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Top Lawyers: Richard Zitrin On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law

Enjoy your professional and person life. Don’t worry so much.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Zitrin, Esq.

Richard Zitrin, author of Trial Lawyer: A Life Representing People Against Power, has spent his career as a trial lawyer fighting for individuals against powerful forces in both criminal and civil trials. A distinguished professor for over forty years at the University of San Francisco and UC Hastings law schools teaching Legal Ethics and Trial Practice, he has received numerous awards for service to the community, including the national American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico award for public service, the California Bar’s 2019 award for “outstanding long-term contribution to the advancement of attorney professional standards in California,” and many statewide and local awards for promoting equality and diversity.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

I had no burning desire for the law growing up. My parents were both physicians. I kind of “fell” into law school after working in political campaigns in the late ‘60s.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

My practice began in criminal defense, with my first case, while I was a law student, a high-visibility prison case. I became a certified criminal law specialist. But after a dozen years I switched to representing individuals in civil cases, eventually in what I call “attorney conduct cases,” stemming from my involvement teaching and writing about legal ethics. I eventually became one of the first CA lawyers to become a legal malpractice certified specialist.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Being unafraid is certainly one. Not being governed by convention — the way lawyers are taught to do it. And understanding the need to be human and honest, especially with the jury.

  1. Unafraid: After a case in which we got a huge verdict which a judge reduced, I filed a motion objecting to his reduction because he hadn’t witnessed all the trial testimony — the part on video when he declined the TV monitor I offered — making him ineligible to sit as the “13th juror” and reduce the verdict. The judge was furious — but wrong.
  2. My mentor and I got to the point where we decided that if we two said X and 10 more “knowledgeable” lawyers advised us Y, or Not X, we’d go with our own vision. When two of us took an early civil case against Chrysler, we were advised about all the things we were doing that wouldn’t work — until they did.
  3. I had a very difficult case with a very sensitive voir dire — a pediatrician accused of molesting a patient in his examination room with no corroborating evidence, back when interviewing techniques were grossly different and uninformed (IV conducted by older male police officer in a squad car with girl’s father present). In order to voir dire a jury about difficult issues, I had to expose truths about myself.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

I’ve felt very lucky throughout my professional life. Though one of my heroes, a lawyer named Brank Rickey, said “Luck is the residue of design.” (Rickey was most famous for signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers.)

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

My college was very left-leaning, which helped open my eyes to all kinds of injustice. My law school was Top Ten, and a terrible experience. When I spent a third year at a third-tier law school, I learned five times as much. I’m suspicious of “top-tier” grads to this day.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

Enjoy your professional and person life. Don’t worry so much.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

Interestingly, I never worked hard in school or law school, but the day I took a $5/hour job with a real client, it all clicked in. I believe I have a responsibility to my client that supersedes my own needs. And I hate injustice, and believe I have a responsibility to the public at large when it doesn’t interfere with my client’s needs.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve just written a book called Trial Lawyer: A Life Representing People Against Power, which contains more about the cases I’ve cited above. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve written a bill now going through the CA legislature that would prevent lawyers and judges in cases involving dangers to the public from keeping information about those dangers secret, hidden from public view. I’ve been working on this for 20 years and think we’re closer now to success.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

Well, at 75, I’ve promised myself and my wife that after the fight for this legislation, which is enormously difficult and time consuming, I’ll become “2/3 retired.” I’ll take consulting work on legal ethics (my academic discipline), and I’m writing another book with at least one more in the queue, but I’m not going to push it anymore.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

In our products liability case against Chrysler Corp decades ago, which I referenced above in answer №2, not being governed by the usual way to do things, we represented a poor Latina who couldn’t steer her van because of a defect in the steering. She crossed two lanes of traffic, slammed into a building, and was lucky to emerge with just a simple leg fracture.

Chrysler offered us nothing, and we got a $3.3 million verdict. We just followed our noses, conducted an independent investigation and developed our case. The lawyers on the other side were extraordinarily arrogant and elitist, putting down our client and our “greasy thumb” witnesses who turned out to be among the best I ever put on a witness stand.

Funniest? Well, the one without the four-letter words is this one:

I represented a woman named Mrs. Friel, who was 98 when we went to trial. She’d slipped and fallen in a market. She had such a lovely, sunny disposition. I couldn’t get her to complain about any pain at all. I don’t want whiny clients, but a little “oh I was in pain” would be helpful. Finally, the week before trial, I asked her how did she feel about having to step over the lip of her tub to use her shower. That caused her to smack her lips together 3 times, as she did when upset, and say “I never thought I would end up like this, a cripple!” I thought “great, finally a bit of sorrow.”

I went back to her house each day after that, asked the same off-topic question, and got the same great response. Then came trial. She was perfectly prepped without her even knowing it. When she was up on the stand I asked her that same question: How was it stepping into the tub? Her response, in her lilting, kind voice: “Oh, it was fine!” I learned you can’t really prep a 98-year-old witness.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I work almost entirely remotely. For our small office of ten shared-space lawyers, the big attraction for me was the social aspect. My two closest friends there have remained remote. Because I stopped doing trial work some years ago, my ethics consultation practice can be done from anywhere, many with clients, usually other lawyers, I’ve never met face to face.

I think the social aspect of lawyering is very important. So is the culture of an office. Here, I feel small offices have it all over big firms. When I taught legal ethics (for 40 years), I’d warn my students about big firms. I still do to people I mentor.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

Well, I’m at the end of my career, so it’s less of an issue for me. I do think that a certain amount of remote work is here to stay, particularly for consultations, which for me have always been by phone. (Interestingly, these continue to be phone calls rather than Zooms to this day.)

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

Since I was a legal ethics teacher (as well as teaching Trial Practice), I’ll give you 5 things I tell my students as the major good lawyering take-aways instead.

  1. Whatever you do, be happy in doing it. Way too many lawyers are depressed, abuse drugs, etc. It’s just never worth it to go down that road.
  2. Be true to yourself, and steel yourself against getting sucked into a law firm (or any) culture that doesn’t speak to your true self. This is particularly dangerous to you when it comes to making huge amounts of money, often at the cost of Point №1, happiness.
  3. Keep your eyes on the prize. If you go into a big firm to pay off loans, or to have enough for a young family, don’t forget where you really wanted to go in your career, and keep that goal in sight until you can go for it.
  4. Remember that the case you’re handling is about the client, not you, and that you have a fiduciary duty to put the client’s interests ahead of your own.
  5. Seek to right injustices, through pro bono work (I was given the ABA’s national pro bono publico award many years ago) or other “righteous” work. It could be the most satisfying work you ever do.

And here’s a bonus one: My dad used to comment about someone, almost always male, showing hubris: “He likes to think who the hell he is.” Don’t!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas. Many years ago, when he was Chief Justice of the Texas Court of Civil Appeals, he got through a rule of court that prevented secrecy in lawsuits, and wrote a great law review article about it. Thirty years later, I’m still working to implement a law in CA while his rule in TX has largely been vitiated when the court membership changed.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!



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