From Bailiff to Bar
Trial lawyer Nathaniel Lee of Lee & Fairman on getting his foot in the door, President Barack Obama and the year he had 24 cases lined up
Published in 2013 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 14, 2013
Updated on January 19, 2021
Q: I understand you served on President Obama’s Presidential Advisory Board this year.
A: For the last couple years, actually. It’s a citizen group where you don’t have any real power, but you get to meet with the president about three or four times a year. He’s got probably a dozen or so of these groups. … This president is probably the most inclusive president who has ever held the Oval Office.
Q: What are your thoughts on the result of the last presidential election?
A: My initial thought is that it validated what I learned early on in the campaign—that is, the president’s re-election team took a scientific approach to the process and they used the computer geek-type people to determine the best approach and it took out the guesswork.
Their internal polls were accurate in predicting the election. In fact, the final internal polls predicted what the results would be in every state. I think both parties agree that there was about 3 percent of the [voters] they were fighting over, but in reality, it had more to do with being able to identify the correct people and making sure they get out to vote.
Q: You said you have had the opportunity to meet the president?
A: Yes, as part of the group we would have meetings with the president over the last two years. I missed two meetings this year, but probably about five or six prior meetings.
Q: What are your personal impressions of him?
A: He’s got probably the highest IQ of any person I’ve met. I met President Clinton, I met President Bush, and in terms of intelligence, he is probably the smartest guy I’ve ever met. I don’t know whether that comes across, but you don’t become the president of Harvard Law Review by being an average person.
Q: As you mentioned, President Obama got his start in law. Have you yourself ever considered a run for public office?
A: Never. I have been working to develop a law firm. When I came into the practice, there weren’t the opportunities available for a minority attorney that we see today, so the legal practice didn’t have a lot of diversity.
We worked back in the late ’80s, early ’90s to desegregate our law firm. Then we had a lot of help with the Chief Justice of the [Indiana] Supreme Court, Randall Shepard and Donald W. Buttrey, [former president of the Indianapolis Bar]. Buttrey was the architect who initiated a program to try to desegregate the law firms. We made some remarkable gains over the last 20 years, but when I started out in the practice, there weren’t those opportunities available in the aggregate.
Q: So how did you get your foot in the door?
A: I started out as a bailiff in the courts. I learned how to try cases. I was a courtroom junkie, which allowed me to watch all the trials.
By being a bailiff, all the documents that lawyers would file, I got to review. They were public records, so I could make copies of important pleas and stuff like that. I watched all the lawyers try cases. So it was great training because you got to see firsthand how to try a case correctly to convince a jury.
Q: That’s a unique path to the law. It sounds like your goal from the start was to be in trial.
A: That’s correct. Growing up, one of my favorites was Perry Mason. Now of course, Perry won all his cases the same way: about seven minutes before the trial ended, there would always be a dramatic scene where the person would be on the witness stand and what would they do? They would confess to the crime. [Laughs]
Q: Have you ever had a Perry Mason moment like that?
A: Yes. There was a case that I did involving a shooting called Jackson v. Sharp. The shooting occurred on Madison Avenue. The decedent had been in Kmart and had stolen some item that totaled less than $10. [Officer] Wayne Sharp was in the parking lot when the kid runs out the store and runs around a building and there’s an alcove. He thinks he’s escaping but, much to his surprise, when he runs to this alcove, it’s a fenced-in area.
Wayne Sharp is in pursuit of him, and it ended in a fatality. During the trial, the defense attorney said that Wayne Sharp used justifiable force because, when he approached the alcove, he was struck on the arm with a board that had a nail in it.
The case was racially charged. We were getting things at our law firm every day from these racial hate groups because Wayne Sharp had attended these racial hate rallies, and so for whatever reason, when the case was televised, we had these people that kept showing up in court that sat behind us. Some type of racial hate group, I’m not sure who they were.
It was just an oddity. My co-counsel was real nervous about these guys sitting behind us and I said, “They don’t have a gun. We’re fine. The marshal has a gun, so don’t worry about these guys.”
Here’s why that’s important: When Wayne Sharp took the stand, these guys were sitting behind me and they were being respectful, but they had menacing grins on their faces and all. When Wayne Sharp got on the stand, the defense lawyer said to the jury that Wayne Sharp had to defend himself because Jackson had this board with a nail and Wayne Sharp had a cut on his arm and the forensic evidence had a piece of hair on the nail.
The hair was that of a biracial person. The person was half black and half white. Now, I had this transcript for a while and my interrogation of Wayne Sharp went like this:
“Officer Sharp, I don’t want to embarrass you or anything, but your mother was Caucasian or white, correct?”
“Now, as far as you know, at least what they’ve told you, your father may have been white.”
“What? My father was white, Mr. Lee.”
“This hair on this board, belonging to a person half white and half black, couldn’t belong to you!”
“No, it’s not my hair!”
“You never got hit with this nail in the board?”
That little encounter was the closest I ever had to a confession, and it was pretty dramatic. We wound up getting a pretty large verdict out of that case.
Q: That is straight out of a courtroom drama.
A: What was funny is that these guys behind me, when I was doing this, they just gasped. And it was so funny. That was the highlight of that trial, and I’ll always remember that and laugh about it.
Q: You’ve litigated about 150 jury trials, is that right?
A: More than 180. In 2008, I had 24 jury trials that were set. I don’t know how many went to verdict, probably about 10 or 11, I guess. It was a lot. It was the busiest year of my whole career. We had probably five or six cases that got settled and we had two that went through the trial and got settled before the verdict.
We had some big verdicts, some for a million dollars. Then we had one that hit for $17 million in 2007, and settled on appeal in 2008, so that was the highlight of that year. I just lined them all up and that’s how it went.
Q: That’s a busy year.
A: Yes, that’s a career for some people.
Q: After trying so many cases, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
A: When you do a jury trial, you win or lose a case based on the ability to get rid of bad jurors. If one or two people who come on the panel have an agenda, either for your case or against your case, you should identify that person. Overall, our system of justice works very well. There’s nothing close to it anywhere in the world.
Q: What does it take to be a successful trial lawyer?
A: Hard work.
Q: It’s that simple?
A: Yes. You have to go the extra step in preparing your cases. You have to know your evidence. You have to know your witnesses. You have to know the applicable laws. There’s no second chance, so you have to put 110 percent on the line in the preparation part of it.
Q: When you’re in the courtroom, do you have a particular style?
A: Jury trials are done depending on your locality. If you try a case in Richmond, Indiana, for example, would you try it the same way you do a case in Indianapolis? There are probably some subtle differences in terms of your style.
You can’t come into the system and all of a sudden look like some high-falutin’, high-profile gunslinger or something. You have to be able to relate to folks, where they are in their environment. You have to adapt to the environment you’re in.
Q: How do you deal with losing a case?
A: The same way I deal with winning. Whether I get a zero verdict or a $17 million verdict, after I do my closing argument, I start working on the next trial. I don’t get too high or too low; I stay at an even keel because a verdict may speak the truth and I have to live with it.
Let’s talk about the side effects of this type of business. In our business, one of the things we recognize early on is that we have a higher degree of chronic alcoholism or drug abuse by people because of the stress of the practice. Well, that’s never been a problem with me because I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I have a very simplistic lifestyle. You know what I do?
Q: What do you do?
A: I try cases, I play golf, I do community projects and I’m home with my family. I have a very simplistic lifestyle. You know why? That’s what I enjoy doing. Helping others—we do a lot of charitable events because I don’t try these cases and represent victims just to make money. I try them because I like to think I can make a difference in folks’ lives.
One of the big events we have each year in December is a project called Adopt-a-Family. We buy a large container, fill it up with turkeys, ham and food, enough to feed a family for a week or so. We take a needy family, we get a truck load of food, park it in a lot and they come in. I get some celebrities like Reggie Wayne and Michael Epps, and we give them these big containers of food. It’s just a wonderful thing. That’s the thing that I’m thrilled about because I see I’m making a big difference in the lives of those folks, at least for a week.