A lot of law school graduates would rather go work for corporate law, where the money is a lot more guaranteed. But we need skilled trial lawyers here in the United States fighting on behalf of citizens rather than corporations. Mike Papantonio, co-host of Ring of Fire, former Past President of the National Trial Lawyers’ Association, member of the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame, joins Farron Cousins to discuss his plan for that.


*This transcript was generated by a third-party transcription software company, so please excuse any typos.

Farron Cousins:                  America’s facing a crisis right now that I don’t think many people in this country actually understand, and that is that law schools aren’t necessarily teaching law students one, how to actually go into a courtroom and try a case, but two, the importance of handling cases on behalf of American consumers. A lot of law school graduates would rather go work for corporate law, or even tax law or patent law, little bit more relaxed, little it easier, and the money’s a lot more guaranteed.

But we need skilled trial lawyers here in the United States, and Mike Papantonio, co-host of Ring of Fire, former Past President of the National Trial Lawyers’ Association, member of the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame, you’ve got a plan. You’ve got a new project you’re working on to help teach these young students how to be a real trial lawyer.

Mike Papantonio:             Yeah, I think what has happened is, if you don’t teach those skills in law school, a graduate comes out of law school thinking that, “Maybe somebody’s going to teach me … maybe there’s going to be some kind of mentoring program and I’m going to learn how to do a voir dire, and cross-examination, and opening,” and all the parts that they have to know how to do. But it doesn’t work like that. And it used to be that there were a lot more programs available across the country to teach young lawyers how to be trial lawyers. Troy Rafferty, myself, and a handful of other lawyers, all of them very, very experienced trial lawyers that probably among them have probably tried 2,000, 3,000 cases. I mean, very significant group, that said, “Well, we have to start addressing that.”

And so, what we’ve launched is something called Trial Skills Made Perfect. It’s a branch of MTMP, which is a program put together for lawyers that we’ve been doing in Las Vegas for 19 years. This is going to focus on just the trial skill aspect of it. The problem is this, and I think it’s something the general public doesn’t understand. Nothing changes without people that can walk into a courtroom and hold the government responsible and hold a corporation responsible when they do wrong. It doesn’t change by compromise, Farron.

Compromise never changes our culture. You’re not going to be able sit down with the table and talk to corporations that, many of them have kind of a sociopathic quality about them. Their bottom line is all that matters. Doesn’t make any difference if they’ve killed people with dangerous products, pharmaceuticals. Doesn’t make any difference if they’ve devastated an entire ecosystem through an environmental bad act. Many of those cases don’t even … they’re not even recognized. Doesn’t make any difference … you don’t change Wall Street by compromising with them when they steal money from Mom and Pop corporations, okay.

We want to say government is there to change all that, but they’re not. What’s happened with the SEC, the FDA, the EPA, you name it … what’s happened with all the regulators is, they’ve become captured by the industry. So, regulators don’t change that. So what ends up happening is that it requires that private industry, the trial lawyers that care enough about consumers, take this on and they say, “Well, we’re going to go see what a jury thinks about it.” But in order to do that, they have to have the skills, you see. And what’s happened right now is, we’ve gotten so far away from that. People think of arbitration and mediation, or they come out of school thinking that’s the way to resolve problems. It doesn’t resolve problems. It puts a band-aid on a problem, but it doesn’t resolve the problem with a trial.

Farron Cousins:                  Right. A lot of times corporations typically only settle because they want this particular problem to go away, to get out of the public’s mind. When you have trials, like right now we’re seeing the big ones with Monsanto. And whenever you have one of those headlines it reminds people that Monsanto’s Roundup could have some serious problems. And so, by settling, you get rid of it. But also, by settling, these young lawyers think, “Well, I don’t need to know how to try a case. I’m just going to settle everything.”

Mike Papantonio:             Right.

Farron Cousins:                  And there’s a danger to that, isn’t there?

Mike Papantonio:             Well, there’s a mentality … their mentality is, they’ve seen lawyers before them settle big projects. For example, Monsanto’s a great example. Those lawyers that really pushed ahead on that were primarily young lawyers. I mean, they’re not the old guys that have been doing this a long time. They said, “Monsanto has done some horrible things. They’re making a product that’s killing people. We have to take it to trial,” underneath almost impossible odds, Farron. I mean, the trial that took place in California, in front of that federal judge in California, impossible odds. This judge wanted to make it go away. He made it almost impossible for these young female trial lawyers to win that case. But they won it anyway.

That changes things. That’s a game changer. They didn’t go to a back room and say, “Hey, let’s try to work something out amicably,” because that doesn’t mean anything to Monsanto, Farron. It means nothing at all. But when you hit them for $80 million or $100 million or $200 million and the shareholders say, “What’s going on here?” that changes things. But in order to get there, you have to have trial lawyers that have skills. I mean, they have to have the skill. You don’t just go to law school and come out with that skill.

And so, this program that we’re developing is Trial Skills Made Perfect. You’re going to have the best trial lawyers in America running this program. They’re going to be spending time in front of young trial lawyers, and all they’re saying is, “All we need is this. We want to be a trial lawyer. We understand the importance of trial law. Here’s how you do it,” is what that program delivers. And it’s something that’s going to be taking place throughout the country.

Troy Rafferty, as a matter of fact, is going to be heading that up. Troy Rafferty’s history in this is just phenomenal. I mean, he’s got more $100 million verdicts of anybody that I can think of. And the way he did that is, he had the skills going into it, you see. He learned, “What are all the nuances to voir dire? What are all the nuances to picking a jury and opening a case?” It’s not second nature. That’s not something that you intuitively know. There are skill sets that you simply have to understand.

So, another part of it to me, Farron, is that a lot of kids coming out of law school right now, they go kind of, for the low-hanging fruit. They’re top of their class, their grades are great, their scores on everything are outstanding. And rather than taking that skill set and taking that talent and saying, “Let me go to work for consumers, let me go to work for people who have been harmed by environmental bad acts, let me go to work for somebody that has been harmed by a pharmaceutical company that made a product that they knew was going to kill people and they kept it out there anyway because they were making money doing it, let me go to work for,” rather than saying, “Let me go to work for those consumers,” they say, “Let me go to work for that corporation that ensures that I’m going to make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year.”

And the problem is, they don’t have guts enough, or they don’t have compassion enough, or they don’t have character enough to understand that the skill set they have really should be lent to the consumers that are looking for that kind of skill set. I have a theory, and it’s not just my theory. Most trial lawyers will tell you that when a young lawyer comes out of law school and they’re offered … most of the times, it’s people top of their class. It may be the top 1%, 2%. They are great with books. They’re great with research and writing papers, but there’s something else that attracts them to going to work with a big corporation. It is that most of them are terrified of rejection. They’re terrified to put themselves in a setting that’s a little bit unsure.

In other words, “I’m going to take on this case against one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country.” They’re so unsure of their ability, they’re so unsure about their character to be able to take that on that they say, “Let me take the easy route. Let me go to work for that corporation. And I know the corporation or that law firm, that silk stocking law firm is going to pay me $200,000 a year because I’m the smartest guy in my class.” But at the end of the day, that person pays no attention, matter of fact, they’re on the other side of people that need their help. Their idea of victory, Farron, is when they win a case where they’re able to go back to their office and say, “I had a big victory today. You know what my victory was? My victory was, I kept a thousand people from recovering from the loss of their kidneys,” or “their liver,” some type of damage that’s caused by a pharmaceutical, where they’ve died.

And they say, “That’s a big victory for me.” How do you call that a victory? But they’re able to somehow do this metaphysical gymnastics to where they say, “Yeah, I really did some good. I represented this corporation.” That’s what’s happening.

Farron Cousins:                  Well, those people have to go home, maybe they sit at the dinner table with their kids and say, “Kids, I had a great day today. 200,000 people that got cancer from my company, we don’t have to pay them.” How can you, I mean, as a human being, put aside your moral compass and think that that is right? Yes, everybody in this country is entitled to representation, but the lawyers on the other side, they see the same documents you do. They know that the company did this, and covered it up, and knew it would cause X, Y, and Z. And they go to bed at night knowing that that is what they chose, coming out of law school.

And we have to instill in these graduates that, hey, maybe it’s a little unsure, but I promise you, you’re going to sleep better at night, you’re going to feel better as a human being if you go to bat for those people who lost everything.

Mike Papantonio:             Right. This idea of, this fear of rejection is very real. These kids come out of school, they go to some silk stocking law firm. This firm says, “Look, we’re going to put you in the country club, you’re going to be part of the inner circle of the establishment. We’re going to pay you this, maybe give you a car.” Think of the lack of courage when somebody says, “Yeah, I think I’ll do that. And yeah, I think I’ll represent this company that destroyed an entire ecosystem, killed a thousand people with their toxins. I think I’ll do that because that fits me very well.”

And unfortunately, in law school, they don’t even talk about this type of thing. There’s no type of issue where they talk about, “You know, you have to make a personal decision for yourself. And you have to be able to tell your children, ‘This is the legacy I’m proud of.'” So, the program we’re putting together, Trial Skills Made Perfect, is going to be talking to those people who really care, who really do care about the idea, what’s in the best interest of consumers, what’s in the best interest of my community? Yeah, I’m going to take a chance when I take on a company like DuPont, or Pfizer, or Merck. I’m taking a big chance, because I might lose. But I’m going to take it on, and I’m going to have all the skills to take on all these lawyers they throw at me on the other side.

The good news is, most of the time those top-of-the-class types that graduate and go to school, they’re the top 1% of an elite university, they don’t have the skills. And those are the people, fortunately, that show up on the other side of a trial most of the time. So, it’s not a fair fight. It’s not really a fair fight if that trial lawyer has the skills, and they are an operator, a true operator that has the skills to operate within that realm. It just changes culture in a positive way.

Farron Cousins:                  And one last thing I want to hit on here is the fact that you have the big corporations, and they … essentially, they head hunt at these Ivy League Schools. They’re staked out at Harvard, and Princeton, Columbia, ready to get those top five people and snatch them up. And then you have the people who go to smaller law schools, maybe one people haven’t even heard of. And they think, “Well, how am I going to compete?” But don’t the need to understand that it doesn’t always matter what school name is on that diploma. If you know what you’re doing you can be more successful than the last 20 Harvard valedictorians?

Mike Papantonio:             It makes no diff- … Look, our team of trial lawyers around here take on all the top schools in the country. When somebody says, “I’m a Harvard graduate,” and they walk into the courtroom, it means nothing to our trial lawyers, because our trial lawyers typically have more skill than they do. And so, that’s what we want to do, we want to surround ourselves with young lawyers who want to do this, who want to change culture in a positive way, and understand that doesn’t take place with mediation, or arbitration, or compromise. It takes place by walking into a courtroom and telling the story to the American public to where the news is able to cover it, to where you actually see the documents. It’s not hidden in some courtroom somewhere, and held secret out of some settlement … to where they see the documents, they see how bad the corporation is, and the outrage affects the stock and share of that company. That’s when things start happening.

Mike Papantonio is an American attorney and television and radio talk show host. He is past president of The National Trial Lawyers, the most prestigious trial lawyer association in America; and is one of the few living attorneys inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. He hosts the international television show "America's Lawyer"; and co-hosts Ring of Fire Radio, a nationally syndicated weekly radio program, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sam Seder.