There is a chance that in writing this chapter I might give the impression that being a trial lawyer in New York City is somehow glamorous. It’s not. Or at least it wasn’t for me.
I suppose there was a part of me that was drawn to the concept of being a New York lawyer. I wouldn’t have gone there otherwise. I know my parents got a kick out of it. Instead of having to reluctantly explain to friends and family in Scotland that I was ‘managing bands in Austin’, they could now proudly boast that their son was ‘an attorney in New York’. It made me happy to think that they could finally be proud of me, but there was little else about the job itself that made me happy.
I’m writing here specifically about the second of the three law firms with whom I worked in New York, and my time there as a personal injury attorney from 2006 to 2008. This chapter begins in July 2006, after Farah and I got engaged, and I was searching for a new job away from F&P where I was already treading water.
Farah was still living in Austin at the time, so I spent a lot of time networking or sending out letters and resumes to law firms. I set myself a goal to reach out to at least 5 new law firms a day.
I had the same approach in the months before I arrived in New York. I had a good resume, but having a 2:1 undergraduate law degree from Edinburgh University doesn’t mean much to a New York recruiter. The 7 year gap between completing law school and my taking the bar exam probably didn’t help either. Also most big law firms recruit new associates two years in advance. So it was tough. I received hundreds and hundreds of rejection letters. I’ve kept them all.
One day in the summer of 2006, I had lunch downtown with a medical malpractice lawyer by the name of Stephanie who I had met briefly at an Irish American Bar Association event. A few weeks later she got back in touch to tell me that there might be an opportunity at her firm, and she arranged a meeting for me with one of the partners.
The law firm was D&L, named after the two partners Gary D and Michael L. It was a small firm with only half a dozen attorneys, and their specialty was personal injury and medical malpractice – plaintiff side. All their work was contingency based (no win, no fee), and typical cases were car wrecks, slip and falls, defective products, and botched surgeries. Some people call these type of lawyers ‘ambulance chasers’, others call them ‘a voice for the injured people’. I didn’t really have an opinion either way. I just knew that I needed a better job.
I had a few interviews and eventually, just before Labor Day 2006, D&L offered me the job. My role was to be Stephanie’s medical malpractice associate and Gary’s personal injury associate. Essentially it was my job to move their cases forward through the litigation process, as quickly and effectively as possible, and get them ready for trial.
I’d had 8 months of experience with insurance defense cases at F&P, but I was not prepared for the world of a plaintiff PI lawyer. It is by far the hardest, most intense, most stressful, and most demanding job I’ve ever had.
A lot of that stress comes from the fact that unless you settle the cases or win at trial, the firm doesn’t have any income. This is something that my boss Gary D would remind me about regularly.
My caseload quickly went from half a dozen cases, to 20, to 40, until I was managing over 100 cases in all stages of the litigation process, from pre-suit notices to post-trial motions. Every morning I would be out at court, taking depositions, or meeting with clients. Every afternoon I would get back to the office, exhausted, hungry, and overwhelmed.
Lunch breaks became a thing of the past. Dinner in the office became the norm. Nights were spent preparing for the following day’s appearance. There was a lot to learn and only so many hours in the day to learn it all.
To say I was thrown in the deep end is an appropriate but insufficient metaphor. I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of the icy East River, with underwater currents pulling me in several directions, with boats hitting me on the head every five minutes, and with shit everywhere.
Initially Gary was willing to spend his time teaching me about motions, depositions, and trial strategy. He was an aggressive and hugely successful litigator who had won dozens of multi-million dollar verdicts against the likes of big tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. So he knew what he was doing. I think he wanted me to be his protégé, but we had very different personalities.
How can I best describe Gary D? Well, to this day, Farah and I still use his name to describe a type of highway exit maneuver. To ‘Gary D it’ means to see a long line of traffic waiting to exit the highway, to ignore that line of traffic, drive past all the vehicles, and then at the last possible moment, jam your way in and exit the highway in front of everyone else.
Twice I was the passenger in Gary’s blue Maserati as we drove back from a trial in Queens, and twice he did exactly that while exiting from the FDR to get back to our downtown office. And he did it without explanation, or without even missing a beat in our conversation. We were not in a rush. There was no emergency or late appointment. It’s just what he did. He didn’t play by the rules.
And there is something to be admired about that. It is ballsy. I could see why people would want someone like that on their side. Most of the time, I liked being on his side. What I didn’t enjoy, were the many times I got on the wrong side of him.
Often he would be in his office when I got back from court sometime in the afternoon. Before I’d even have a chance to take off my suit jacket, or check the half dozen messages on my phone, I’d hear him shout from his office ‘Pete! Get in here!’
Gary had a nice big corner office, with windows on two sides looking south and east over to Brooklyn and the bridges. The walls had a combination of framed newspaper articles about his victories, and also some old rock and roll memorabilia. He never wore a suit unless he was in court. Typically he would show up to the office in ripped jeans and a white t-shirt. His long frizzy hair was perhaps not at long as it had been in the ‘80s but it still reached the top of his shoulders. He’d yell my name and I would instinctively freeze. Then I’d slowly edge my way into his office, steeling myself for another tirade. Inevitably he’d be sitting back in his chair, both feet on the desk, poring over something I’d done, or not done.
He liked to have me try to guess why it was I’d been summoned to see him. That was a fun game. Then he would usually move on to a story about how when he was a young lawyer, he had hundreds of cases and none of the luxuries afforded to me etc. Eventually he would get to the point about why I was not meeting his expectations. It was draining.
After a while my motivation for performing well at that job wasn’t client satisfaction or making lots of money. Instead I was working for his approval. He was the first boss that I hadn’t been able to impress. I just wanted Gary to like me, and I wanted to make him happy. So I worked harder and harder for a seemingly impossible goal. It wasn’t a healthy relationship.
Even when I had success, it wasn’t enough. One case I settled in Richmond County even made the newspapers. Our client was a teenager from Staten Island whose scalp had been burned at a hair salon while she was getting highlights. She had a bald spot on the back of her head the size of a dollar coin. We had sued the salon and the company that made the bleach. With the case on the eve of trial, the defendants were offering $25k to settle the whole thing.
I was sent to Staten Island for a pre-trial conference, where typically the judge will hear the issues and make an attempt to settle the case. Gary had told me to see if I could get them to offer $50k or $75k. I remember we all went out as a firm to some lawyer event the night before. Gary bought a bottle of vodka for our table. That was his drink – vodka on the rocks. But I never drank if I had court in the morning. Which meant that I virtually gave up drinking.
The main courthouse in Staten Island is right by the ferry terminal, and on the ferry over the next morning, I was still working on my strategy. Farah had given me a thorough briefing on hair salon protocol and the chemistry of coloring hair, so I was ready. When I arrived with my clients, the Judge summoned everyone into her chamber, including the two male attorneys for the defendants.
There are some days in court, most days actually, where things don’t go to plan. But on that day in Staten Island everything went perfectly. The judge had a young daughter herself, and so she understood the importance of hair to Staten Island teenage girls. After about an hour of conferencing, and several phone calls by the defendants to their insurers, they came back with a final combined offer to settle the case, take it or leave it, of $225,000.
When the judge told me their offer, I was jumping inside. But I gave her my best poker face and I calmly told her that I would discuss it with my clients. I went out to the hallway to call Gary. I told him the offer. It was $200,000 more than he was expecting. He couldn’t believe it. I think he said “how the fuck did you do that?”
But Gary, being Gary, wanted to push it further. After a few more expletives, he told me to see if I could squeeze some more out of them. So I went back in to the judge and told her the answer was no, and I somehow came up with a reason why we needed a bit more. 15 minutes later the defendants came back and offered another ten grand. $235,000. Case settled.
When I got back to the office I was expecting champagne and party hats, but that wasn’t their style. As far as they were concerned I had just got lucky. Anyone else would have got the same result, if not more. It was nothing special. I was nothing special.
It was around that time that I moved from the Upper West Side out to Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn where I’d found a small one bedroom apartment on 3rd Street, near the F train Carroll St stop. In February 2007 Farah had moved up from Austin to live there with her two little dogs, Woody and Ruby. It was a railroad style apartment, on the third floor of a brownstone, with tatty furniture, squeaky floors and an old carpet that was thinner than a piece of toilet paper. But it was ours.
By May 2007, Farah and I were getting used to life together in Brooklyn, and I was getting ready for my first jury trial before Judge Robert Gigante of the Richmond County Supreme Court. Judge Gigante was best known for presiding over a case involving George Harrison’s cancer doctor a couple of years earlier. Apparently the doctor got into legal troubles after he asked the Beatle to autograph a guitar on his deathbed. In writing his legal decision on the case, Judge Gigante penned it to the tune of George Harrison’s ‘Something’, writing:
Something in the folks he treats,
Attracts bad press like no other doctor,
Something in the folks he meets,
He’s in our jurisdiction now,
He gets Beatle autographs somehow.
I liked him immediately. On the first day of jury selection he called all the lawyers into his chambers in Staten Island that had soaring views over the water to Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. He explained how he had watched the World Trade Center fall out of those windows, and he insisted that he we have some fun during the trial.
This case was just a simple three car accident. Our client was an older Mexican guy called Verulo Garcia-Morales. He had been a passenger in one of the cars and suffered shoulder and neck injuries, but no broken bones. He was a construction worker, an illegal immigrant, and he didn’t speak any English. He was a really nice, quiet, intelligent guy. But his wife and family were back in Mexico and they were dependent on his income. He had returned to work soon after the accident, but he was still in a lot of pain. I liked him and I wanted to do well for him.
Staten Island is very different from the rest of New York. It’s more conservative, whiter, and republican. Typically that means that the juries don’t give out big verdicts, and they are even less likely to reward someone like Verulo. But Gary had won cases like these before, and had received verdicts in excess of half a million dollars for similar sorts of injuries. So that was the expectation.
At the end of the first week, things were going well, although it was taking a lot longer than I expected. It took us three whole days to pick a jury. Then on the Friday afternoon of the first week, the hair salon settlement was finalized, and the New York Daily News called me up for an interview. I felt like I’d made it. They published a story on page 14 of the Monday paper. They went with the headline ‘Teen wins 235G in tangle with hair salon”, which wasn’t bad. I had suggested ‘Reid All About It: Salon Makes Head Lines’. Missed opportunity.
I’m pretty sure that everyone in the jury read the story and saw my name in the paper. That was a good day. Although Gary chewed me out because the article didn’t mention the name of our law firm.
As we approached the end of the 2nd week and Memorial Day weekend, I realized we would be going into a 3rd week. This was a problem because Farah and I had booked flights to go to my cousin Katy’s wedding back in Glasgow over that weekend.
As it was, I finished my closing arguments on liability on the Wednesday afternoon and the jury retired to the jury room to deliberate, (Staten Island trials are bifurcated into two portions – liability first and then damages only if you win). There was still no verdict on the Thursday and on the Friday, Farah and I went off to catch the plane. Gary went out to the court to wait in my place. Just as we were sitting on the plane about to leave, Gary texted me and told me I had won on liability. The damages trial would start on Tuesday morning.
So we flew into Glasgow, I did a reading at the wedding at the Glasgow University Chapel and we partied late into the night at the reception at Oran Mor. On Monday we got a flight back to New York and on the Tuesday morning I was back on trial.
Eventually we got to the closing arguments. That’s probably the funnest part of the trial. Rarely are there any objections and you just get to tell a story to the jury. In New York the Plaintiff gets the last word too. I gave it my best shot, and sat down.
Then the jury retired again to consider how much money, if any, they were going to award Verulo. At that point there is nothing you can do but wait.
The exciting thing too is that in New York, there is no limit to what a jury can award. We were expecting six figures. We were hoping for high six figures.
After a day and a half, the jury advised the court that they had a decision. At that point it takes a bit of time for all the attorneys, clients, staff and the judge to re-assemble back in the courtroom, but then things happen very quickly. The judge asks the foreman if the jury has reached a decision. Then the foreman of the jury reads out the answers to the questions. How much should we be awarded for past pain and suffering, and how much for future pain and suffering?
The foreman stood up and read out the jury’s decision. They awarded us $25,000 for past pain and suffering. And $0 for future. That was it. $25,000 total. I’d won, but I hadn’t really won.
It wasn’t a good sign that the defense attorneys were high-fiving each other. I was pretty gutted, but Judge Gigante made a point of saying how well he thought I’d done, and that until I had mentioned it in closing, he had no idea it was my first jury trial.
That was all nice to hear, but after three weeks of being out of the office, I knew that Gary would be pissed off with only getting a third of $25k. And, of course, he was.
After the dust had settled and I looked back on the trial, I began to see the attraction of it for Plaintiff personal injury lawyers. Hearing the verdict being read out was a massive adrenaline rush. It was all or nothing. Months and years of work all built up to one moment where you find out if you get paid or not. I also now understood how everything in the litigation process was about getting to that point. It was a huge amount of work, and a whole new world of stress, but for some people, I could see how it could get addictive. Not me though. I like to gamble, but not with my livelihood.
May 2007 had been a long, grueling, stressful and ultimately unrewarding experience. I felt like I had let Verulo down, and Gary was quick to remind me how much I had let him down and everyone else in the firm.
When a few days later, Reid was told that he would be handling a big medical malpractice trial by himself in September, he knew that it was probably his last chance.