Trial Tips

Joan Rivers’ Greatest Lesson to Us.

I inherited my love of comedy from my mother. She had two favorites: Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. My mother’s love for Joan Rivers spawned my love for her. Every Friday night my Tivo records the latest installment of Fashion Police, Joan Rivers’ last platform from which she launched her blue and irreverent assaults on celebrity foolishness.

While couched in terms of fashion and clothing, Joan’s sharp-tongued and absolutely fearless humor was more about people acting out in the public eye. She succeeded by saying what everyone else was thinking. She was at her best when she ventured (as she often did) into the blue, “I don’t think I’m good in bed; my husband never said anything, but after we made love he’d take a piece of chalk and outline my body.”

Her humor had me laughing out loud and I often replayed the recording to make sure I caught all the lines. So fond am I of her unfiltered, uncensored, comedic editorials on life’s condition, that September 4th’s news of her passing left me feeling empty inside and wondering what Friday nights will be without her. I loved her so much because she was unapologetically who she was.

Individuality and the power it brings makes us powerful. I remember as a law student seeing an advertisement for Gerry Spence’s book Gunning for Justice in the ABA journal. Gerry had long hair that covered his ears. He wore a broad-brimmed cowboy hat with a high crown. I thought, “That’s a trial lawyer.” What I was really saying is, “That is a unique person who is comfortable with who he is,” I just did not know how to describe it.

gunning for justice


Sixteen years later, I got the chance to attended Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers’ College. I was so arrogant that I thought that I would be validated as a good trial attorney and get to spend time rubbing elbows with a hero. Was I painfully surprised? I spent thirty days subjected to psychodrama, psychometric and sociometric exercises, and brutally honest critiques all in the search for who I was, not as a lawyer but as a person. It was painful stripping away the many defensive layers I had slathered on to conceal the fearful, weak core of my being. The newly exposed skin of my soul was easily scratched and burned by the rays of blistering attention, but in the process I learned that to be truly honest, to be available emotionally to connect with my clients and the members of the jury, I had to be a real person unencumbered by the psychological damage and detritus we pick up as we pilot our lives from the doctor’s first slap to the end when a nurse nonchalantly pulls a sheet over our expired face. When asked, I describe the time at the College as the best thing I ever did with my clothes on.

But something magic happened after that. I learned that to be truly strong, I had to allow others to see how weak I was. To be loved, I had to be willing to love even those who hate me or want to do me harm. To truly connect with someone, I must be willing to explore feelings and treasure all I receive in return.

These lessons probably seem way out of place for a discussion of Joan Rivers. Despite her tough broad persona that was able to take on anybody with a quick wit and a very, very sharp tongue, she made as much fun of herself, and her plastic surgeries, her increasing age, her elderly disinterest in sex and the challenge of weakening connective tissue in very personal regions of her body, as she did of anyone else. She described her love life as, “like a piece of Swiss cheese. Most of it’s missing, and what’s there stinks.”

She taught us,

“When you get older, who cares? I don’t mince words. I don’t hold back. What are you gonna do to me? Fire me? It’s been done. Threaten to commit suicide? Done. Take away my show? Done! Not invite to me to the Vanity Fair party? I’ve never been invited! If I ever saw the invitation, I’d use it as toilet paper.”

She was absolutely willing on an emotional level to show you hers even if you wouldn’t show her yours. That ability is one of the great tools of self actualized people in the courtroom.

Gerry Spence and Joan Rivers are examples of the same precept: You must be you. Gerry Spence would never try to be Racehorse Haines, and vice-versa. Wearing a cowboy hats, ribbon shirts, wranglers, oversized belt buckles, and high-crowned hats will make you a buffoon, not a Gerry Spence. By the same token, if you aren’t a silk-stockinged, pin stripped expositor, do you expect to be successful in court if you try to act like one?

Give yourself permission to be who you are. The clothing you wear, the style you adopt, your walk, your accent, your vocabulary, are all you. Don’t change them or try to be anyone else, because you will fail miserably. Be you.