There are a few things you learn about Rob after interacting with him for a short while: First, his absolute dedication to his family is obvious. His unwavering commitment to his clients, his firm, and his community are without bounds. And, he’s an absolute machine when he’s rowing! Rob’s excellence in the courtroom through the state of Pennsylvania are legendary. A true litigator who’s not afraid to take on a fight, Rob shares with us his path to becoming a trial lawyer and how he’s built a successful trial practice, Shrager & Sachs, in Philadelphia.
Why did you decide to become a trial lawyer?
My route to becoming a trial lawyer was circuitous but informed by a decade of viewing the process from the other side as a defense lawyer. In a sense, I feel like being a trial lawyer picked me! My first ten years in practice, I defended doctors and hospitals in Philadelphia. I quickly saw that there were many devastating injuries caused by medical malpractice and all the defense industry seemed to care about was how little the case could be settled for – in essence, minimize the payout. There was little or no consideration for “doing the right thing.” I began to look for a switch to a plaintiff’s firm where I would be given – actually instructed – to make sure we worked to do the right thing. Twenty-five years ago, I joined the predecessor of my current firm and I haven’t looked back since.
What advice do you have for new trial lawyers?
“Listen hard for your inner voice, follow it, and stay true to your course.”
This work is hard, we take risks that could bankrupt us, you will work longer hours than you ever imagined, and you’ll obsess about your cases endlessly, but our reward is when we have the ability to make a real difference in the life of a client whose life was permanently changed due to the negligence of others.
Have you ever felt yourself paralyzed by nerves, either before or during trial? If so, how did you get yourself out of it?
Of course! Anyone who hasn’t either lacks introspection or candor, or both. The only way out is one step at a time. You can’t let this feeling keep you from throwing yourself at your preparation. As trial lawyers, we have the luxury of knowing our cases inside and out. We typically take every deposition, carefully craft our requested admissions, research and draft our own motions and briefs, and nothing can substitute for reviewing all of the testimony as part of our trial preparation. So plan ahead.
“Trial preparation begins the moment you take a case; final trial preparation begins when you get a trial date.”
Two months out, take home a deposition every night, read it and make advance notes for your direct or cross examination. Re-read the expert reports or depositions and craft your examinations. Anticipate motions in limine and draft responses.
When I first meet or speak with new clients, I often talk about trial. Believe it or not, most of our clients are petrified about going into court. I describe trial preparation and case preparation as a set of railroad tracks, two separate tracks but both heading in the same direction. I make sure that they understand that the only way to get a full and fair settlement is with complete trial preparation. Only then can we demonstrate to the other side that a full and fair settlement is warranted.
What are the essential building blocks for any law firm?
People, people, and people. I am so incredibly proud of every person in my firm and I brag about all of them to my clients every chance I get. Among my lawyers and staff, I’ve known one for my whole career (and she worked for my wife for a decade before my wife told me I’d be crazy if I didn’t hire her), and I’ve known another for over fifteen years and she helped raise our kids while she was working her way through college. One of the lawyers was recommended by a defense lawyer who was probably the most formidable cross-examiner I’ve ever faced in trial. Even though we battled mightily, we have a long friendship and mutual respect that led her to introduce me to Theresa Blanco. It’s been a fantastic relationship ever since.
“In short, because I love my whole team, I love going to work. You need to really love what you do and where you do it. If you don’t, keep looking or create your own environment.”
For years, my wife (who is also a lawyer) has described me as a lawyer who loves going to work more than any other lawyer she knows – I hope that description is apt for the rest of my life.
What unique struggles do lawyers face?
The lack of understanding by the public at large of the good that we do. As a result of our training and education, most of us have the ability to give back to our communities in substantial and meaningful ways. We need to do more of that.
I often describe the trial bar as a continuum from public interest lawyers who work far below “market rates” and do some amazing and ground-breaking work, to those who earn at the highest levels and – I’m sorry to say – may have lost touch with what it means to struggle in life. I like to think that I’m closer to the public interest end of the continuum, but I’m always mindful that I employ and impact the lives of so many people in my office. So the realities of law as a business form a constant give and take between doing more good and doing more good for those whose lives depend on the ongoing viability of my firm.
What role do trial lawyers have in society?
We have the unique ability to change things that which we first learned about them led us to react by saying: “that’s just plain wrong!” If the practice of law doesn’t lead to that response any longer, take a break. Consider a sabbatical. We need passion; I urge you to find your passion and let it always invigorate your work as a trial lawyer.
What is an organization/charity you are passionate about?
The University Barge Club 1871 Foundation. I’m actually Chair of the Board and we are the 501(c)(3) that is charged with maintaining the iconic façade of one of Philadelphia’s historic boathouses on the Schuylkill River. I’m a lifetime rower and one of the best-known “postcard” views of Philadelphia shows the boathouses. It is my pleasure to work for the preservation of this beautiful and unique collection of buildings which is so closely identified with the place where I was born, on the river where I have rowed thousands of miles, and in the city where I have lived my whole life.
We are grateful for Rob’s willingness to share his time with us for this interview. If you enjoyed this conversation and are willing, please take some time to learn more about Rob’s charity of choice, The University Barge Club 1871 Foundation.