It’s Hot When You Face the Broiler

Bruce Broillet knows how to weave dreams and win cases

Published in 2009 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2009

Several times, Bruce Broillet asked the prospective juror whether she thought she could be impartial in the case ahead of them. And each time, the woman avoided his eyes and muttered, "Well ..."

Out of pre-emptive challenges, and not wanting to agitate or bore the rest of the jurors, Broillet relented and sat down.

One of the battery of opposing attorneys took his place in front of the woman and got the same waffling response to the same question. Finally, he said, "Madam, can you please just tell us why you think you can't be impartial in this case?"

"Well ..." The woman looked at the table full of defense attorneys. "There are five of you." She glanced at Broillet. "And there's only one of him—and he's such a little guy."

It's easy to paint the life of Broillet—all 5 feet 2 inches, 134 pounds of him—as a David and Goliath story. A committed Democrat who grew up during the Ralph Nader era, he talks about the "chill" that came over him in one of his first cases when he "realized I was standing toe-to-toe with General Motors."

Broillet has beaten the likes of Big Tobacco, Firestone and American Appliance Corp., earning a long list of eight- and nine-figure verdicts and settlements that flash by with other firm accomplishments in a continuous loop on a television screen in the lobby of Greene Broillet & Wheeler.

His accomplishments are best summed up, however, not with dollars or the many awards he has won, but with statements like this from his peers:

"If my kid died, he's the lawyer I would go to," says Rick Simons, former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California. "And if I had to crawl down the 405 on my hands and knees to reach him, I would do it. No one understands loss better than he does or can make a jury feel that loss in their guts."

 

From Basketball to Bela Lugosi

While at an El Paso, Texas, high school in the 1960s, Broillet wanted to play basketball, "but my height said I was not going to play basketball," he says. In seventh grade, he gravitated to speech and debate. "Throughout high school, so many people told me I'd grow up to be a trial lawyer that I resisted the idea. Finally, I said, ‘OK, I'll go to law school, but not as a trial lawyer.'"

He found, though, that he liked the stage of the courtroom, both the performance aspect (he once broke into a Bela Lugosi imitation in court while reading a transcript about a development on the island where Count Dracula is supposedly buried) and advocating for something he believes in.

"The courtroom is the only place in the world where the private individual can stand up to the biggest corporation, where the corporation can't make backroom deals or lobby with the jury," he says.

Broillet handles a wide variety of complex cases, from stock transfer fraud to idea theft, which was the nature of his suit against Oscar De La Hoya for wrongfully using his client's reality television show concept in his series, The Next Great Champ. However, it's often his personal injury cases that get the newspaper headlines—and record-setting judgments. There was the $32.5 million settlement awarded to a teenage girl who was severely injured when a bus collided with the van in which she was riding. Or the $25 million settlement for a 24-year-old who suffered electrical shock while drilling concrete, causing severe brain damage.

Broillet's cases include representing Adrienne Alpert, a KABC-TV reporter who suffered electrical injury while on assignment, a worker who became a paraplegic after he fell through a skylight, and a bicyclist who became a paraplegic when he fell over the edge of an unguarded residential street.

"I represent people who have been very severely damaged," he says. "The settlements make a big difference in someone's life. But I can also have compassion for a company that's been wronged, because the employees of that company have been wronged too. If they got ripped off by a second company, the employees have been ripped off."

Broillet, colleagues say, has a natural ability to make cases resonate with modern jurors who are skeptical of huge settlements, thanks to cases like those brought by people who spilled hot coffee on themselves.

Simons recalls reading through a listing of judgments and settlements in which the defendants agreed that the top value of the case was $1 million, but the case went to trial because the defendants disagreed about the allocations. "In trial, Bruce got $1.2 million, even though all the defendants had already agreed it was only worth $1 million." Simons says. "I've come to expect that from the guy."

How does he do it? It begins with methodical preparation. His plush offices, on the 21st floor of a high-rise on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, are piled high with boxes. "It's a working office," he says, somewhat apologetically, peering into a colleague's space that looks more like a storage bin. He carries a piece of paper and a pen in his pocket when he and his wife go to the movies, or anywhere, ready to scribble down any thoughts that spring to him about a case. His firm convenes many focus groups to test what lines of reasoning are most effective for an upcoming trial.

"I like to listen to the focus-group participants talk about the case, because I get ideas for metaphors, analogies and phraseology that will help the jury understand the case and persuade them," he says.

 

Distorting Reality

Second, Broillet is intensely competitive. Natch, you say, he's a trial lawyer. He has an office filled with sports memorabilia from his beloved Notre Dame football team and a toy pistol given to him by a client, as a thank-you for his "gun slinging." In the late '70s, his college roommate sent him a book with a highlighted passage about "what makes a champion." Broillet keeps the passage on a plaque near his desk, and in part it reads, "In the champion's mind, he is never ahead. He distorts reality to serve his competitive purpose. He is always coming from behind, even when the score indicates he is destroying his opponent. He never believes he's performing as well as he actually is." Asked about his most frustrating moment in a courtroom, Broillet pauses a long time—45 seconds at least—before saying, "Losing."

Any particular case?

"Losing is losing," he says. "When I try a case, my heart is in it. And when I'm losing a case, it's ripping my heart out."

The notion of always being behind dovetails with the third reason for his success: a down-to-earth humility. Simons recalls an e-mail exchange he had with Broillet about legal matters that digressed into a discussion about their first electric trains. "It was only three or four e-mails, but he can make you feel like a kid again," Simons says. "He knows what's important in life."

This attitude fuels Broillet's practice. Over his wife's exasperated protests, he wears a cheap, often-repaired wristwatch—which he won in a high school speech competition decades ago—to remind him of where he came from and "not to be too taken with myself." He likes to tell new lawyers, "You've just spent three years learning to think like a lawyer. Now, when you step into the courtroom and speak to the jury, you have to strip off that armor and be just a person."

During one trial, Broillet cross-examined an engineer who was talking about the size of the human hand, remarking that on either extreme, 5 percent of hands were outside the bell curve that he could design products for. "So, I said, ‘What you're telling me is, my hand is at the bottom 5 percent?'" Broillet says, holding his small hand high in the air. "Juries like it when you're self-deprecating, but not so much that it's unreal."

Fernando Pullum, who heads the Success Through the Arts Foundation that benefits several schools, says of board member Broillet: "Some people who give you help humiliate you in the process. He helps with pride and grace." Pullum went with Broillet to a football game that pitted Notre Dame (Broillet's alma mater) against Michigan (Pullum's alma mater). The Fighting Irish were trounced that day. "I wanted to tell him, ‘We kicked your butt,' but he congratulated me with such respect and humility, I couldn't," Pullum recalls.

 

Making Lawyers Cry

Friends and colleagues say Broillet possesses an unusual sense of compassion that resonates with juries.

"He grew up in humble origins," Simons says. "He not only still identifies with people, but he can express hopes and disappointments, losses and dreams better than anyone I've ever seen in this profession. Our group is made up of all the big-time plaintiff lawyers, but no one can link the heart and words like he can."

Steven Heimberg, a Los Angeles physician and attorney with his own long list of awards, recalls: "He was giving a talk on loss of consortium to a group of lawyers who, frankly, were a bit jaded. In what should have been an uninteresting topic, I was literally in tears. He has the uncanny ability to pull even the most intellectualized of us into our core emotional level."

In one case, Broillet, in a quiet but passionate voice, asked juries to close their eyes and consider the events that could occur over a 50-year span, making the half-century his client will have to live with an injury real to the jurors. "Closing arguments are halfway a religious experience for me," Broillet says. "I am so wrapped up in the case, the arguments just flow out of me."

Heimberg, who calls Broillet his "professional idol," uses a sports metaphor to describe his colleague. "Watching him in the courtroom is like watching Kobe Bryant on the basketball court," he says. "With Kobe, you see his amazing prowess, but somehow it seems like something you could possess, that's just out there for the grabbing, because we've all made a jump shot in our driveway. But we could never imagine ourselves being Shaquille O'Neal because we can't relate to his size. In the same way, Bruce's style of lawyering seems attainable, even though, in reality, he's just as far above everyone else as Kobe Bryant is in his world. Bruce is everything a lawyer should be—highly ethical and amazingly articulate but with a sufficiently common touch."

It's that common touch—and his ability to drill down to a case's essence—that defines him. Take the case against big tobacco companies that produced a $3.3 billion settlement in 1998, in which Broillet represented Los Angeles County. Broillet crystallizes that massive, sprawling case into a single image: The huge billboard of the Marlboro Man coming down from Sunset Boulevard.

"The money is significant to the county," he says. "But today, unlike 20 years ago, young people have a clear message in their minds that smoking is not good, and I get satisfaction from that."

Simon's favorite closing arguments of Broillet's was in a case involving the death of a child. Broillet gave a scenario where listeners imagined they were walking into a burning building where they saw a priceless painting with an unconscious child below it: "If you can only save one, which one are you going to save?"

Did Broillet win that case and get a large settlement?

Well, what would you have grabbed?

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