The Rabidly Polite Attorney
Scotty Welch on Katrina, juries and mandatory retirement
Published in 2008 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 10, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
W. Scott Welch III knew the job might not win him many friends.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of homeowners received only small payouts for wind damage from their insurance companies, most of which didn’t cover flooding. In cases brought by the Katrina Litigation Group (formerly Scruggs Katrina Group), hurricane victims sought to have a greater portion of their damages covered by their insurers.
Welch, a shareholder in the Jackson office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, represents one of those insurers. He was the lead trial counsel for a major insurance company in cases filed by the attorney general of Mississippi, the Katrina Litigation Group and related putative class actions. He was hired shortly after the attorney general of Mississippi filed a case against several insurance companies seeking to have a part of their policy declared void.
Welch, who goes by “Scotty,” knows that public sympathy is heavy in favor of the people who have lost their homes. “The companies are often regarded as the bad guys. The mentality is, ‘You’re a big company; why don’t you give the little people more money?'” he says. “But in the Katrina cases, there is a contract, an insurance policy, which spells out how much money you will pay and what will be covered in return. If you wrecked your car and wanted a rental car, the insurance company won’t pay for that, either, unless you’ve bought rental coverage.”
Welch says he and his colleagues, as well as the people at the insurance company, feel bad for the people who lost possessions and homes to the hurricane, but that ultimately the law comes first.
“I’m sure there are people out there who have something to say about my representing the insurance companies, but they aren’t the ones sitting down, studying the policy, and looking at the law and the contract,” Welch says.
Welch’s perspective comes from many years of representing trucking companies in personal injury and wrongful death cases. “Trucks tend to have bad wrecks when they have one, and there’s a tendency for people to want to give money when there’s a big company on the other side. But sooner or later, we all pay that money in the form of higher prices. These cases are simply a question of how folks want to spread the burden around,” he says.
Despite the emotional nature of his cases, Welch tries to remain calm in the courtroom. “Too often lawyers are unnecessarily contentious, if not downright rude and ugly,” he says. “I am practically rabid about practicing civility, treating other lawyers, clients and witnesses like I want them to treat me. If there’s going to be a joke or humor at anyone’s expense, I try to see that it’s at mine,” he says. “Part of my style is to treat witnesses in a nice, conversational way.”
His philosophy has paid off. Welch has built his practice on repeat business and referrals from satisfied clients. Even lawyers on the other side have asked him to represent them. “This is very flattering, and I value the recommendations,” he says.
Welch, 69, has only practiced with Baker Donelson for two-and-a-half years; he was with another Jackson firm for 39 years. When he hit his 65th birthday, Welch ran into the firm’s retirement policy: he lost his equity status and was required to renegotiate his terms of employment every year. After a year of that, he realized he didn’t want to spend every December negotiating his salary, so he joined Baker Donelson. “I have no retirement plans, and this firm doesn’t have anything approaching a mandatory retirement, so it’s a good fit,” he says.
Welch’s first job, at 9 years old, was dusting books in his grandfather’s law office. During a stint at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after law school, Welch served as a general legal counsel and a base claims officer, a position in which he was responsible for observing every significant missile launch from the base. He prosecuted and defended courts marshal for a variety of offenses, the most serious of which was rape. “That got any desire to practice criminal law pretty well out of my system,” he says with a wry laugh.
Welch now considers himself a legal generalist. “If I had to boil it down, I’d say litigation and trial work is my specialty rather than a specific subject matter. I have a short attention span, and I like a variety of cases and the opportunity to learn about them,” he says. He cites the value of talking to the jury as an intelligent observer—not an expert. “Some specialists tend to get too focused on the specialty and they lose the ability to truly communicate with the jury.”
His other M.O. has won over many a weary jury: “I try to make sure my part of the case goes on as briefly as possible. My goal is to finish my part of the trial in no more than half the time it took the plaintiff,” he says. “Jurors get tired of the trial, of being away from their normal routines. They may or may not be interested in what you’re talking about. They may tune you out. My goal is to keep it short and simple and hold their attention while I make my points.”
Having been involved in more than 200 cases in his career, Welch is hard-pressed to pick one or two that stand out. “They are all important at the time, and that’s something I try to impress upon my client,” he says.
Yet there’s one that particularly satisfied him. As a young lawyer, he handled a case for a group of apartment owners in Jackson who were trying to get the city to equalize the value of real estate on the tax rolls. Commercial and residential property were valued differently, and the group thought the policy was discriminatory. “The case was practically pro bono, but I remember it because we got the court to rule that the city had to treat the two classifications [equally], and the law is still in effect today,” he says.
Outside of the courtroom, Welch is more than just polite to fellow lawyers—he goes out of his way to hang out with them. “I like the fellowship of other lawyers, no matter what side of the lawsuit they’re on or whether they practice civil or criminal law,” he says. “Some people think plaintiff lawyers and defense lawyers are mortal enemies, but again, this is where the civility comes in. I enjoy a professional relationship with the people on the other side of the insurance concern”—referring to the Katrina cases—”and they have a much tougher job than I do.”
Welch likes to work with young lawyers. These days he tells young undergraduates who want to become lawyers to take plenty of math classes, because logic and reason are vital to the profession. He served as the national president of the American Board of Trial Advocates in 2001, and hopes above all to uphold and preserve the profession.
“A lot of people talk about the practice of law as a business, but it’s not a business. It’s a profession,” Welch says. “We have to go about our practice in a business-like manner, but at the same time we need to work to preserve the system we’ve got. It’s better than anything anyone can come up with for a substitute.”