Chutzpah is the Yiddish word for it. Cohones is the word you find for it in the Urban Dictionary. “It” is that certain something that few of us have, that something that we admire, that something that we all wish we had, at least at some point in our lives. It is that certain combination of courage and audacity, guts and bravado, that makes a person stand out, be a leader, be admired and revered, be someone you want to be around.
Many years ago when I joined the law firm at which I have spent my life, we had one of these rare individuals. Herb. I’ll just call him Herb. Everyone knows him as Herb. He was the best trial lawyer around and he was managing partner of our firm. He was not physically imposing, short and bald. His voice was not loud. But he was as intimidating and effective in the courtroom and in the board room as any lawyer you could ever know. His intellect and his presence would overwhelm the opposition. And woo juries and judges and clients. He was the meanest you know what in the valley. And the smartest.
There are few points in a life or a career that induce more insecurity than being a young lawyer in a big firm, particularly a firm of iconic lawyers, a “white shoes” firm, where excellence wasn’t hoped for or demanded, but where it was expected. Where nothing less would do. That is where I found myself at age 26, fresh out of law school, rife with credentials and ambition, devoid of experience and worldliness.
Unlike most jobs, the law pits you against others who don’t want you to succeed, who want to beat you, whether it be in court or in the negotiation of a deal. Your self worth is constantly on the line and your ego is frequently battered. Everyone wants to be the smartest person in the room. When you fail you fear you will never have another client. This is where Herb came to your rescue.
He was the guy you wanted in your fox hole. In today’s parlance, he had your back. When things were tough, he was tougher. It was an unbelievably comforting feeling to know you had Herb on your side, that he was on your team. He made you bulletproof. You knew he would save the day if needed. Practicing in his firm was like playing poker with a couple of aces up your sleeve.
Herb’s essence can be captured in one short, simple moment. It was probably 35 years ago but seems as if it was yesterday. I had been summoned to his office for an assignment. I came up from my 5th floor office to his on the 6th, armed with the ever present legal pad. Herb was on the phone, apparently with someone threatening suit against the firm. Pre-speaker phone dates, Herb was holding the receiver away from his ear, smiling and allowing me to hear the diatribe on the other end of the line. Deciding he had heard enough and that he needed to get on with his day, he said, in his ever present calm manner, “go ahead and sue us, this is a law firm, law suits here are like shoes in a shoe factory.” Conversation over. Give us your best shot. I’ll knock it back over the net and down your throat.
One of my favorite Herb stories was from a deposition I attended with him in my first or second year of practice. I don’t remember much about the case except that it involved a couple of the many small time, robber baron coal merchants of that era, probably fighting over a poorly drafted contract or lease. There were 2 lawyers on the other side of the table, one of whom was my contemporary and went on to become a fine judge in our county, the other an already well-established trial lawyer.
Our client was being deposed. As was typical of Herb in those pre-cell phone days, he left the room to take a call on another case, leaving me to defend the deposition. When he returned to the room, I was in the midst of objecting to turning over a document the other side was demanding, asserting that it was privileged. Herb comes in, looks at me and says “Evans, what document do they want?” I answered and then Herb looked across the table at opposing counsel and said “no, you are absolutely not entitled to that document.” Jim and Louie, good and competent lawyers, immediately acquiesced and agreed! It was as if God had spoken. We took a break a few minutes later and in the hallway Herb whispered to me, “Evans, what document were you all arguing about by the way?” Chutzpah!
Then there was the time Herb tried a medical malpractice case in one of those podunk little counties of which West Virginia has so many, in the center part of the state, a place where you have to go through “End of the World” and then take a right in “Falling Off” to get to, as my father used to say. A county of about 3,000 residents, with a tiny medical clinic they called a hospital.
Herb could try any case, but he relished defending doctors the most. Legend had it that he was pre-med before deciding that he did not want the life and death pressure of that profession. But he knew more medicine than many hospital chiefs of staff. And he liked defending the reputations of doctors.
In this instance he was defending one of the 2 surgeons in the county, one who had done (unsuccessfully apparently) a procedure for which he was not certified. The plaintiff’s lawyers (the guys from the “dark side” as Herb called them) had retained an “effete Easterner” as their expert witness. As we liked to say at the time, an expert was anyone from out of state and this fellow clearly qualified, coming from a large hospital in Philadelphia to educate a jury of Wirt Countians about how badly our client had performed.
Suffice it to say, the good doctor did not earn his large fee. By the time Herb had finished his cross-examination, reminding the Ivy League educated expert how far they were from a major medical center, and how exigent the circumstances and how limited the options had been, the expert blurted out from the witness stand, “I would have done exactly what your client did!” Herb turned to the folks sitting in the jury box, smiled and sat down. Cohones!
Herb was the consummate “lawyer’s lawyer” – the lawyer you would want to represent you if your future was at stake, if it was a bet your company case.
Herb will be 90 soon. Given the chance, I bet he could still stand in front of a jury and make the jurors anxious to go to their room and return a verdict in favor of his client.
Thankfully Herb was never on trial. A jury of his peers could not have been convened. He had none.