Mentor: an experienced and trusted adviser
I have now been practicing law for almost 25 years. During that time, I have worked in a big corporate defense firm, as a federal prosecutor, and now, as a plaintiffs trial attorney. During that time, a number of mentors have been there to help and encourage my growth, and so, I thought I would write about them here.
My first job out of law school was as a law clerk for a federal District Court Judge, the Honorable Marilyn L. Huff, and so, I begin with her. As a law clerk, I would provide research and assistance in analyzing civil matters before the Court. In that job, I learned a ton about Civil Procedure and motion practice. From her, I learned attention to detail and quality, the importance of timely justice, and the qualities of a great jurist. She ensured that we decided matters quickly, fairly and always keeping in mind the big picture of the case. She also was a great leader of our chambers team and we had a lot of fun. I worked really hard but it was a great job as a new lawyer.
From there, I went to work at Latham and Watkins in Los Angeles. My mentor there was the incomparable Ernie Getto. I went to work in Los Angeles especially to work for him. He was a consummate litigator. The biggest case I worked on with him was defending the manufacturers of a gun called the “TEC 9.” A madman had used two TEC 9s, along with another firearm, to shoot up a law firm. Tragically many people died and were injured. Ernie largely trusted me to work up the case as a very young attorney. The case had received national attention and I constantly felt over my head. I traveled all over the country taking and defending depositions opposite Senior Partners from other large law firms. In the end, we prevailed. From Ernie I learned to trust myself and the power of growth from uncomfortable and challenging work. Ernie was also a lot of fun and I learned to enjoy Kettle One while traveling with him.
From there, I returned to San Diego to work at the United States Attorneys Office. I was first assigned to Border Crimes where I tried a ton of drug and alien smuggling cases. My supervisors there were the (now) Honorable Cynthia Ann Bashant and Mike Dowd. They both taught me to be fair and to be just. We definitely did not have a “win at all cost” mentality and we treated criminal defense lawyers and their clients fairly and with respect. They encouraged and supported trial work and we had a blast. Mike later became an extraordinarily successful securities class action lawyer. After a while, I was “promoted” to the Narcotics Section where the (now) Honorable Gonzalo Curiel was my supervisor. He really was a mentor and worked hard to support and guide me in my career development. We did a lot of work involving drug cartels and one of them put a “hit” on Gonzalo. He had to go into “hiding” for a pretty long period of time. He’s now a federal judge and at least one person has questioned his loyalty to the United States because of his Mexican heritage. Having worked with him personally and having witnessed the sacrifices he made, I find that offensive.
I really enjoyed being a prosecutor and trying cases. I tried many cases — including some long and complex ones — and never lost. I felt like I was lacking something, however. While I liked to win, I didn’t take much joy from sending people to prison. I wanted a job that would both reward trial work and that would allow me to help “regular people.” And so, I decided to transition to plaintiffs work. I liked the “get paid only if you win” model and the idea of helping people and families harmed through no fault of their own. I talked to Judge Huff and another mentor, the Honorable Irma E. Gonzalez, and they gave me a list of names of plaintiffs lawyers in town.
Craig McClellan, my next mentor, was at the top of both of their lists. He interviewed me and agreed to hire me. I spent five years learning from him. We did lots of cases against automobile manufacturers. I spent a whole summer in Indianapolis with him trying a Ford Explorer rollover case on behalf of a man that suffered quadriplegia. Craig was a brilliant tactician and we worked on very high end and complex cases. He was also a great negotiator and constantly worked on trying to remain creative and cutting edge in both the preparation and presentation of cases. He also was extraordinarily fit, a great dresser and a devoted family man. From him, I learned the full package of being a plaintiffs lawyer. His devotion to his craft was contagious.
I left Craig to open my own firm. I have had a few mentors since. I tried a case once with nationally recognized trial lawyers Brian Panish and Mike Kelly. By that time, I had achieved some moderate trial success of my own and had a number of other attorneys working for me. Working with those two greats, however, was a whole new experience. I was clearly the “third chair” and that was okay with me. I learned from them the importance of preparation and teamwork. We also had a great time together. They each look out for me to this day and I am extraordinarily grateful to call them mentors.
Today, my mentor is a lawyer by the name of Jude Basile. He acts as “of counsel” to our firm and comes down once a month to strategize and spend time with us. I met Jude through Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College. He personally invited me to attend and was instrumental in my admission. At the time, he was the President of the College, a title he held for many years. In that capacity, he developed curriculum and methodology. I fell in love with “TLC” methods and psychodrama and begin using those approaches in both my trial work and personal life. Over time, I began spending more and more time with Jude. We talk about law, trials, business, family and ourselves. We attend hot yoga together and he encouraged me to attend transcendental meditation training. Like Craig, Brian and Mike, Jude is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, and so, we are always discussing new and evolving methods of trial presentation and persuasion.
Jude is a lot like me, and so, I think that’s why I connect so strongly with him as a mentor. He is an athlete from a working-class background. He loves trying cases and loves his clients immensely. He is a very loyal friend, generous, humble and kind. My lawyers love working with him and I love his friendship and guidance. I am glad I wrote this blog. Thinking about all the great mentors I have had puts a smile on my face. It also causes me to take seriously my own role as a mentor to my younger attorneys. Thank you Judge Huff, Ernie, Judge Bashant, Mike, Judge Curiel, Judge Gonzalez, Craig, Brian, Mike and Jude. I give you a ton of credit and thanks for the lawyer I am today.