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. But they feel it.
Stress. Fear. Doubt.
Your staff feels the stress building as a big trial approaches. But they never see the fear. Trial
lawyers don’t show fear. Not even to their staff. Frankly, it is a lonely place.
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. And not just the ones involved.
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 courtroom. 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.
Practice, focus groups, morning meetings. Only the start of the trial stops it.
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. It was understated.
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 anymore 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 company
client (that’s always the real client) it was about money. To me, it was about accountability and
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 juries.
I can’t lose that trial. I have to convince the jury to pull us both back from the abyss. That
young girl who will be a Doctor even though her dad died, will never know about the focus
groups, the morning meetings and the dry erase boards covered with lists.
Or the fear.
Trial lawyer. Now I know the price. I want to be that guy.