? When I lose their trial.
But now I realize there are two hands on that wrist. Mine. And the jury’s.
I can’t lose that trial. I have to convince the jury to pull us both back from the abyss. That young Doctor will never know how close to the edge she was.
Trial lawyer. Now I know the price. I want to be that guy.