Even for a trial lawyer, Mike Alder is pugnacious. As he puts it, he has “destroyed,” “punched in the head,” “killed” and “kicked the crap out of” opposing attorneys in trial. It’s the kind of attitude that has made him, at the age of 44, a big name among the plaintiff’s bar, with a 10-attorney firm and major victories that include a $49 million verdict in a Ventura County personal injury case last year. In 2005, he became the youngest attorney to ever be named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles; today, he is the organization’s president. Lately, he has also found success litigating business cases on contingency, winning a $33 million verdict last year against Pentel of America Ltd. for intellectual property theft on behalf of El Segundo ad agency Concept Chaser Co. Inc. But attitude alone won’t get you very far. In his Beverly Hills offices, Alder sat down with the Business Journal to discuss the tricks of the trade, why he wears the same outfit during every trial and growing up in the South.
Question: Is it true that you have “groupies” – other attorneys who follow you around?Answer:
That’s extraordinarily embarrassing. I have a lot of people who have come to the trials and watch. I’ve got a couple of friends that have been to probably 25 trials of mine. You can call them groupies, yes.
They’re not following you around the courthouse too, are they?
Oh, yeah. I’ll invite whoever’s there to come with me and buy them lunch. I was trying a case last year up in Ventura and somehow the word got out I was doing closing arguments and there were 125 people in the courtroom. It’s empowering but you gotta perform. They’re either going to go back and say you were awesome or you were terrible. You better be good.
What makes you a successful trial attorney?
I’m a fast thinker. I have an aptitude for cross-examination. I love collecting good cross-examinations and reading them and calling the guy and saying, “Dude, that was awesome!”
You’re good at getting people to tell you things they don’t want to, then.
This morning I took a deposition. I talked to my associate; I said, “What do we need to win this case?” He said, “You need to get this guy to admit X, Y and Z.” By the end of the depo I had him admitting X, Y and Z.
Is there a secret to it?
It’s not just about asking the question, it’s about setting up the deposition, about gaining this person’s trust, about letting the lawyer know I’m not gonna put up with any BS. It’s about asking question after question after question without having to take a break and looking at notes. It’s about having an office with Starbucks coffee rather than Folgers coffee. There’s a whole art in addition to the skill of taking a deposition. Same with a trial. If it was as easy as write out your question, get your answer and you either win or lose, I’d be out of a job.
You think Starbucks coffee makes a difference?
I do. Actually, I think, and this sounds silly, especially in my line of work, I’ve had cases that settled for much, much more money because I’ve had half-and-half cream rather than Coffee-mate.
I don’t know if I believe that.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve had other attorneys come in and say, “Man, Mike, this coffee is really good. I bet this costs you a ton. Wait a minute, What is this? Is this cream? I don’t get cream in my office.” I tell you, it’s all a part of not only doing your work but about letting them know that you’re conscientious, that you’re friendly but tough. But also that you’re successful. And something as silly as cream rather than powdered creamer I think in certain cases goes a long way.
Speaking of appearances, you only wear red ties in trial.
Early on in my career, I was on a criminal jury and I told the other members of the jury that I’m a trial lawyer and I’m going to wear different outfits every day and tell me what you think. I wore a Johnny Cochran tie and I had two or three people say that tie is awesome, but then I had two or three people say you look ridiculous. I wore different watches. I realized dressing a certain way got me some votes but that same way didn’t get me votes. The only thing that really worked was a navy suit, white shirt and red tie. We went out and bought 20 red ties and 10 navy suits.
You think it works?
I tried a case where a Major League Baseball umpire had flown in to go to the Dodger game. And he gets into a little fender bender on the 10 freeway on the way to Dodger Stadium and hurt his pinky finger. He got seen by the team physician and he had like $10,000 worth of medical care. The jury awarded $10,000 in medical care and $900,000 in pain and suffering. I’m asking the jury afterward, “Why did you give so much money?” Everybody had different reasons and kind of out of the blue the foreperson said, “Mr. Alder we all noticed you wore red, white and blue every day.”
Why red white and blue?
For a white Southern male wearing red, white and blue, I’m telling you, it’s just like a demographic that people plug into.
Kind of a good ol’ boy image?
I’m not gonna fight it.
Do you speak with an accent?
When I’m in trial my accent comes out. I’ve been told that I have just enough accent for it to sound like an accent, but I don’t sound like Larry the Cable Guy.
Why is any of this important?
I’ve realized that “Blink” and those books about first impressions mean a lot. How you look, your initial impression is important. Being organized. Having your shoes shined. Ironing your suit. I tell young lawyers, here’s the way to be a much better trial lawyer immediately. Buy a shoeshine kit and an iron.
What are you trying to convey?
Many times I spend my time early on in a trial trying to convince jurors that I’m different than all those other bad plaintiff’s lawyers that we’ve all read about. I’m not trying to reprogram people. I’m not trying to tell people that McDonald’s coffee was actually a good result. I’m not trying to talk about tort reform or anything. I’m just trying to differentiate myself from who they think Joe Schmo ambulance chaser is.
What are some of your additional techniques?
I like trying cases by myself. I like being the small guy against the big guy (in the courtroom). I can tell you, after 80-plus trials, the demographic of people that really like me and demographic of people that don’t.
Who do you do better with than not?
Women in the 40-to-60 range, great. Good-looking young women? The kiss of death. They hate me. And young people in general are kind of a real problem.
Why do you think that young people don’t like you?
When you’re young you think that everything is recoverable and you can recover from anything. They don’t understand what it’s like to be a 50-year-old and lose your job.
What other kinds of people do you try to get on a jury?
Certainly there are stereotypes. Plaintiffs don’t like engineers because they tend to only be able to award money on concrete things. If it’s a nebulous type of damage, then you’re not going to think outside the box. I would love to have astrologists and psychologists because they’re open to different ways of looking at things. It’s just something that just kind of goes into the mix.
Tell me about growing up in Louisiana. I understand your father is a preacher.
He’s a Pentecostal preacher, which is a part of the charismatic religious movement, evangelical Christian. Fire and brimstone. Scared the fool out of me when I was little. The preacher would come by and touch people, so my brother and I were kind of afraid. It provided some structure, but, candidly, once I went to college I kind of got away from the hyper-religious part of my family’s life.
You were scared as a kid?
I just didn’t understand it. You’ve seen some charismatic religions where people are speaking in tongues and that kind of freaked me out a little bit as a little kid.
What else was it like growing up there?
Wonderful place, but the South in general is not very tolerant. I belong in California. I didn’t have a problem as a WASP male preacher’s kid in the South, but I had a problem with people who weren’t like me having problems in the South. And my wife, too.
These days, you’ve started to transition into doing business litigation on contingency as well. You recently won a $33 million verdict against Pentel. Your client, a husband-and-wife ad agency, claimed the company stole its pitch for a contest promoting a pen.
The ability to do it on contingency opens up a lot of opportunities, of course, to injured people who don’t have the money, but also to a lot of small companies. I worked on it for three years, poured several hundred thousand dollars of my money into the case. That actually gives an opportunity to many of your readers who don’t have Apple or Samsung money to spend $100 million on lawyer fees.
You also made news for mistakes. This year you settled a personal injury case for $350,000 before you realized the jury would have awarded $9 million.
That case I thought we lost. Everybody thought we lost. We agreed to waive our fees, take nothing and give all the money to the kid.
But then you were able to convince the judge to grant a retrial, saying you didn’t have permission for the settlement.
We didn’t ask the kid. I screwed that up. I made no bones about it. What do you do? You just say, you know what, ye who is without sin cast the first stone, otherwise, shut your face.
Since moving out to Los Angeles, what’s driven you? Success, money, getting your name out there?
Yes, yes, yes. At different points in my life it was different. When I was young all I wanted to do was prove to the guys I used to work for that I was worthwhile. Then I wanted to prove to my fellow trial lawyers that I was a really good trial lawyer. Then I wanted to win trial lawyer of the year. Then I wanted to prove I could do a certain size case. Then I wanted to prove that I could build a big firm and that I could buy a beach house in Malibu and so here I am and I’ve done them all. Now I’m wanting to continue to do all that and raise a family.
Why did you want to prove those things?
I’m a male, competitive person. When I’m in the throes of battle, I really want to win and I want to kill you. In the nicest way that I can, but I still want you to die.
You talked about your family. How do you juggle it all?
I’ve developed a working time where I get up at 3:30 in the morning and I do all my e-mails. When I get home and I’m not in trial and I’m not at meetings, then it’s family time.
What time do you go to bed then?
When my kids go down, usually 9.
Your wife is also an attorney.
Before we had children we both worked our asses off. Then we made a family decision that she was gonna cut back 80 percent and become a mom, to her career’s great detriment.
Was it ever discussed to do it the other way around?
Yeah, but I don’t know how to raise a family.
You don’t think you would be good at it?
No, it takes more than changing diapers.
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