It became really easy for me to reverse roles with my client and explain to the jury how the client ended up in this situation. I used to think that I wasn’t qualified to be a lawyer because I was too emotional or too compassionate with my clients. It could have easily been me in a lot of the cases I took on because of the way I grew up and the things that I got involved in and the sidesteps that I took in my life. Because of that I could always relate to how just one second of a poor decision gets you into a situation that is beyond your control. People aren’t born bad, with evil intentions and a demonized personality. It’s just circumstances, that unfortunately lead to criminal acts. There is still value in one’s life. We shouldn’t just throw it away and put them in prison forever or kill them. I would go home after a trial frustrated and upset and kick things and hit things and break things and cry. I just kept coming to the conclusion that this is not fit for me, this is not what I should be doing, this is not what life is about. But now I’m satisfied with my life, I’m satisfied with what I do, I don’t always accomplish my ends but I make a hell of a fight to. I’m really thankful that I became involved with Trial Lawyers College because it helped me to understand what I was feeling and what I was doing.
You have accomplished so much and you have so much respect across the nation as a lawyer. What is it that you do that has made you so successful?
I started out with the fear that if I was ever caught lying I would lose all respect and integrity and it would be too hard to fight for what I believed in. I was a lone African American lawyer in the vast, rich, Orange County, California and I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I had to be open and honest to a fault. From that evolved a reputation – “What Milton Grimes says may not be agreeable, but it is his truth.” That wasn’t necessarily easy to do, but eventually, I didn’t have think about what I was doing or what I was saying or trying to accomplish, it just happened naturally. Going to the Trial Lawyers College just gave me a relief at that approach because what we are teaching is how to make the truth powerful and have the jury trust you and believe you. When I was first exposed to psychodrama I thought it was the craziest thing in the world. I had never seen people let go of or show to one another, their truth. I left the Trial Lawyers College after that first year in 1995 saying “I’ll never go back there again”. Putting myself out there like that was beyond anything that I could conceive of ever doing. However, I was enticed into coming back to the College in ’96 and learning the power of the truth for real. That was the releasing of my emotions fully, completely and without reservation. Finally, I understood the power of it.
What changed so that you no longer feel that way when you come home from work?
Accepting and understanding who I am and that I can’t be someone else. I can’t be that sterile attorney who can lose a person’s freedom or lose a person’s life and go on to the next case. I didn’t come into this profession to be rich. You can make money and still do good for people and I like that. Doing good for people is my primary motivator. I don’t know why, but it is. I love people. It feels good to help people. That’s the reward of this business – to help people.
How does being a more compassionate person equate to being a successful lawyer?
It sets you free. It sets you free from the boundaries that society has put up for us to not show compassion, to not show feelings. How can you express this person’s life and this person’s feelings without understanding your own feelings? That’s what this psychodramatic technique helps us get to. Unless you let yourself to open up to your own experiences that affected you negatively or positively it’s hard to understand another person who has been affected by negative and positive experiences.
Are there other lawyers that you drew inspiration from that are on that same path?
I’ll never forget when I first saw Gerry at a seminar back in the early ’70s. I thought “now I can’t be a Shakespearean speaker like this man – so damn, you know, he’s awesome but I can’t be him. I’m not white. I don’t have a head full of white hair. I’m not six foot three. I don’t have an imposing figure. But there is something about what he does and what he believes and his position on the law that I like so I can have that spirit. I can have his understanding.” I will never forget reading in Gerry’s book From Freedom to Slavery, in the introduction he shares a letter from Alan Sheffield, who asked him, “how he could possibly defend Randy Weaver. He’s a racist. He’s anti-Semitic. He was a white supremacist.” Spence’s letter back to him essentially said, “because I defend him does not mean I want to break bread with him. It doesn’t mean I support his ideas. But I do support, and will fight for, his rights which all of us are entitled to.” That resonated with me. When I represent a person accused of a crime that the prosecutor says requires the death penalty I’m not saying that this person was justified in killing another person. I’m not supporting that, but I 100% support the position that they are entitled to the best defense that we can provide. I will fight for their life because I don’t believe in the death penalty under any circumstances.
In working so closely with some of these lawyers that you derived inspiration from, have you been able to identify key things that separate the great lawyers from everybody else?
Compassion, understanding, feelings – that it is okay to let those things play into your representation of the client. In order to understand the client you’ve got to get to know them, you’ve got to get away from just reading the police reports or the interviews or the depositions that other people have completed. One of the most tiring and time consuming parts of my job is spending time with my clients but it is necessary to get to know the person. I’ve got to get to know the client in order to tell that person’s story to a group of strangers or to a prosecutor or to a judge so I can speak with authority. I don’t just speak with data. I don’t just speak with surveys and reports and research. I speak from the personal position of that individual so that I can share feelings with my audience about this person, not just data that applies to this person or society at large.
What is it about the Trial Lawyers College that makes a difference to you?
The Trial Lawyers College has enabled those of us of like mind and unlike mind to feel like we have an environment where we can freely express our truths. It’s unique that you have such a gathering of people who have the opportunities and the abilities to make changes, to share their feelings and ideas about this society and what has to be done for helping it. That is unique. You can’t go to any other trial lawyer seminar or conference where you can safely discuss these issues. I don’t always agree with everybody at the College about their position but we can sit together in the cookhouse or go on a walk and we can put them out there on the table. It gives us an environment where we can see each other for who we really are and develop a relationship that we may have never been able to develop outside of that College. That is just part of the indebtedness I have to Gerry Spence about this Trial Lawyers College.
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