The Big Guy
Pierce Hamblin’s tactical weapons include humor, listening skills and powers of persuasion. Plus an Elvis shrine
Published in 2015 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine on December 4, 2014
Pierce W. Hamblin greets visitors warmly. “Come in! I have a gift for you,” he says with a grin. He smiles while you wait for it. Then he pulls out a bag of M&Ms.
He likes to make a good first impression. He likes to make a good last impression, too, as well as a good everything-in-between impression.
This is not hard for the 6-foot-7 litigator, mediator and teacher, muscular-hulky at age 63 like a Kentucky oak. He has achieved an impressive distinction in each of the fields he has entered. But when you meet him, what most comes across is a will to connect.
Hamblin is a partner at Landrum & Shouse, which employed him 37 years ago, fresh from law school. He was born in Lexington and has remained there ever since. When he was growing up, Lexington had about 25,000 people, and it seemed like everyone knew everyone else. With a population of more than 300,000, it doesn’t feel like it’s changed that much. “It still has that small-town culture to it,” he says. “It’s friendly, and you can go five miles any way from my building and you will be in horse-farm country. So at the end of the day, after fighting in court or doing tough mediations, one can take a five-mile jaunt and be in a peaceful place. I find that comforting.”
The defense lawyer has made a reputation primarily for his work on insurance cases. When someone is in an accident and is sued, his or her insurance company hires Hamblin to represent its client. He has worked many products liability, automobile accident, and medical and legal malpractice cases.
Hamblin cites as noteworthy examples a pair of “negligent-pursuit” cases involving police who faced civil suits after high-speed chases ended in car crashes in which people died. “In Kentucky there have been, in the last five or six decades, only three or four of these things tried to verdict,” notes Hamblin. “And I’ve been in two of them, so I take a lot of pride in that fact.” In both cases, “the jury came back in favor of what I believe to be good officers and public servants. While I certainly took no joy whatsoever in the facts and results of the accident, I believe justice was done.”
In 2006 Hamblin took a chance and began exploring the growing field of mediation and arbitration. It paid off. In recent years, mediation has emerged as an ever-more important means of settling conflicts as costs have skyrocketed just to get a case to the courthouse steps.
“Even a straightforward whiplash case, where your car is hit from the rear, takes thousands of dollars to get in front of a judge and jury,” he says. And after 37 years, “I still cannot tell you what a jury is going to do. So the risk is great for both sides to get a resolution for folks.”
The essence of mediation he says, is in identifying two values common to every case, then molding them into a single way forward. The first is the human value, or the personal cost. It’s what a victim would explain over the dinner table: “Let me tell you how this accident has affected my life and my family’s life.” It’s something you can’t put a price tag on, so it can be hard for people to cast aside in mediation.
Then there’s what Hamblin calls the legal value. It’s what a mediator is there to help the parties see. It amounts to getting them to ask themselves, “If I tell my side of the story to 12 strangers and the other party tells their side of the story to the same 12 strangers, what is the jury going to do for me?” It’s hard for injured parties to do, Hamblin notes, because they have to put their tragedy aside and examine both sides.
“I tell them very straight up, ‘I don’t know if I can sit in this chair today and do what you want to do to settle this case. If someone hurt my family, I don’t know if I could set it aside. But if you’re bigger than I am, you’re going to have to set that aside.’” It’s a humble and canny strategy for bringing parties together. “You’ve got to be very fair to both sides—mediators that play games don’t cut it in life. I think over the years I’ve earned the reputation of not playing games with people.”
Hamblin says mediation isn't so different from defense work. “I think having been a defense attorney makes you a better mediator. Because you really have to evaluate your cases as a defense attorney. You’ve got to look at both sides, at the strengths and weaknesses; you just can’t take for granted everything you’re told. It’s helped me learn to listen to both sides.”
Another invaluable quality, says Bobby Elliott of Elliott Houlihan & Skidmore, is sense of humor. “In litigation, feelings on both sides are very much on the surface. Tensions can run high. And sometimes we lawyers make those tensions worse rather than ease them. Pierce has just an innate ability to reduce the tension in the room.”
Elliott does a lot of medical negligence work on behalf of people claiming injuries. Frequently on the other side are health-care providers who may feel attacked. “When parties give opening statements, sometimes attorneys can say things that get under the skin of the other side. Pierce notices that, and then when he breaks into private caucuses, the first thing he does in that private room is try to ease that anger, to get them to understand this isn’t personal; it’s part of the process. He can take somebody ready to walk out and calm them and have them stay for the result. And sometimes that’s been me.”
Hamblin estimates he’s done more than 7,500 mediations, which he thinks is as many as anybody in Kentucky. He’s recorded an audio lecture titled “Mediation Ain’t What It Used to Be.” As recordings by attorneys go, it may be the Nevermind of the genre. “What the title means is mediation is now so commonplace,” he says. “Now, almost all judges in these cases send you to mediation before you can go to trial, so everybody involved—the parties, the mediator, the lawyers—are mediation-savvy.
“So you’ve got to come in and be very straightforward and not engage in gamesmanship. ... You used to be able to make a huge demand or the other side made an offer that was so miniscule it was insulting.”
After Hamblin offers the M&Ms, he gives a tour of his small office. It starts with a door covered with artwork made by his three children. All three are grown up now. There are photographs of them from all eras.
“People say to me, ‘Pierce, why do you have so many pictures of your kids on your wall?’ You know what I tell them?” He pauses long enough for an answer. “I tell them, ‘You can kiss my ass!’”
The tour moves on to the life-size cutouts that flank his desk: Clint Eastwood, decked out in Hamblin’s old Army jacket. John Wayne, cowboyed up. The idea, he says, is to reduce the intimidation factor.
“We refer to him as ‘the big guy,’ and everybody knows who you’re talking about,” says Lexington attorney Julie Butcher. “His [personal] office is just amazing. There are things some people might consider tacky, but it’s disarming in a way. If a lawyer walks in and sees this guy is a real person who doesn’t take himself too seriously, they may think, ‘Maybe I should listen to him when he suggests I look at this case in a different light.’”
And then there’s the Elvis Presley room—stocked with velvet paintings, photos and assorted tchotchkes for which he points out he’s paid as much as 50 cents. This is where he takes clients when the moment arrives to accept the process of mediation. It’s where the two values—the human and the legal—come together. He describes it as a “come-to-Jesus meeting.”
“I’m one of those boring fellows who knew what they wanted do from an early age and never wavered from that path,” Hamblin says with a smile. It was his father, Willard Hamblin, who put him on his present course. Willard worked in the coal mines from age 12 to 15. When World War II started, he joined the 1st Armored Division in Africa. He earned two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star; after being injured by a bomb, he spent a year and a half at Walter Reed. He went to law school at University of Louisville, and practiced in a one-room office with no secretary. He brought his dog to work.
He also sometimes brought his son, who was inspired by his father’s saga. “He was my great hero,” Hamblin says.
“I’ve known Pierce his whole life,” says Elliott. They played Little League against each other. “Even then he was a big ol’ guy, like a big teddy bear. He showed then the wonderful qualities that he utilizes today as a lawyer. Honesty, integrity. He was on another team than me and was a great guy to compete with. The game never became more than the friendship was. Competition didn’t take over from who he was.”
Hamblin went to the University of Kentucky, then to the university’s law school. After clerking at Landrum & Shouse, he was offered a job. But Hamblin needed to fulfill his ROTC requirement, which meant several years of service in the Army, during which he became a tactical intelligence officer. His specialty was analyzing and predicting Soviet military moves in the waning days of the Cold War.
He remained in the Army Reserves and became a counterintelligence officer, cultivating sources around the world. Where exactly? For a rare time in a conversation, Hamblin has nothing he wants to say. “I was based in Louisville, but we did a lot of traveling, OK?”
Hamblin enjoyed military life, and sometimes wonders if he should have stayed full time. He took classes at the University of Virginia law school, ending up a JAG officer in the Army training brigade.
“Everything valuable I’ve ever learned in life, I’ve learned in the military,” he says. “My best friends in life, I’ve made in the military. There are people I don’t see very often now, but I know if I needed them and I picked up the phone, they would come to Lexington. That’s all they’d have to do to get my help, as well.”
When he joined Landrum & Shouse in 1977, Hamblin was taken under the wing of Charlie Landrum. They drove around the eastern part of the state trying cases. The most valuable wisdom he learned from Landrum: “He said every trial he ever lost was because he became too emotionally involved in the other side’s antics rather than just paying attention to his own case.”
Hamblin is currently juggling his heavy caseload with a year’s service as president of the Fayette County Bar Association. He also teaches a class in trial skills at the University of Kentucky College of Law, a labor he calls the love of his life. “I get to the end of the work day, having done two or three mediations that day, and think how much I want go home and watch ESPN and drink some brown liquid. But when I get over there [to the university], I get recharged and am so happy I did it.”
“A lot of people work hard—I don’t want to be seen as a martyr. I’m never going to retire. My work is my hobby—I think when you retire, you sign your death warrant. My dad didn’t retire; I’m not going to retire.”
He gets up as the conversation ends. “You got your M&Ms?” He shakes hands warmly, eyes crinkling. “One more thing: I want you to stay in touch with me. Will you do that?”