The Experience Quotient

I always enjoy watching people who are good at what they do. I started practicing law in Washington, D.C. in the late 60’s. At that time the YMCA, later to be made famous by Walter Jenkins during the Johnson Administration, was a dingy, run-down building on a side street about a block from the White House. I used to try to play handball at that Y. While I never really ever learned to play that game at all well I did learn a good bit about how valuable experience is in practicing law.

Week after week I would return to the Y and, before my game, watch older players mop up the court against the fit young hardbodies. The older players would position themselves in the middle of the court, move hardly at all, and by dekeing a shot here or juking a shot there, run their opponents in circles around the perimeter of the court until, tongues dragging and drowned in sweat they would inevitably lose to their wiser, more experienced but less fit opponents. The old codgers did it so well and made it look so, so easy.

I still enjoy watching people who are good at what they do, including lawyers. Some are so good you’d almost pay money to watch. I still remember something Ted Koskoff did during a trial in federal court back in the mid-seventies that fell into that category.

Ted was universally recognized as one of Connecticut’s truly great trial lawyers. He had great, timbrous voice which he used with a masterful sense of pace and timing. In this trial he was representing the lead defendant in an arson-RICO case. His client, the owner of the Sponge Rubber Products Plant in Shelton had been destroyed by a fire. The fire had been set by an ensemble of eight rag-tag Pennsylvanian who had been hired by a self-professed psychic preacher who was an associate of Ted’s client.

The Pennsylvanians were represented by appointed counsel and the preacher imported his own lawyer, Rudolph Lion Zolowitz. Rudolph, who also claimed to be psychic, was as bizarre and individual who ever set foot inside New Haven’s federal courthouse. Older, balding, and with a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair, he was, I am convinced, the model for the role of the professor in the “Back to the Future” movies. His regular courtroom dress was a seersucker sportcoat, a contrasting plaid shirt, an off-center bowtie and Sperry Topsiders which squeaked as he waddled around the courtroom.

While Rudolph’s personality was initially amusing--especially to prosecutors who saw his efforts for his client as helping their cause-- he drove counsel for the co-defendants absolutely wild. They could not control him and could not prevent the damage he did to their clients every time he opened his mouth. They tried everything---objects, motions to sever, motions for mistrial, threats of physical violence---but nothing worked.

It was a long trial. Tempers grew thin as the evidence mounted. One day, some two months into the trial, late in the afternoon, Rudolph rose to cross-examine. The bloodletting began. With each question the damage grew worse. The defendants grew uneasy. The lawyers squirmed. The damage mounted, question after question. One of the lawyers slammed the table. “Objection”. “Overruled”. “Mistrial”. “Denied”.

Rudolph slogged on. He was on a roll. He could not be stopped. He paced around the courtroom, yelling at the witness, burying the co-defendants and, obliviously, his own client as well. The lawyers were livid. And Rudolph raged on against the witness.

Only Ted Koskoff remained calm. He gestured to his co-counsel to relax. Ted rose slowly to his feet, and approached the screaming Zolowitz.

“Your, Honor,” Ted said, may I have a moment with counsel. His request granted Ted gently placed a grandfatherly arm on Rudolph’s shoulders and turned him away from the jury. “Rudolph,” we could hear him say, “Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. One of the best cross-examinations I have ever seen. I think you should stop right here. It’s perfect.”

Rudolph beamed. Even he knew he had been complimented by the master. A supreme compliment. He had no further questions, your honor. He then squeaked across the cork-tile floor back to counsel table, still glowing from the praise he had received from the master.

Like the seasoned handball wizards I used to watch at the Y, Ted’s experience had taught him how to position himself in the court and gracefully deflect the energies of others to his own advantage, all without breaking a sweat.

Like I say its a pleasure watching people who are good at what they do. Sometimes you can even learn from it.