Posted Sep 28, 2012 11:17 pm CDT
If anyone is in a position to explain the essence of what makes Jim McElhaney tick, it might well be Steven J. Miller.
After starting law school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., Miller transferred in 1979 to Case Western Reserve University School of Law in his native Cleveland, where McElhaney was building a national reputation as a trial advocacy teacher. Miller introduced himself, “and from that moment he became my mentor. He was a very engaging, knowledgeable guy, and we hit it off.”
Miller took every trial advocacy course that McElhaney taught. “He helped people learning to think like a lawyer to talk like a human being,” says Miller, the managing partner at Miller Goler Faeges Lapine in Cleveland. “Jim knew that juries were still people. He knew that you reach people in their guts and their hearts, and not just in their brains.”
Miller, along with other local trial attorneys, later would help out with some of those classes. McElhaney also recruited Miller to write for Litigation, a quarterly journal that had been launched a few years earlier by the ABA Section of Litigation. McElhaney even would call Miller and read to him the drafts of his own column in the publication. (Miller still serves as an associate editor for Litigation.)
Miller says local practitioners and students alike treated McElhaney’s continuing education lectures as events. “It was like going to see Frank Sinatra,” he says. “We’d go to hear Jim over and over. He was a professional and a human phenomenon.”
McElhaney arguably is the most influential teacher of trial advocacy in the past half-century. But if you ask Miller how McElhaney gained all his knowledge on the subject and developed his unique skills at sharing it with others, he stumbles.
“When I’m 80, and people ask me where I gained my wisdom, I can say it came from McElhaney,” says Miller. “But where he got it, I’m afraid I just don’t know.”
A cursory look at McElhaney’s legal career doesn’t offer any easy clues to the source of his genius—and it is fair to use that term—as a teacher in the trial advocacy field. It does, however, reveal some interesting paradoxes.
Click here to read the rest of “The World of McElhaney” from the October issue of the ABA Journal.