Controlling the Second
After handling a two-engine failure at 9,000 feet, nothing fazes Brett Godfrey in the courtroom
Published in 2014 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 14, 2014
There was a moment when Brett Godfrey thought he might die.
He was steering a twin-engine Cessna 421 over the Rocky Mountains late on a Friday night, after a grueling week of trial in San Jose, Calif. He and a colleague had just dropped off their client in Salt Lake and were en route to Denver to enjoy a three-day weekend. The second leg of their journey started smoothly, but at 23,000 feet, the first engine died. By midnight, they hit a thick layer of clouds and things got worse. Godfrey called air traffic control to schedule an emergency landing in Provo, Utah, and as he steered the plane to 9,000 feet the second engine failed.
“I could see the runway at that point,” Godfrey says. “If I had landed in the reservoir we would have died. By sheer luck, it was actually the smoothest landing I’ve ever had. Air traffic control didn’t expect us to make it.
“After an experience like that, standing up in the courtroom against a harsh judge is nothing.”
Godfrey has always been a risk taker. He not only flies planes, he jumps out of them. He’s done more than 2,000 skydives as part of a team with world-famous skydiver Keith Walter. He’s not 100 percent fearless, though. “I still panic,” he says. “The difference is knowing that you can operate while in that place versus shutting down.”
He learned law and airplanes from his father, Paul Godfrey, a renowned trial lawyer in Cheyenne, Wyo., where Brett grew up. He’ll never forget a case he attended at age 11. “My dad was representing Texas Gulf, and there was a virtual lynch mob in Rock Springs, Wyoming,” he says. “It was an employment case. People were overturning cars. I remember walking into the courtroom with my paperback book thinking, ‘I hope no one knows I’m with the bad guy.’ But my dad’s speech calmed the entire town down. It was pretty cool riding home with him in a Gulfstream jet.”
More often, his father flew around Wyoming and into neighboring states in a six-seat propeller plane, and he encouraged his son to sit in the front seat next to the pilot, who eventually let him steer. By age 14, Brett had logged 75 hours of stick time. By 16, he was taking off and landing.
That passion stuck with him, and he decided to drop out of law school midway through to go into the U.S. Air Force. His dad put him on a call with Gerry Spence, a longtime friend.
“Gerry is someone I idolized; I had known him since I was 5, and he wanted to convince me not to do it,” Godfrey says. “He said there was nothing in Mozart’s life but music. Going to law school and flight school is like a dog chasing two rabbits—you’re not going to catch either one.”
Godfrey responded by reciting a passage from To Be a Trial Lawyer by criminal defense attorney and U.S. Marine Corps veteran F. Lee Bailey. “He lists a number of great points about why lawyers should also be fighter pilots,” says Godfrey, “including how pilots understand early on that they must make decisions rapidly and they must make those decisions correctly. And so do trial lawyers.”
In the end, Godfrey went to flight school, then finished his J.D.
Today the Godfrey | Johnson attorney handles complex medical and aerospace cases with a lot of science behind them. In one of his earliest, most challenging cases, he represented several corporations with racketeering claims against the computer platforms they used to run their businesses. Even though Godfrey had failed computer science in college, he taught himself the operating system Unix.
“One of the best things I’ve learned is that I’m a student for life,” he says. “When I picture myself taking the deposition of an expert in a room full of lawyers, I ask myself, ‘Do I want to be embarrassed?’ When I picture the end result, it has to be blood spilled in court—and it’s not going to be mine.”
Godfrey has a meticulous way of preparing for trial. As soon as he gets a case, he brings his team into the firm’s media room—“some guys would call it a war room”—which includes a big magnetic wall. “The second I start hearing the facts of the case, I’m starting to formulate possible theories,” he explains. “If we have an operating theory, we always know what our goals are, and can act much more decisively.”
To date, Godfrey has led 89 trial cases to verdict as lead counsel.
Flying keeps him sharp.
“Mental and emotional control is a huge part of the firm I run,” he says. “It’s one thing to feel pressure, but to be affected is a conscious decision. You have the power to control that second. It’s hard to teach, but it can be taught.”