Master of Mediation
John Trimble has earned his reputation as one of the state’s top negotiators
Published in 2008 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 15, 2008
Updated on September 2, 2015
Sometimes the smallest case can be the toughest.
John C. Trimble was mediating a nasty feud between neighbors—an older couple and a younger one with a son in high school—who had gotten along well until the elder gentleman retired and began spending most of his time at home. Before long, the man grew so annoyed with the teenager, who often peeled out of the driveway or played loud music while shooting hoops, that he erected a fence along the boundary line. But there was one problem: He built it so close to the younger family’s driveway that they couldn’t squeeze their car out of their garage.
“[The young family] then put loudspeakers and quartz lights on the side of their house, trained on the bedroom window of the retired couple,” recalls Trimble, 52, managing partner with Lewis Wagner in Indianapolis. “The retired couple then put a video camera on the outside of their house and posted a sign, and one thing led to another” until one day the teen pulled into the driveway and deliberately hit a puddle of water to splash the older man, who was mowing his lawn. The man spun around in surprise, hit his arm on the car’s rearview mirror and broke his hand. The criminal charges he brought were eventually dropped, but a subsequent civil suit mushroomed into an all-out battle involving nine lawyers and several insurance companies. Trimble was called in to help sort things out.
“I was trying to find a way to bring peace between these two families and settle the case in a way that they would never bother each other again,” he recalls. “And neither side trusted the other enough to give any credibility or weight to any settlement offer that the other side proposed. I created a 12-point framework … and got both sides to agree, more or less, with the 12 points to settle the case. It took one long day to settle but at the end of it the parties walked away.
“I’ve been involved in plenty of cases where we were negotiating over tens of millions of dollars,” Trimble adds. “But in terms of the dynamics, settling that feud between those two families was as challenging as any I’ve ever done.”
The 6-foot-7-inch Trimble—whom firm founder Robert F. Wagner calls “honest, hard-working and honorable”––has mediated more than 1,000 cases. “He has a very, very easygoing way and he’s extremely analytical,” says Wagner, who mentored Trimble early in his career. “And when other people reach a roadblock or an impasse and say ‘to hell with it,’ he’s able to persuade them to stay on and look for alternative ways to do things.” These days, Trimble spends most of his time defending clients against catastrophic injury, complex litigation and wrongful-death claims, but he still finds time for mediation.
The son of a foreign-language professor, Trimble grew up on the campus of Hanover College and accompanied his dad on class trips to Spain and Mexico. “In third or fourth grade I was arguing about the score that I got on my test, and the teacher made some comment about how I liked to argue and should be a lawyer someday,” he says. “That was the first time the idea crossed my mind.” A few years later, he met one of his father’s former students, a local attorney who encouraged him to study English and public speaking. Trimble began entering oratorical contests and signing up for theater classes. He studied Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and wrote for the college newspaper, experiences that would serve him well when he became executive editor for the Indiana Law Review.
Trimble also established a work ethic that readied him for law school and beyond. Among other things, he ran a shoeshine business, baled hay, cut tobacco, mowed lawns and ran a driving range. “So I felt like I came into adulthood with a pretty good appreciation of how the average person lives because I was around them a lot and because I saw what labor was like,” Trimble says. In the process, he learned a great deal about human nature. “I wrote my senior thesis in college about the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and how Chaucer revealed human nature by the way he described his characters,” he says. “I’ve always been a student of psychology, human nature, philosophy and other things that have probably served me well in law.”
An Indiana College All-Star basketball player who once hoped to play professionally, Trimble was preparing for tryouts in Europe when he contracted pneumonia and was forced to drop out of the tour. During his first year at Indiana University School of Law, he began clerking part-time at the then-small firm of Lewis Wagner. By 1981—the year he graduated magna cum laude and won the Faculty Award for Outstanding Graduate of the Year—Trimble had already witnessed nearly 100 depositions, sat through a dozen jury trials and assisted in a number of complicated cases. Dismayed that Wagner never mentioned a more permanent position, Trimble approached his mentor and asked, “Aren’t you going to offer me a job?”
“Well, I thought you would go with one of the big silk stocking firms,” replied Wagner, who hired the young man on the spot. Wagner’s mother, who knew the chief justice at the time, arranged for Trimble to be sworn in two weeks early. The ceremony took place in the morning. That afternoon, Trimble was in court.
Within a few months, he was enmeshed in his first jury trial, defending a high school valedictorian who, while driving the family car on the night of a big football game, had hit a motorcycle rider passing him on a berm. Trimble won the case. After that, he successfully represented a prominent Indianapolis car dealer who sued Ford Motor Co. for allegedly putting him out of business. The case resulted in the state’s first summary jury trial. Trimble also went to bat for 21 “Take One” contractors, so dubbed because they stocked American Express application boxes in restaurants and stores throughout the country. When the credit card company moved that job in-house, the contractors sued for breach of contract. After taking depositions in Hollywood, Las Vegas and other “fun and interesting” cities, Trimble arranged a settlement.
Other cases have required him to learn how wine bottles are made, how grain elevators operate, how to rig a crane. “I love, for a very short period of time during a case, becoming an expert on some business,” Trimble says. “You think about little boys and girls playing in the sandbox with dump trucks and toys and tractors and cranes. I kind of feel like that’s what I still do. I climb around in factories. It’s fun knowing about things.” His proudest moment in the Ford Motor Co. case, he says, was “when the client called me a ‘car man.’”
Trimble’s humility has endeared him to his peers. “When I started out, my approach to dealing with courts and other lawyers was to confess immediately what I didn’t know and that I was a rookie,” he says. “And I always found that people reached out to me under those circumstances, and I certainly continue to try to interact with people the same way. I’m very, very big on the collegiality of lawyers. There’s enough stress in our business, so we don’t need to butt heads. If we can deal with one another effectively without losing collegiality, we’re all happier and healthier.”
Lured by “the psychology of negotiation,” Trimble began mediating 17 years ago. He is now one of the state’s most sought-after civil litigation mediators and frequently speaks at professional seminars. He has also received numerous honors, including the Indiana Defense Lawyers Association’s Lawyer of the Year Award in 1991 and the Fred H. Sievert Outstanding Defense Bar Leader Award in 1999. A former adjunct instructor of legal writing and trial advocacy, he spearheaded “Without Fear or Favor,” a 2007 DRI Judicial Task Force report that explores the public’s perception of judges.
Despite his legal prowess, Trimble’s proudest achievement is his role as father. Marie, a third-year law student at Washington and Lee University, has already landed a job at a firm in San Francisco. Her younger sibling, Laura, recently graduated from Princeton University and is interning with chic fashion designer Kate Spade. “They’re my whole life,” Trimble says. “I made it my practice for all the years they were growing up never to miss a band concert, a play, a birthday party at school, a tennis match, a teacher-parent conference. I wanted to work in an environment where I had the flexibility to make sure that I was always there for my kids. My family has always been first and law has been second.
“I measure success,” Trimble says, “by the accomplishments of my children; the close, mutually respectful, loving friendship that I have with my wife [Ann]; the success of my colleagues in my law firm and the number of friends that I have.”
Nancy Henderson is the author of Able! How One Company’s Disabled Workforce Became the Key to Extraordinary Success (BenBella Books). She has written for Smithsonian, The New York Times and many other publications.