From Taxes to Trials
Sidney G. Dunagan on the importance of writing, how Vietnam changed his career path, and the question you can’t ask in a deposition
Published in 2010 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
By Nyssa Gesch on October 12, 2010
Sidney G. Dunagan graduated from law school in 1967 planning to become a tax lawyer, but the Vietnam War changed that path. Today, he is a litigator at GableGotwals, specializing in class actions, environmental law, and product and professional liability, and he is the recipient of the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster for his service. More than 40 years later, he still treasures a good trial.
Why did you choose law?
I always wanted to be a lawyer, I think probably since I was in high school. I don’t know that there was any particular thing that drove me to that; it’s just something I felt like I always wanted to do, even though I had no lawyers in the family whatsoever.
And your particular practice area?
Originally, I intended to be a tax lawyer. The University of Tulsa College of Law had a number of courses in tax. I took all of those courses. I intended to go get a master’s degree from New York University’s law school. In the meantime, Vietnam came along and I went into the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I had a direct commission and from that point on, I became a trial lawyer—never to go back to tax again. I spent almost five years in the military as a Judge Advocate General.
It was a very busy time, too. After I spent a few months at the University of Virginia law school, which is where the Judge Advocate General’s school is for the Army, I went to Fort Knox, Ky., for about six months and then to Vietnam for a year. From there I went to Germany and finished my [military] career up.
I tried criminal cases in every location: Fort Knox, Vietnam and Germany. We were in a courtroom almost every day.
So you grew to like the courtroom so much that you never went back to tax law?
That’s true. Besides that, they changed the tax code. I’m not sure I would’ve known what to do in the meantime. [Laughs] But I guess they’re always changing the tax code, so that’s probably not much of an excuse.
No, I realized that I really enjoyed being a trial lawyer. Circumstances kind of drove me to what I have done. I say ‘drove,’ but I think it was the right thing to happen.
How did your experience in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps help your career?
To have the opportunity to try that many cases is almost impossible any other place—other than a district attorney’s office—and even then, you probably wouldn’t try that many cases. I probably had close to 150 jury trials before I ever left the military and most lawyers wouldn’t have 150 jury trials in their entire career. It gave me a tremendous amount of experience and the responsibility level you had was very high from the very beginning. The first murder case I had, I was a defense counsel and I would say I was either 26 or 27 years old, so [it was] a lot of responsibility very, very quickly. You could either deal with it or not. [Laughs] But I found it very challenging and interesting work. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it as work.
Do you have a favorite type of case to handle?
Aircraft accidents are one of the most interesting and challenging because of the forensic work you have to do to establish what caused the crash. You’re often left with very little physical evidence and it’s like having a puzzle and you’re missing a lot of the pieces. You’re trying to create something so you can see the rest; you can fill in those pieces.
Anything funny happen in the courtroom?
I remember watching a case when I was in Fort Knox. When the Vietnam War was really heating up in 1968, there were a number of people who had no intention of going to Vietnam, so they were going AWOL. We were trying some AWOL cases at the time and one of the lawyers got really excited in his closing and got quite emotional, which is somewhat difficult to do in an AWOL case, but he did. He was referring to his client and he whirled around. Instead of saying the young man’s name, like Pvt. Smith, he referred to him as Pvt. AWOL, because all of us had done so many of these AWOL cases that’s all we had on our minds. I can remember the entire jury panel actually disappeared from the bench because they were trying to not laugh.
[Another time] a young man was picked up by the German police for marijuana possession. Under the treaty we had at the time, the German police would turn our soldiers back over to us to try. I was a prosecutor and I tried the case. The German police testified how they picked him up: They saw him make a buy and he walked across the street and they picked him up in a Gasthaus. [The American soldier] decided he would testify, so his lawyer put him on and he testified that a man had put the marijuana in his pocket while he was walking across the street. When I got up, I asked him, “Well, what did this man look like?” And he said, “Well, he had a long nose.” And so I said, “He had a long nose.” “Yes,” he said, “yes, he was a Canadian.” I said, “He was a Canadian.” He says, “Yes, he was an American.” And I said, “He was an American?” And he said, “Yes, he had a Spanish accent.” I said, “So the man who put this in your pocket was a long-nosed Canadian-American with a Spanish accent?” And this guy just almost jumped out of the witness chair and says, “Yes, that’s the man! That’s the man!” [Laughs] In this case, the judge went behind the bench [to laugh], but we had to take a break once again and get our composure back together and start over. [The soldier] was apparently not too convincing because he got convicted. But anyway, that’s my long-nosed-Canadian-American-with-a-Spanish-accent story.
There’s been a lot of other little ones along the way. I can remember making an argument one time. I had this really key thing I wanted to say, so I had carefully written it out, and I put it in bold. When I was making this presentation I got to that place and, instead of just continuing to talk—because I basically knew what I was going to say, I actually had it memorized—I looked down and there was that bold and it was “However” [followed by a comma]. That’s what I said: “However comma.” I said “comma.” And, oh my gosh, I knew I said it, the judge knew I said it—and he had a wonderful courtroom clerk, she knew I said it. To keep from laughing, I could just see their jaws tightening up.
Who do you consider your mentor?
I’ve been very fortunate. I had the two senior partners in our law firm, Ellis Gable and Charles—or Charlie—Gotwals, both of whom are now deceased. [From them I learned] the philosophy of the law firm and how it should be, the basic philosophy as to how it should operate, and how you should treat people in your law firm and other lawyers.
Then a partner of mine who retired from practice a number of years ago, Charles “Chuck” Baker, and a partner that’s still with us, Jim Sturdivant.
So the philosophies of Ellis and Charlie have been the most influential for you?
No doubt about it. Philosophy of just the practice of law and how you deal with other lawyers and how you deal with people within the law firm. Both were great mentors.
I’ve done a lot of bar association work, been the president to the Oklahoma Bar. I was president of the Tulsa County Bar; I taught the bar review for over 20 years, did lots of CLE work. That was something that Ellis Gable encouraged me from the very beginning to do, and that’s been very rewarding to me personally.
You’re also a volunteer attorney with Oklahoma Lawyers for Children. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
That’s an organization that was put together—it may have been in existence now about 10 years—by two attorneys here in Oklahoma City. There was such a backlog for the public defenders that they started a group of lawyers to take over cases, particularly where the public defenders had conflicts. Most of these would be termination of parental rights cases, [often concerning] abused children.
One of the more difficult things you are called upon to do is make a lot of decisions for the children. I think the oldest child I ever represented was 4, maybe 5. Say the state wants to terminate the rights of the parents. You have to determine whether you think that’s the right thing to do for the child and whether you want to support that or not support that. The children are usually with foster care, so you also need to make sure that the children are being well cared for by the foster parents while these proceedings go on. Sometimes they go on for two years; I’ve had one that went two-and-a-half years.
What’s the most rewarding part about being a lawyer for you?
The challenge of difficult cases coming to a resolution, a favorable resolution, for my client. I enjoy the challenge.
What advice do you have for young lawyers?
If someone’s thinking about being a lawyer, then they need to spend as much time as possible in learning to write well. The difficulty we see today is that many of the students, while very bright, do not write particularly well. We have changed so much from even when I started practicing law in 1968, where verbal skills were probably much more significant in practice, to today, when your ability to write well is more significant in many ways because much of our work today is written submissions, as opposed to oral advocacy. We don’t try nearly as many cases today.
Any other major changes to law you’ve seen during your career?
Today cases are so document-intensive that there is so much time and energy and money devoted to discovery. That was certainly not the case 40 years ago. Today, most of the litigation is in discovery and not taking place in the courtroom.
That must be disappointing for you, having embraced the courtroom early in your career.
Yes, it is. It kind of takes the excitement out of it. It’s hard for me to get excited over a discovery issue, but the fact is that’s where much of the encounters are taking place.
Anything I didn’t ask that you think I should have?
That’s the question you always try to ask a witness in the deposition and it always gets objected to. [Laughs] No, I don’t think I have anything extra I can say.
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