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Whitfield Bryson & Mason

Everything I Needed To Know About Litigation, I Learned From Fishing

By Daniel K. Bryson | 

Marlin photo

Litigation is like fishing. Let me explain. I have been a litigator for almost 25 years. I’m a native North Carolinian and we have really terrific fishing off the Outer Banks out to the gulf stream. I have often fished with my buddies during the summer for marlin, sailfish, tuna, dolphin, mackerel, and virtually anything else that swims in the ocean. I have noticed that there are many similarities between being a good fisherman and being a good plaintiff’s lawyer.

A good fisherman must be properly outfitted with a big enough boat with the appropriate reels and bait to have any chance of catching a big fish. You need a good captain and a good mate to make sure all the lines are in the water and properly baited. Likewise, a plaintiffs’ firm must be sufficiently staffed to sue a big corporation. You need other attorneys and paralegals to respond to the never ending raft of motions and discovery battles. You need plenty of money to pay for experts and deposition transcripts. You can be assured that a big corporation will hire an equally big law firm whose sole objective will be to wear you down and out spend you.

A good fisherman must know what to fish for and where to fish. There is nothing more boring than dragging lines through the ocean with no bite for hour after hour. The good fisherman knows how to find temperature gradients in the water or grass lines where fish like to hide, or simply get on their radio and find out where the “bite” is happening. Similarly, a good plaintiff’s attorney learns how to get good cases through reputation, well-placed advertising, or attending AAJ meetings and finding out what cases other attorneys are working on.

A good fisherman must know how to hook the fish. Some fish, especially marlin, like to “chew on” the bait for a while before actually swallowing it. Other fish hit hard then dive once they realize they are hooked. Similarly, the good plaintiff’s attorney knows how to sign up good clients. He visits the hospital if appropriate, he goes to the client’s house, he takes time to talk to them and evaluate their case on the front end to engender confidence and show that he cares.

A good fisherman knows how to reel the fish in and get it in the boat. This is the hardest part. Once the fish is hooked, the arduous task of reeling in the fish begins. If the fish is small, this will really not be that difficult, but if the fish is large, you've got your work cut out for you. The drag on the reel must be properly set to keep a large fish from spooling out all of your line. Yellow fin tuna or dolphin are easy to reel in. The first mate simply hands you the reel and tells you to crank. You sit in the “fighting chair” in the back of the boat and reel away. Yellow fin tuna or dolphin often weigh thirty pounds or so and are good eating! Marlin and blue fin tuna, like larger cases, are much more difficult. I hooked a blue fin tuna one time that took me about an hour and a half to reel in. It weighed almost 300 pounds (this may sound impressive, but this it's actually kind of small for a blue fin, which often reach 600 pounds!). I didn’t have the drag properly set which meant the fish made run after run whenever it got close to the boat. I was completely exhausted, and so was the fish, by the time I had it next to the boat. Then came the hardest part: gaffing the fish. A gaff is a long, sharp metal hook that you use to grab, or “gaff”, the fish. Typically the mate will gaff the fish to help pull it into the boat. As soon as you gaff the fish it starts to bleed and you have to keep a close lookout for sharks, which are always close by. If you miss with the gaff, or simply wound it, the fish will often muster a large surge of energy and snap the line and reel tip with a quick shake of its head. Once gaffed, the fish is brought to the back of the boat where the transom door is opened and the bleeding fish is pulled into the boat and placed on ice in a cooler. The whole process is exhilarating and exhausting, and fraught with the potential to lose the fish. The entire fishing team - captain, mate, and angler - must work in tandem to get the fish into the boat.

Getting the Marlin in the boat

Hopefully by now you can see the many similarities with litigation. The good plaintiff’s attorney knows how to “reel in” the case and turn it into money for the client and the firm by getting the case “in the boat,” through either verdict or settlement. This part can be exhausting. We recently finished, and won, a three week jury trial (after two years of discovery and endless motions). We worked day and night, and weekends during the trial. Everyone in our office played a critical role in obtaining the favorable verdict or getting the “fish in the boat.” I might add that this case is still not concluded as we face the prospect of appeals, and post-trial motions. But hopefully we are headed for the dock!

The analogies are endless. Often our firm's boat has six or more baited lines in the water. If we get a bite on one line, within a few moments, there are often multiple bites! Soon we are trying to bring in three or more fish. I look back over the years and marvel at the frequency of trials or settlements coming in “bunches” as well. Finally, my old law partner used to stick his head in my office and comment “all my lines are tangled!” The fishing angle is that if you are not careful, your lines may indeed become tangled with each other and create a big mess. Similarly, we all know it is common to have multiple cases proceeding intensely at the same time, and if we are not careful the “lines can get tangled” as we respond to numerous motions, deposition requests, and other deadlines.

In my almost 25 years of practice, I’ve seen lots of attorneys who are very good at certain aspects of practicing law- finding good cases, signing up clients, grinding away on the case, or even trying the case, but very few who can do it all at a high level of competence. That is why we have law firms. To work with other attorneys who have different skill sets and interests. However, I believe it is the RARE attorney who can, or will, do whatever it takes to “get the case in the boat.” These are the attorneys who will work day and night, holidays, weekends, fly anywhere for a deposition, fight any motion, overcome any obstacle to bring a case to a successful resolution. The sacrifice is often huge and, as I get older, I look back on countless “lost weekends” spent preparing for trial. But this is what we do. I make up for lost time when not preparing for trial by having lots of fun. We are a noble profession but we all know there is a critical business part of what we do. As plaintiff’s lawyers it is critical that we learn to turn cases into money, or get the fish in the boat, or clients won’t hire us and our families will go hungry!

So, what kind of fisherman/plaintiff’s lawyer are you?