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Seven Things I Learned from Gene Trotter

November 19, 2012Richbar News Articles

Unless you just started practicing in the post-Lady Gaga era, you likely know my partner, Gene Trotter.  I still remember the day that Gene interviewed me.  It was 1995 and the highlight of  my resume was “graduated in top 65% of class.”   But he hired me anyway.  Besides being lucky enough to have great parents and finding the right girl to marry, getting hired by Gene was the biggest break I’ve ever caught.

In the last 17 years, I’ve learned more from Gene about being a lawyer — and life in general — than I could possibly put into words. Nevertheless, in an effort to honor Gene (and save you new, post-Gaga baby lawyers a few hard knocks) allow me to present…

Seven Things I Learned from Gene:

Being a Lawyer is Easy.  As Gene told me my first day,  “You only have to do three things:  meet the client, solve the problem, and get the money.”  See?  Easy.

How to “solve the problem.”  That’s easy too.  Legal problems are resolved by “talking people into doing stuff **.”  Juries, opposing counsel, judges.  Sometimes  our own client.   A single skill from which all else follows.  ** Ed. note:  He didn’t actually use the word “stuff.”

How to get clients.   Get really good at 2, above.  Eventually the word gets out.

How to select cases.   Which cases do you take?  Wrong question.  As Gene taught me, it’s really about which ones you DON’T take.  The best case-selection heuristic of all time is contained in the Gene commandment:  “The Juice Must be Worth the Squeeze.”

How to Act.    TV lawyers are pensive.  They struggle for control over their firms while wearing dark suits.  They don’t remove their jackets unless sleeping, which they never actually do because they are always working.   That’s what I expected as a 26 year old lawyer anyway, and for the first month of my employment I rotated the only two suits I owned.  Then deer season started.  Gene showed up in Carhartts and Mossy Oak camouflouge.  I didn’t expect a lawyer to do that.  And later, just when I thought I had him pegged as the typical S.C. lawyer/hunter, I find a Flo Rida CD in his truck.  Go figure.  So, how to act?  Like yourself.

How Not to Act.  Growing up in suburban Atlanta, I had little sense of the connections between people.  Gene seemed to know everyone in Columbia and they all loved him.  He reminded me early on that “we live in a small state, in a small town.”  In other words,  don’t be a jerk to opposing counsel, because you are going to meet him again (plus you might discover he’s your cousin).

Take your client’s problems seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.  Another lawyer once told me a story once about a case where Gene represented an individual plaintiff against

multiple corporate defendants.  Each defendant was represented by big firm lawyers from big cities.  Gene cared deeply about doing a good job for his client, but it was a difficult case.  On the day of trial, Gene walked into the courtroom to find eight or ten lawyers staring across the aisle at him.  Gene paused, looked them up and down and said, “You must have me figured for a dangerous man.”

Gene was (and is) a dangerous man because he’s an exceptional lawyer.  But he’s been much more than that to me, a teacher, a mentor, a peer and most of all a friend.

As some of you know (or will if you read the firm announcements section of this newsletter), Gene and I are parting company after 17 great years together.   One of the best things about working with Gene was that, as a young lawyer, he allowed me the freedom to develop my own practice in consumer law.  That practice grew into something I became very passionate about, and ultimately compelled to focus on exclusively.

While our practices have grown apart, we have not.  We’re eating lunch together later this week, which I hope we’ll continue to do for 17 more years.  As for the last 17 years, the juice has definitely been worth the squeeze.

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