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Midwest trial lawyer associations are led by Washburn Law graduates

From Washburn Lawyer - Spring 2019

Steve Gorny, jd ’94, always wanted to be a lawyer, but he wasn’t sure what type of law to practice. Then, when he was in high school, his grandfather died as a result of medical negligence – and in college, Gorny suffered an accident himself when he was hit by a truck while jogging through an intersection. He made a full recovery, but these traumatic events helped bring his professional goals into focus.

Steve Gorny“It solidified my decision to become a trial lawyer helping folks who were injured,” Gorny said. “I was fortunate – my accident could have been really bad. But I was displeased with the way my attorney handled the situation, and I decided to become a trial lawyer and treat my clients and cases much differently.”

Twenty-five years later, Gorny has his own firm in Kansas City, Missouri, dedicated primarily to personal injury and wrongful death cases. He is also the first Washburn University School of Law graduate to serve as president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, a position that gives him a key role advocating and protecting access to the courts for injured individuals.

“A very large part of what MATA does is work on legislation, such as fighting against mandatory arbitration provisions and fighting against caps on damages,” Gorny said. “I’m in Jefferson City almost every week.”

Across the state line, another Washburn University School of Law graduate is heading up the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. Like Gorny, Tom Warner, jd ’84, also considers his appointment as president of KTLA an opportunity to stick up for vulnerable individuals.

Tom Warner“We are the only organization in Kansas that represents trial lawyers and looks out for the interests of injured folks or those who have lost loved ones through the negligence of others,” Warner said. “KTLA helps organize trial lawyers and makes sure we have a say in the laws and procedures that affect the clients we represent.”

Warner has been a member of KTLA since he began his career as a trial lawyer in 1985. Today, he has his own firm in Wichita, but his professional mission remains the same as it did 36 years ago.

“What we try to do as trial lawyers is give a voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice,” he said. “We do that by representing the little guy against insurance companies and corporate interests. Without being represented by a trial lawyer, a plaintiff is likely not going to be successful.”

Warner gained a lot of courtroom experience while he was still in law school – including the time he lost a case against his best friend’s father, an event he still remembers fondly. He believes the wealth of hands-on learning he gained at Washburn gave him a head start on a successful career, which is one reason he sees so much value in the law school’s trial advocacy program. This competitive, team-based initiative allows students to develop and present hypothetical cases and demonstrate trial skills.

“Today, cases aren’t tried as often as they used to be,” Warner said. “There are a lot more settlements, a lot more mediations. The concern that I have, which I think is shared with others in KTLA, is the art of trying a case is going to be lost if we don’t teach young lawyers how to try cases and get them into the courtroom periodically. Sometimes cases need to be tried.”

To help young lawyers gain experience, KTLA hosts an annual two-day trial academy focusing on the various aspects of trying a case, such as giving an opening statement, examining a witness, and developing evidence. At MATA, Gorny shares Warner’s concerns that many lawyers lack vital courtroom experience. He remains connected with Washburn by serving on the Alumni Association board of governors and hosting annual “lunch and learn” seminars to students interested in litigation.

“There are a lot of lawyers I encounter who are years into their practice and don’t have any on-their-feet courtroom experience,” Gorny said. “The opportunity while in law school to experiment and gain comfort and learn from trial lawyers is invaluable. It makes the graduates more marketable, so they have the opportunity to litigate and do things others may not have a chance to do.”

Giving up-and-coming trial lawyers ample courtroom experience also ensures the best possible outcome for injured individuals in need of justice, which Gorny considers the most rewarding aspect of his career.

“Sometimes money that we can recover in a case is needed to pay bills or medical expenses or replace a lost breadwinner,” he said. “But I’m never bashful about saying that money can make people’s lives easier. For folks who have had something difficult or traumatic that makes their life more difficult, well – if I can help make their life a little easier, I think that’s a good thing.”

 

Honoring Civility in the Courtroom

Pete Ramirez

Lt. Col. Pete Ramirez, (Ret.), bba ’71, jd ’73, knew at the age of 8 he wanted to be a lawyer. In the third grade, he noticed that when a minority child became ill at school, they were told to walk home. When the child was white, the teacher would drive the child home.

“One day, I became very ill and was told to walk home,” he said. “The next day, I had surgery for an appendicitis. Even at 8 years old, I knew it was wrong, and something needed to be done.”

As Ramirez moves toward the end of his career as a trial lawyer, during which he tried more than 100 jury trials to verdict, he is happy he’s been able to help people who have experienced an injustice like he did as a child. He is capping off his successful career by serving as president of the Colorado Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. ABOTA’s mission includes the preservation of the right to civil jury trials: elevation of the standards of advocacy, integrity, honor, and courtesy in the legal profession; and to educate the public to promote its appreciation and respect for the civil justice system. Different than the Kansas and Missouri Trial Lawyer Associations, this organization invites both plaintiff and defense lawyers into the organization who have tried more than 20 civil jury trials and are voted in by more than 75 percent of chapter members who believe the lawyer has demonstrated superior trial skills and promotes civility and professionalism in the courtroom.

“If anything taught me the importance of civility, I saw it through the profession in Topeka,” he said. “I chose Washburn Law because I knew a lot of Washburn graduates, and I knew the one thing they could do was go to court and effectively represent their clients, and that is what I wanted to do.”

After graduation from Washburn Law, Ramirez continued on with the Air Force and worked to try as many court marshals as he could while based in Colorado and then Spain. While there, he met his wife, Carmen, a Spanish lawyer, and had a special opportunity to have a one-on-one breakfast with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger when he was visiting.

From Spain, Ramirez moved back to Colorado where he was a Denver deputy district attorney felony prosecutor and continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve. He went into civil practice in 1984, initially doing insurance defense work, but for the last 25 years has focused on representing clients catastrophically injured in automobile crashes and by defective products. He believes trial attorneys are a special type of people – they have compassion and recognize their client as more than a file in the desk drawer.

“Trial attorneys have to be motivated to provide the best service,” he said. “I have represented people who have been terribly injured, and while you can’t take away the injuries, I hopefully made life better for them.”

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