Jun 14, 2013 In deep praise and thanks to lawyers and friends Dax Cowart and Bob Hilliard
We cannot only look within and to ourselves for inspiration to succeed in life, because life is too short, we are all connected, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel. On the flip side, the answers to most of our most pressing questions and challenges are found first right within ourselves, with the benefit of the lessons we have already learned from ourselves, from others, and from our experiences. With that backdrop, I take the time on my website from time to time to bow to and thank those who have particularly befriended, encouraged and inspired me on life’s path.
I met Dax and Bubba Bob (he calls his sons bubba and me bubba, not from any low-rent approach) in August 1995 at the Trial Lawyers College ("TLC"), where I spent the entire month on a beautiful Western Wyoming ranch, ten miles from the nearest paved road, devoting that huge part of my life to becoming a better lawyer and person.
I was a public defender lawyer at the time, which was not as big a financial and time burden to be at the TLC as if I had been my own boss as a solo or small firm practitioner. Bob was already a great and achieved lawyer with his own small personal injury law firm in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Dax had already experienced tremendous ups and downs in his life, then just a few years from trying his first case before a jury. Dax had already experienced a huge physical trial twenty-two years earlier, when he was severely burnt in a propane gas explosion, which his father did not survive.
Bob was my roommate for those four weeks at TLC, for no reason at first other than that we were back to back on the alphabet of the fifty attendees. He knew I was yearning to return to private law practice and ultimately to become my own boss. He heard my financial concerns about being my own boss, with no salaried and benefited safety net beneath me, but with huge heights at the ready to soar higher than I had ever soared. Bob shared with me how he became his own boss and never looked back.
Before attending the TLC, I was not quite sure what to make of plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers. I got the sense that so many of them saw their clients as mere dollar signs, but of course putting clients ahead of money earns a lawyer more money than putting money ahead of clients. Bob and many other personal injury lawyers at the TLC made clear how much they put their clients ahead of money, often at huge personal financial sacrifice and risk.
Bob had more faith at the time in my ability to make it as my own boss and to soar at it than I did. He saw greatness in me that I had not yet discovered, and knew that it would come out the more that I developed more confidence. (That confidence particularly came full speed ahead once I took the plunge to being my own boss.) He saw the compassion and caring I have for people, and my passion for justice. One year later, I left the public defender’s office to join a trial lawyer firm. Two years after that I, I finally became my own boss. That was fifteen years ago, and I have never looked back.
After the TLC ended, I was in touch with Bob on and off. He has been like Charlotte in Charlotte‘s web (except for the gender difference and that he has survived many years more on this earth), who taught me the lessons I needed to know, and left me to move forward without needing to be in touch with him further. One day around two years later when I emailed Bob about a personal issue I was having with another lawyer at my last firm where I was an employee, Bob sent a brief reply saying essentially: "I trust you to work out this problem the right way, and you can trust yourself to do the same thing" He was right. He was just reminding me to look within myself first when facing a challenge.
When it comes to disharmony at home, Bob suggested remembering what made me fall in love with my wife in the first place. He is the real McCoy, and I will forever be grateful to Bob.
Over two decades before I met Dax, he and his father returned to their car where, unbeknownst to them, an odorless propane gas leak had sprung from a rusting underground pipe. When they tried to get their car to start, after it first would not, the spark from the car created a ball of fire that killed Dax’s father and left Dax so badly burnt and in such excruciating pain that he asked the first person who found him for a gun, to shoot himself out of his misery. The man declined, Dax’s mother blocked his efforts to stop medical treatment, and Dax started his long road to recovery, blinded forever in both eyes, and with most of his fingers gone.
Subsequently, Dax went to law school. By the time I arrived at the TLC, his experience was apparently a subject of study in the right to die movement, which Dax very much supports. Dax told me that his desire to die rather than face the excruciating pain after the fire did not mean that he did not want to be alive now that he does not have that depth and severity of physical pain any longer.
All of us have our handicaps, whether physical, mental or both. People who transcend their handicaps inspire me. Dax’s handicaps just happened to be physical.
Nobody at the TLC walked around in business suits nor body armor. In fact, anyone who hid their real selves and their real feelings at the TLC would not get a great reception from most of the others there. We gathered around a campfire several nights a week, with a lot of people singing (which seemed to overdo it too often, making for less conversation and joking with those who were singing); spent time in small and large groups from post-breakfast to pre-dinner developig ourselves as better people and better lawyers (becoming a better lawyer requires becoming a better person at the same time); and spending free time together (with me spending some of that free time running several miles almost daily, overcoming the thinner mountain atmosphere day by day).
One song that I did not get tired of was Dax’s rendition of Bad News, which Johnny Cash used to sing. I like Dax’s interpretation even more than this Cash version. Dax completely floored me in his cross examination during a mock trial. He stood there with his stick cane and entire persona filling the entire room, and took total control of that barn-turned-courtroom, to his persuasive best.
I have had numerous discussions with Dax, revealing our true selves. Leaving the TLC, it was all the harder to make any effort at making cocktail party conversation anywhere, even at cocktail parties; I had reached the deep point of no return. Depth is where it is at.
Whether or not their both being native Texans has anything to do with it, Bob and Dax are both very passionate people who transcend courtroom attire even when wearing it. Here they are on 20/20 in 1999 for a story about Dax. Here is Bob in 2011 discussing a lawsuit he filed over the shooting death by U.S. border patrol agent(s) of a young man on the Mexican side of the border who allegedly was throwing stones. Are you able to watch these videos without being deeply moved?
Not long after TLC 1995 ended, Dax moved to Corpus Christi, joining Bob’s law firm. He is now in California with a new wife (new in terms of a different wife than he had during the TLC). Thereafter, Dax tried his first jury trial. During Dax’s closing argument in this personal injury case, he sang a Bob Dylan song. Talk about taking risks at trial. The jury delivered over a $7 million dollar verdict. Now, I am not automatically equating civil jury verdict amounts with success. At the same time, the jury’s response clearly showed that Dax took a worthwhile risk singing before the jury, sharing his real and entire self with the jury.
I walk through so many courthouses seeing scores of unsmiling lawyers, upset and scared litigants, and too many humorless judges and humorless courthouse personnel, opposing counsel and opposing witnesses. And then I remember such warm and caring friends and teachers as Bubba Bob and Dax, which helps the stuffy, windowless courtrooms and courthouse hallways disappear in my mind, and the negative energy from so many negative-seeming people subside. And then I look at and approach those same unsmiling people with more compassion, humor and understanding, and all of the sudden, so many of them seem to soften up and sometimes smile themselves. The magic mirror is at work.
On the last full day of the TLC, some people got up in front of the group one by one and discussed how they would make the transition from this one month of mutual support and experimentation far from the nearest cellphone signal, and laying our lives bare for all to see, to arriving to people who had not undergone any such personal metamorphosis during that month, and who might see some of the TLC attendees as just plain weird or worse. I suggested to everyone that it was much better for us to go among the rest of the population with what we had learned, than to segregate ourselves for a long time to come.
Dax and his then-wife gave me a ride from the TLC to a hotel in Salt Lake City, where I was departing from the next day. It did feel awkward as I said goodbye to know that I would not be returning that night nor any more nights to a barn-dorm full of people experiencing this same both-feet-forward devotion to changing our personal and professional lives for the better. Fortunately, four years later, numerous Washington, D.C., area lawyers attended the Trial Lawyers College, and several of us became very active together in meeting on occasion for weekend morning trial workshops. Some of the exceptional area TLC people include psychodramatist and human extraordinaire Don Clarkson, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, criminal defense lawyer Chris Flohr, Fredericksburg, Virginia, civil trial lawyer Leila Kilgore, Greenbelt, Maryland, criminal defense lawyer Gladys Weatherspoon, Pennsylvania trial lawyer Anna Durbin, Westminster, Maryland, trial lawyer Tom Hickman, now-Ohio trial lawyer and psychodramatist Simina Vourlis, and Maryland public defender lawyer Anne-Marie Gering. Thanks also to the following who have not attended the TLC, but who certainly are on the same path of self improvement and caring deeply about their clients and fellow criminal defense lawyers: Baltimore County public defender lawyer Jerri Peyton-Braden, Rockville, Maryland lawyer Steve Conte, and Laurel, Maryland, lawyer Brian Bregman.
Each of the foregoing people has a compelling life story, and over time I will discuss some of them in more detail on my blog.
For me, among TLC attendees, Bob Hilliard and Dax Cowart are two people who, much more than the rest, helped inspire me to find a way for my personal and professional life to unfold in amazing, essential and very rewarding ways, not without bumps and growing pains along the path, but with my landing in a much better place in life than I would ever have been otherwise.
Deeply thanking and bowing to — and bear hugging — Dax Cowart and Bob Hilliard.
ADDENDUM Video links covering Bob Hilliard are at the bottom right of the screen here. More on Dax Cowart’s story is in video links (some particularly moving and tear producing) for the documentary here, here, here, and here; and at the Trial Lawyers College here and here.