The Graduate

Taking part in Gerry Spence’s first Trial Lawyer’s College brought the human side back to David Humphreys’ practice

Published in 2017 Oklahoma Super Lawyers — November 2017

David Humphreys spent years picking up what he calls “scraps”— small-claims car crashes and other cases no one else wanted—in an effort to keep his practice afloat. 

Then, intent on making a difference in the world, he decided to launch a practice helping consumers fight bad business practices. 

“Life’s too short to be chasing cases, chasing dollars,” he says. 

What changed his practice trajectory? In 1994, an advertisement for a brand-new trial law program caught his eye. It seemed perfect: 50 lawyers from around the country picked to learn from the likes of Joe Jamail and Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. That summer, Humphreys was fortunate enough to take part in the inaugural Trial Lawyer’s College, the now-famous nonprofit law program founded by Gerry Spence. 

“It changed my life,” Humphreys says. “It made me look at myself as a human being first, and then look outward and see how I related to other people.” That’s been part of his ethos for more than 20 years now. 

The academic nature of law school can take the personal touch out of practicing law, Humphreys says. School taught him the science of the law, and Spence taught him the art: relating to people—witnesses, jurors, experts—while examining yourself in the process. Perhaps the most important lesson he learned there was to put the humanity back into his practice. 

In addition to Jamail, Humphreys learned from lawyers like Nancy Hollander and Bill Sellers Sr. And of course, Spence himself.

“He is the century’s finest trial lawyer,” Humphreys says. “He has remarkable gifts and charisma, and skills that just don’t come along in one person often.”

Much of the consumer work Humphreys and his team at The Humphreys Law Firm took on—car dealer fraud, payday-loan fraud, mortgage fraud—had been shrugged off by other lawyers. But these cases that affect everyday people are the ones jurors can relate to, he says. It’s sometimes difficult to get that across in a legal culture in which an estimated 98 percent of cases are resolved without trial, but it’s something Humphreys is passionate about.

“Some cases need to be tried,” he says. “Sometimes a case comes along that stands for something bigger than the parties.”

His first big consumer case came in the form of a 22,000-plaintiff lawsuit, House of Sight & Sound, Inc. v. Faulkner in 1996. A now-defunct electronics store was accused of engaging in bait-and-switch practices. 

The case went to trial in 1998, and Humphreys’ clients received no damages. While it caused a lot of soul-searching, it also led him to ask, “How can we do this better?”

In 1998, he founded Humphreys Wallace Humphreys, along with his wife, Tanya Humphreys, and their former law clerk, Luke Wallace. A big win came two years later. In Greggs v. Celtic Life Insurance Co., Humphreys’ client was injured in a motorcycle accident and sued his insurance company for mishandling claim payments. He got a $3 million verdict, which turned into $4.8 million by the time the man collected, Humphreys says.

“It’s hard to connect with 22,000 people,” Humphreys says. “It’s a lot easier to understand the plight of a single person. The $3 million was emotional-distress damage, and that’s kind of what we’ve focused our practice on since.”

The firm now handles mainly mortgage loan-servicing fraud cases. Humphreys says Wallace is an indispensable partner. “The day he walked into the door as a law clerk, he never did anything besides focus on solving people’s problems, so becoming a partner was just natural.” In 2010, when Humphreys was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Wallace covered the practice for about six months while his partner recovered from radiation and chemotherapy and Tanya Humphreys provided invaluable emotional support. Humphreys says he is now stable.

Humphreys has come full circle, inspiring others by teaching at the Trial Lawyer’s College that inspired him more than 20 years ago. 

“People act like it’s a science, but it’s as much art as it is science,” Humphreys says of being a litigator. “It’s the two together. You know, you can’t win a case by feeling alone, but you have to understand how you feel and how others feel before you can become a great trial lawyer.”

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