STRONG ADVOCATE, STRONG BOOK
December 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
STRONG ADVOCATE, The Life of a Trial Lawyer by Thomas Strong, University of Missouri Press, Cloth, $29.95 294 pages*
It has been several months since I first read an advance copy of Tom Strong’s new book, “Strong Advocate, the Life of a Trial Lawyer,” but it has stayed with me, shaping my perception of daily life.
Walking down Clark Street, a few of blocks north of Foster Avenue, I saw a flatbed truck carrying two pieces of heavy machinery. The machines appeared to be improperly secured. I imagined them flying off their precarious perch and injuring or killing someone. A young woman walking past me smoking a cigarette, or an SUV driver turning erratically around a corner while reading his cell phone, these and other common sights call to mind the kind of legal cases taken on by Strong.
In the book’s penultimate chapter, “The Great Tobacco Case,” the author tells the story of the more than five years he spent working for the state of Missouri to obtain a just outcome in litigation against “the wicked cancer-stick manufacturers.” While (then Missouri Attorney General) Jay Nixon chose to settle the case before trial, Strong had outlined his courtroom strategy:
“We were going to hit the destructive syndicate at its soft underbelly,” Strong explains, “its targeting of African-Americans, and we would do it before the most receptive audience possible, an African-American jury. I wanted to try the case and do away with the vile industry that was killing tens of thousands of my countrymen each year…”
Strong took this case despite the fact that few other lawyers wanted the job, as there was no guarantee of fair compensation.
Tom Strong wasn’t fooling around. As a life-long advocate for “people grievously wronged, in desperate need of justice” he has repeatedly put his time, ingenuity and money where his mouth is.
“This my calling” he says, “to drag manufacturers who feel no guilt, no compassion into court and expose their degenerate souls…automobile fan blades, tires, seat belts, seat backs, gas tanks, farm augers, railroad equipment, fishing boats, air rifles, earth bores, brush hogs, corn pickers, hay bailers, insulated extension life buckets (cherry pickers) and fork lifts were among the many products we exposed as unsafe. I, as well as other attorneys, brought changes in the way products were made…”
“Strong Advocate” is a coming of age story, a frank autobiography, and an informative tour of our legal system over the last fifty years. One need not be a lawyer, or a Missourian for that matter, to become utterly absorbed in this book.
Strong is an American original who believes in self-reliance, hard work, and the power of the individual to overcome adversity, but he is entertainingly unpredictable, and cannot be pigeonholed. The book avoids the sententiousness and self-aggrandizement sometimes evinced by successful people who have written books about their lives. The style is straightforward, and the occasional quotes from poems and historical figures lend this story of an “everyman” who succeeds a certain folksy authenticity.
Born to well-educated parents, his mother a teacher and his father an engineer at the beginning of what appeared to be a promising career, Strong and family were forced into poverty by the sudden, debilitating (and undiagnosed) illness of his father. They lived on the small income his mother earned teaching in a rural Missouri grade school. The author was in high school before his family could afford the luxuries of indoor plumbing, including hot running water, and a house without a leaky roof. Nonetheless, he recounts happy childhood memories of playing indoors and out, including the riding of an adult-sized bicycle that required the skill of a gymnast to mount and dismount.
High school offered him a chance to excel, and he was immediately attracted to debate and school politics. The joys of his accomplishments were overshadowed by the death of his mother from cancer just three days before graduation. A few days after the funeral, when he enrolled for the summer term at Southwest Missouri State College, his adviser asked him what major he intended to declare. He wasn’t sure. But when she asked him what he wanted to be when he graduated he had a ready answer: lawyer. The answer seemed to bubble up from a deep-seated source of ambition, and he surprised himself as well as his family, because up until that time he had always said he wanted to be a “preacher.”
He finished college in three years, all the while working odd jobs, selling the milk of cows he had bought and limiting his social activities in order to save money. In 1952 he entered the University of Missouri School of Law. In those days, he tells us, anyone could enroll in the “state-supported” law school and there were no tests or “undergraduate grade requirements.” But during his first law school course he hit a wall:
“All through grade school, high school, and college, with the exception of debate, I essentially did no homework” Strong admits, “I made good grades without ever learning to study…I had been physically active all my life, and reading unexciting cases or treatises put me to sleep…”
Over the next two years he taught himself to study, and by the time he reached his final year of law school he not only made good grades, he taught undergraduate courses and wrote two Law Review articles. He received a coveted student award and was interviewed by a prestigious New York City law firm.
I’d like to know more about how he overcame his inability to study, because he not only overcame it, but also came to be known as a lawyer who could out-study, out-prepare and out-perform any adversary. He learned the rule of “primacy and recency,” meaning “you are inclined to be most impressed with what you hear first (the rule of primacy) and remember best what you hear last (the rule of recency),” adapting it to flout the expectations of opposing lawyers.
Strong practiced when the rule of “contributory negligence” governed Missouri law, meaning that the “slightest degree of fault” on the part of a plaintiff ensured his or her case would be dismissed.
Another impediment to a plaintiff attorney’s victory was what Strong calls “trial by ambush,” that is, for many years under Missouri law “there was almost no pretrial discovery…Lawyers marched into the courtroom not knowing what arguments would be advanced, what exhibits would be offered, what witnesses would be presented, or what expert testimony would be elicited by their adversaries.”
Despite all these difficulties Strong managed to win money judgments over and over again. He explains how he often went against the grain of conventional wisdom by ignoring the question of who was at fault in his opening arguments during an accident case. He would allow the defense to drone on, and then demolish his adversaries with his dramatic closing arguments, a tactic that worked in his favor every time. He would typically start with a narrative about his clients that emphasized their suffering and common humanity in order to win the sympathy of the jury.
In “The Malicious Tow Bar” we learn about how far this particular trial lawyer would go to prove his case about an unsafe product. Working in behalf of a young man who was paralyzed as the result of an auto accident involving a tow bar, Strong recruited a mechanical engineer (who happened to be his friend), hired a stunt man named “Crazy Max” and two cameramen, and set about recreating the accident. This also required finding a truck of the same make, model and year as the one destroyed in the accident. Using this film he was able to make monkeys out of the lawyer and his witnesses who were defending Pilot, the manufacturer of the tow bar. The jury never saw the film because once the defendant’s counsel saw it the company begged (my word not his) for settlement.
Other chapters about fascinating cases include, “Love, Marriage and Fraud” which tells of a man who tricked his wife into signing divorce papers so he could keep his substantial fortune and buy a new life. This one required Strong to be part lawyer, part Sherlock Holmes. “Growing Pains” includes the case of a faulty traffic light controller that caused a serious auto accident. Strong bought the controller from the city of Harrison, AK, recriuting a professor of electrical engineering to test the controller for 24 hours a day until the malfunction declared itself.
If there were legal hurdles to overcome, Strong also had his personal problems. He slept very little and was plagued by a recurring nightmare that he arrived late for a court date and was unprepared as the legal action unfolded around him.
Some of the most remarkable passages in this book come in the first and last chapters.
For much of the book, the reader is kept guessing about the philosophy behind the author’s political affiliations. For example, in discussing the murder of a truck driver, a “scab” named John Gault who was murdered by striking workers, Strong appears to express admiration for Ayn Rand. The driver had taken the name of Rand’s protagonist in Atlas Shrugged.
At another point in the book he refers to himself as “a yellow dog Republican,” and he makes it clear he had made contributions to a Republican senator with whom he became friends.
The last chapter, “Retirement and Beyond,” describes in detail what had appealed to him about the Grand Old Party, and why he became disenchanted with it. Republicans like Ronald Regan and George W. Bush talked about “fiscal responsibility,” but when they gained office they “did not practice what they preached.” Like Strong’s passionate closing argument in a court of law, his final chapter is a damning commentary on the hypocrisy of the Republican political project. His analysis of the how “insurance companies and manufacturers” increasingly donated to Republican candidates who embraced their campaign for “tort reform” will make your hair stand on end. He outlines how pro-“reform” propaganda was used to persuade average people to vote against their own interests.
“When the argument of the ‘reformers’ was pierced to its nub,” Strong says, “it was clear it wasn’t the frivolous lawsuits they feared. It was the legitimate suit with the potential to reduce the dividends they could pay their stockholders.”
I’d like to end by quoting the first chapter, “What is a Trial Lawyer.” The Republican Party has spent vast amounts of money promoting the idea that “trial lawyers” are nothing but money-grubbing filers of frivolous lawsuits that impede progress and business and hurt us all. What a tonic it is to read Tom Strong’s words:
“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 week and the wronged in legislative halls and courthouses across our land. We have courage, ethics, character and integrity. Our wits, tenacity, talent and sweat our are weapons…”
He also points out that when Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s “Henry the VI” says, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” he says this because he is “…an anarchist seeking to overthrow the government and knew that the first thing a potential tyrant must do eliminate freedom is to ‘kill all the lawyers.’ ”
I believe this highly readable book will help set the record straight about the value of trial lawyers to society. And I hope “Strong Advocate” inspires younger readers to emulate its author, and that the author in due course gives us a second book.
*This review was published in the December issue of The Missouri Trial Attorney, the magazine of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.