In the first scene of Getting a Winning Verdict in My Personal Life, J. Gary Gwilliam sits alone in his car after losing a big personal injury case to General Motors, and he drinks to dull the pain of the loss. So, right from the start it seems we're in for yet another tale of one man's road to Clean-
and-Soberville-perhaps including a born-again conversion.
Two things make Gwilliam's testimony about his recovery from alcoholism different from those stories. First, this autobiography should serve as a warning for a lot of powerful people. As statistics, anecdotal evidence, and personal experience all make clear, abuse of alcohol is a serious problem among trial lawyers. Even Gwilliam describes the American Board of Trial Advocates, an organization composed of the country's most experienced and respected trial lawyers, as "mostly a bunch of hard drinking lawyers just like me." By telling his personal story of an experienced, respected, alcoholic trial lawyer-both in this book and in other forums where he encourages lawyers to examine their lives-Gwilliam is doing the profession a service.
Second, the universe wanted Gary Gwilliam to write this book. That's not me talking; that's Gwilliam, who believes not only that there is a reason for everything but also that Fate has picked him personally to save the souls of trial lawyers everywhere-or at least make them better people. That, apparently, is why Fate got him elected president of Consumer Attorneys of California in 1988 and positioned him to win several million-dollar verdicts on behalf of injured consumers and workers: so he would have the credentials to say crazy shit without everyone thinking he's just crazy.
The problem is that, although Gwilliam's soul-baring confession is both interesting and inspirational, Gwilliam himself comes off nutty as a fruitcake when his road to recovery takes him past a higher power to a New Age study of spirituality, metaphysics, and psychology.
For example, despite his claim that, as a lawyer, he "doesn't accept stuff unless it seems rational," he does accept advice from his dead mother. "I saw her in a soul state," he writes of lying on the floor at a therapist's office, next to a picture of his departed mom. "More importantly, I heard her. She talked to me. She said everything was all right." Though it's not quite clear-even to him-what Gwilliam actually saw and heard, he tells us he asked questions and she gave "wise, simple answers."
Indeed, Gwilliam regularly visits psychics and hypnotherapists. One fortune-teller advises him to leave his then wife, and predicts that a special woman will come into his life before the end of the year. When that other woman arrives on schedule, Gwilliam hears a voice in his head, which says, twice, "This is her." Gwilliam takes her the very next morning to another of his spiritualists to investigate their past lives. This fortune-teller looks into the past and finds that Gwilliam's soul and his new girlfriend's have indeed been connected before: Once they were brother and sister; another time, father and daughter. Most exciting to Gwilliam and the woman who would become, and still is, his third wife: Her soul once inhabited an Egyptian high priest who was having a forbidden, passionate affair with the married woman who would thousands of years later incarnate as Gary Gwilliam.
So, a fortune-teller was confronted with two people who said they'd just met and they suspected they'd been close in a prior lifetime, and lo and behold, that's what the fortune-teller found. Well, as the Church Lady used to say on Saturday Night Live, "How convenient!"
Gwilliam divides his book into three sections, which proceed chronologically. The first section runs from his wild and crazy youth in the 1950s -as a drunken high- school gang member and drunken frat boy-through law school and his becoming a drunken, philandering plaintiffs lawyer, up to the intervention his second wife (the one the psychic told him to leave) finally decides is necessary to stop his drinking.
The next section covers his transformation into the spiritual being he is now, chronicling his current life with the woman whose soul he has shared past lives with, and his voracious reading to learn more about the meaning of life and other big questions. This phase also includes his transition from leading seminars on trial tactics to leading seminars for trial lawyers, among others, on how to find their own souls.
The last section comprises his words of wisdom to us all, including advice specifically for trial lawyers, such as: "Breathe from your belly"; "Let go of fear"; "Stay in the present moment"; and, above all, "All things happen for a reason."
Two factors hold all the pieces of Gwilliam's life together. The first is his pride in, and dedication to, being a trial lawyer-with "the commitment to justice and the willingness to fight for what is right and fair." When he forms a men's group in 1997 to "open up and talk about personal issues," he enlists seven other prominent trial lawyers to join him, presumably because those are his people. He celebrates his contributions to the trial lawyer association as the most important work he's done. And he feels uncomfortable when an insurance defense counsel shows up at one of his seminars, as if it might hurt to help make his adversary a better person.
The second thread running through the many phases of Gary Gwilliam is another stereotypical characteristic of trial lawyers-a characteristic that, like the stereotype of the alcoholic workaholic, Gwilliam also concedes: "Trial lawyers are by nature egotists. I am no exception."
Egotism is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm sure the same inflated sense of self that at one stage of his life makes a man think he's a lady killer-"I loved them and they loved me," Gwilliam writes-might lead him to say at another stage of his life that the universe has a special plan just for him, which involves guiding lawyers to righteousness. And I bet that sort of self-image might come in handy in a courtroom. (My favorite scene in the book is when Gwilliam decides that he should conduct himself during a trial with dharmic grace, showing "unconditional love" for witnesses, his client, opposing counsel, and the judge. To his credit, even Gwilliam suggests this may have been a goofy idea: "By the end of the long session in court, I feel a lot less enlightened than I did before." But he blames himself, not the approach: "I need to get in touch with my guides and the Universe about using these principles.")
Whoever Gwilliam is, or whichever Gary Gwilliam he is today, we probably should applaud the work he is doing now: the soul-saving seminars, this book, his work with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and the International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers, even his personal quest. We all should stop and think about who we are, whom and what we care about, and who we want to be. It might make us better lawyers; it might make us better people. Couldn't hurt.
-Clyde Leland teaches legal writing and presentation skills and is a founding member of the longest-running men's group in the San Francisco Bay Area.