Crossing the Goal Line


This is what is known as an appreciation. It's really a thank-you note, first to my uncles for getting me into law and second to my partner for showing me how it's done.

I never really started out to be a lawyer. I just got lucky. I backed into law because the kid next to me in American history said he was applying to law schools and said I should too. I did. I got accepted but I did what I really wanted to do all along. I joined the Peace Corps and went off to Colombia. The law school held my spot. I returned after two years with visions of going back, traveling aimlessly through South America doing sales for Armour Meats, Texaco Oil or Chiquita Banana.

Thanks to a couple of common-sense uncles who saw this plan for what it was, I didn't do that. They took me out for a round of golf and for eighteen long holes they loudly and forcefully described where in my anatomy my head was located when contemplating a life below the equator. They told me to go to law school. In my family you do what the grown ups tell you. I went to law school.

When I began practicing in 1968, I'd never been in a courtroom, never seen a trial and knew less about what it meant to be a lawyer than Brendan Sullivan's famous potted plant. In short, my head had not moved significantly from where my uncles had observed it three years earlier. I thought being a lawyer, especially a trial lawyer, meant being the forensic equivalent of a toreador. A trial lawyer was glib, smooth, articulate, unflappable and, above all else, the center of attention. Being a good lawyer, I thought, meant being the hub of the wheel around which all else revolved, possessed of a golden tongue, able to convince Aleuts to purchase Frigidaires or Arabs sand.

I held that image for a pretty long while. But I was wrong. The best lawyer is not the one who speaks the prettiest or dresses the best. No, the best lawyer is the one who knows how to cross the goal line. It doesn't matter, really whether you cross it on a three yard run, a fumble into the end zone or a ninety-yard pass. The object is to get your client the best result possible.

I didn't learn this on my own. I needed help. I learned from watching the best lawyer I've ever seen, my partner, Howard Jacobs. There are lawyers who speak prettier, write nicer and even dress better (and certainly many more hirsute) than Howard. But no one -- no one I've ever seen -- can get across the goal line as often and as consistently as Howard Jacobs.

I learned about crossing the goal line by watching Howard at work. When I first joined my firm in 1976 Howard was actively involved in the criminal practice, one of the acknowledged deans of the criminal defense bar. He had recently defended an accused triple murderer, miraculously rescued him from a conviction in one trial and somehow got a hung jury on the next. That was just one of the rabbits he pulled from an assortment of hats for his many clients. Howard was "The Man to See" for criminal cases.

At first I was thrilled with the opportunity to tag along, to watch and work with the great Howard Jacobs. I anticipated seeing fantastic closing arguments and courtroom dramas with Howard at center stage. But that never really materialized. No bells, no whistles. I never even saw Howard in a full trial. Oh, sure, some might have started and then folded. Then it was simply on to the next case.

Why then, was this guy so great? Why did clients line up to hire him? More often than not Howard would go into chambers, mutter something or other, work out a result and then stand in the courtroom next to his client and say nothing as the plea bargain was implemented. The sparks I anticipated never materialized. Frankly, I was a little disappointed.

But then came the dawn. As I looked at Howard's cases I began to realize that his clients always got the result they wanted. They got there with no brass bands, no fanfare. They just got there.

I eventually understood that that's how it works. The point was to get the result, not the accolades. The perfect end of a cross-examination is not a throng of jurors rushing to the phone bank to tell their relatives about the great lawyer they just saw. No, the perfect cross-examination ends with jurors muttering how bad the witness was. Only someone like Howard, someone with complete self-assurance, who cares more about getting results than slaps on the back, can consistently pull that off. That is Howard Jacobs.

That's what I could see and appreciate by watching a great lawyer up close. Toeing the mark, day after day, focusing on the end result and getting there. I saw it and was eventually able to appreciate it. I came to understand that nothing beats the satisfaction of getting across the goal line. But getting there is not easy. "There are", Howard says, "no shortcuts in this business."

In retrospect I now understand that my uncles knew how to cross the goal line, too. At least their nephew isn't selling Spam in Santiago or chalupas in Caracas.