This story was first seen in Forbes, November 6, 2017. Bill Carmody is an alumnus of The University of Tulsa College of Law. He is a nationally recognized trial lawyer who tries bet-the-company cases for plaintiffs and defendants in state and federal courts throughout the country. He is a permanent member of Susman Godfrey’s executive committee and heads its New York office. Carmody is perennially listed in the Lawdragon 500, the guide to America’s leading 500 lawyers. He’s ranked in the Chambers USA Guide to America’s Leading Lawyers and included in Benchmark’s Top 100 Trial Lawyers.
Bill Carmody Of Susman Godfrey: ‘You Can’t Persuade A Jury If You Can’t Communicate With Them’
David J. Parnell , Opinions expressed by Forbes contributors are their own.)
On Attributes Necessary to Climb in The Profession
Parnell: Talk to me about climbing to the top of your profession. At a 10K ft. view, what do you think got you to where you are today? Or maybe otherwise asked, if a young attorney wanted to be you someday, what are the fundamentals they’d have to achieve in order to get there?
Carmody: Some traits are fundamental to being a great trial lawyer: superior analytical skills, creative thinking, writing and speaking persuasively—and always being ready to roll up your sleeves and work hard, really hard. Those are all essential to out-thinking and out-working the other side.
But the singular trait that has served me the best is resilience. Mike Tyson has a great quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Every day in law and life, we suffer real setbacks. But great trial lawyers—like great fighters—are those who are able to take a big hit and get back up into the fight again. Almost two decades ago, I lost a trial the National Law Journal called the case of the year, which was devastating, both emotionally and financially. That loss was a wake-up call to me as to how tough running my small trial firm had become. Yet, persevering through that low period ultimately led me to join Susman Godfrey, which is the best thing that could have ever happened.
On Defining His Skill Set as a Litigator
Parnell: There is a good mix of art and science necessary to be a good trial attorney, which can make it difficult to define what the skill set comprises. How would you define your legal skill set? What would you say are the major components, or mechanics, of it?
Carmody: Because I try complex business and IP cases, I often think of myself as a translator. For example, there are many lawyers who are brighter than me, and who understand the technical aspects of our IP cases at a far deeper level than I do. What I bring to the table is an ability to translate the technical areas to a jury.
You can’t persuade a jury if you can’t communicate with them. That’s the heart of my skill set, and it begins, for me, with presenting the stories of our cases in a conversational style. Even more important is a lawyer’s authenticity. That’s because a lawyer’s credibility with the jury turns on the ability to be his or her most authentic self, which the jury will innately sense and respond to. After 30 years of trying cases, I’m getting comfortable enough in my own skin to open up and be a real person before the jury. And that’s made all the difference.
On Keeping Himself Sharp
Parnell: If you’re working constantly, it can be very difficult to keep your sharp – as Steven Covey calls it, “sharpening the saw.” With that in mind, how do you keep yourself sharp? Do you have mental or physical routines that you follow?
Bill Carmody: “You can’t persuade a jury if you can’t communicate with them. That’s the heart of my skill set, and it begins, for me, with presenting the stories of our cases in a conversational style.”
Carmody: One of my constant mental exercises is thinking and rethinking how to refine a complex set of facts into a simple and compelling story. But as much as I love trying lawsuits, I also love to escape the craziness of NYC and recharge at my respite on the eastern end of Long Island, where I’ve been known to indulge in all things delicious just a tad too much. But, because balance is important, I suffer through a rigorous physical regime of constant massages and, every once in a while, an honest-to-goodness workout.
On Building Trust in Clients
Parnell: In bet-the-company cases, in particular, clients often trust you with the lives of their businesses. And trust is a very valuable, and difficult to come by commodity. Can you talk to me about building that kind of trust? What is imperative to building this?
Carmody: Clients likely give me big cases because they trust my judgment. For one thing, they know I am going to be straight with them. Sometimes lawyers tell clients what they want to hear because it’s the easier way to keep them happy in the short term. My credo is to act in a client’s long-term interest, and if you keep that perspective it’s a lot easier to be brutally candid with them. Clients trust us for that straight talk.
Good judgment comes out in other ways, too—like taking the time to get to know what’s important to them, and acting on it. I’m always looking for the quickest and best business solutions to our legal disputes, even if it means cutting myself out of work. It’s that kind of understanding and action that lets your client know that you’re putting them first. It cements the trust.
On Becoming a Rainmaker
Parnell: As a rainmaker yourself, what advice do you give to young partners looking to build their books of business?
Carmody: Getting business really comes down to two things: getting great results and letting the world know about them. But to get the word out you’ve got to hustle, period. I tell all lawyers who ask me that they should be hustling business the same way that they’re working their cases. It’s not something to treat like a luxury and do in your spare time. It’s the lifeblood that keeps us going.
Now, every lawyer has to hustle business in the way they’re most comfortable. For those inclined to get involved in bar activities, that’s a great way to meet sources of potential business. Others, like me, choose different paths. My secret has always been to focus on the human connection. So, I’ve frequently flown across the country just to have dinner with a potential referral source, because I know the bonding that happens over a dinner trumps 10,000 emails. And even if it doesn’t work out, I’ve never regretted going to great lengths for a great dinner.
On Susman Godfrey’s Fees
Parnell: You discuss fees on your website – at least to a degree – and you offer contingent, fixed and hybrid arrangements. Can you talk to me about that a bit? What is the firm’s overarching thoughts on fee arrangements?
Carmody: The idea is for us lawyers to move away from playing the role of a vendor to our clients, albeit one providing important services, to becoming a true partner with them. At Susman Godfrey, we do that by crafting results-based fee deals, regardless of what side of the docket we’re on. Our results-based deals tie our fees directly to the outcome of the case. If we get a big win for our client, we get paid a lot more than our hourly rate, and if we lose we get much less or nothing at all. These deals align our interests directly with our clients’—and they love it.
On His Greatest Challenge
Parnell: What is the greatest challenge you’ve overcome in your career? What were the tools necessary to overcome it?
Carmody: A little over ten years ago, I returned to New York City to help build our Susman Godfrey office here. We had a national reputation but were still just getting off the ground in the country’s biggest legal market. There are so many great law firms in New York City, but there was room in the market for a unique trial firm like ours that bets on the results we get. We’re not built to handle some of the huge corporate investigations that some of the big firms handle, but we excel at stepping in to try one-off, bet-the-company cases. Those special missions best suit our battle-tested team. Some missions call for the Navy, but other times you need to bring in the Seals.
On Attorneys He Admires the Most
Parnell: What attorneys outside of your firm do you admire the most? When you think about them, what are the qualities that come to mind when you consider them?
Carmody: A handful come to mind, the first and foremost being Gerry Spence. He taught me about the power of authenticity for a stand-up trial lawyer, which has been invaluable.
Other trial legends I admire are David Beck, Paul Bekman, Evan Chesler, and Bob Van Nest. They’re all fabulous trial lawyers, but more importantly, they’re all first-rate people. While lesser lawyers sometimes stray into unnecessary and contentious discovery disputes, these old-school pros never make things personal and only spend time on what ultimately matters. They’re the most formidable adversaries you can face. Yet at the same time, it’s a joy to see them in a case because you know they will fight for their clients the right way and step up everybody’s game.