January 01, 2018

In Memoriam: Jim McElhaney, 1937–2017

Steven J. Miller

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Angus was sitting in his usual spot in the Brief Bag, looking sad.

“I know,” said Beth Golden, touching his shoulder as she sat down next to him. “I feel it too.”

Flash McGruder drifted in, carrying his soft-bound copies of McElhaney’s Trial Notebook and McElhaney’s Litigation, dog-eared and filled with marked yellow sticky notes and a few pastel page flags.

“He really was one of a kind,” said Flash, “the original anti-law professor.”

“I think so too,” said Judge Wallop, “what a remarkable guy. But why do you say ‘anti-law’? He was a law school professor for almost forty years, the first trial advocacy teacher to hold an endowed chair, and the most influential trial-practice writer and lecturer in the country for what seems like forever.”

“Here’s what he means, Judge,” said Beth. “Law schools pride themselves in teaching us to think like lawyers, but Jim always reminded us to talk like humans. He knew that trial advocacy is grounded in being heard and understood, and that law school educations lead us to speak in legal jargon rather than in simple English.”

“He also knew something else,” said Flash, “that while we want to become better trial lawyers and we can learn to do so, we shouldn’t chase some glamorized image of what a trial lawyer might look like or sound like. Jim understood that though we strive to be good courtroom lawyers, we’re people, not polished Hollywood actors. We’re different and unique, with our individual strengths and styles.”

“Oh, that’s surely true,” said Angus, flipping through Flash’s volumes of the McElhaney books. “Another thing that made him the anti-law professor is that instead of teaching us from law books, he often collected stories and suggestions from trial lawyers around the country and shaped them into lessons for all of us. He did it in his writings and he did it in his talks. Jim made it so enjoyable for us to learn, and he seemed untroubled that many of the specific ideas he shared didn’t come from him.”

“You’re right,” said Beth. “His essays are loaded with other people’s insights. But, Jim put them together in a way that made them fun to read and easy to learn from.”

“Jim McElhaney was the best teacher, mentor, and friend any trial lawyer could have had,” said Flash. “I miss him already.”

“So do I,” said Angus. “But these essays he wrote are timeless. They work today just as much as they did when he wrote them. Skimming through them while we talk, I feel as though he’s still right here with us, guiding us and cheering us on.”

“He is,” said Judge Wallop. “He definitely is.”

Steven J. Miller

The author is with Miller Goles Faeges Lapine LLP in Cleveland, and an associate editor of Litigation.