In the Thick of It
The founders of Hepburn Hernandez & Jung do what they love: trials
Published in 2022 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine
By Jenny Burman on March 31, 2022
It’s the trials.
That’s why the they joined the San Diego County Public Defender Office, why they honed their skills at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, and why in 2018 they opened Hepburn Hernandez & Jung Trial Attorneys—a PI plaintiff firm that can also parachute into other firm’s cases that are ready for trial. It’s right there in the name.
“I wanted to do trials, I wanted to be in the thick of it, and for that you either become a prosecutor or a public defender,” says Adam Hepburn.
“I knew that once I got into law school, the public defender’s office was where I’d get to help people and do trial work,” adds Michael Hernandez.
Of the three, Elliott Jung was the one who wasn’t immediately pulled toward law. “I thought I was going into finance,” he says. But in college he had zero interest in it. Then a friend suggested he check out a trial competition at Chapman Law School. “I saw two schools competing on a real case in mock trial. At that point, I said, ‘OK, I want to go to law school. And once I got in, my whole focus was trial.’”
Hepburn and Hernandez met on the first day at California Western School of Law in 2010 and quickly became friends; then they both took jobs with the San Diego Public Defender, where Jung, a graduate of Southwestern Law School, was one of their supervising attorneys.
“We’d watch each other in trial,” Jung says. “We’d watch each other’s examinations or closings. We’d talk about it afterwards. We’d critique each other. We bonded on that.”
“Basically, you’re with all your friends all day trying the craziest cases,” Hernandez says. He ticks off examples: assault, drug smuggling, murder. “Unless you’ve dealt with the worst, it’s hard to be the best. We’ve taken on the hardest fact patterns, where our clients are on video and it’s our job to figure out a way to win—or give the opposing counsel gray hairs.”
Throughout, they kept hearing about the Trial Lawyers College, founded by Gerry Spence, and held at his Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming. Colleagues suggested they check it out. Jung was accepted into the program in 2015, Hepburn and Hernandez the following year, for a month of intensive learning. Some of it came as a surprise.
“I thought I was going to learn some new cross-examination skills, maybe some different ways to pursue a different part of trial,” Hepburn says. “But the way we attacked a trial was fundamentally different.”
“You work with psychodramatists, which get deep into emotions,” Hernandez adds. “They bring you back to that place where you can really feel what the client is feeling.”
“If we’re so disconnected with our own emotions, from our own history, how can we tell our client’s story?” Jung asks. “So it’s all about understanding yourself better so you can portray somebody else’s story better.”
Spence himself taught in front of the entire class, and would walk the ranch and talk with students, but most of the teaching occurred in smaller groups with a crew of instructors. It almost always came back to storytelling.
Hepburn mentions how some attorneys will be checking off boxes in their heads that they feel proves their case. “At the end of the day, though, juries don’t listen to the whole damn testimony,” he says. “It’s a long process, it’s tedious, so the point is to hit them on an emotionally interesting, story-driven level, and the only way to do that is to cater every part of your trial to that.”
“It’s about building trust,” Jung adds. “You start with a little bit of trust in that room and that trust will be taken away very, very quickly if you’re not truthful in there. The big takeaway for me is: Just be honest. Never deceive the jury. Don’t lose that trust.”
The bond among the three men is apparent even over a Zoom call. With Hepburn and Jung in the office and Hernandez streaming from home, they rarely interrupt one another. The tendency is to further each other’s stories or point out each other’s strengths.
When asked about coping emotionally with difficult cases, Hepburn says he does his best to keep his work life from interfering with his family life. To which Jung adds, “What Adam left out: He’s a fitness freak. For what we do you absolutely have to do the physical component of taking your time every day to work out. And we all have that. Michael likes tennis. He likes golf.”
“It’s up for debate if golf is a fitness activity,” Hernandez says.
“Adam will do triathlons,” Jung continues. “I do ultra marathons. All those little things, you have to have them.”
As for the maxim of never going into business with your friends? “That’s probably true a lot of the time, but I think this firm wouldn’t have worked but for us being good friends,” Hepburn says. “All of us are like ‘Let’s just make this firm work.’ … Normally I’m yelling at everyone to stop spending so much money for the firm, but that’s just my job, you know?”
As Jung laughs, Hernandez scratches his eyebrow, adding, “When we started we had an agreement that … as long as we’re all hustling, none of us should get weird about money. Or who’s due what. Let’s all put in the work and hustle. We all have different skill sets and we’ll use them accordingly.”
Jung says Hernandez is good at coming up with outside-the-box ideas on how to attack and win cases, while Hepburn is “very type-A analytical. He is on top of the finances, running the business, and making sure all clients are getting the highest level of representation.” Jung sees himself as a fighter who will not stop until he gets every dollar for the client.
They all enjoy fighting for the underdog, which is good because their adversaries often have deep pockets: governments, automakers, school districts, insurance companies. Some cases take years. “It’s got to be a righteous cause because you will be on a journey for a long time,” Jung says.
In the firm’s first civil trial, a colleague asked them to try a case they couldn’t settle. For a soft-tissue minor collision, with a policy limit of $50,000, the defense rejected $23k and offered $4k. “We took the case to trial and got a verdict of $110,000,” Jung says. “We took the insurance company on a bad-faith claim and they agreed to pay out the full verdict.”
Last fall, they took on a case in which the Pomona school district was accused of negligence for an alleged rape on campus during school hours. “They came in to assist me in the trial with very short notice,” says Danielle Casselman of the Law Offices of Gary S. Casselman. “I would rate it a 10 out of 10 for difficulty. … They began intense preparations to complete the trial, and they did an outstanding job. The jury was absolutely riveted by Elliott and Michael.”
“Between the three of us, we have tried over 100 cases in front of a jury,” says Jung. “We have over 10 trials set for 2022.”
“That’s what we want to do,” says Hepburn.
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