A few years ago, Mike Campbell wrote an article, “Why We Fight,” for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorney’s quarterly publication. A rally cry for all trial lawyers, the article highlighted Mike’s childhood as he and his family navigated the court system after the tragic loss of his father. The article spread like wildfire, receiving publication in numerous states throughout the country and even into publications outside the US.
Mike’s devotion to his clients and to the trial bar seeps into everything he does, whether it’s serving on MATA’s Board of Governors or dedicating his time to Lawyer Minds, a resource he believes will benefit the trial bar in innumerable ways. Below, Mike again provides insights into what makes him tick.
How do you prepare for trial?
Trial preparation starts on day one. I think most trial lawyers will share this feeling: A new client interviews with my firm — I’m interested — and I slide the fee agreement across the table. Whether the person signs that day or waits, I’m already envisioning what an opening statement looks like. I’m putting together past experiences and lessons and am applying them to the facts of this specific case. My mind is racing with possibilities.
Assuming the client signs, then I start thinking about what I need to prove. If it’s a basic injury case, then I think about the elements I’m required to prove and how I prove them. If it’s a complex case, then I will go back and refresh myself on the applicable instructions. From there, I turn to figuring out how to gather all the facts and evidence I need for my case. Having some experience or working with someone experienced helps, because you get a sense for how the evidence might play out in front of a jury and what might be helpful/harmful. But, you want it all — the good and the bad!
One interesting aside — I enjoy going to as many CLEs as I can. Far too often I’ll get trapped in my own world about how and what a properly prepared case looks like. I’ll think to myself, “well, this is a bad fact — not sure how I’m going to get past this.” Then, as I’m sitting in a CLE, the speaker says something and it will clue me in to some idea or trigger some thought about how to either use that bad fact to my advantage or downplay some fact that I thought would help my case. I’ll start writing notes out and identify how I can apply these new lessons for my trial prep.
So, for me, trial preparation begins on day one and honestly, it never ends.
“I hope I’m like a sponge, absorbing as much information as I can, game planning with my team or co-counsel, picking the brains of others, and putting together the pieces of the puzzle as I go. I think my clients deserve that. I hope I’m constantly doing that for them.”
Do you still feel nervous when presenting a case in front of a judge or jury?
Yes, of course I feel nervous. Several years ago I read a passage by Gerry Spence (I think) where he talked about fear and how it’s not the act itself that scares us, but the idea that we’re going to be fearful when we do it. That’s a pretty deep thought. I know it’s basically like FDR’s “fear itself” line, but it still resonated with me.
“So, when I’m sitting in a courtroom waiting to argue a motion or getting ready to stand up and face the jury, I nearly always tell myself the following:
‘These nerves I feel are normal. I’m not scared of getting up and doing this, I’m worried I will be scared when I actually do it. But, that fear has always slid off me in the past. I’m confident it will do the same here.'”
Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t have a shaky voice at the outset or get lost/stumble/stutter as I go, but dancing with that fear has taught me that I can ultimately control the tempo and then suddenly, I’ll forget that I’m dancing.
And then, sometimes I have no choice but to just keep plowing ahead, fear or no fear. I remember a jury trial I had a few years ago where the Judge stopped me halfway through my voir dire and told me I was doing it all wrong, just loud enough for the jury to hear (for the record, I was using my standard voir dire that was acceptable to any other Judge). I don’t know if I imagined the jury whispering to each other and thinking they were laughing at me, or if they were just whispering about all the tough breaks I was getting.
Regardless, I remember feeling completely paralyzed and afraid to go back to asking questions. So, I just put one foot in front of the other and on the walk back to the lectern I told myself, “well, Mike, you’re in this now…you can either sit down and look more foolish or just keep asking questions and see what happens, but no one is here to save you but yourself.” So, I just went for it and kept asking questions. I ultimately lost that trial, but I’m grateful for that moment because it gave me the confidence that I can just keep plowing ahead if all else fails.
Why are trial lawyers important to any society?
Trial lawyers, among other things, are safety advocates. When the FDA or any other regulatory agency falls short, trial lawyers are there to pick up the slack. We march into courtrooms outgunned by the countless funds the other side has, but still choose to battle because what the defendant did was unsafe. We are oftentimes the only ones testifying against some bad bill in our states’ legislatures because it would give insurers or manufacturers free rein to do whatever they wanted.
Sure, we make money (and I hope we all make money, because that means someone paid for his/her actions and our clients were compensated). But I’m guessing many of us could make more money doing something else. I think there’s this deeper pull among the trial lawyers I know to make the world a safer place. As trial lawyers, we do that with jury verdicts and with settlements.
For instance, A trial lawyer uncovered that GM had faulty ignition switches. A trial lawyer uncovered that auto manufacturers were intentionally placing gas tanks in a certain location — knowing the placement could cause irreparable harm or death to the car’s passengers — because the manufacturer wanted to save a few bucks. I have one trial lawyer friend who will test out infant car seats just to see if they’re unsafe. If he finds a defect, he’ll write the manufacturer. Quite literally, he tells them, “this is unsafe, it’s going to hurt an infant, change this now before something bad happens.” I, myself, have written entities before and said, “hey, I’m a trial lawyer — you’re going to get sued if this hurts someone…knock it off or fix it.”
If that’s not enough, trial lawyers fight daily to uphold the Constitution. I could write another paragraph about that, but I’ll leave it for another time. Suffice to say, any functioning society based on the rule of law needs trial lawyers. The world would be a lot more autocratic and a lot less safe without us.
What advice do you have for new trial lawyers?
Get involved with your local trial lawyers’ association and national organizations like AAJ. Through those organizations, you can build a base of friends and bounce questions off one another. I’d be so lost if I didn’t have the friends I do — supporting me, giving me advice, and trusting me to give advice to them.
I know this is easier said than done, but try a lot of cases. Know you will lose some, maybe a lot. But, you’re going to figure out how the flow of a trial works and what you are comfortable doing and not doing.
“Be yourself. This is quite literally the one piece of advice I hear over and over and over, but for some reason new lawyers believe they have to give off the appearance that they’re battle worn and tested.”
In my first jury trial a jury member actually asked, during opening statement, if I was old enough to try cases. I stuttered, stammered, etc.…. I didn’t pretend to have any polish or experience. I won that trial. I am grateful to have read “On Becoming a Trial Lawyer,” by Rick Friedman — which every new lawyer should read — before that trial, and absorbed the idea that if I pretended to have experience the jury would see through it and distrust me.
What are some things you look for when first meeting with a client?
Can I trust this person? Are they being straight with me or do I feel like they’re holding something back OR do I feel like they’re trying to sell me on the case?
There are any number of instincts we’ve all developed, whether we’re new trial lawyers or seasoned ones, that help us to identify certain characteristics about a person we’ve just met. There are countless studies that show we’re all equipped with this innate ability to pick up on non-verbal cues that can tell us to “trust,” or “nope, run!” When I meet with a client the first time, I start feeling these instincts kick in. Sometimes I feel comfortable with a client and it’s like sitting with an old friend. Other times, it’s clear we’re going to have issues communicating down the road.
The things I really pick up on, though, are when the client is using specific verbiage that tells me they’re trying to sell me on their case. Or, they’re holding something back (for good or bad reasons). Now, I have an obligation to confirm these feelings if I think they have a case with merit. I guess you can call it, “trust” or “distrust”, but verify. Sometimes I have clients holding back because they’re intimidated by the whole process. Sometimes I have clients holding back about the pain their feeling because they want to be macho or tough. And, sometimes, I have potential clients who just aren’t truthful. It happens. And, if I can see this in my first interaction, I’m guessing a jury will as well.
So, I guess, it’s not so much about what I’m looking for in a client — but rather, what I’m looking for in myself. How am I reacting when interacting with this person — are red flags being kicked up? Or, would this be a great person I can work with? No matter the case, I’ll always check those feelings against objective facts.
How difficult were your first few years as a practicing lawyer?
They were pretty difficult. I remember the first time I met with real clients and believed they would instantly know I was an impostor. That feeling didn’t leave for a while, and it occasionally still creeps up nine years later. The difference now is that I actually have the confidence to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question,” or “that’s just not legally possible,” without the fear of losing a potential client or looking foolish.
I think those first few years were also difficult because I had this belief that if I just had one mentor who was constantly guiding me and teaching me the ropes, everything would magically improve. I’ve come to realize lately that, while a mentor like that would’ve helped, what I was really looking for was someone to make sure I wasn’t dropping the ball regularly. I shored that up with good friends who were going through the same struggles I was — whether that was a boss who told me to find the “grey area” in an argument I thought was black and white, or whether I made some stupid mistake and needed someone else to say, “oh yeah, I’ve done that too – several times.”
And I also leaned into professional development of every type. I think a watershed moment for me was joining John Fisher’s Mastermind Experience, where I got to see “behind the curtain” a bit with some really solid attorneys and learned that we’re all dealing with the same struggles, just at a different scale.
Thanks to Mike for an open and frank conversation about his experience practicing law. We hope that this interview also helped you, the reader, in more ways than one. If so, please consider checking out (and contribute if you’re willing) to Mike’s organization of choice, the Central Missouri Humane Society, an organization dedicated the welfare and care of misplaced animals in Central Missouri.