Q&A With R. Lawrence Ward

Larry Ward of Polsinelli Shughart tells the story of his escape from a career in accounting and how he discovered the joy of business litigation.

Published in 2009 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers — November 2009

What drew you to the law?

I graduated with a degree in accounting and I knew it was going to be terribly boring, so I wanted something with more action.

 

So what would you have done if you hadn’t become a lawyer and you stayed away from accounting?

I probably would have become a bartender in Kansas City, Kan.

 

What led you to business litigation? Was it the background in accounting?

Good lord no. After about eight to 10 years of trying personal injury cases, I got bored with that. Business litigation was coming on stream about that time and I decided to get in on the ground floor.

 

Looking at your case history, it seems like it would be hard to get bored. Some of them look pretty complicated.

Let me tell you, I found them all complicated. Maybe somebody else would think they’re easy. We tried some really, really interesting stuff.

 

What would you say was one of your most interesting cases?

I represented a bankrupt trucking company called American Carriers Inc. against Westinghouse Credit Corp. We got a $70 million verdict there against a hot-shot [attorney] from Chicago. Our expert—the only expert we had on damages, whose deposition the defendant had taken, but not us—had a heart attack during the trial so he could not appear. I put my partner, Jennifer Gille Bacon, on the stand and she read his testimony while I asked the questions. That was the basis that we had for a $70 million verdict. That was a little unusual.

 

What do you like about business litigation?

I love variety and the challenge of it. Every business case is different. I contrast that, for me, to back when I was doing personal injury work. They were all alike, seemingly. You saw the same things: the same factual issues a lot of times, the same injuries and the same doctors. You get in these cases; they are all totally different. Each one is usually a new industry with a new nuance to it that you have to learn from scratch. I find it immensely interesting and very challenging.

 

Whom do you consider to be your role model—legal or otherwise?

There are a lot of people that affect you in your life, and my family has affected me very positively. I’m not only the first lawyer in my family; I’m the first college graduate. But not the last, I’m proud to say. I have two kids who are lawyers. But two guys who really meant a lot to me: Harry P. Thomson and Jack Kilroy. I worked with, sat behind, learned from and tried cases with both of these guys. They were both mentors of immense proportions, and anything I’ve learned came from one of them.

 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Well, you know you can apply it to anything, but it jumps out at me. It’s “Be yourself.” When you’re trying to learn how to try cases, you’re watching people and sometimes perhaps trying to do it the way they do it and that’s usually not the best way to do it. You’ve got to learn your own level, abilities and approach. You can develop general work habits and general themes and techniques, but in the final analysis, when you’re standing in front of a jury, you’ve got to sell what you’ve got. You’ve got to understand both the weaknesses and the strengths of what you bring. Try to stay away from your weaknesses and play to your strengths no matter how hard that is sometimes. I could take that into life just as easily.

 

What advice would you give to young lawyers?

You’ve got to develop the reputation as being the straightest arrow in the courthouse because people you practice with today will be judges tomorrow. If they thought you were a bum when you were practicing, they’ll remember that.

 

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the practice of law during your career?

Two things. One: The lack, or loss, of professional courtesy. I don’t equate it to a change in people; I equate it to the increase in size of the bar. You hear all us old-timers complaining about it. The other thing is the technological development that we’ve seen. Everything is so quick today, from record keeping to communications with court, counsel and clients. I sit in a deposition and I can open my laptop and read the transcript in real time as the deposition is going on. It’s a new era and it’s all good.

 

What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?

Five children and eight grandchildren. I’m proud of all of them and hopefully I’ve created an image for them that they can look at and be proud for their family.

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