Even when I’m railed at, I get my quota of renown. —Pietro Arentino
The ABA Journal has an excerpt from Masters of the Game, a book profiling Williams & Connolly, the go-to firm for the Washington elite. The excerpt focuses on the career of the firm’s founder, Edward Bennett Williams:
In 1950, Williams appeared at the office and announced to Chase that they had been hired to get deported gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano back into the United States from his forced Sicilian exile. Chase was skeptical, but Williams figured the publicity would be terrific whether he won or not. Chase said he didn’t want to represent “skunks” and expressed concern that he would have to answer to his children for the type of people he represented. By the summer of 1950, Williams and Chase dissolved their partnership.
Over the years that followed, Williams’ representation of lowlife gamblers and tax evaders evolved into a higher-class practice that centered around labor union goons and Mafia figures such as Sam Giancana and Frank Costello. And just as he had become fascinated by the perpetually dark Atlas Club, Williams became enamored with the even blacker underworld. Petty criminal cases had led him to the defense of some of the most famous Mafia figures in the land. That, in turn, invariably brought Williams into contact with Washington politicians. He would often meet senators or representatives, some of them crooked, through a congressional hearing in which he was the lawyer for a suspected Communist or a suspected mobster. Later, as happens in Washington, it would be the politician who would need the lawyer, and Williams would be the first whom most would think of. In a sense, he had already auditioned before them.
The [Sen. Joe] McCarthy case and the [Jimmy] Hoffa trial had made Williams the most famous and successful trial lawyer in America. He had reached the status that Frank Hogan had occupied, as the living embodiment of Clarence Darrow on the East Coast. Invariably, Williams had achieved his victories by ignoring the case against his client and by attacking the prosecutors, the police or even the court.
Williams originated what would become the trademark of his law firm—finding outrageous arguments to make when all else failed. Once, when Williams complained that a prospective client was unable to provide a single mitigating fact in his case, the client reminded Williams why he was being hired. “If I had a defense I wouldn’t need you,” the client blurted.
For civil and criminal trial lawyers, that is probably the single most effective way to get the phone ringing: take a case — the tougher and higher profile the case, the better — and argue the dickens out of it.
Some lawyers have this technique so deeply ingrained in their minds that they don’t realize why they started doing it in the first place. Earlier this week, I had three depositions that collectively should have taken about eight hours. Instead, they took 14 hours, and we did not finish the third, because opposing counsel could not resist arguing with the witness, arguing with the attorney for the witness, arguing with me, and arguing with the attorney for another party.
He argued with us about the meaning of "objection to the form," about the limits of human perception, and about metaphysical concepts, such as to the extent to which one person can truly comprehend the thoughts of another.
The witnesses didn’t change their testimony. The lawyers didn’t abandon their objections. The end result will be several hundred pages of mostly worthless testimony, only a small fraction of which will be comprehensible or usable at trial.
But you know what? Some clients eat that stuff up. Clients with bad cases really eat that stuff up. If they see you pound the table and bicker endlessly with a witness whose testimony is unhelpful, they will love you forever, win or lose. The sad truth is, a lot of people in a lawsuit or under indictment want to see a boxing match, even if a game of chess would serve them better. They’ll forgive how bad your briefs are, and your absence of strategy, if you give them a good show.
Far too many trial lawyers look for an "edge" and find it in a billy club, which they swing at anyone and everyone they see. Experience often makes the problem worse: every bang of the fist generates another phone call, win or lose.
But at what price? It’s easy to forget that most of these new calls are from cranks; when you’re desperate or greedy, you start playing a volume game with dozens or hundreds of cases, each handled with a minimum of diligence, attention or time, since at least some of them will pay off, right?
But what if you don’t have the savvy and judgment of a DC power player like Williams? What if you don’t know when to raise your voice and when to open your ears?
Would you even notice the consequences?