One day in March 1991, I was sitting in the back corner of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, courtroom observing an eight-minute cross-examination that would change my life.
It was only four months after I had made a career change that was a great personal risk. I had left the construction business I started with my brother. I had been making a very good living, but it didn’t seem to be the place where I belonged. I wanted to make a different kind of impact in the world, so I enrolled in night courses at Atlanta Law School. I saw a flyer in the school’s breakroom for an entry-level position in a law firm. Then after a month of persisting, I convinced the Keenan Ashman law firm to hire me for the job they knew I was overqualified for – a courier/clerk position paying about $6 an hour.
Going to school at night and working in the law firm during the day, within two months I was a paralegal, and within four months I was working with the firm’s main partner preparing witnesses for deposition and trial by assisting in the preparation of cross-examination of defendants and expert witnesses.
For this case in Tulsa, I had helped prepare the client, a young Native American mother whose baby suffered an anoxic brain injury at birth because the obstetrician failed to perform a timely C-section. I spent a week meeting with her several hours a day, hearing and understanding her story. The father of her baby, now five, had abandoned her. She lived in public housing with the full-time job of taking care of her daughter, who required a feeding tube and round-the-clock care.
From this case I learned the importance of understanding the client’s story. A month before the trial in the focus group, the mother did not come across as motherly to the jury. So based on what I had learned from her about her experience, I helped her find her voice and tell her story.
On this day in the Tulsa courtroom, as I watched the mother take the witness stand, it was out of my control. The fate of the mother and child hung on every answer to every question.
As I watched, I couldn’t help second guessing myself. Did I do enough? Did I do too much? Did I fail her? These questions still go through my mind with every case, and to this day I still think that if the client gets the verdict, it’s their success. If they don’t, it’s my failure.
As I looked on, I was keenly aware of the consequences of failure: The jury would not award enough money to take care of the child the rest of her life. The mother would be unable to have gainful employment and would have to rely on government assistance so she could give 24/7 care to her child. This young mother would be sentenced to a life of suffering.
I also knew that if I had properly distilled the case to its core truth about what had gone wrong and who was responsible, her life, her daughter's life and the lives of everyone close to her would be so much better.
On cross-examination, the defense lawyer tried to prove that she was not a fit mother, that somehow she had caused this injury to her child, and that neither she nor her child were worthy of receiving a verdict.
But instead of getting angry or combative, she proved who she was in her heart, a loving and caring mother put in a bad situation. As she began to tell her story on direct examination, it was clear to the jury that she had done everything the doctor had wanted her to do and that the trust she had in the doctor had been violated at the birth of her child.
That night the case settled for the maximum amount of insurance available under the physician’s policy. It would cover special care for the baby for the rest of her life. The mother could have a more normal life with new opportunities to have a career, be married, and have future children. And her daughter could have siblings to love her. And if the daughter outlived her mother, the siblings would be there to take care of her.
On the way back to the airport, my boss pulled me aside and told me I had the persistence and common sense it takes to be a successful trial lawyer. I felt a surge of confidence that I had made the right decision about my life’s path.
Soon after passing the bar and practicing law, one of the first cases I handled from the very beginning was now concluding. It was a medical malpractice case where the baby’s shoulder got stuck behind the mother's symphysis pubis bone at birth. The doctor should have manipulated the shoulder with a maneuver such as a corkscrew or McRoberts maneuver, but instead he simply pulled the baby straight out by the head, stretching the brachial plexus nerves of the arm. The baby, Dina, was born with no use of her right arm at all. It just hung from her body.
I went to Savannah, Georgia, for the settlement hearing in front of the judge, who would have to agree that the expenses and the fee were fair for the work and that the child would have a fair recovery.
As I was standing on the outside of the courthouse waiting for the family to arrive, a dark car door opened, and without waiting for her parents, three-year-old Dina bounded out and made a beeline for me, unfazed by the awkwardness of her disability. She put her one arm that worked around my leg, hugged me and looked up at me.
It was one of the most touching moments of my life. Beyond her smile I saw all that she faced in addition to her disability: a broken family with parents who were separated and life in public housing. And I also saw a new future for her. Now she would receive enough money to live a good life, with a trustee to manage the funds. She could have the surgeries that would give her arm at least some range of motion. She could go to college and do and be whoever she wanted. At the age of three she was set to take care of herself and her future family.
At that moment when Dina looked up at me, I understood my life’s mission was to help people, who might not otherwise be heard, to have a voice and an opportunity to fulfill their life’s potential. This is both my personal mission and the mission of the firm I established in 2012.
For more 20 years at the Keenan Law Firm I worked on hundreds of cases in dozens of states.
I learned a lot from the team at the firm, including a physician who was board certified in internal medicine and epidemiology. Over two and a half years, I met with him two to three hours a week so he could teach me medicine starting with the physiology and pathophysiology of the body. He would assign me chapters in books to read on a Tuesday, and I read and dissected them for discussion on Thursday. All the while, I was applying what I learned to cases I was working on in all areas of personal injury. It helped me understand how people were getting injured – from medical malpractice to dangerous products inappropriately made to auto accidents and tractor-trailer collisions.
I was trying cases and watching some of the great trial lawyers around the country, as we were teaming up with lawyers from South Florida and Texas to California to New York. I watched these lawyers in the trial room arena but was also deeply involved in the preparation side, the underpinnings of getting the facts right – understanding the role of medicine and the rules for doing things properly to prevent harm to people.
I enjoyed the intellectual side of the trial lawyer’s work, and over the years have specialized in researching the neuroscience behind the judgments and decisions people make. I use this knowledge to identify and communicate the core truth of a case. I’ve helped author books, given lectures to legal professionals, and conducted training for lawyers all across the country.
In 2012 I established my own practice to gain more flexibility for focusing on my areas of expertise: working with different legal teams and doing depositions, trying cases, and mentoring other attorneys in the principles that are central to identifying the core truth in a case.
Seeking the Essential Truth: To develop the essential truth of every case requires an understanding of the people I work for, my clients. To do this I listen to them and experience the life they live day-to-day. I aim to begin the day and end the day with my clients. I often visit their homes, dine with them, and even spend the night in their homes to learn firsthand how they are coping with the changes that are the result of a life-changing event. This guides me to the essential truth of the case that both my client and the wrongdoer cannot deny.
Focusing on the Essential Truth: In the United States, jury duty is one of the greatest privilege and rights we have as citizens but also one of greatest burdens. All across the country I see jurors that carry the great burden of finding the truth. They are bombarded with an overwhelming sets of facts, videos, reading material. I work hard to simplify the case and help the jury realize the essential truth.
Mentoring: In legal presentations I can tell other lawyers how to do something, but when I am working on a case with them in a co-counsel relationship, they can learn from my experience by participating with me instead of listening to me from a podium. This way I leave the co-counsels I work with equipped to apply these principles in their practice. And this magnifies the impact of my work and the team’s work to help injured people be compensated for the harm done to them and to make them whole.
Through each successful case and through the work of attorneys I’ve mentored, the result is wide-ranging. Corporations and professionals learn they cannot afford to cut corners or put profits before safety. Errors are fixed in business procedures and in dangerous products. Often the positive impact is not just on the defendant’s business, service or product but across an entire industry, protecting people everywhere.
The mission of the Charles Allen Law Firm is as clear and alive to me today as it was that day when three-year-old Dina ran to me and hugged my leg with her one good arm.
Every day I work to help ease the suffering of the many people I feel privileged to represent from all walks of life, young and old. I serve as a conduit for their voices and stories that would not otherwise be heard, so they can receive the compensation they deserve, change the system, and right the wrong to prevent future harm. This opens up new life and inspiration for clients and their families and improves the wellbeing of communities.
Premises – General
Premises – Security