A couple weeks ago, in my last post, I wrote about the two men who taught me about being a lawyer and their divergent fates. Subsequent to that post, I started seeing a prompt on Twitter about thanking someone, not a family member, who opened a door for you when they didn't have to. When I thought about it, there was only one answer for me to that prompt...the person without whom I'd probably be stuck being a lawyer who hated his job, wondering why he even became a lawyer. That person is Jean Lawson.
At some level, I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer from back as far as 7th or 8th grade. I had flights of fancy occasionally when I saw myself pursuing another career, bu those always faded. Putting together arguments, analyzing and attacking opposing arguments, question and answer, these were always the things I loved. Indeed, in law school I initially struggled on exams that prized "issue spotting". I grabbed onto a position from the fact pattern and defended it. I was always better in class than I was in the blue book. The Socratic give-and-take with professors that most law students loathe was the only part I enjoyed. But when it came time to look for a job, opportunities to do criminal defense were not numerous. So I took a job with a small, general practice firm. Now, make no mistake, they were great to me and gave me more opportunities to actually get into a courtroom than most of my contemporaries at big firms. But it was still pretty infrequent. I started to gravitate to bankruptcy in the early to mid '90s, which was a booming field with a pretty fair amount of courtroom work. I started to establish a solid reputation as an excellent litigator but, truth be told, civil litigation was hopelessly boring. Interrogatories, document production and the entire civil discovery process was something I found mind-numbing. Trials were infrequent. And, ultimately, we were fighting about money, which bored me even more. So, I had been a lawyer for about nine years, I was a partner in a four-man firm, and I wasn't happy.
I had met Jean Lawson in, probably, 1995 or so. But I had heard about her before that. And everything I heard was the same: one of the sharpest minds doing criminal defense work in Charlotte. One day in 1996, she called me on the phone. I remember the conversation as clearly today as the day it happened.
Jean: "So, I understand you're a pretty good trial lawyer"; Me: "Well, I like to think so, but I haven't actually tried many cases"; Jean: "Have you ever considered criminal law?"; Me: "Well, I actually clerked for a criminal defense firm in law school, but the firms I've worked for didn't do criminal defense."; Jean: "What would you think about sitting second chair with me on a murder case?"; Me: "Wow, well that sounds really interesting but wouldn't that be diving into the deep end of the pool pretty quickly?"; Jean (in a line that would make one of the only time I can remember her being wrong about a case and which would change my life): "Oh don't worry. This case will definitely plead and it will be a good case to learn on."; Me: "Well, if you're willing, I'm in."
And I was. And, as you've probably already gathered, the case didn't plead. It first went to the NC Court of Appeals on an interlocutory appeal, then back down to trial court, culminating in an 11 week capital murder trial. My first criminal jury trial. And I'm in there with giants: Jean and I representing one co-defendant, Paul Williams and Dolly Manion representing the other co-defendant, Gentry Caudill and David Wallace prosecuting, and the Hon. Jessie B. Caldwell presiding. It was epic. And Jean was the perfect partner. She taught me everything, was incredibly patient, and never treated me as anything but a peer. She insisted I handle as many witnesses as I wanted, gave me the room, space, and confidence to develop my own voice and personality in the courtroom and with the jury. During one break, I told her I wanted to go after a witness much more aggressively than we had discussed. Her response: "You're dangerous. I like that." Every issue under the sun came up in that trial: death-qualifying jurors, Batson challenges, jury views, witness competency, suppression hearings, you name it we had it, including the co-defendant cutting a deal and flipping on us in the 9th week of trial. We lost on guilt/innocence so, again, in my very first criminal jury trial of any kind, we were going to a death penalty phase. And Jean's confidence in me never wavered. She persuaded me to give the final argument in penalty phase. She would cover the law, I would cover the heart and emotion. That argument was simultaneously the most terrifying and exhilarating experience I have ever had as a lawyer.
After arguments were done and the jury was out deliberating on life or death, Judge Caldwell told me to stand up. Puzzled, I did so. It was clear he was angry about something but I had no idea why. He then demanded to know if I had argued to the jury that they could hang (not reach a decision) and that that would result in a life verdict. Such an argument is improper. I was panicked at first. I didn't think I had done so, but I don't use extensive notes in final argument, just an outline of topics to cover, so I wasn't positive. I glanced down at Jean and she was calmly writing on her legal pad in big letters: "Don't worry about this. Just tell him what you believe you said. It will be fine". I can't express how much that helped. Judge Caldwell is a brilliant mind with an occasionally volcanic temper. Without Jean's calm, I don't know how I would have fared. But I related to Judge Caldwell that I certainly intended to walk right up to the line of what was allowed but not to cross it, that I didn't recall that I did, but that I certainly was not going to question what he had heard. I assured him that, had I strayed, it was purely accidental. As the prosecution had not objected during my argument and did not have a clear recollection of me straying out of bounds, the issue went nowhere. Jean had taught me how to both stand my ground and be respectful of the Court at the same time, and it is a lesson that has paid dividends many times over the years. Thankfully, the jury came back before much longer with a life verdict.
When that trial was over, I knew I could never go back to the practice I had before. I was hooked. This was who I was and where I needed to be. I gradually changed my practice, steadily taking on more and more criminal matters. In 1999, I told my partners I wanted out. I was going on my own and focusing most of my time and energy on criminal law. Jean and I worked two more capital cases together, one a truly horrific fact pattern that resulted in a trial that I saw Jean do some of the best lawyering I've ever seen to save another life. But I won't bore you with more war stories. We haven't worked together in years, but I know I can still call her anytime I need help. The point of this is to give thanks. I've become a fairly successful and, I like to think, respected criminal defense lawyer in this town. I love what I do. I can't conceive of doing anything else. But, to borrow a political phrase of a few years ago, I didn't build this. Jean Lawson opened a door for me. There are not enough words to convey what I owe her. Thanks Jean.