The Young and the Restless
PI plaintiff’s attorney Robert T. Simon hung a shingle at 29, but it’s his pretrial ritual that’s eye-opening
Published in 2014 Southern California Rising Stars magazine on June 6, 2014
Q: You’re 34. How do you reassure clients who may want a more seasoned attorney?
A: I always tell them, “Did you expect an old gray-haired attorney? Because I’m not that guy. I’m young and hungry and willing to put in the hours and do whatever it takes to fight for you and win your case.” Then I let the clients know our results and our team and how we do things.
Q: Which is … ?
A: [With] a lot more technology. We have a paperless office. We do a lot of PowerPoints, a lot of video clips being played in depositions with iPads.
Q: So you push the tech aspect of it, which tends to be the province of the young.
A: And the results. We’ve been fortunate to get some huge verdicts and settlements. Last year, I had a $7.9 million [verdict] and two $4 million verdicts. In 2012, I had a $9.3 million verdict and a $5 million settlement. I just had a case last Friday. I got a verdict in Orange County: $1.5 million on a trip-and-fall for a non-English speaker. People were shocked because it was a tough case.
Q: You seem to take a lot of cases to verdict.
A: I think we try more cases than most firms.
Q: Why is that?
A: We think that’s the way [clients] get the most value possible. I believe if you have a good client, who’s worth fighting for, you’re going to get the maximum value when you take it to verdict. Now, we do settle a lot of cases. We settled one yesterday for three and a half million dollars. The majority, probably 90 percent, do settle.
Q: Do you think you try more cases because the opposition underestimates you? Because of your youth?
A: Yes. Some insurance companies, they look at your bar number, and say, “This guy’s a 238. What’s he going to do?” But I think of it as a saving grace. Because they’re going to give us such a low offer that it forces us to try the case. I look at it as a blessing.
Q: You’re personal injury-product, right?
A: We do some product. Most of it is auto accidents, trip-and-falls, wrongful death cases. For some reason, I try a lot of spine injury cases. I’m an amateur spine surgeon by now. I know all the terminology.
Q: How many potential clients do you send away because they don’t have a case?
A: A large amount. But if it’s a case where I can help somebody, an easy case, we do it for free. If you can write a few letters and help somebody out, then it does you more good than having them sign an attorney to do it. I make deals with clients all the time. I say, “If we find the policy limit of the other side, and it’s only a $15,000 or even a $100,000, you can get that on your own—though I have to work with you.” I just try to do what’s fair for people. I believe in karma. Some of my biggest cases have come from doing free work for people.
Q: Do you have an example?
A: This was probably five or six years ago. This gentleman was on a bicycle, Spanish speaker, got hit by a car. He broke his legs. He came to me and I said, “The other person only has a $15,000 policy [so] I’ll do it for free.” Two years later, he called me. His grandnephew was hit and killed in a trucking accident. That ended up being a $5 million settlement.
I get a lot of cases from jurors, too.
Q: Jurors don’t approach you immediately after the trial, do they?
A: In a case I just tried in Riverside in November, right after the verdict, one of the guys came up to me. He said one of his best friends had died in a head-on collision, and I went and talked to the family. I did what I could for them.
Q: Why do you think he came to you? What did he see in you?
A: He said I came off as a real person. I talk to the jury. I don’t sugarcoat stuff.
Q: Are all of your cases contingency?
A: Every one.
Q: And what percentage of the settlements or verdicts goes to the firm?
A: Anywhere from one-third to 40 percent.
Q: So it must have been tough starting out. That was a big roll of the dice.
A: It was a huge roll of the dice. At my prior firm, I saved enough money, close to $400,000, to be able to bankroll my firm. But I knew [hanging a shingle] was what I wanted to do. Within the first year, I was able to buy the property I wanted to buy, bring my brother on as partner, get a bigger office space and start hiring employees; because the first year I had three decent verdicts and a bunch of good settlements.
Q: Do you remember your first case at your own firm?
A: When I left my other firm, I had about 30 cases that came with me. [But] I don’t think any of them ended up being out-of-the-park home runs. They were all a couple hundred thousand dollars here, a couple hundred thousand dollars there. But it added up.
Q: And initially you had to do everything.
A: I was doing everything from signing the client to writing discovery responses to sending letters, talking to adjusters, doing the copies, doing the faxes and trying cases. I was 29 years old. When it gave me ulcers, that’s when I hired people to help.
Q: Were there moments of doubt?
Q: What was the appeal about starting your own firm?
A: When I was kid, my dad’s uncle was in a car accident: hit by a drunk driver, paralyzed. This was in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. From the beginning of that case, I watched everything the family had to go through. It settled in the middle of trial, ultimately, but I was just so enamored with the process and how this attorney was able to fight for my uncle and take care of my cousins for life. With the settlement, they were able to take care of all his medical needs and set up their college funds. Just seeing that really inspired me. My brother and I, that was always our plan.
Q: So you went through law school planning to be a PI plaintiff attorney?
A: Yes. And I worked for a PI firm [Lederer & Nojima] as a law clerk right after my first year of law school, right after that last final. I worked almost full-time, all the way through law school, and they gave me an invaluable experience. They let me do everything—try my own cases, get my own clients—and I’m forever blessed for that, because they taught me how to do casework from the absolute beginning, all the way through verdict.
Q: How did you land in Southern California from Pittsburgh?
A: The first plane ride I ever took was when I was looking for a law school, and I visited Pepperdine out in Malibu. As soon as I saw it, I said, “I am definitely going to this school.”
Q: Was it the ocean? The skies? The women?
A: All of the above. When you watch football games, you see these beer commercials where they have beautiful women all over the bar, and people are having a good time, and I used to think, “It’s not like that. That’s crazy.” When I came to California and went to a bar, all the girls looked like that, and everybody was having a good time.
Q: According to your website, you play baseball.
A: Yes. It’s an adult baseball league, fast pitch. Growing up I played every sport: football, golf, baseball, basketball. And when I went to college, I could either have gone and played baseball at a smaller school or gone to George Washington on an academic scholarship and tried to walk on. I went for the academic scholarship and decided not to walk on.
Q: A baseball fan who grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. I have to ask: Where were you during the ’92 playoffs?
A: When Sid slid. I cried. Twelve years old. I had a picture of Sid Bream up on my wall, because he used to play for the Pirates, and I tore it down. [Laughs]
Q: Has your allegiance shifted from the Pirates now that you live in California?
A: Not at all, sir. I’ll tell you how dedicated I am: I have a Pirates tattoo, welded in with some stuff, and the Steelers star tattoo, welded in with some stuff. The Roberto Clemente Bridge is wrapped around part of my arm. I’ll tell you a story. When I was trying a case, I saw one of the judges had an old military tattoo on his finger. So I asked him about it. And while we were doing jury instructions, he made me—the jury wasn’t there—roll up my sleeve so he could see my tattoo. And the defense attorney was just sitting there in shock, because the judge is probably mid-70s, and we’re just having a good time talking about that stuff.
Q: Do you have any rituals before trial?
A: As a former baseball player, I’m extremely superstitious. I eat the exact same thing for lunch during a trial: chopped-up chicken, walnuts, grapes, two slices of oranges and two slices of apples. And I’ll eat exactly two protein bars during trial: one in the midmorning, one in the midafternoon. For breakfast—and this is so lame but it’s funny—my mom has to make me breakfast. I’ll come down [to where she lives] and she’ll make me a little egg and bacon sandwich, whatever, it just has to be something she makes. When I’m out of town trying a case, she has to pack me stuff.
I don’t drink a drop of alcohol during trial. I’m always in bed by 7:30, 8 o’clock. During my closing arguments, I always wear my Catholic cross cuff links; and during jury selection, first day, I always wear my Captain America cuff links.
After my first trial I had a big verdict. That’s what I did [then] so I stuck to it.
Q: Any advice for younger attorneys?
A: Watch and learn. How I learned to try cases? I watched Brian Panish and Gary Dordick. They’re two of my friends now, and I think they’re two of the best trial attorneys ever. I would shadow them, watch them try cases, talk to them, confer on the cases, shoot around ideas. The plaintiff’s bar is very good like that. It’s a big brotherhood and everybody tries to help one another.
Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked?
A: I just think a lot of people lose sight of what’s important to them when they practice. They either work too hard or do too many things, but, at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what makes you happy. Me, I try to dedicate at least one day a week where I hang out with my wife and family. The reason I started my practice at a young age is because I’m really looking forward to being a dad one day, and I’m setting my stuff up to be so flexible that I can be there to take them to school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon and coach the Little League team. That’s the goal.
Q: Were you always this structured?
Q: Even as a young man?
A: All my siblings are like this.
Q: Where does it come from? Parents? Sports?
A: A lot is sports, but mostly it’s just our parents [telling us], “You can be anything that you want to be in this world. You can do anything that you want to do. Just do it, and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Sometimes I wish I had no ambition and I could do nothing all day. But I guess that would be boring.
This interview has been condensed and edited.