Attorney Richard Schaden pioneered big verdicts that transformed safety measures for the aviation industry.
Question: Starting from the beginning, what have been the stages of your career?
Richard Schaden: I graduated from the University of Detroit in Aeronautical Engineering and went right to Boeing. I had been through Air Force ROTC, but never really did receive a commission. I went to Boeing to work as a Civilian Engineer primarily – a lot was on military aircraft. In those days, we B-52’s and KC-130’s, and C-130 Transports, and the first airplane that I flew at Boeing, not as a pilot; as an engineer, was the prototype of the Boeing 707, which was called the 367-80. And at that time, we were putting a Pratt-Whitney Engine on the side of it, which was known as a JT8D and was going to be the engine for the 727, which at that time was on the drawing board. And so we did blight tests to see how that would work strapped on the side of a 707. And that was the first job I had.
I actually went to Boeing with great fear that I was assigned to a drawing board and to do analytical work and to solve equations, and I wanted to be in the air. And so, fortunately, I was able to connect with the Chief of Flight Test and I moved into flight test very early and spent a short career at Boeing as a flight test engineer, and got to do a lot of flying and a lot of piloting, and also it was a great experience for me.
I liked the aircraft industry because they had great toys and great equipment, and they had the best equipment in the world in those days. I didn’t like the idea of having to work for a corporation. My father had never worked for anybody but himself, not too successfully, but always for himself. And when I realized that I couldn’t really accomplish what I wanted to accomplish within the confines of a corporation, I looked for another place to go and went to law school at nights. However, in between I did go to graduate school in engineering at Wichita State; Boeing sent me there and suggested I go there, and I did. And then later on I finished law school at night.
Question: What drew you to the law?
Richard Schaden: Well a couple of things. Early on, I thought Barry Goldwater was running for President in those days, and he was a conservative. I didn’t understand the differences between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. But I liked Barry Goldwater. And he said if you want to be a politician, you’re going to have to get a law degree. I said I could never get into law school and I was told that you can get into law school; you just have to talk to the right people.
So I went to law school and I asked them whether they ever had an aeronautical engineer apply for law school, and they said no. I said I’m going to give you a chance to try. And I found that in short order, I was in court rooms designing things, aircraft things primarily, with felt tip pens on easel boards in front of juries. And when I was getting large verdicts against the industry, all of a sudden they were listening to me and making changes that I was never able to make as a young engineer in the industry.
Question: Did you foresee the era of big verdicts that you helped pioneer?
Richard Schaden: I had never really looked at it from the standpoint of money. It was very difficult for me to get a million dollars out of my mouth because I had never seen it in the context of the real world. I had to learn to stand in front of a jury and say, “In conclusion, I want you to send a message back to the aviation industry and I want you to find a verdict for my client in the amount of,” and then I’d have to kind of choke hard and “$2 million.” And then after I got my first $2 million verdict. I was in the elevator and the operator of the elevator had been the jury foreman on the case that I had just tried. And I asked him, I said, “Why did you give my client $2 million.” He said, “That’s all you asked for.” So, I thought, well, next time maybe I’ll ask for a bigger number.
I one time asked shortly thereafter asked for $10 million and the defense lawyer got up and stuttered and said, “He, he, he. Just ask for $10 million.” I couldn’t have paid him to say that again. I wanted to get that number up there twice. So, he gave it to me again and they punished me and only gave me three. So, I found that that system in those days worked well to get the messages to the industry, and we made a lot of changes that saved a lot of lives.
Question: Are there any vital reforms needed in the United States justice system today?
Richard Schaden: I think it’s gradual. We’ve went back 15 years ago, you would say that the Democrat Party, the liberal side of the country was very much in favor of people’s access to the courthouse. I don’t see that at all anymore. I think with the latest administration, their Tort reform people the same party we looked at as being the people’s party will support tort reform today.
Question: What is the essence of a great attorney?
Richard Schaden: Well, I think there’s a big difference between those concepts, a great attorney and what makes somebody effective in the courtroom. Very few lawyers actually try cases, and especially jury cases. In big law firms, what we call the “silk stocking” law firms, they call the people who go to court, litigators. Trial lawyers of the type was my own personal experience is a small breed of people and they usually aren’t the lawyers from the fancy law schools, from the Ivy League law schools and what have you. Those, we call the “litigators.” The real trial lawyers that did the kind of thing that I’m talking about, the kind of thing that Ralph Nader supported substantially, to a large extent, are the street fighters. They’re the people who went to the night law schools, they’re the people who know how to talk to people and live in the people’s world as opposed to the corporate world.
One could argue, what is a great lawyer, but from my perspective doing what I was trying to accomplish, it was the latter. It was the more street fighting people’s type of lawyer, not the smooth extremely academic, well-educated, not that we shouldn’t be well-educated, but the kind of lawyers that can communicate with people. And that’s a small group of people.
If I try a lawsuit in the United States against the aircraft industry today, I could tell you probably within in 12 lawyers who was going to be on the other side, not matter what state I’m in.
Question: Which great trial lawyers do you admire?
Richard Schaden: Well, I would say were, is where I would go. Clarence Darrow, I read everything Clarence Darrow; of everything Clarence Darrow ever tried. What was great about him was he could speak to people in people’s language. He used to say he used one cylinder words. He could speak in a very people’s way. It’s very difficult for many lawyers to get kind of down in the jury box and get grassroots and be able to really communicate with people on a level that can be understood. Especially when we’re talking about mathematics, chemistry, physics, aerodynamics; that’s very difficult. So, it takes being a kind of high school physics teacher, a Mr. Wizard, Mr. Science sort of approach. And that’s what I always tried to do, myself.
Recorded on January 25, 2010