The Richmond Register

Viewpoints

May 18, 2013

Peter Perlman — Life lessons from a lawyer’s lawyer

RICHMOND — “I need a hero. I'm holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night.

He’s gotta be strong

And he’s gotta be fast

And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight”

— Jim Steinman

One of the great moments of my life was sitting next to legendary Louisville attorney Frank Haddad at a luncheon when he learned he had received the first Peter Perlman Outstanding Trial Lawyer award from the Kentucky Academy of Trial Lawyers.

As they started his bio, the surprised Frank started crying like a baby. A sudden heart attack took him less than a year later. Winning the Perlman award was the crowning achievement of his career.

It may seem ironic that the award was named for another living, and practicing, trial attorney, but everyone understood why.

Richard Hay of Somerset, who has received the Perlman award, said starting with law school, where Perlman was one of his instructors, “Pete has always been the attorney that all Kentucky trial lawyers look up to.”

Perlman is an influential, national figure in the universe of trial attorneys. He is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, which means he is considered one of the top 100 trial lawyers in the United States.

He is the only Kentuckian ever to be president of the American Trial Lawyers Association and has been president of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and the Civil Justice Foundation.

His website notes that, “In nearly 50 years of practicing law, Perlman has won more than 50 multimillion verdicts and settlements. It also notes that “He is recognized worldwide as a specialist in product liability and crash-worthiness litigation.”

I personally know the power of Perlman. Thirty years ago, he was the first major attorney to refer a structured settlement client to me. (Frank Haddad was the second.)

From California to Washington, D.C., and every stop in between, big-time trial attorneys would tell me, "If you are good enough for Peter Perlman, you are good enough for me."

They understood that Pete demands a level of excellence from everyone around him. The same pursuit of perfection that he demands in himself.

When you look at the list of cherished professions, trial lawyers are far down the list. Nurses and firefighters hit the top, and trial lawyers check in somewhere around lobbyists and used car salespeople.

It’s easy to see why trial lawyers can be unpopular. Like journalists, the nature of their business is to champion a cause. If you are on the other side of that cause, it’s easy to demonize the attorney fighting against you.

I’ve sued and been sued. It’s not fun on either end. 

Without trial lawyers, average Americans would not have an advocate when a drunk driver rams into their car or someone sells a product that kills or maims people.

Perlman is a champion for the underdog. Every aspect of his being is devoted to bringing honor to the legal profession that he loves.

There are several life lessons to be learned from watching Peter Perlman.

1. Pete is not a headline grabber.     

He gets most of his clients as referrals from other attorneys or through his reputation. He does not advertise. Several Perlman Award winners, like Bill Garmer, Sam Davies and Richard Hay, operate in the same fashion.

2. Perlman befriends his clients and stays in touch, years after cases are resolved.

Perlman told me in a recent interview that one of the most important aspects of how he chooses a case is whether he truly likes the clients and his co-counsel. 

3. Pete communicates at a level that juries and average people understand. 

Perlman is the author of the book, “Opening Statement,” and is a master at using humor, music lyrics and stories to connect with a jury.

I once heard him describe pain by asking how much they would accept to have a rock in their shoe all day long. It’s a description that everyone understood and could relate to. 

Pete is well-conditioned and an impeccable dresser, but manages to connect to whomever he is talking to at their level. That’s a lesson anyone who communicates should understand.

4. Perlman gives back to his community.

Perlman has endowed scholarships, served as president of the Lexington Jaycees, given countless hours and dollars to charities and political candidates and been a force in his hometown for his entire adult life. He is the kind of civic leader all cities want, but few actually have.

5. Perlman gives back to his profession.

Last year, Perlman received the Leonard M. Ring Champion of Justice award. One of the highest honors in the legal profession. It is “given to a person whose life and career epitomizes a true champion of justice.”

When trial lawyers are looking for a hero, it’s easy to see why Peter Perlman is the one they pick.

Don McNay is a settlement planning consultant based in Richmond and New Orleans. He has written four best-selling books, including Life Lessons from the Lottery.

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