How Do You Fill the Shoes of a Giant?

Randy McMurray grows Johnnie Cochran’s L.A. office 

Published in 2008 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2008

It wasn’t a Perry Mason moment that sent Randy McMurray to law school, but the police. And not in a good way.

Growing up in South Central in the 1950s and 1960s, McMurray had witnessed police abuse, but always from a distance. Until 1975. At the time he was attending California Polytechnic University in Pomona, on track to become an architect. Out with friends just before midnight, they stopped for a bite to eat. As their car left the parking lot, its wheels squealed as they hit the wet road and a squad car parked across the street immediately pulled them over. After the driver failed a sobriety test, the officers told everyone to get out of the car with their hands up. Another police car raced to the scene and stopped inches away from McMurray. An officer jumped out, threw him to the ground, and punched him in the back.

“Is that the best you can do?” McMurray mocked, but another officer pulled away the cop who was hitting him. McMurray was handcuffed and put into the police vehicle.

At his arraignment, he was assigned private counsel, instead of a public defender, because he knew the judge from having been a custodian at the courthouse.

“But when the kid showed up, I knew I was in trouble,” McMurray recalls. “He was scared to death and showed me the police report, which was full of lies, claiming I had jumped in front of their car, shouted profanities and resisted arrest. I knew I’d lose, even if I had been videotaped.”

So he decided to attend Southwestern Law School near downtown L.A., graduating in 1986. It took him four years because, while attending law school, he worked full-time as a civilian bailiff in Central District.

“My job was to take care of the jury and I got to see the best and the worst of trial lawyers,” McMurray explains. “I listened to the jurors while in the jury box and on breaks and that’s where my ability to understand them comes from.” He still makes a point of talking to juries after every verdict.

“Randy has a better rapport with the jury than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Michael Geibelson, now a partner at Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, whom McMurray hired directly out of law school. “He smiles, woos them, is personable, and knows when to be serious.”

The most important lesson he learned as bailiff, says McMurray, is to keep it simple. “Jurors disregard complexity,” he says, “so don’t use legalese—talk to them like your neighbor. I think only 10 percent of attorneys know how to communicate with juries.”

McMurray interviewed with only two firms after graduation and was hired on the spot by the second, Browne Greene, now Greene Broillet & Wheeler. McMurray took to heart Bruce Broillet’s advice that good lawyers “bleed for their clients.”

After months of paperwork, he was handed the file for his first case, which involved a client who was rendered paraplegic when his beer truck turned over on a freeway on-ramp. Experts had been retained, and the depositions and discovery were complete when, at his first appearance, the senior deputy to the state attorney general told McMurray, “You know you’re going to lose, don’t you?” He pointed out that the driver had entered that on-ramp several times a day for four years covering his routes, so he should have known the tilt of the bank. The state was going to claim immunity because the ramp had been built according to an approved plan.

McMurray was nervous because he knew that when workers had loaded the truck, they had failed to put locks on the empty cases of beer. His own expert had not yet measured the elevation and curvature of the ramp, but he thought it was different from others along that stretch of freeway. McMurray figured the state would not take the time to close the freeway to make its own studies, so he decided to bluff, based on his expert’s guess.

“You didn’t do your homework or you’d know all the other ramps are banked at 15 degrees; this one is 7, so any claim of immunity is out the window,” he baldly asserted to the state’s lawyers.

When they arrived in court, the judge asked if either side was interested in settlement discussions before he called a panel of jurors. After two days of negotiations, the state paid McMurray’s client.

“Randy is a very, very worthy opponent,” says Michael Moorhead, a mediator for Judicate West, who was involved in many negotiations with McMurray. “He’s both a consummate gentleman and at the same time the fiercest competitor, and that’s a rare combination these days.”

Not surprisingly, taking on the police is one of McMurray’s specialties. McMurray’s most important police case came in 1990 in Tartakoff v. City of Los Angeles. A squad car was chasing a man high on uppers who, at 80 mph, rammed into a young woman at an intersection. As a result, she became a paraplegic. The jury returned a record verdict of $7.6 million for a police pursuit. Because of that, and similar verdicts, the city changed the law to give itself immunity.

Another case, Eady v. City of Los Angeles, involved the police killing a disabled Vietnam veteran. The offer to settle was $25,000 and the demand was $250,000, but the jury awarded $1.3 million. In Angela Byrd v. Long Beach Police Department, guidelines for using beanbag shotguns were changed after one was misused at close range, and led to the death of his client.

“He’s a formidable opponent,” says George Mallory of Mallory & Associates, who defended the city of Inglewood against McMurray in a police case. “He finds a unique aspect of the case that will resonate with the jury.” Mallory recalls a case in which McMurray demolished police claims that the scene they entered had remained peaceful and quiet throughout the arrest. “He had the police radio call enhanced so that you could hear his client in the background, and it was clearly not the calm scene the officers had described,” Mallory says.

In 1991, after a month-long vacation, McMurray began working with Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi. He was still there in 1998 when he collaborated with Geibelson on Shelby Ranch and Fullerton Ranch v. Worthington, D.V.S., which involved a veterinarian who prescribed a vaccine for calves known to cause massive sores. The evidence showed he was receiving kickbacks from the manufacturer.

“This was in a rural area and I was speaking at a seminar about jury selection,” McMurray says. “One of the other speakers talked about how it was important to wear sport coats and plain brown suits, so the jurors wouldn’t think you were a city slicker.” McMurray’s closet was full of Italian labels, so he went out and bought some cheap suits. But when he tried them on, they didn’t feel right. “I just wasn’t comfortable; it wasn’t me,” he says. “I always tell new lawyers it’s important not to pretend to be someone else, because those 12 people are watching you every minute and they’ll detect it.”

After the jury awarded $3.3 million, the largest veterinary malpractice verdict in U.S. history, he asked them what had influenced their decision. One of their first comments: “The two of you looked and behaved like real lawyers; the defense did not.”

In the fall of 1998, the legendary Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. took him to lunch. Cochran had spent two years preparing for and trying the O.J. Simpson case, and then two more years working on a book about it and a TV show on the law. Cochran was expanding the firm, and after the departures of some of the Los Angeles office’s best-known names, that office needed a managing attorney.

Explaining his decision to leave Robins Kaplan, McMurray says simply, “Johnnie wanted me—that was hard to resist.” But he admits that he had grown uncomfortable having to defend companies against the personal injury cases he was being assigned. He liked Johnnie’s motto that “we represent the O.J.’s and the No J’s.”

The first half of 2007 saw McMurray devoting much of his time to reorganizing the Los Angeles office of The Cochran Firm, as the 20-office, first national plaintiff’s firm is now known, to make it self-funding and provide greater profit potential. McMurray expects to be hiring, now that his office has started to take on cases of alleged employment discrimination.

“We’ve been inundated because we’re minority-owned and operated and most of the cases are going to be from protected classes,” he says, noting that it employs a diverse group of lawyers. “Our clients know we’re going to understand their problems.”

If you want to get McMurray’s blood boiling, ask him about California’s medical malpractice laws.

“You can’t make those cases your primary focus because the cap on noneconomic damages is $250,000, while the scale for fees starts at 40 percent for the first $50,000, and over $300,000 you only receive 15 percent,” explains McMurray. He fumes that they have not changed since 1975, making the damage limit equivalent to $65,000 in today’s dollars. “The defense can afford to get the best experts and no other profession has a jury instruction that says that just because the defendant makes a mistake, he is not necessarily negligent,” he notes.

McMurray adds that with six-year term limits, it is hard to find legislators who “have a deep understanding of the foundation of our civil liberties.” Going to Sacramento to defend the rights of patients from big business is the one part of his job he really dislikes, he says. He hopes for at least an adjustment to the caps to make up for 32 years of inflation.

One of his wins was against the much-troubled King/Drew Medical Center in South Central, where a young man was brought after being wounded in the leg in a drive-by shooting. It took four hours for the emergency physician to attend to him, by which time the patient was nonresponsive. The subsequent surgery was successful and he was supposed to be sent to the intensive care unit, where a bed was waiting for him, but was instead left in the regular ward for hours, where he died. After the verdict, the hospital’s emergency procedures were changed to protect against anything like that happening again.

It is not always tragic drama in court, however. At one trial, McMurray brought in Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who testified as an expert witness because he is now a music producer. After Yarrow had estimated the lost earnings of the client, a musician who had suffered from the side effects of an anti-depression drug, the judge asked if he would perform one of the group’s hits. Soon, everyone, including the prosecutor, was singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Dedicated to raising the standards of the practice of the law, McMurray frequently teaches seminars and is the first African American to become vice president of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles. He is slated to become its president in 2009.

McMurray lives four blocks from his office, but does not let his large workload take over his entire life. He tries to swim every day, run and go to the gym. Occasionally, he takes his kayak onto lakes and the nearby ocean. Divorced, he loves to go with his son, 15, and daughter, 13, to Yosemite National Park whenever possible and is deeply committed to its preservation. He and his kids also love to build model cars. McMurray is active in charities and donates money and time to a long list, including the Cochran Brain Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

But then, come Monday morning, McMurray can’t wait to get back to work.

“My passion is to make changes,” he says. “I grew up an idealist and people said you can’t change the world, but I think you can, one case at a time.”

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