Q&A with Lonnie Williams, Quarles & Brady, Phoenix

Labor and employment trial lawyer Lonnie Williams talks to Super Lawyers about his struggle to be taken seriously, the art of trying a case and what it's like hosting a cooking show.

Published in 2008 Southwest Super Lawyers — June 2008

What do you know today that you didn't know coming out of law school?

That once you get to [trial], the law is relevant but is not a deciding factor. Because you don't know what necessarily is going to move that group of people and it then becomes much more psychological, much more gamesmanship. In law school you tend to think that the real key is: what is the law? And applying the law to the facts. And it's just not that simple.

 

What was your biggest obstacle?

Being accepted and respected within the profession. ... When I first started practicing in Phoenix [in the early 1980s], I went to work for the largest firm in town. And at that point, there were no African-American lawyers working in any of the firms, let alone being partners. And so when I would go to a deposition or when I would go into court ... it would be somewhat of a novelty. And lawyers being the way they are ... [they would] try to take advantage of that.

So that was somewhat of a struggle, but it wasn't a negative. In fact I kind of relished those days when I was more under-respected. It's easier when people don't think you know what you're doing.

 

Do you think things have changed?

I do not. ... I can count on two hands the number of African-American partners in large firms within the Phoenix area. And that's pretty much the case all over the country. ... But I also believe there is the opportunity out there and you just have to basically ignore those obstacles.

 

Who was your role model as a child?

To this day I am an absolute fan of Perry Mason. And I still believe today that the legal profession would be much better off if we resorted back to trying cases the way Perry Mason did. Forget about the discovery; forget about spending all this time in pretrial. Let's just go out and learn the facts, put the witnesses on the stand and try cases. I love examining witnesses who have not been deposed. Most lawyers would think that's crazy but I think that is a much purer form of the art.

 

What is your greatest weakness?

Being too aggressive.

 

Aren't lawyers supposed to be aggressive?

No. No, I think that's a fallacy. I think being aggressive sometimes is more of a show. I think a lot of time you can get more by not being as aggressive but just being smart. And sometimes we do get caught up in the moment and I can be aggressive, but I don't think that's a positive thing.

 

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

You cannot be an effective trial lawyer without mastering the rules of your trade. You have to master the rules of evidence, you have to master the rules of procedure and you have to master them at a level higher than your opponent ... [even] if that means quite literally for your first couple years of practice putting a copy of those rules in your bathroom. I have recommended that. It was recommended to me and I actually did that.

 

Do you get flack as a black lawyer defending companies in discrimination lawsuits?

I've gotten it from day one. I've gotten it from clients being skeptical of my ability to do [my job], I've gotten it from plaintiff's lawyers telling me, ‘How can you do this?' I've gotten it from actual plaintiffs in depositions. And I've been called every name you can imagine, and I underline every one you can imagine, in depositions, because of that.

My response is: You know what, who better to do that? I mean, let's be honest. I can probably get away with things in front of a jury that a white lawyer may not be able to get in front of. And I certainly think my diverse background, which includes my race, is an asset there. And it's one that I have no problem-I wouldn't say exploiting, but using to the advantage of my client to the extent I can.

 

It's not a conflict personally for you?

It's no more of a conflict than lawyers representing a criminal who might be guilty. Just because it's the civil side of that, companies deserve a defense. I'm operating within the same ethical rules as everyone else.

 

Who in history would you most like to practice with? Against?

In terms of practice with, it would be Thurgood Marshall. Practice against ... it would be those attorneys over the early years of the civil rights movement who were representing governments trying to maintain the status quo. ... It's very rare that you can take a position that has such a moral basis for it in the practice of law.

 

Did you ever consider civil rights law?

I didn't, only because at the time I was coming out of law school, it really wasn't a viable area to make a living.

 

How do you unwind after work?

I love cooking. I actually do a cooking show on local cable television.

 

Focus on Cooking for the Single Man. Is it based on your experiences?

Yes. It's the whole idea of doing something different. Sort of like my practice. What do you do to make yourself distinctive? And a man who can cook is somewhat still a rarity.

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