Mark Prince runs a solo boutique personal injury practice in Marion, Illinois. In reading his interview, we think you will see how Mark’s motivation to become a trial lawyer is something we can all relate to: A desire to get justice for those who are mistreated. Mark’s passion for justice bleeds into everything he does, and his peers recognize this, having elected him as President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers’ Association.
For those of you readers who are running your own practice or are thinking of venturing off on your own, digest the wisdom that Mark imparts. We hope you will all read, reread, and implement the many lessons he shares from his years of practice with us.
Why did you decide to become a trial lawyer?
Trial lawyers are forged. We are molded. We are not born as trial lawyers. Most trial lawyers can point to a specific event in their life that ignited their passion to become a trial lawyer, such as watching a friend or family member suffer through injuries inflicted on them by someone else, experiencing a feeling of powerlessness to fix a particular problem, or witnessing a traumatic event. Our critics will blithely state that trial lawyers are greedy and in it only for the money. I do not know any trial lawyers who are in it solely for the money.
“Like all trial attorneys, my desire to become a trial lawyer was ignited by something that happened to me. This is still a painful memory and still motivates me to do my best. In high school, my Spanish class went on a field trip to a grade school in a community with a large Spanish-speaking population. The idea was for us to pair off with a young Spanish speaking student so we could practice Spanish and the Spanish speaking student could practice English.”
My partner was Daniel, a fourth-grade Spanish speaking student. In this particular class, Daniel was one of three Mexican students. There were far more English-speaking students than Spanish. Part of the day was to include a celebration of sorts during the lunch recess with fun and games. I still remember how excited Daniel and the other Mexican students were about the lunch recess party. About 30 minutes before the lunch recess, the elderly English-speaking teacher announced that Daniel and the two other Mexican students in his class were going to have to stay in for recess. When Daniel started crying and asked why, the teacher did not give a reason other than to say that she didn’t need a reason. To this day, I believe she did it to just embarrass and humiliate Daniel because he was Mexican. I skipped recess too.
This day dramatically impacted me, but maybe not in the way one would imagine. Certainly, I was shocked about the way Daniel was treated. That shock is with me today, over 40 years later. More impactful was that I did not even try to protect Daniel from this treatment. I did not give my voice to help someone who did not have a voice and who needed one. I have never gotten over my failure that day.
It was shortly after that field trip that I decided that I was going to be a lawyer. I didn’t know what a “trial lawyer” was at that time. All I knew was that I never again wanted to watch someone go through what Daniel did on that one day without standing up for them. I needed to find my voice. Fortunately, after migrating into the trial law arena, I found my voice. Using my voice to stand up for others in need is why I am proud to be a trial lawyer.
What’s the most important skill an aspiring lawyer can develop to succeed later in their career? Why?
There are many skills that an aspiring lawyer must develop to be successful. A lawyer must be able to think critically, listen intently, write persuasively, and speak logically. Equally important, we must continue to learn and to adapt our practices by embracing technology.
In order to serve our clients, we must strive to increase our understanding. There are a countless number of bar organizations that offer top-notch continuing legal education programs. Lawyers MUST take the time to participate in these CLEs. Even better, volunteer to speak at one. Do not skip the continuing education because you think you are too busy or do not have the time. Increasing our understanding of the law helps us to better represent our clients.
Embracing technology is also crucial. While this may not be a “skill,” it is a necessary mindset. The law is supposed to reflect current societal norms. Technological advances must be incorporated into our practices or we and our clients will be left behind. When Abraham Lincoln practiced, the norm was a quill and parchment. That gave way to typewriters with carbon paper, which, in turn, gave way to computers, faxes, and word-processing programs. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing a new paradigm on us. Two months ago, video-conference depositions were certainly not the norm. Now, they are. Having your office staff working remotely was not the norm two months ago. Now, it is.
Utilizing these skills is indispensable if we are to effectively represent those who need us.
Have you ever felt yourself paralyzed by nerves, either before or during trial? If so, how did you get yourself out of it?
I have tried many cases and I still get nervous before each trial. While my “nerves” are not as bad as they once were, I still have anxiety. It is natural for a trial lawyer to be nervous or anxious. No matter how many trials you have had, each trial is different and gives the trial lawyer something new to worry about. It is a lot of pressure to have a client’s fate in your hands.
“The key is learning to cope with the anxiety, so it doesn’t paralyze you. For me, I prepare and practice, prepare and practice, and then prepare and practice some more. My wife and kids do not particularly like it when I am in “trial mode” because they hate me practicing my cross-examination skills on them and continually “focus grouping” them. I also like to read books by some of the more famous and skilled members of our trial bar for inspiration and, yes, to steal ideas from them.”
I have learned to embrace my “nerves.” While I try to lessen them, I am afraid that I will become too lax if I don’t have some nerves. I choose to believe that the nerves I have force me to prepare and practice. And, once you are in the heat of the battle, you are not thinking about your anxiety. The minute I introduce myself to the venire, I feel much more at ease.
How are strong lawyer/client relationships formed?
I do not know of any “one-size fits all” answer. There are many facets to developing a trusting relationship with your client. I will address two factors: uniqueness and communication.
Each client is different and must be treated so. I try my best to discover something unique about each client or their case. This keeps me focused on the fact that I am representing a unique individual on a unique case, not someone that I am just pushing through a mill. A client who believes that you are truly interested in them and their particular case will be more willing to follow your lead. A client also appreciates it if you can make their case interesting to the Court. Making your case interesting by focusing on its unique aspects garners the interest of your trial judge. The Court would rather deal with a case that you can make interesting instead of a routine, hum-drum car crash case.
Communication is extremely important. One of the biggest criticisms of lawyers is that we do not keep our clients informed. We are working on their cases, but we do not take the time to tell our clients what we are doing. We are representing our people at one of the worst times of their lives and they are, understandably, scared, and nervous. Communication helps them understand the process and that you are really working hard for them. As a bonus for keeping your client informed, critical decisions can be jointly made easier and quicker. Oh, yeah, it will also cut down on calls from your client to find out what is happening.
What do you find most enjoyable about being a lawyer?
My most enjoyable moments have been when I have delivered a settlement check to a client who appreciates the hard work that I have done for him. While a check does not make the hurt go away or cure the other harms, it oftentimes represents a tool for my client to use to rebuild their life. The joy of that moment is nearly indescribable.
“Formulating a strategy for a case that ultimately works is enjoyable. Along those lines, proving an opponent wrong is a moment to live for, particularly getting a large verdict in a no-offer case. If you have not had that experience, I hope you have it soon.”
Having a jury ask for a calculator, and then later asking if they can award more than I asked for, is a joy not soon forgotten.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a new practice?
Running a law practice, even a small one like mine, is not for the faint of heart. Administering a law practice requires much time, time that can not be spent working on your cases. Administration is not fun, but you must work on it or else your business will fail, or you might encounter ethical issues with your state bar. The comments I make below primarily focus on administration issues, not working your cases. Working your cases, i.e., being a lawyer, is usually the easy part for us to do.
Before going out on your own, I urge you to first work for a reputable firm to learn certain administrative tasks, like handling trust accounts, setting budgets for the office and particular cases, advertising/marketing malpractice insurance, and incorporating technology. If that is not possible, take all the seminars possible on these topics.
“If you are breaking off from a firm, learn the rules regarding how clients are contacted. Failure to follow these ethical rules is surprisingly common. Be upfront with the firm from which you are departing about client retention.”
Have a mentor network set up. No lawyer knows the answer for every situation you will encounter. Reach out to people you know and trust to talk about issues you are encountering. I have been practicing for over 30 years and I still have people I go to for advice and I have many who come to me for advice. Most of us like to help and will freely share advice. Do not be afraid or too proud to ask.
What is an organization/charity you are passionate about?
The Hospice of Southern Illinois is an organization that I support. Hospice of Southern Illinois provides end-of-life care for our loved ones. This organization has touched my life many times caring for dying friends and loved ones. At some point, hospice services will touch everyone’s life. I like to do my best to help them by serving on its Board of Directors and helping them raise the money needed to carry out their important work.
We are truly grateful for Mark’s contribution to this site and believe his answers show why Mark regularly obtains significant results for his clients. Whether it’s obtaining a record setting verdict or running a successful practice, Mark continues to set benchmarks for us all to obtain. Additionally, please take time to learn more about Mark’s organization of choice: Hospice of Southern Illinois, which provides end-of-life care to patients throughout Southern Illinois.