Ethics, Dignity and Judy Barrasso
The Barrasso Usdin Kupperman Freeman & Sarver attorney speaks on the importance of details and why she’s been in trial so often in the past five years
Published in 2011 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine on December 27, 2010
Our interview was rescheduled because you suddenly had to travel for work. Do you get called out of town quite a bit?
It’s very cyclical. Our firm does a lot of cases across the Gulf South and in addition there’s often times where you’re handling a case that’s here but the clients are from elsewhere. For example, right now we’re representing a Brazilian company and we anticipate that there’s possibly going to be some depositions in Brazil as we fight about jurisdiction.
Are you excited for that? Do you enjoy the travel?
You know [laughs], I hate to say that it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. It just depends on the timing and you can’t control the timing. As a young lawyer, I had depositions in Bermuda and I remember people thinking it was so glamorous. In fact, we spent most of our time in a conference room in Bermuda. It could have been anywhere except you’d look out and see folks wearing Bermuda shorts.
Who were your legal mentors?
I started out at Stone Pigman here in New Orleans and for many years had the pleasure and good fortune to work with Phil Wittmann, who’s one of the best lawyers that I’ve known. As a trial lawyer, he emphasized to always be ethical and professional in what we do, to be thorough and to learn all the facts. It’s not enough just to know the law, you have to learn all the facts of a case. You can win or lose a case on the facts more often than the law. And he always worked with dignity. That’s how I think lawyers should be.
When you started practicing, did it differ from your expectations in any way?
To tell the truth, I’m not sure what I expected, but I think initially everybody thinks that you go to court all the time. But particularly on the civil side, we don’t go to trial as often as you see on TV. Most of these cases are ultimately resolved in settlement.
How often do you go to trial?
In the last five years I’ve probably been to trial four or five times a year, which is a lot on the commercial litigation side. In the first 20 years of my career, we might [have gone] once or twice a year. Part of that is because we had so much hurricane litigation. We defended a number of property insurers, both on the homeowner side and in commercial cases. There were a lot of issues, and emotional issues, I suppose, drove some of them to trial. And in some there was just a lot of money involved.
It seems like everything related to the hurricane has been emotionally charged.
Yeah. And even the commercial cases were, too. It was very challenging because, in terms of a jury, everybody was affected in one way or another.
Do you have a good sense for how the jury is going to react? Do they ever surprise you?
They always surprise you! If anybody tells you they know what the jury is going to do, they’re lying. You never really know.
Does it get tiring to go to court so often?
It’s funny, because you really look forward and long to go to court. And then we were just going so much. I mean, the judges were getting tired; everybody was getting tired. It was becoming overwhelming for everybody in this area post-hurricane. But we still love going to court. But when you go into trial, it’s difficult for the client, because at that point, there’s no middle ground. It’s win or lose.
Is your big increase in trial work continuing?
No, it’s tapered off, as it should. We’re five years after the hurricane, and most of those cases are resolved.
You spent some time on the attorney disciplinary board. Can you tell me about that?
It was an eye-opening experience. I think it’s important for our system that attorneys be regulated and disciplined. I initially thought that most of the infractions would be somebody misusing a trust account or those kinds of things. But the cases that we were overseeing—frankly, there were some that I don’t think belonged there. I was surprised they were in the system. Others absolutely belonged there.
Which cases didn’t belong there?
There were some that may have been questions of malpractice. That’s not necessarily, to me, something that belongs in a disciplinary system. You have a malpractice law to deal with that.
Was it at all disheartening to be around lawyers who’ve behaved badly?
No. If you think about how many lawyers we have, this is only a small fraction. I was just surprised that some of this stuff went on.
What advice would you give to young lawyers?
They should strive to be cordial and professional, thorough, diligent and ethical.