Lonnie Williams Jr. - Lawyer

how to become a trial lawyer

Interview: How To Become a Trial Lawyer

I consider myself a dispute resolver. When these people actually go to court, I try civil cases in front of juries, over an issue usually involving businesses. But I also do a lot of work outside of court trying to keep people out of court. Because once you get into court, no one is a complete winner. And it’s very expensive. So I try to resolve disputes businesses and individuals have, and if we can’t resolve it, we take it to a jury and let them decide them.

The biggest challenge is that when you get to a jury, you take anywhere from six to twelve people who you never met and try to convince them that your clients position is more true than the other side. But you don’t know these people. You don’t know what prejudices or what backgrounds they bring. It’s amazing that people think certain ways that you can’t possibly know by asking them a few questions. So you’re basically dealing with a blank slate trying to figure out how to convince them. So you don’t know. It’s very difficult.

I get to deal with different people and different type of disputes all the time. I don’t do one thing…and I’m not trying to dig on a certain area of my profession, but people who defend something like, D double U I’s every day…or who divorces every day, deal with one subject matter. One area. I deal with all kinds of different areas. Which means I deal with all different kinds of people. Everyone is sort of a different entity. Whether it be my client or the other side. It always fresh. I’m always dealing with different subjects, from learning how open heart surgery works, when I used to defend doctors, to understanding how electricity is generated. From the start to when it goes into your computer. And then translating those type of issues to explain in front of a jury. That’s just an example. There can be all different type of issues. But you have to learn though. You have to explain them.

I learned early on that if I don’t understand the issue, I can’t possibly convince you I’m right. I have to at least understand the issue, whether a medical procedure or a product, I gotta know. That’s fun because that means I have to learn it.

How much of your life is dedicated to work?

(Laughs). It depends on what’s going on. If I’m actually in a trial, it’s basically…all encompassing. But, you know, I probably don’t work a forty hour week, but I also don’t work an eighty hour week either. It just varies on what’s going on at the time.

I’m not sure I’m an ideal person to be a lawyer. But you have to be analytical. Always asking questions. Being able to listen. Dissect problems and what people are saying. Trying to figure out how, if need be, how to convince someone that what you’re saying may not be true. How do you do that? Well maybe I have to show that you’ve not been consistent in what you’ve said. You said ‘blue’ one time…now you’re saying ‘red.’ Or that you’re mannerisms aren’t something that indicates truthfulness. I have to figure that out for every individual.

I didn’t hear ‘argue’ in that response. A lot of people think that if they can argue well, they can be a lawyer.

I don’t agree with that. You have to know how to be an advocate. You have to be able to represent your client. But you have to be more of someone who can convince and convey…arguing is easy. I mean, you can argue with anybody. At the end of the day, you have to be able to convince a judge or your own client that what you’re saying makes sense. And is based on the facts you’re dealing with. Because I can get up and say all I want that my client did not breach a contract. But if the facts indicate that he signed a contract, then I can argue all I want, but it’s not going to change those facts.

So for you personally, did you always think you were going to be a lawyer?

I knew I wanted to be a lawyer before college. I knew that. I decided I wanted to be a lawyer in high school, probably sophomore, junior year. That was my goal from that point on. Only because it was exciting. I enjoyed it. I liked the law. So from that point on, I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

So what was that career path like?

In high school, I was a pretty good football player. My junior and senior year of high school, I was all-state in both years. I got a football scholarship. I decided to stay in state at the U of A. So that was my ticket to education. But I still wanted to be a lawyer.

I realized early on in my college career that athletics was not something I could do. I had very good teachers and counselors, and I understood what I needed to do to graduate. One my biggest conflicts freshman year was getting the athletic department to let me take the courses that ‘the book’ said I needed to take in order to graduate in four years. There was a constant conflict.

Plus, quite frankly, at that level, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I only played one year. But, I learned something. I remember towards the end of my second semester, really realizing…that a football scholarship wasn’t how I was going to get through college.

I actually sat down and read my scholarship. I mean read the document. And I realized that if I start the school year with my scholarship, I could stop playing football and keep my scholarship the whole year. So I started my sophomore year playing football, and a month into it, I decided to quit. But at least I had another year.

The next two years of college, I pretty much financed it on tutoring athletes at the UofA. Because they hired me to tutor some of their athletes, which was fun because they were friends of mine (Laughs).

When I got to be a junior, I started looking at law schools and took all the tests. I did pretty well in college, and I didn’t know what to expect, and to my surprise, I got accepted into a lot of law schools. I chose to go to Yale Law School.

I went to Yale Law School for three years. Towards the end of that period I really wanted to stay back east, but I could not deal with the cold. So I accepted a job in Phoenix, Arizona.

That’s pretty amazing, going from a kid in Tucson to “Yale Law School.” That’s a big leap.

It was a big leap, a big difference…the diversity in the situations probably benefited me more or as much as the actual education. I was dealing with this large university in this small intimate setting, where there were people…I didn’t realized people could be as rich as some of the people I went to law school with. Or as smart. And have the backgrounds.

By the time I went to law school, I think I knew one or two lawyers. Now I was going to school with people whose parents I’ve heard of. And it was somewhat intimidating.

I’m sure you met people who considered law school as a prestigious destination, and others who treated it as a fallback option. Why do you think it’s a fallback option for some people?

Well, I never looked at it that way. But you’re right. Some people do it and never use it…I don’t know. There’s no way I would go through that type of effort as a fallback. A lot of times, people who have a lot of options try ‘this,’ and if that doesn’t work I’ll try ‘that.’ I never thought of school that way. I always thought I was fortunate to be going to college. Law school was like a dream. So I never looked at it that way. It was an “in” to a means to me.

If people look at it that way, as a fallback, they’re not as serious. I never believed in the six or seven year plan. I mean, you go to school, you get it done, and start doing something. Because if you don’t, a lot of the time you end up not finishing what your goal is.

For those people who do go at it as a fallback option, what happens to those people?

I think they end up trying to figure out what they want to do. Maybe they’re going to law school because someone told them to. But not because they really enjoy it. I always knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I never wanted to be a tax lawyer. Or a lawyer that sat in the office. I knew that was my goal. And so I knew that was what I wanted to do.

If you told me that when I got out of law school, I had to go advise companies on taxes or securities, or write contracts, I would have been one of those people. Because I couldn’t do that. It would have been…I won’t say boring, I’ll just say unexciting.

So how were you so clear in your vision?

Because I enjoyed the challenge of trying to convince people that I’m more right than the other person. Part of it is a little competitive nature. I like being in that environment. And you get to deal with all kinds of different people.

Even when I was in law school I worked at a prison. Yale has a lot of very hands on projects. They were one of the first institutions to have a death penalty project. So we had a project where we worked at the federal prison near there. We represented prisoners who had issues, not in terms of their conviction, but maybe they were about to lose a house. Maybe someone wanted to take their kid away from them. All kinds of issues, and we would provide services. And through those experiences, you get to learn how to deal with people. And it’s just exciting, because everyone is different. To me, it’s a great way to make a living.

Other people hate it though. They don’t like confrontation. They don’t like controversy. It all depends on what your makeup is.

I was going to ask about that. Lawyers always are grouped into the three negatively stereotyped positions of doctor, lawyer, accountant.

And they should. I mean, they should. I’ve worked in the legal profession on national level in certain organizations, and I think to a certain extent, lawyers reputations are deserved because they haven’t worked hard enough at explaining what they do. And clarifying what they do. And they haven’t done a great job in policing themselves.

When I saw you have to convince somebody that your position is more correct than the other person’s position, that doesn’t mean you lie. That doesn’t mean you make up things. That doesn’t mean you put on evidence that it’s false. It means that you take the facts that you have and you put on the best light possible.

And I think lawyers to a certain extent have forgotten that. I think it’s getting better. I think some of the rules and policies have changed and helped. But I would be the first one to acknowledge that I’m not a complete fan of my profession. I do think we have problems. I think we clearly pay young lawyers too much money. That drives up the cost of legal services. That makes it more difficult to get into the profession. It makes it more difficult to teach them how to practice law, because they have to make too much money to justify their salaries. And I think that’s a problem, and I think our legal profession recognizes that’s a problem.

That’s why a lot of people go into law school, because of the potential rewards.

They do, but some people are surprised that it varies on what you do within the legal profession.

In terms of happiness, there’s sayings that one in three lawyers are depressed, how do they fall into that?

I think that a lot of them don’t have that balance between work and other things in their life. I think that can be for any profession. I think that sometimes the pressure of the profession, especially when you are in private practice. Because not only are you trying to do your job, you’re trying to generate business. I mean, this is no different than me opening a business up on the corner of Central and Camelback. I gotta bring in customers. How do I do that? I can do it in a lot of different ways, but I gotta do it. Because if I don’t do it, then there’s no income coming in. So there’s a lot of pressure there. Given that and the hours, I can understand that. I don’t think it’s very different from any other profession, but we do have our issues. There’s no question about that.

You said in a previous interview that you can count the number of African American lawyers at major firms in Phoenix using your hands. And that it’s representative across the country.

That’s probably one of the most disappointing things about my profession. When I started in the ‘large firm practice,’ in the eighties, I was the first African American lawyer in Phoenix in a large firm. I became a partner, which means I had an ownership in a large firm in the mid-eighties. And I remember some friends gave me a party. And there was an inscription on the cake that indicated that point four percent (0.4%) of partners in large firms were African American. So not even one percent. Less than one half of one percent.

There were periods since then where it went up, then it went back down, and I think it’s still under one percent today. In Phoenix, it’s gone up, gone down, it’s better…but there is a glass ceiling that has not really changed in our profession. We’ve acknowledged that, but we’re really not making a lot of progress.

If you’re going to do it, and be in this profession, you need to do it at all levels. You need to be in the prosecutors office, the public defenders office, you need to be representing the cities, injured people, and people in large firms. We, at Quarles have a distinction in that not only do we have pretty good numbers, in fact that’s one reason why I came here…our managing partner is African American. Which is almost unheard of for a large firms.

Large firms usually have multiple offices with an excess of three to four hundred lawyers.

So how have you personally been able to break through that glass ceiling?

When I first started practicing, I had the ability to learn how to do what I do early on. Phoenix was growing a lot. The firm I was with was growing. I learned a lot. We got to try cases. We just continued doing it. Hard work. I read a lot. I’m a student of the law. I have been fortunate. But quite frankly, it’s been hard work. I think that’s the key to a lot of it.

I made sure when I first started practicing, that if I had a case against someone, that I knew the facts better than he or she did. Because if you know the rules of evidence or practice…and I remember that one of the lawyers I worked with told me that if I wanted to learn how to practice, to get an extra set of the Rules of Evidence and put it in your bathroom instead of magazines. And you read for a couple years because you learn it. And you have to master it. It’s a lot of hard work.

One piece of advice?

It would be focus. Try to have a goal and be able to tunnel vision towards that goal. If that goal is to get a degree, figure out how to do that. And try not to get sidetracked. Also, realize that there’s a lot of things people can take from you. They can take your athletic ability. But it’s very difficult without you doing something for someone to take the knowledge you have in your mind. Usually no one can take that from you. I’m a strong believer in education because education gives you choices. So you have to focus on a goal and not get sidetracked from that goal. You have to look at high school the way as an option. College is no longer an option. You have to get that done. The earlier you get that done the better, and the more options that you will have.

Your expertise is in employment litigation. Have you seen a common observation in these companies that you’re defending?

It varies. Some companies are very preventive. The fact is that the area of employment law and discrimination claims has gotten to be very expensive for companies. In many companies, especially those who are more on the cutting end, have realized it’s a much better policy to root out all levels of discrimination than having to fight about them. But that doesn’t have to stop people having to deal with them. Other companies don’t take it as seriously and don’t look at it as an institutional issue. The way I explain it to my clients when they’re trying to take a situation seriously is to look at a situation like, “If someone in your company is stealing, you would expect every employee who knows about that, you would demand them to come forward and tell you.” Why? Because one, it’s wrong. Two is it’s going to cost the company money. Discrimination is no different. It’s no longer, “tell me if you want.” Now you have to impose an obligation on everyone within the company when they see something wrong. So that when they see something high up treating the female employees than the male employees, they have the same obligation to speak up. Just like someone stealing. Because in essence, they are stealing from the company. They’re robbing the employees, the robbing that company of money, they’re going to pay people like me when they get sued, and it’s the same thing.

Because I get to do that teaching, I’m in a much better position when they get sued because I can analyze a problem. I can tell them how to fix it.

Do you have any tricks, tactics for getting people to talk?

You have to relate to them and you have to let them talk. One of the great things about the human brain is they sometimes give up their own deceits and things of that nature. I like people to tell the story in their own way. You’ll usually have documents or emails that will add to the story. And you can see whether it all makes sense. You can look at their history.