In Strong Advocate, Thomas Strong, one of the most successful trial lawyers in Missouri’s history, chronicles his adventures as a contemporary personal injury attorney. Though the profession is held in low esteem by the general public, Strong entered the field with the right motives: to help victims who have been injured by defective products or through the negligence of others.As a twelve-year-old in rural southwest Missouri during the Great Depression, Strong bought a cow, then purchased others as he could afford them, and eventually financed his education with the milk he sold. After graduating law school and serving in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps, he rejected offers to practice in New York and San Francisco and returned to his hometown of Springfield. Strong exhibited his lifelong passion to represent the underdog early in his practice, the “trial by ambush” days when neither side was required to disclose witnesses or exhibits. He quickly became known for his audacious approach to trying cases. Tactics included asking a friend to ride on top of a moving car and hiring a local character called “Crazy Max” to recreate an automobile accident. One fraud case ended with Strong owning a bank and his opponent going to prison. When he sued a labor union for the wrongful death of his client’s spouse, he found his own life threatened. With changes in the law that allowed discovery of information from an opponent’s files as well as the exhibits and witnesses to be used at trial, Strong and fellow personal injury attorneys forced a wide array of manufacturers to produce safer products. When witnesses of a terrible collision claimed both roadways had green lights simultaneously, Strong purchased the traffic light controller. After three months of continuous testing at a university, the controller failed, showing four green lights, and Strong learned that fail-safe devices were available but had not been implemented. These fail-safe devices are now standard on traffic lights throughout the country. In his last venture, Strong represented the state of Missouri in its case against the tobacco industry, culminating in a settlement totaling billions of dollars. He reflects on the changes—not always for the better—in his oft-maligned profession since he entered the field in the 1950s. Thomas Strong’s story of tenacity, quick wits, and humor demonstrates what made him such a creative and effective attorney. Lawyers and law students can learn much from this giant of the bar, and all readers will be entertained and heartened by his victories for the everyman.
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STRONG ADVOCATETHE LIFE OF A TRIAL LAWYER
By THOMAS STRONG
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Is a Trial Lawyer?
Several years ago, a St. Louis attorney called to ask if I knew "X," a lawyer who had just settled a case for a paraplegic who was a passenger in an automobile collision. The client was without fault, and the insurance company was only too happy to pay its policy limits of twenty-five thousand dollars for a release. The problem was not with the client or the insurance company. "X" had charged a 40 percent fee for a result the client could easily have obtained without him. It was unconscionable. Any lawyer with an ounce of compassion would have helped the client collect the nominal settlement pro bono.
People in Springfield, Missouri, saw "Y" nearly every time they turned on their television. He told them that he was a personal injury lawyer and said he could help them if they were injured in a car or truck crash. He seemed like a person with lofty principles when he assured viewers that he gave part of his fee to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers each time he made a recovery in a drunk driving case. His various commercials proclaimed him an expert in a variety of areas in addition to highway collisions. "Y" was handsome and looked professional and trustworthy in his blue suit and red tie, and he spoke with confidence and authority. The printing at the bottom of his advertisements listed the several cities where he maintained offices. Surely, this man, with such credentials and principles, would be the ideal person to represent a seriously injured soul.
But people are not always what they seem. My partner took "Y's" deposition when he had a dispute with his former associates and made some alarming discoveries. "Y" had never appeared in a single court in Missouri; did not know how many appellate courts there were; could not name a single judge; did not know if the courthouse in Springfield (where he advertised) was wood, stone, brick, or concrete; and did not know how many jurors sat in a civil case. It is little wonder that a number of ethics complaints and legal malpractice claims had been filed against him. "Y" was a con artist of the worst kind, preying on unsuspecting clients who trusted him to obtain justice for them.
Then there was lawyer "Z," who visited the police station to scan the police accident reports. "Z" was interested in those collisions where someone was transported to the hospital. Soon a letter from "Z" would arrive at the injured person's home, expressing sympathy and offering his services. If the police report indicated a serious injury, "Z" would visit the hospital to express his compassion in person. People complained to me after being contacted by him. Not only was he unprofessional, but he was also insensitive and guilty of gross bad taste.
"X," "Y," and "Z" had one thing in common—money. It was not money for their clients that was their priority; it was money for their coffers. Insurance companies enjoyed hearing from "X," "Y," and "Z" because they knew these pretenders would sell their clients out for nearly any amount, no matter how ridiculous. Settle the case with as little effort as possible and collect a fee; that was their goal. "X," "Y," and "Z" were members of the despicable species that people call "ambulance chasers." People joke about them and ridicule the legal profession because of them. A friend once gave me a book titled Lawyers and Other Reptiles, full of lawyer jokes, then borrowed it before I had a chance to see if it contained a single gag I had not heard.
But a license, a mere piece of paper, does not make a person a real trial lawyer. "X," "Y," "Z," and their ilk are not real trial lawyers. They are impostors, leeches on my profession. There is a nursery rhyme:
Jerry Hall, he's so small
A cat could eat him
Hat and all.
Those impersonators are too small to be members of my ancient and noble profession. My calling dates to the first book of the Bible. In Genesis, chapter 18, Abraham negotiated with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. As an advocate for his people, he was a trial lawyer, without the title. From the beginning of written history, laws existed to protect those who were wronged by others. The code of Hammurabi, the Torah, the Justinian Code, the Theodosian Code, the Napoleonic Code, and the British Common Law are all forerunners of our unique judicial system. The United States has been a melting pot, not just of people, but of ideas and laws, selecting from history the good and discarding the bad to sculpt the greatest legal system the world has ever known.
In many societies, people who run counter to their government are treated as expendable. It is this philosophy that permitted Nazi Germany to send Jews to the gas chamber, Communist Russia to exile its citizens to Siberia, and totalitarian China to imprison protesters at Tiananmen Square. They succeeded in their oppression because their laws allowed such atrocities. In the United States, individuals have rights, which courageous trial lawyers will defend. Lawyers are the protectors of the people. When Shakespeare's Dick the Butcher in King Henry VI said, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," it was not a derogatory comment. Dick the Butcher was an anarchist seeking to overthrow the government and knew that the first thing a potential tyrant must do to eliminate freedom is to "kill all the lawyers."
In addition to the right not to be mistreated by our government, Americans have the right not to be injured or killed by the wrongful act of another. Trial lawyers seek redress for such wrongs. We are the voice of the sick and injured who, otherwise, would have no voice. Because we speak for the injured, our highways, skies, workplaces, and products are safer now than ever before. Because our clients are unorganized and have no lobby, we are their advocates in our state and national capitals. We fight for the weak and wronged in legislative halls and courthouses across our land. We have courage, ethics, character, and integrity. Our wits, tenacity, talent, and sweat are our weapons. Our motivation is to obtain justice for our clients, real people, grievously wronged, who cannot speak for themselves, and whose futures are in our hands. To this end, we never tire, we never back up, and we never step down. Let the powerful and wealthy who oppose us know that we will pursue the right with all of our might. This is how it was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow. There is a loftier goal in life than self-promotion or the bottom line of our bank accounts. Real trial lawyers feel a calling to leave the world better than when they found it.
In the world's broad field of battle
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Unreachable as it may be, this should be every trial lawyer's goal. I am proud to have called myself a trial lawyer, to have been a member of this great profession, one who represented his clients with passion and courage. I hope my story will encourage other trial lawyers and enlighten the lay public about who and what a real trial lawyer is. It is my story from childhood to retirement—and beyond.
Chapter TwoA Shaky Start
They say we are products of our environment. Were we raised by two parents, one, or none? Was our home religious or atheistic? Were our mentors honest or devious, criminals or saints? Were they intelligent or dull, industrious or loafers, white or blue collar? Were their examples good or bad? Did we live in luxury, comfort, or poverty? Were we taught good moral values or left to our own devices? How did any of us become what we turned out to be?
Both of my parents were college graduates, very unusual in the 1920s; my father was a graduate of the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (now Missouri University of Science and Technology) with a degree in mechanical engineering, and my mother a graduate of Southwest Missouri State Teachers College (now Missouri State University) with a degree in education. Dad, an outstanding student, accepted a coveted position with the Johnson Controls Company in Boston, Massachusetts, after graduating in 1925. The couple had every right to be optimistic about their future, so joy and hope were abundant when my only sibling, John Frank (Jack), was born on October 17, 1928.
Fate was not to smile for long, however, and two nearly simultaneous calamities dashed their dreams: the Great Depression, which forced Johnson Controls to release more than half of its employees in 1930 and 1931, and a mysterious illness that struck Dad in 1931 and rendered him a near invalid for the rest of his life. Dad developed a tremor in his arms and hands, which became stiff and partially paralyzed. He walked with a limp, and his speech was slurred. Doctors remained perplexed for the rest of Dad's life about either a name or a treatment for his incapacitation, but its consequences did have a name, "unemployment" at Johnson Controls after January 1, 1932.
With the Great Depression in full force and with an unemployed wage earner, all the family needed was an additional financial burden, which came when yours truly, Thomas Gorman Strong, entered the world on December 6, 1931. Without work or any prospect to find it, the couple and their two sons, one just two months old, moved back to the farm of Dad's parents near Marshfield, Missouri, in February 1932. With record-setting droughts that turned farms into dust bowls in the 1930s, and the Depression that made farm products worth almost nothing, the family found itself unable to make mortgage payments or even pay the property taxes. The handwriting was on the wall. Dad could not work, and the farm, which was ultimately lost to creditors in 1936, became an albatross.
Mother was our family's last hope to avoid living in one of the nation's many slums or tent cities, or as recipients of some charitable organization or agency. She hunted for a teaching position and, after one and a half years, found it at Oakland School, east of Springfield, in the fall of 1933, until moving to nearby Blackman School two years later.
In the summer of 1936, when I was four and a half years old, we moved eight miles west of Springfield, closer to Mother's new job teaching at Bennett School. Mother's first year at Bennett brought home $65 per month, $520 for the year, our only income. We were poor, even by Depression standards, but we were more fortunate than many. My experiences, still vividly etched in memory, had a major impact on the type of person I would become. Meager family finances, my home environment, my mother's values, and my father's later success as an engineer, despite his affliction, affected me in ways I neither recognized nor appreciated at the time.
The Bennett years brought stability, a time and place to establish roots. Our house, sheds, and ten acres, which we rented, were one-half mile east of Barnes' Store and one mile east of school. The rent, $9 a month, was reasonable even though it consumed a fifth of our yearly income. The L-shaped house, with three rooms downstairs and two up, was in sad shape, decaying after years of inattention and vacancy. The roof leaked so badly that when it rained outside, it rained inside—just not as hard. On a frigid winter night, when the wind whistled through the cracks in the walls, the urine in the chamber pot in my bedroom froze into ice. There was no heat anywhere in the house at night. And during the day, minimal heat was generated from a potbellied stove in the main room downstairs. On a bone-chilling winter morning, Dad would start a fire, and we would all gather around the stove. When we faced it, our backs remained cold, but when we turned our backs to it, our fronts became chilled. It was a no-win situation.
The kitchen was the L part of the downstairs and extended back from the living room. Mother cooked our meals on an inefficient stove unlike any I have ever seen. A glass container filled with kerosene and turned upside down at the end of the stove then ran down a pipe under four burners, the first two open and the last two under an oven. Wicks in the four burners, lit with a match, would ignite the kerosene and produce a fire much like a kerosene lantern. One summer, with great expectations, we planted popcorn in our garden and looked forward to a special treat when it ripened. But the stove could not get hot enough to make the corn pop. The result was a good deal of anger for Dad and frustration for me. I loved heavily salted popcorn. Our water came from a twenty-foot-deep hand-dug well across the road. I have not mentioned the bathroom in our house because there was none. A "two holer" existed outside, which became especially unpleasant in the winter, when one journeyed there as quickly as possible.
I do not know if the house was ever occupied after we moved away in 1943. The Great Depression had lost its steam with the outbreak of World War II, and people were anticipating better times. Hence, no one would be satisfied with a house that could not be properly repaired, regardless of the time and money invested in the attempt. After returning from the army, I drove by to see it. The large trees I once climbed and the yard where I rode my bicycle and played baseball with my brother looked much the same, but the house was gone without a trace. A different structure, a nicer, larger one-story ranch house, already apparently several years old, had taken its place. Somehow, inexplicably, I was sad.
In the fall before my sixth birthday I entered the first grade, there being no preschool or kindergarten in those days. Before dawn, Dad started a fire in the potbellied stove, and we crowded around it to get warm. After breakfast we milked cows, fed chickens, carried wood or coal into the house, washed dishes, and carried water from across the highway. After morning chores, Mother and I walked the mile to school on days when Dad couldn't take us. When we arrived, we carried coal and started a fire in the large potbellied stove in the middle of the room so the building would be warm when students arrived. Mother emptied the wastebaskets, swept the floors, and rang the bell calling the students to come inside. She was everything: teacher, choir director, band leader, carpenter, counselor, and janitor. Mother was an excellent teacher. Much of what I now know I learned as her pupil in grades one, two, three, five, and six. In this nondescript little school, with about a dozen students in the eight grades, we were taught history, geography, current events, science, reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I greatly benefited from what I believe are the most important "three R's" in education: "repetition, repetition, and repetition." When in the first grade, I watched and listened to Mother teach the second and third grades. When in the second grade, I learned from what she taught the third and fourth grades, and so on. Having a preview of what was to come helped when it came my time to be exposed to the subject.
Mother was a strict disciplinarian. For students, unruly conduct always brought the same punishment. Boys (I never recall Mother spanking a girl) would bend over their desks, pants would be pulled tight, and Mother would administer twelve sharp blows with a twelve-inch ruler. Invariably, tears would come not later than the ninth or tenth blow, even from the most determined children. If the offense occurred at recess, students would be brought inside for punishment. The rest of us would gather close to a window, listen to the strikes of the ruler, and vicariously feel the pain. Being whipped by Mother was an event not easily forgotten, as I can still attest. It seemed that I received this punishment more than any other student.
Each Christmas we produced a play complete with a curtain, which was attached to farm wire stretched several feet above the floor. I always wanted to play Joseph, a shepherd, or a wise man, but I was never awarded a major role—either because I lacked talent or because I was the teacher's son. Other students had parents who paid Mother's salary and were sensitive to her showing favoritism to her sons. At recess or noon, Mother could have taken a few minutes for relaxation, had she chosen, but these were our times for physical education, and she was the supervisor. We played softball, which Mother refereed, and darebase, tag, and other games in which she participated. In inclement weather, we stayed inside and played blindman's bluff or games on the blackboard.
I thought Bennett School modern because it had two bathrooms, one for girls and one for boys, and just as amazing, both were inside. A more refined eye would have seen the downside because, without running water, they were like outdoor privies enclosed in small closets at two corners of the schoolroom. Despite Mother's best efforts to restrict their odor by dumping liberal doses of lime into the toilets, any visitor would not have to see the privies to know they were there. I am sure toilet paper was invented long before the 1930s, but it was not known at our school. Sears catalogs, on the other hand, were readily available, as were a wash pan, lye soap, and towel. The human waste, paper, and lime deposited in the privies fell into concrete basins below. It was Dad's unpleasant chore, for just two dollars per privy, to empty them. Periodically, he lowered buckets into the basins, scooped up the contents, loaded it in a wheelbarrow, and dumped it in a neighbor's field to serve as cost-free fertilizer. The school building now is a portion of a barn, but some of the trees, which we planted as a school project, still live today in what is left of the school yard.
Excerpted from STRONG ADVOCATE by THOMAS STRONG Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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