By Kenneth M. Levine
The town was a picture from a Norman Rockwell story of America. An old courthouse in the center the town green surrounded by a few local stores. Everyone knew each other, said hello when they passed in the street and took a minute to ask about the family. Hard working people who raised families and cheered for the local high school football team on Friday night Lancaster, Wisconsin. Grant County. Farm Country. A town encircled by hundreds of miles of farms. You could drive for hours and just see fields of crops, silos, and dairy cows. This was the setting I came into for the trial of a complex birth injury trial. A child from Lancaster had been permanently injured at birth due to the negligence of a local obstetrician.
There was only one small hotel in town so for three weeks of the trial all the lawyers on both sides of the case had to stay in the same place. I had a room on the second floor, my opponents had a few rooms on the first. The hotel was just down the street from the Courthouse, a two-minute walk in the morning. There were three restaurants in the area, two within walking distance.
The lawyers defending the doctor and hospital were from Milwaukee, several hours away. Most of the pre-trial depositions had been taken in Milwaukee so I had only been to Lancaster once before the trial.
When I arrived at the hotel, I went through my usual routine of setting up the desk in my room with the trial files, legal pads, and supplies. This would be my “office” for the next three weeks. My room was so small I had to spread papers and files on the floor and on the second bed in the room. Next was unpacking my blue and gray suits and crisp white shirts and arranging the several ties I brought in order of color. The ties had to be lined up just so. It was an old habit but one that made me feel in control of something heading into the unknown of a trial. Final job was a trip several miles away to the Piggly Wiggly for a supply of Diet Pepsi. At a rate of three-four cans a day the 12 pack would not last very long, but it was a start.
Monday morning was the first day of jury selection and I decided on a navy-blue suit and crimson striped repp tie. Direct from the Brooks Brothers or J Press catalogue. I had polished my black oxford cap toe wingtips the night before to save time. I ironed and carefully folded a white pocket square for my suit. My Dad always had a folded handkerchief showing in the breast pocket of his suit. I thought it made him look dignified, classic, so from the first time I wore a suit so have I. The handkerchief made me feel like my dad was still right there with me. Of course, I was a bit concerned that I was over dressed for Lancaster. Would the jury think I was trying to be a big-time lawyer from the east coast and tune me out? By this time, I had been trying cases across the country for many years and was always aware of how I would be perceived by the jury. After a few fits and starts at the beginning of my career, I had decided that in the end I had to be me. The jury had to know I was being authentic and honest. I believed, and still do, that an honest connection to the jury, no matter what I was wearing or where I am from, would be the most important factor in winning the case.
Up to now the Milwaukee lawyers had been impeccably dressed themselves so you can imagine my surprise when they arrived in Court the first morning looking like they had just come from the used clothing store. Their clothes were wrinkled and did not fit well. At first, I was confused, had their nice suits been lost on the way to Lancaster. Why would they be dressed this way. Then it hit me, they thought this would connect them to the jurors. They had underestimated the jurors. The Milwaukee lawyers assumed because this was farm county the jurors would be unsophisticated people and would accept them more if they dressed poorly.
As the trial continued day by day, I pushed the jury hard. I found the jurors to be engaged, interested and open to the difficult medical information they were hearing.
The trial concluded with a large verdict for the Plaintiffs. I had won a medical malpractice case in a country that had not had a Plaintiff’s verdict in more than 60 years. Following the trial, I spoke with the jurors. In almost every out-of-town case the first question jurors ask me is where I am from. They know it’s the east coast but are not sure exactly where. Usually, they guess New York. When I told the jurors in Lancaster I am from Boston they were not surprised. Despite my concerns, they did not mind I was from Boston, and they liked my suits. They thought I “looked like a lawyer”. What they focused on mostly was that I knew the medicine and was authentic. They could tell I was being straight with them. As for my opponents from Milwaukee, they felt they were being talked down to. The rumpled clothes did not connect them with the jurors, instead it insulted the jurors.
As I flew back home with a large jury verdict in my briefcase, I was surer than ever that there are smart people everywhere. That you must treat everyone with respect be it farm country in Wisconsin or a big city. Most importantly, you must be your true and authentic self always.
The next time I packed for a trial, I made sure to include my pocket squares. Thanks Dad.