The Right Fit

Former insurance defense lawyer and shoe salesman Robert Clayton finds his niche on the plaintiff side

Published in 2010 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2010

In 1991, Robert Clayton didn’t know what he’d do with this life.

“I just packed a U-Haul and drove to LA from Chicago,” the Taylor & Ring lawyer remembers. “I had no money, besides the $1,000 in my pocket, and no job. But the weather, the schooling costs—back then, in-state residents [of California] paid a quarter of the cost of education I’d have to pay in Illinois—were real selling points. I had to get a degree.”

To establish residency, Clayton worked for a year. “I did the Al Bundy thing,” he says, “selling shoes.” He kept his shoe gig while working on his political science degree at Cal State Northridge. The school had a program for students interested in the law. Clayton tried it on for size.

“I externed for Superior Court Judge John P. Farrell and got to see some excellent civil trials,” he says. “It was something I fell in love with.”

But after graduating Loyola Law School, he found himself back on familiar ground. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “When I was externing, I was interested in what the plaintiff’s attorneys did. Judge Farrell told me that right out of school, the best option [for that work] was at a small firm. He said, ‘You need to work for a defense firm. You’ll have a huge defense machine behind you. They’re going to drop files in your lap every day, and you’re going to learn the law there faster than anywhere else.’”

Clayton listened to Farrell. But after six years in insurance defense, the work wasn’t resonating. “I started at a 25-attorney defense firm, then was recruited by a 100-attorney firm,” he says. “But my unhappiness was mounting. Finally I asked myself, ‘Is this really what my life has become?’”

The case that changed his career pitted him and his insurance client against a man who fell four stories while on a construction job. The plaintiff’s injuries were so extensive that Clayton could only take his deposition two hours per day. “I felt for this man,” Clayton says. “I wanted to promote the case in ways that weren’t conducive to a defense mentality.”

A search for plaintiff’s work led him to Taylor & Ring. “I came in and told [the partners] my goals, my experience, my beliefs and values,” he says. “They were family men. It clicked with them.”

These days, he knows exactly where he wants to be.

“I don’t have any ill feelings toward defense attorneys. I feel a sense of camaraderie. I know what it takes to do that job,” he says. “But I also know the second a file goes into the defense room the question becomes, ‘How can we get this thrown out on summary judgment?’ So the first thing I’m thinking is, ‘OK, I will pull out the jury’s instructions, all current case law, find everything I need to beat a motion for summary judgment.’”

Clayton finds the best way to work with defense lawyers is to do their work for them. “If I make their jobs on my files as easy for them as possible, even if it means doing some of their work, they’re going to be more willing to work with my client,” he says.

Although the wheels of that U-Haul touched ground in Los Angeles almost two decades ago, Clayton knows he has finally arrived. “I’m doing what I always wanted to do,” he says.

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