It’s 2005. My then-boss and I had arrived at a difference of opinion about our relative importance at the Firm he had founded. Now in his position, I can more clearly understand his point of view. But the place just wasn’t big enough for the two of us. I had planned on starting my own firm for some time. He just beat me to the punch.
I remember my first day after we parted ways. I was just walking through downtown San Diego looking up at the office buildings. Wondering where I would end up. Thinking about what I wanted my firm to be. Thankfully, I had a little savings. And so, I called up my long-time friend and star paralegal Amy Collins. She was then working at another law firm. I asked if she would open the firm with me. She said yes. She still works with me today.
We had our 5 files, a card table and a boom box.
I took about 5 files with me that my boss allowed me to keep. We found a place to rent. We had our 5 files, a card table and a boom box. I remember it taking forever for our computer and phone to be turned on. Then we would just sit around, waiting for someone to call. It didn’t happen often. We could get bored and walk to the hardware store to buy something for the office or the copy shop to make copies. Since we didn’t have a copier yet.
We bought some nice furniture for our tiny offices. Our “conference room” was really nothing more than an office that we put a table and chairs in. But we had big dreams. I hired another young lawyer who was willing to take a chance and come on cheap and we hired a receptionist. And the phone started ringing every once in a while.
Not long after we opened, we tried our first case. It was one of the files my boss let me take. In hindsight, I can understand why. It involved a very high-profile murder in San Diego. Kristin Rossum, a toxicologist with the County of San Diego, had taken drugs from her work, to poison and kill her husband. She was having an affair with her boss at the time. The criminal case received extensive publicity and was dubbed “The American Beauty Murder” because Rossum had staged a suicide by her husband and placed roses in his bed.
Our case was against Rossum, and her employer, the County of San Diego. We represented her husband’s surviving family members, who were really great people. We said that the County had wrongfully hired Rossum, even though she had a history of methamphetamine abuse, and negligently supervised her. We also said the County failed to adequately secure its drugs. The case was a real long shot. Rossum had intentionally murdered her husband at home, off work hours, and we said the County was really at fault. Nobody expected us to win.
I worked really hard on that trial. I would stay up till all hours of the morning and then handle every witness each day with barely any sleep. But it was our first trial, it was receiving gavel to gavel media coverage, and I really wanted to win. Both for our clients and my new firm. I remember working on my closing until 2am the night before. And then my computer crashed and I lost everything. And so, I closed without any sleep whatsoever.
And, somehow, we won. The jury found that both the County and Rossum were responsible and awarded $6 million in damages. In a second phase, the same jury awarded $100 million in punitive damages from Rossum. And suddenly, the phone began to ring. Lots. In my very first year of having my own firm, I was named San Diego’s Trial Lawyer of the Year. From that year until now, we have continued to build our firm one verdict at a time.
So what lessons did my first year teach me? First, it’s okay to take risks. We spent lots and lots of money on that trial and it was very unlikely we would win or ever make money. We almost went under. But it ended up paying off big for us in terms of exposure and new business. I also learned the importance of sticking to your vision. I founded the Firm to be a trial firm. And trial firms try cases. Even difficult ones. And we have stuck to that vision to this day. It has served us exceptionally well. Finally, I learned the lesson of believing in myself. Even back then, I thought I could build the very best plaintiffs’ trial firm in the country. I’m still working on that goal. But we are getting closer one trial and happy client at a time. Thanks for reading my story.