Tough lessons learned from one of the greatest trial lawyers in American jurisprudence.
Edward Bennett Williams was indeed "The Man to See" as one of his biographies is titled. Williams was a contemporary of Louis Nizer, another famous 20th Century trial lawyer I have written about recently. Having just finished this book on Mr. Williams, there is no doubt, he is truly a legend. He became a great trial lawyer, the only way one can, by trying cases before a jury.
His biographer, Evan Thomas writes of an important lesson Williams learned early in his career and in dramatic fashion. An excerpt from "The Man to See" provides a cautionary tale:
Williams learned by his mistakes. In a Transit Company case, he wanted to show that a pedestrian run down and killed by a streetcar was not an innocent victim but a drunken bum. The man's son had been seen at the scene of the accident, bending over the body of his father. Williams felt confident that the boy had been removing a bottle from his father's back pocket. On cross-examination, he closed in on the boy. "You leaned over him, didn't you?" asked Williams. "Yes," the boy replied. "You were sniffing his breath for alcohol, weren't you?" "No, sir," replied the boy. "You were reaching into his pocket for a bottle, weren't you?" he pressed, "No, sir," insisted the boy. "Other witnesses have testified that they saw you bending over your father. Now why were you bending over him?" Williams demanded. "Because he was my father," said the boy, "and I wanted to kiss him good-bye." Williams immediately asked the judge for a recess, went to a pay phone in the hall, and recommended to the insurance company that they settle the case. He also learned never to ask a question on cross-examination unless he knew the answer.