Each Generation Has a Lot to Teach … and Learn
I sat surrounded by paperwork, almost, it seemed, up to my ears. My desk was covered. The table behind my desk was covered. Part of the floor was covered. It was my second week working as a trial lawyer in a rural West Tennessee firm, and I was now responsible for answering 20 or so motions in limine filed by Ford Motor Company weeks before the trial of a complex products liability case pending in Memphis. I was to sit “second chair,” on a case that had been filed for years, had been back and forth in federal and state court with issues of high-speed chases by law enforcement, federal preemption of motor vehicle safety standards, jurisdiction, and now, 20-something motions in limine.
What He Taught Her
It was simple things — simple, but not easy. For example, our profession should be one of service, not just a business.
- honestly know oneself, otherwise she’s always pretending;
- show and feel empathy for others;
- recognize that each client is at “point A,” but needs/wants to be at “point B”; study how we are to get him/her there;
- take the time to think before reacting; read, reread and know the applicable statutes, constitutional provisions and case law in order to apply them honestly;
- “use the books,” not just technology;
- remember that the case is never “my case” but that of the client;
- always be direct and honest;
- connect, not just communicate, with everyone involved and project speech from the front of the mouth, not from the back, like almost all of us in the South do — like we have Mississippi mud in our throats.
- Finally, one should always take time for others — random acts of kindness. If we do these things with passion, success will always come.
— J. Houston Gordon
So I got to work.
As I worked, sorting case law into piles on the floor, a soft knock at the door cued me to look up as the door swung open. Standing over me, at 6 feet, 5 inches (or roundabout), was Retired Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Lyle Reid.
“Don’t get up, don’t get up. I simply came to introduce myself,” he said. “You’re exactly where I thought you’d be — surrounded by research and in the middle of a project. I look forward to working with you!” Always the gentleman, Justice Reid shook my hand (as I sat in the floor, dumbfounded) and departed, as quickly as he had appeared. He worked as Of Counsel to the firm, part-time, one office over from my own.
So I got back to work (and later called my mother, mortified that I had met Justice Reid, a man whose opinions I had pored over, whose words I had parsed for years, while sitting in the floor surrounded by research and was too startled to stand up!).
I was now employed as an associate attorney in a rural solo practice firm, owned by J. Houston Gordon, and had only been graduated from law school for about two years. Mr. Gordon was a trial lawyer. I thought that meant litigator. What it actually meant was that Mr. Gordon, always in a dark suit and a red tie, his gray hair freshly cut and shoes shined, advocated for his clients in a professional, courteous, but straightforward way, both in and out of the courtroom. With lawyers, courts, mediators, clients, witnesses, receptionists, waitresses and parking attendants — he looked them in the eyes when he spoke to them, took time to ask how their day was going, and meant what he said. He didn’t speak in unnecessary words, ask unnecessary questions, or make unnecessary objections. He prepared his cases with intention and a laser focus that was intimidating. To see him work was so much more than litigation.
What I learned over the next long two months of my life was that law school had taught me very little, and my experience gained since then had taught me even less about the art of trial and the actual practice of law. It’s not to say that I hadn’t worked hard, been taught how to analyze, how to think and how to summarize a case. I learned how to recite statutes, how to use Westlaw, and even (gasp!) how to open the book instead of use the computer. Law school was an intense experience that was some of the hardest work I’d ever done. I learned a lot and had excellent professors. Little did I know that, to excel at your craft, there is always so much more to learn.
So I kept working.
I had the unbelievable experience of answering all of those motions in limine, to win a fair amount of them, to sit second chair to Houston Gordon for an eight-and-a-half-week grueling trial, and watch the art of trial unfold from a front row seat. Everyone in the office worked from the early morning hours, until the early morning hours. Weekends, nights and every moment in between. There were motions filed all during trial, witnesses in and out, experts, jury issues (including an entire day spent doing voir dire only to have the entire jury pool dismissed, to start afresh the second day!), and more. The lawyers worked, the staff worked, the court worked, the jury worked — it all seemed to flow, day to day, as we worked furiously behind the scenes to ensure that there was no delay between witnesses, that the necessary exhibits were properly entered, that the opinions were elicited, and, more than anything, that our client had the best shot at relief. He was only six years old when he was paralyzed by a seat belt injury, and would be living with his injuries for the rest of his life.
So I worked harder.
We were able to bring the case to a verdict, in our client’s favor. I say “we,” but while I was present, candidly, I had little to do with the undertaking that went on during those eight weeks. I was new to the firm and new to the concept of a trial lawyer. It felt surreal to be able to dig into the complex issues and then watch as the case unfolded from a front- row seat. I didn’t realize then that this opportunity would not be commonplace, since fewer and fewer cases are tried these days. There was such a mountain of work to be done that there was little time to reflect on the lessons that were taught. Looking back, I could not have hoped for a better experience to jump-start my journey into this area of law.
The art of trial. The work for which I would develop a passion that would keep me up at night, worried about my clients, and coming back to court for case after case in an attempt to turn the wheels of justice.
After that trial was over, I knew that either I was crazy, or this is what God meant for me to do. The problem was, I had no idea how to do it. So, one day I got in the car to travel to a hearing about two hours away with the man I had watched so closely for eight-and-a-half weeks. As Mr. Gordon drove his black, shiny car down the country highway, past miles and miles of farmland, I worked up the nerve to ask him to mentor me. As he drove along, I searched for the right words. Finally, I took a deep breath, and as the air conditioning blew strong and cold in my face, asked: “Mr. Gordon, would you be willing to mentor me?”
Total silence followed. I wondered if he had heard me, if he was thinking over what I said, or if I had just asked for something completely unreasonable and was now going to lose my job. After about 20 minutes of silence (doing my best not to look as nervous as I felt), he quietly asked, “What is it that you really want?”
“I want to learn how to do what you do,” I said. “I want to be the best trial lawyer I can possibly be.”
“Well you’re not going to enjoy this,” he said. “Are you sure this is what you really want?”
“Yes, I am.”
|Amber Griffin Shaw found mentors after law school in the firm where she was hired: J. Houston Gordon, left, and retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Lyle Reed.|
In the days that followed, he would tell me that he never planned at this point in his career to take on mentoring a young attorney. “I have practiced law for 36 years,” he said, “and there are people who have worked as young lawyers for me 10 years ago who excel in their fields today. They are lawyers, judges, federal clerks, but most of all, they are fine people who care about what they do. You have big shoes to fill.”
What, exactly, was I asking for? I was already employed as an associate with his firm, so why was I asking for mentorship? A process that would be difficult and, as I had already been warned, unenjoyable?
The answer was simple: I knew I needed help. Help to learn how to think on my feet, to respond appropriately, to address the court and the jury and opposing counsel with the proper amount of respect and in the proper manner. Where to walk, how to talk, how to enunciate, how to explain and break down complex problems into easily understandable issues, how to talk with opposing counsel, how to earn a client’s trust, how to think. There was so much to learn.
“I don’t want to be a disposable associate attorney responsible for certain tasks,” I told him. “I want to excel in my profession, not just be mediocre, and I would like for you to teach me as much as you can, if you are willing.”
“What you’re asking of me is a lot, but I am willing to do it if you are,” he said. “I am going to warn you: it will not be easy. You have a steep learning curve ahead of you, because what we do is important. We take care of people who have been left out and left behind. You should be prepared to work long hours, and I want you to work smart, not just hard.”
I wanted to learn. So I worked. And listened.
My mentor ascribed to the theory that he may not be the smartest person in the room, but he would work harder than anyone. He “worked smart,” not just hard. He cut through a lot of the turbulence that assaults us each day as we step into our offices, and he moved the clients from Point A to Point B with such force that he made it look easy.
Trust me, it was not easy. What he could dictate in minutes took me hours. Phone calls he made were articulate, direct and authoritative, while I muddled through calls with experts, clients and counsel. Motions he argued took complex problems and seemed to make them simple. It seemed that sometimes, I could barely grasp the legal concepts. I could have punted, called it a day and gone home.
He had been right: It was not a pleasant experience.
Instead of giving in, I tucked my pride in my back pocket, took every red mark he made in revisions to my work (there were a LOT), and went into his office.
“Could you tell me why you changed this?” I would ask. “Why is that important? What did I do wrong here? How can I say this better? Why did you do it this way?”
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that growth is rarely, if ever, a comfortable experience. To excel at your craft, you must grow. To grow means to change. To change is to admit that your style could be different, the substance could be better, your analysis is not on point, your client control needs work, or understanding a case means you have to read 10 or 15 other cases. There are no shortcuts.
Looking back, I was probably the last person Mr. Gordon wanted to see knocking on his door (again!) for the 10th time any given day, but again, my pride had ventured out the window and was not on its way back any time soon. I wanted to learn, and my drive to learn how to excel as a lawyer outweighed the embarrassment I would have normally felt upon receiving such blunt criticism.
Questions kept coming. After all, he had committed to mentoring, so my part of the bargain was to ask about those things I didn’t know. He let me tag along to depositions. I asked questions on the way. He allowed me to get to know the clients. He encouraged me to attend continuing education seminars, and to ask questions.
So I took his advice.
As this mentorship evolved, we completed another multi-week trial in federal court (only my second trial in federal court at that time, and a criminal case against the United States Attorneys’ Office). Another multi-week trial after that, this time in state court, a combination of premises liability and medical negligence with the original tortfeasor rule thrown into the mix. I sat “second chair” on both, and unlike the first trial, was able to actively assist in the resolution of our clients’ claims.
Every day, my intent and assignment was to be purposeful and to focus. Was it tiring? Yes. Were there some days I questioned whether or not this mentoring gig had been a good idea?
Definitely. Were there times where I wondered if I would ever “get it” and be able to think like those around me? Absolutely.
The work was work I enjoyed. It was interesting. We helped people. I did not take the opportunity for granted and still don’t, even today.
Along the way, the true lessons learned by this small-town lawyer were that there were more mentors around me than just the great man who chose to take on mentoring a young attorney. My mentor patiently answered every question I asked, whether it was about law or not. Justice Reid (we recently celebrated his 60th year of practicing law) has also helped and mentored me, and never once turned me away if I had a question — and still doesn’t. The floor below our office holds another small firm with excellent attorneys who practiced in government, domestic and criminal work. Down the street, the next county over and across the state were judges who never hesitated to answer my questions. Other lawyers, retired judges, mediators, clerks, court officers, opposing counsel after your case is completed — all have something to share if you take the time to ask.
No matter what area of the law you choose, mentors are there. Mentors are ready to help. Nothing is more important to maintaining the integrity of our profession than passing the art of the law on to the next class of lawyers eager to practice. Why not take advantage of it?
It was up to me to put my desire to learn above my pride and ask. As it says in the Bible (Matthew 7:7-12): “Ask.” “Seek.” “Knock.” So I did those things, as well as to try. Listen. Learn. Make mistakes, and try again. Don’t give up.
Seven years later, I am still being mentored, although not as intensely. I would venture to say that there is not a day that goes by when I don’t appear in Houston Gordon’s office with a question, a comment, an article, or a thought to discuss. While he may not have ever intended on mentoring another young attorney, I am so grateful that he did.
If you ever have a question, please tuck your pride in your pocket, pick up the phone, and call. If you call me, I will do my best to help — to honor those who took the time to share their insight, it is the least I can do.
AMBER GRIFFIN SHAW is a member of the Gordon Shaw Law Group PLLC in Covington, Tennessee. She focuses her practice on trial work, including catastrophic personal injury cases, products liability actions, multi-district litigation, fraud cases (civil and criminal), and health care liability areas. Licensed in Tennessee and Mississippi, state and federal court, the Sixth Circuit, and U.S. Supreme Court, she is a graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law. Shaw was awarded the Memphis Area Legal Services Outstanding Pro Bono Attorney of the Year for Tipton County and completed the Tennessee Bar Association Leadership Law program in 2015. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (901) 476-7100.
Although Amber Shaw was fortunate enough to find her own mentor, there are various mentoring programs in the state. The Tennessee Bar Association has resources at www.tba.org/programs/the-tba-mentoring-program.