Carpe Diem

If you hang around long enough in this business you eventually get asked to speak at seminars and training programs about various aspects of trying cases. For some ---the folks who read cases, remember rules and put words on paper that judges read---the request is usually for some type of learned presentation that educates the listeners, elevates their practices and qualifies for italicized mention in the speaker's Martindale Hubble listing. For others of us it's usually a call months before the event in the middle of a busy day that goes something like, "Hey, Willie, would you mind talking at a seminar about cross examination of eyewitnesses? It's in Meriden on a Saturday, but it's only forty-five minutes and I promise you'll get out before noon." Barely aware of your obligations for tomorrow, let alone two months from now, of course you accept.

A large part of accepting is driven by ego, the congenital disease afflicting all trial lawyers. You are flattered anyone thinks you are worth listening to about anything. By this invitation you are elevated to the same category as the aforementioned case-readers, rule rememberers and brief writers. How can you not accept? You will speak to those lawyers at that seminar. You will dazzle them. You will make an indelible impression. They will relate to others your teachings now and in years to come. This will be part of your legacy. Yeah, right.

A number of years ago I was asked to speak at a training program for new attorneys in Connecticut's Public Defender Office. Mostly for the reasons articulated above, I accept. I am going to speak about courtroom dynamics, how trials can be influenced by all sorts of external factors, none apparent from reading a cold transcript. I will use as an example the famous story from the trial of Jimmy Hoffa, former Teamsters president, in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia in 1952.

Perhaps it's best to set up that story. Hoffa was infamous. He was allegedly up to eyeballs in corrupt and illegal activities. It took a good while before the Government was able to conjure up even enough evidence just to obtain an indictment. But obtain one they did.

Hoffa was no dummy. He immediately retained Edward Bennett Williams a great, great lawyer. Williams is an inspiration to anyone who thirsts to be a trial lawyer. He was then the best and most famous criminal lawyer in the United States. He was a giant. He was the man to see if you had a problem. Superbly skilled, he dominated every courtroom he ever entered. He was canny and smart and a prodigiously hard worker. And he was powerful, with many influential friends in all the right places. When, after his death, his biography was written it was, in fact, entitled The Man to See.

Anyway, the story. Hoffa goes on trial. The majority of the population in the District of Columbia then, as now, is African-American. So are most of the jurors. The year is 1952. Joe Louis, "The Brown Bomber", retired heavyweight champion of the world, is a hero to the African-American community. Joe Louis is a friend of Edward Bennett Williams.

There is a recess in the trial. Judge and jury retire. The recess concludes. The jury files into the courtroom and their eyes focus on counsel table. They see Edward Bennett Williams' friend and their hero embrace defendant Hoffa, shake his hand and leave as court is called into session.

The courtroom crackles. It's like walking Joe DiMaggio through Little Italy or parading Larry Bird through the Boston Garden. A dramatic event. And not a word about this appears in the transcript.

The jury acquits. Many say the Joe Louis handshake is why. And although Williams forever denies setting it up, few believe him. Not a bad example, I think, of external factors influencing a jury.

What really sells the story is knowing the players, especially the legendary Williams. Only Edward Bennett Williams had the juice to set it up and the chutzpah to pull it off.

I begin the training session by saying I am going to tell a story about Edward Bennett Williams. I stop. I look at the sea of young, fresh faces with blank expressions. "How many of you," I ask, "know who Edward Bennett Williams was?" Silence. A Grand Canyon of ignorance. The meditation hour at my sister-in-law's convent is deafening by comparison.

Unbelievable. No one---not a single one of these aspiring defenders of individual rights and liberties---know of one of the greatest criminal lawyers of the century, the personification of a criminal lawyer.

I am dumbstruck. How could this be? How could it be that a lawyer so great and so famous is unknown to these ingénues who should have his picture on their office walls and light candles to it daily.

I identify the actors and tell the story but I leave the seminar demoralized. If you don't remember Edward Bennett Williams, where does that leave the rest of us?

My partner finally helps me understand. "Lawyers," he says, "are like movie actors to casting directors. Their careers go through four stages. First, its 'Who's Edward Bennett Williams?' Then it's 'Get me Edward Bennett Williams!' Next it's 'Get me someone like Edward Bennett Williams.' And, finally, 'Who's Edward Bennett Williams?' "

So much for leaving a lasting impression. If they can forget Edward Bennett Williams, believe me, they're sure not likely to remember the rest of us.

Carpe diem.