My Case, I Rest
Litigator Steve Farrar of Smith Moore Leatherwood in Greenville speaks about his background in accounting, finding humor in the courtroom, and why his grandkids call him Yoda
Published in 2015 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Ross Pfund on March 4, 2015
Q: When I was looking up your website, I came across the other Steve Farrar.
A: The Promise Keepers writer.
Q: Have you ever been mistaken for him?
A: No, I haven’t. But it’s funny; everybody Googles their own name occasionally. I tell people, “You’ve got to go about 65,000 pages down on Google to get to me.” It’s ridiculous.
Q: Given your success, that’s a bit surprising.
A: If you put my full name, Steven E., in there, you’ll get to me quicker. But yeah, I start chuckling because my brother was a devotee of Promise Keepers years ago, and he used to laugh about how he couldn’t get out of his mind the image of me writing the books. But I don’t think so.
Q: You were working with numbers instead. Tell me about your career as a certified public accountant.
A: It was short lived, actually. When I was in college, I really didn’t know what major I wanted to do. My father was a CPA; he was a tax adviser. I wish I could tell you I had a burning itch to go be a CPA, but I really was trying to find something I thought I could do that I would like, and I like numbers. So I ended up going into accounting and ended up working for what was then a Big Eight firm.
Q: How did the law come into the picture?
A: I enjoyed doing what I was doing, but in a big firm like that, it was years away from having the ability to use creativity and get into something that was a meaty issue. I looked around and I started meeting my classmates who had gone to law school, and they somewhat enticed me into thinking about going to law school.
I got there and then realized, “Hey, if I’m going to do this, I want to do litigation,” which was a stumbling block because most everyone who interviewed me wanted me to do tax law.
Fortunately, having gone to high school in Greenville, I moved down here, and Leatherwood Walker Todd & Mann said, “If you want to do litigation, you can come do it for a while and then we’ll reassess.” I guess, 32 years later, we’re still waiting to reassess.
Q: Do you remember your first case?
A: I didn’t have a defense to it when I look back on it. The jury was out 12 minutes, only because two ladies had to go to the bathroom. They came back in and found for the plaintiff. They actually found in excess of what the plaintiff demanded. It was a whopping $1,200 verdict on a $900 claim. And the judge gave a remitter to knock the verdict back down to $900. It taught me a lesson: No matter how good a lawyer you are, you’re not always going to have the facts or the law on your side, so you’re going to lose cases. It’s a question of trying to limit the damages or the relief being sought by the other side.
Q: You were doing defense work from the start. Because it’s what you wanted to do or it’s what the firm was doing?
A: It’s what the firm was doing. I’ve been on the plaintiff’s side, but not often. It would be hard for me to disclaim being a defense lawyer since I’m the president-elect of the Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel. They might drum me out if I say otherwise.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your role there?
A: You basically travel a great deal, being the representative of the organization and trying to promote issues that impact the defense side. You’re immediately placed on the board at the Lawyers for Civil Justice, which is a group that works hard to make sure that the federal rules are balanced between plaintiff and defendant. I’m leaving this afternoon to go up to be on the board at a meeting of the Defense Research Institute, another group that works hard to service the defense lawyers.
You spend your president-elect year basically planning your presidential year. My presidential year, we’re focusing on issues that almost every organization is facing right now, and that is how we get the next generation interested in joining and participating.
One of the issues that the federation faces is that you have to practice nine years, and then you face an investigation once you’re nominated for membership. I think we only let in about two-thirds of the people who are nominated.
The younger lawyers face the challenge of being known by people in their community, the lawyers to whom people turn for recommendations. Every group that relies upon the number of trial experiences you have in order to qualify for admission is facing the issue, because the number of trials has decreased so significantly.
I think it’s robbing the next generation of great advocates. There’re going to be far fewer advocates because the only way you can learn to try a case is to try a case. You can watch a case, you can sit second chair, but until you’re the person facing the multiple sensory overload—of the judge looking at you, the witness looking at you, the jury looking at you, your opponent’s planning against you, and your client’s tugging on your sleeve, and you’re regretting what you just said and trying to figure out how to undo it—until you go through all that, you really can’t appreciate how challenging it is.
Q: If the only way you can learn is by doing, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
A: [As a young lawyer,] I tried a case and missed an issue. The judge, to his credit, was hinting at it the entire trial. But I had not faced that issue before. I wasn’t aware of it. By the time we got to the end, he sent the jury out. He said, “Now, did you not pick up on my trying to give you this hint?” And I was like, “Yes, sir. I didn’t know what it meant.” He told me. It was a tactical hint, and I sat there going, “It’s so obvious now,” but it wasn’t to me until I’d faced it. I think that’s true for almost everybody. The practice of law is not only knowing the law and knowing the facts, but [knowing] tactics and whether or not you’re going to offend the jury.
Q: Any other thoughts on communicating with juries?
A: When I was younger, I was probably more aggressive. Maybe it was just trying to get pelts or trying to convince a jury of how good I was at cross-examination. Now I try to do it more lighthearted. Unless the case is very serious and involves a medical issue, which you can’t make light of, there’s always some humor in a case. I try to be a little bit more laid-back and serve the role of being the older statesman as opposed to the gun that I thought I was when I was younger.
Q: When I read about your career, the word that I keep seeing is “complex.”
A: One of the advantages of coming from an accounting background was that I knew I wanted to do varied work, and litigation seemed like the way to do that. As an accountant you’re numerically inclined. I tried to explain to somebody the other day about being a CPA and growing up in that world. To me, it’s somewhat like being bilingual naturally or learning the language in school. When I’m hearing the business topics that I know from the accounting world, I don’t have to translate them like I’m hearing them for the first time.
A lot of the cases that I’ve had, which have been complex, have been numerically based: a number of accounting malpractice cases, securities fraud cases, things like that. Most of it comes back to accounting. I served as an attorney for a federal court receiver who was chasing money around the globe from a Ponzi scheme. We recovered, I think, approximately $50 million out of the $90 million that was lost, which is a very good recovery in those types of cases. Being able to do the numbers helped a great deal.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
A: The legal and accounting malpractice cases. I’ve had both of those careers; I probably feel more sympathy for the person going through that issue. It’s certainly personal to me because I don’t think I’ve ever done either case where I haven’t thought, “There but for the grace of God. I wonder whether I would have done that or not seen that.”
I laughingly told an associate in the firm last week, “You know, I thought when I’d been practicing 32 years I would’ve had a better grasp on every issue.” What you learn is the more you practice, the more nuances there are to the issues you’re facing.
Q: What do you do outside of the office?
A: Between the federation and grandchildren, that’s it. They’re young grandchildren, so it’s still a novelty to us and it’s great fun. I heard a line that said, “A child makes his father a man and his grandfather a boy.” I’ve adopted that. I got to pick my own grandfather name, which was fun. I’m “Yoda.”
Q: That’s great.
A: I figured that was unique enough. Now I’ve experienced the thrill of having a 26-month-old child in the middle of a crowd look at you and go, “Yoda, come with me.” It’s fun.
Q: What advice would you give to young attorneys?
A: You’ve got to want to practice law. It’s like any other profession. If you dislike it, it’s unforgiving. If you like it, it’s fantastic.
This interview has been condensed.
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