Steven C. Laird is a Board Certified Texas trial lawyer who runs The Law Office of Steven C. Laird. We’re lucky to hear from Steve because he shares his experience with rebranding his practice after tort reform was passed in Texas (from a medical malpractice to a trucking crash firm) and his experience in dealing with the fear, anxiety, and stress all lawyers feel heading into a big deposition or trial. We jump into our interview with Steve discussing the transition of his firm.
Tad Thomas: Before tort reform in Texas you handled quite a bit of medical malpractice. After tort reform, what did you do?
Steve Laird: Well, before we had tort reform in Texas in 2003, 100% of my firm’s practice was plaintiff’s medical negligence cases and I spent a lot of time building up that area of law, including trying a number of medical malpractice cases with some very good results. Of course, that helped build my reputation down here as someone who could handle med mal with success. Then, along came tort reform and I, along with so many lawyers in Texas, had to do a significant transition pretty quickly. At that point, I had to make the determination as to what other kinds of cases I was going to handle and more importantly, going to concentrate on. I made the decision to start creating a little bit of a niche for trucking cases.
Tad Thomas: Was that something new for you?
Steve Laird: I’d already handled a few trucking cases in my career, but I hadn’t made a practice of it so to speak, so I decided that I needed to beef up that area of practice by letting people know that I was handling trucking cases. I put that on our website as the predominant area of practice. Then, I started going to trucking seminars as much as I could, trying to learn as much detailed information about the federal motor carrier safety regulations and a lot of the nuances that makes trucking litigation so different from handling regular car wrecks. Then, I got to the point where I would volunteer or be asked to speak at trucking seminars, having to prepare presentations, and I had some success with that. Having participated in a number of presentations now at trucking seminars coupled with trying trucking cases opened up this practice area for me. I was fortunate enough to also have some very good results in not only jury trials, in getting verdicts, but also in getting some notable settlements and that helped once again bring more trucking cases in. And so, I’ve developed a little bit of a niche, like a lot of other lawyers across the country, in handling trucking cases and making that area of litigation a significant part of my practice.
Tad Thomas: How is this different from handling medical malpractice cases?
Steve Laird: I enjoy both, so that helps. I enjoyed doing medical negligence work (pre-tort reform). I’ve also enjoyed handling trucking litigation because as anybody who’s handled a trucking case knows — it is a different animal than an ordinary car wreck. Honestly, it’s a different area than other types of tort cases. Since I had to build up that area of practice, it took time. It did not happen overnight.
Tad Thomas: Tell us about building a new area of practice.
Steve Laird: You’ve got to be patient. If you’re going to build up a personal injury practice and if it’s a personal injury practice that you want to have a little bit of a niche in, or a specialization, or a reputation that you’re intending to build upon for handling certain types of cases, whether it’s car wrecks, slip and falls, product liability, aircraft cases, or trucking litigation, then you’ve really got to make a concentrated effort to try to get those types of cases in by letting everybody you know– starting with the person at the dry cleaners, at the grocery store, people in your neighborhood, anybody who you talk to– know that you’re a lawyer who handles those types of cases. So, for me, I was telling everybody I could that I handled trucking cases. I represented families and individuals when they were in a collision with an 18 wheeler and that started to resonate. I’ve already mentioned the fact that I’ve changed my website and within the past couple of years and most of us who handle trucking pages know that there’s a board certification that has now become available through the National Board of Trial Advocates, of which I am a member.
Tad Thomas: What was the board certification process like?
Steve Laird: I was a little bit anxious about taking another exam, although I’ve been board certified in three different areas already: Two by the State Bar of Texas and then one other area by the National Board of Trial Advocacy as a civil trial advocate. Taking another exam of this type for somebody my age and at this point in my practice created a little bit of anxiety for obvious reasons. But, it’s something that I felt like I needed to do. So, I took the exam and I was fortunate enough to pass it. I was part of the first nine people in the state of Texas to get board certified in trucking accident law. And, so that was another piece of information that I was glad to let others know about. I sent a letter to the entire bar association in the county in which I practice letting them know about this, in a very nice, diplomatic, if not subtle way, and then any time that I have an opportunity to let people know (if it’s appropriate), I try to mention the fact that I’m board certified in truck accident law.
Tad Thomas: So, it sounds like you spent a lot of time building this new practice area?
Steve Laird: Some people advertise a lot. I don’t advertise a lot, except for our website. We have a monthly local bar bulletin for the lawyers in the county. I have a page in that, that goes out to the local lawyers once a month. But other than that, I don’t advertise perhaps because I’ve been practicing 40 years, but I can hearken back to those earlier years and I was trying to build up a personal injury practice from a very general practice that we called a “door law practice”, initially with two other guys. A lot of people have asked me, “What’s a door law practice?” Well, it means we took everything that walked through the door. So, we eventually started back in the mid ’80s trying to concentrate on building up a general personal injury practice. Over the years, that led to me having a medical malpractice heavy caseload. Then as I’ve explained, that eventually turned into primarily, not exclusively, a trucking litigation practice that I’m involved in right now.
And all of this takes time, patience, effort, and planning. As long as you understand that it’s not going to happen overnight and you’re willing to put in the effort and part of that effort is client satisfaction. There’s no better advertising than having a satisfied client who refers other clients to you.
Also, just try your cases. Because win or lose, if you try cases over a period of time, you will still develop a good reputation. You don’t have to win every case.
Tad Thomas: What words of advice do you have for people who want to try cases, but have a fear of doing so?
Steve Laird: I have watched a lot of great and successful lawyers across the country and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some in trial. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on presentation panels through AAJ, or state CLE programs, or even local CLE programs, and for a long time I always wondered, “how did that particular lawyer, or this particular successful lawyer get to the point where he or she had such a great reputation?” It took me a while to understand that the majority of the more successful lawyers, and I don’t pretend to be in that group, but the majority of those lawyers that I have seen that have built up national reputations all are smart enough, but their most individual talent that sets them apart, I believe, is their ability to control their stress, their anxiety, and their fear.
I didn’t say that they were able to eliminate it, but I think that they have better control than the vast majority of lawyers. Whether you’re going into a significant deposition, or you’re about to start a hearing, or certainly about to begin a trial, all of us have a certain amount of fear, stress, and anxiety. I think the difference between so many successful lawyers and other lawyers is that those successful lawyers have been able somehow to maintain a certain degree of control that is better and greater than so many other lawyers are able to achieve. I don’t think that happens overnight. I am still in the process of trying to get better control over my fear, stress, and anxiety regarding significant legal events, whether they’re depositions or hearings or certainly trials. I think I’ve gotten better at it — I recognized that if I just stepped back before a big event and I say, “I can do this,” and I tell myself that I don’t need to be fearful, stressful, or anxious about the outcome, my only goal is to do a decent job. And, I’m going to do a decent job, as long as I’m prepared and I’m going to go in there and give it my best effort.
If you go in there and tell yourself that you can do it and you don’t need to be fearful, you don’t need to be stressful, and you don’t need to have anxiety, it’s not all going to just go away — but you’ll remind yourself that you don’t have to carry that burden. There’s no reason to. Leave it outside. Eventually, this will absolutely have an effect for the better.
If you start trying cases, if you try a lot of cases, you’re going to win, and you’re going to lose some. And for cases that I’ve been fortunate enough to win, I like to think that those cases were won more by design than accident, but I’ll be the first to admit, I probably won some cases more by accident than design. The key is trying to win as many cases by design rather than by accident.
Tad Thomas: What about cases you lost?
Steve Laird: For cases that I’ve lost, there have been times in some cases where I could tell I just lost a case. Even when the whole case hadn’t gone to the jury yet. I could tell, one case in particular, I was way too aggressive with a mechanic who was an employee of the defendant and it was a negligence case involving a death. I had some good information and basically caught the guy in a lie based upon his prior deposition testimony. But, it was the way that I handled it — I was far too aggressive. I didn’t need to be and I could tell by the shifting of the jurors in their seats without even looking over. Out my peripheral vision I could see a change in their attitudes and facial expressions. I knew at that moment I’d lost the case and they collectively confirmed that when they knocked on the door at the end of deliberations and delivered the verdict.
Tying this into the fear thing – and the thought of losing, just remember: By the time you get to trial you hopefully know the case well, you’re hopefully prepared. Yes, you’re still going to have a certain degree of anxiety, maybe even stress and fear. But the point is that it should be an easier part of the whole entire case.
You’ve already put in a lot of hard work and had issues come up in expert depositions and other matters that were out of your control. So, try to feel comfortable, because now you’re putting all of that hard work you’ve already done on the case into motion.
Thanks again to Steve Laird for sharing his experiences with us and what has made him successful in both handling medical malpractice cases and trucking cases throughout the State of Texas.