By LARRY KANTER
There are lawyers, and then there are trial lawyers. Pete Williams is definitely one of the latter.
Rifling through an untidy stack of documents in his office at the downtown Long Beach firm of Taubman Simpson Young & Solentor, Williams runs through his caseload for the weeks ahead. It is all over the map: There's a federal racketeering case, a civil rights case, a wrongful termination suit, a couple of environmental matters, and an appeal on a contested will.
"I'm kind of the garbage man around here," he says. "When it's time to try the case, they give it to me."
He's particularly looking forward to a hearing in a pending civil dispute between two dentists. "That's going to be fun," he says gleefully. "I'm going to pluck my opponent's feathers."
With his booming voice, raucous sense of humor and folksy, down-home demeanor, Williams could almost pass as a character in a prime-time legal drama. In that regard, he is not much different from many trial attorneys, who tend to be the most flamboyant personalities in the legal profession.
"I definitely see a difference in the personality type that is attracted to trial work as opposed to appellate or corporate work," said Gerald Uelman, a professor at Santa Clara University and perhaps the most anonymous member of O.J. Simpson's fabled "Dream Team." "The trial lawyers are much more extroverted. I think a lot of them are frustrated actors."
Williams, a 30-year veteran of more than 200 trials, figures if he wasn't a "trial guy" he'd be a cowboy, or maybe a caddy. He'd certainly never retreat to the office work that characterizes most jobs in the legal profession.
"I don't get excited drafting great leases or doing acquisitions and mergers. It could mean big bucks, but it doesn't excite me," he said. "But a good, hard-fought trial? That's fun win, lose, or draw."
Williams admits to employing the occasional theatrical flourish. "I like to use humor," he said. In fact, during the pre-trial voir dire process, he asks most prospective jurors if they would take his client less seriously if he cracked a joke or two during the proceedings. Those who might be so inclined are politely dismissed.
"Most good trial folks have a good sense of humor and know how to use it. It comes out at the right time," he said.
The courtroom, of course, has long been likened to a stage. And decades of legal dramas on television and in the movies have only reinforced that notion. But very few lawyers fewer than 10 percent, by most accounts ever spend much time in the courtroom arguing cases. Those who do end up in court learn fast that a sense of timing and a flair for the theatrical while never a substitute for a sound legal argument can be just as important in a pinch.
"There is a way to appeal to a jury in a purely performance sense your tone of voice, the way you dress, move, the eye contact you make, the words you choose all those things that have little to do with the rational appeal of what you are saying," said Al Moore, who teaches jury advocacy courses at UCLA Law School. "When you see someone who is good, you know it immediately. Same is true with someone who is awful. In between, it gets harder to tell."
Added Uelman: "It's fatal for a trial lawyer to be perceived as an actor. If the jury thinks it's a show, you instantly lose your credibility."
Perhaps for that reason, Moore is reluctant to prescribe a particular approach to his students. For some, a hard-charging, object-to-everything approach might be effective. Others do better with an aw-shucks country lawyer approach.
He advises young lawyers to adopt their own style, rather than try to emulate their heroes. Few if any attorneys, he reminds them, could pull off something as flamboyant as Johnnie L. Cochran's closing argument in the Simpson case, with its memorable refrain, "If the glove don't fit, you must acquit."
Nonetheless, Moore says that during mock trials, many of his students engage in the kind of mugging seldom seen outside of a Hollywood sound stage. "It's kind of painful to watch," he said. "We spend a significant amount of time unlearning what they've learned from television."
At the same time, most trial attorneys will admit that there are moments when their lives seem eerily like a TV show. Carolyn Kubota, a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Attorney's Office who now teaches at UCLA, has experienced such a feeling on several occasions.
One memorable moment occurred in 1993, when Kubota was trying Charles Knapp, former head of American Savings & Loan, who was charged with loan fraud. When the judge granted a motion by the defense to exclude a certain piece of evidence, Kubota and her associates asked for a postponement to allow them to confer with the U.S. Attorney. The request was denied, and a brief argument ensued. It ended when the judge ordered the bailiff to arrest the prosecutors.
"The marshals started over. We sat down and shut up and the trial proceeded and we didn't get arrested," Kubota said. "Meanwhile, there were (prospective) jurors in the box, being selected."
Despite the incident, she managed to win a conviction, and Knapp remains in prison today.
Trying a case "is very much a performance, and it's exhilarating," Kubota said. "But you have very little control over it."
Some litigators chafe at the comparison to theater. "I don't think it's necessary that a good trial attorney be a frustrated actor," said Royal Oakes, a partner at Barger & Wolen and legal analyst for KFWB-AM 980 who has more than two decades of experience as a business litigator. "The essential ingredient is communication skills, the ability to project honesty and credibility, and then follow it up with a rational and fair-sounding argument."
Still, Oakes admits that jurors often tend to focus on details that have little to do with the legal arguments being proffered. One oft-told story has it that some jurors spend time examining the attorneys' shoes.
"They figure that if he wears the same pair of shoes every day, he is from out of town," said Oakes. "Folks like home-town talent."
So does Oakes pay similar attention to his own footwear? "I haven't acted on that story in my own practice," he says with a laugh.
It's a silly story, but one with a powerful lesson, said Gregory Bordo, a civil litigator with Freeman, Freeman & Smiley who focuses on trust and estate disputes. Fresh out of law school, arguing his first cases before juries, Bordo developed an unconscious habit of buttoning and unbuttoning his suit jacket while talking. After one case, "a juror told me it drove her absolutely nuts," he said. "That can be the difference between getting a juror on the fence to go the way of your client, or not."
But Bordo, 33, said he often feels less like an actor than an advertising executive in the courtroom.
"You have to sell (an argument) in terms the jury can understand," he said. "You've got to make it bite-size, and get them to clue into most essential elements of case, because you have no control once they go into the jury room."
Such lack of control may be nerve-wracking, but it's also what makes trial work so exhilarating, attorneys say. Indeed, courtroom lawyers may be the only attorneys who profess to absolutely, positively love their jobs.
"There is nothing more exciting than arguing to a jury," said Michael J. Brennan, a longtime criminal defense attorney who teaches trial advocacy at USC. "I've done other types of work, but being a desk-bound attorney is pretty boring. I wouldn't practice any other kind of law."
Kubota is even more emphatic: "It's more fun than pretty much anything you do in a suit."
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