What was your funniest or oddest experience in a legal context?
It was a study in arcane real estate law that felt to me and the other lawyers involved like a 20th-century version of Bleak House.
I wouldn’t tell this story if it weren’t partially memorialized in an unpublished decision of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, Oxendorf v. Bence, 1980 Wisc. App. Lexis 3809. Back in 1972 my firm represented a very successful developer who neglected to carefully review a title policy. As a result, one of the homes he built in a subdivision was on land he didn’t own (that is, a “trespassing improver”). This was my first case when I entered the practice in 1974.
It sounds straightforward, but as the court of appeals observed, “Although the facts of this matter are simply stated, the same cannot be said for the procedural history.” The convoluted nature of the case is clear from the unpublished decision. Suffice it to say the plaintiff refused to relinquish title to the property and the defendant, my client, refused to surrender the house; so eight years of litigation ensued. It was a study in arcane real estate law that felt to me and the other lawyers involved like a 20th-century version of Bleak House. Finally, in 1978, Judge Allen Deehr granted summary judgment in favor of my client.
But here’s the kicker; while the court of appeals upheld summary judgment, it concluded that on this one occasion it would not be on the merits! Yikes! Imagine how hard it was to explain to my client that after eight years of protracted litigation we had indeed won, but due to a long statute of limitation the plaintiff would get to start all over again!
What are the top two unconventional lessons you’ve learned about practicing law?
net rmclware sbcglobal Russell M. Ware, Greendale.
I can mention two such lessons. One I learned as a first-semester law student when I was introduced to the words of Joseph Story, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in his Aug. 25, 1829, discourse at Harvard University entitled “Value and Importance of Legal Studies.” Justice Story said to those pursuing a legal education that the law “is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage.”
I believe Justice Story’s words speak today to all considering a career in law.
A second such lesson is one learned over my years of practice. I discovered that mastering legal concepts is the easy part of being a lawyer. The most challenging part will always be learning to deal with people, be they clients, adversaries, or colleagues. I suspect this experience is one we lawyers share with members of other learned professions.
The most memorable trip I ever took was to …
The most interesting trip I ever took occurred 30 years ago when I went to Madrid, Spain, and while “interesting” may not be the best word to describe the trip, it certainly was that. “Life-altering” would be a more apt description as I spent the 1984-85 school year abroad with a U.W. Madison program, had the time of my life, and met a Spanish señorita who has now been my wife for 28 years and has given me two great kids. The trip also allowed me to finish a B.S. in Spanish and become fully conversant and fluent in that language, all of which has served me well throughout my legal career.
If I have learned one thing in developing my legal career ….
… it is the importance of finding a good mentor. My story began when I had the good fortune to be hired by a law firm headed by Irv Charne, a prominent Milwaukee lawyer, upon my graduation from law school. Irv Charne, a soft-spoken, brilliant lawyer, instilled a commitment to excellence, social conscience, and high ethical standards in every lawyer in the firm. For a new lawyer like me, his office door was always open for any question or guidance I needed in my new career as a lawyer.
I had the good fortune of “second-chairing” significant litigation matters where I saw his principles in action, which always met the highest standard of the legal profession. These principles were exemplified by a case in which he represented a plaintiff in a private-nuisance action targeting several large corporations that his client was arguing caused contamination in a water body. Irv was very focused in his unique brilliant and respectful fashion in that case and used that skill set to negotiate a settlement for new effluent limitations by the corporate defendants in this complex case before a scheduled jury trial was to take place.
Irv received the ultimate compliment as a result of that settlement. Within a year after the settlement, one of the large corporations that was the target of his client’s previous litigation and settlement retained Irv Charne and his law firm to represent the corporation in all if its complex Clean Water Act permitting. I was fortunate to work with Irv on these new environmental permitting matters along with a number of other excellent lawyers at his firm. As a result of this work, I gained very valuable experience in the area of environmental law. Later, I used that experience to head the environmental law practice group at my present law firm, where those same principles are fostered.
My experience with Irv Charne instilled in me the importance of aligning yourself with a brilliant lawyer as your mentor, one who is guided by high ethical principles and who is willing to take the time to instill those principles in your training. We should all be as lucky as I have been to associate with such a great lawyer early in my career.
[Note: Mr. Harrington’s response was omitted from the December 2014 issue.]
What advice do you have for newer attorneys who are litigators?
gov michael.fitzpatrick wicourts Hon. Michael R. Fitzpatrick, Rock County Circuit Court, Janesville.
After more than 30 years between private practice and the bench, I have some suggestions.
First, make sure your preparation is thorough and thoughtful. Become an expert on the facts and law of your cases. You will then be ready to navigate the curves that inevitably face you in court. Also, thorough preparation leaves less to chance and lowers your stress level. There are no shortcuts, but the good news is that the results are worth the effort.
Second, you are more likely to get the result you want when you are the credible voice in the courtroom. Always give fair and accurate recitations of the facts and law. Demonstrate that you are the reliable lawyer who cites the correct precedents, statutes, and facts. Your trustworthiness does not mean you will win every case (no one does) but it will greatly increase your chance of success.
Third, treat adverse counsel with respect and in a collegial manner. Disrespectful tactics give the appearance that your client can prevail only through intimidation. Personal attacks are ineffective and demean you and your client. Besides, adverse counsel in a current case can be a good source of referrals in the future.
Finally, remember that you belong to one of the three ancient learned professions. Uphold the highest ethical standards at all times. Attorneys occasionally confront challenging ethical dilemmas. When that occurs, think of an honorable person in our profession and contemplate what he or she would do in your place. Follow that course and you will bring honor to our system of justice – and yourself.
If I took one day off in the middle of the week, I would …
org trhine wisbar Tison Rhine,State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison.
… probably go for a bike ride somewhere in the hilly countryside surrounding Madison, then come home and lie motionless on the couch, playing video games, reading, or catching up on Netflix. Life needs a balance.