Trial Briefs

60 Years Of Preventing Injustice, Promoting Fairness – and Helping One Another Succeed

February 16, 2022   |   John McCabe
Listen to McCabe’s conversation with host Amber Nimocks on the Voices of NCAJ podcast.

“You’ll join the Academy and you’ll be just fine.”

That’s what my supervising attorney said when I notified him I was quitting my brief, unfulfilling, straight-out-of-law-school job as a workers’ comp defense lawyer and joining a plaintiffs’ firm to represent injured people. (Thank you, Tommy White and Dan Titsworth, for giving me that opportunity). The Academy was the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, now the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and my supervising attorney’s parting words proved to be prophetic.

Back then, I didn’t know much about the organization. But the little I knew was important. I knew every successful plaintiffs’ lawyer in the state was a member of the organization — and I knew these lawyers were accomplishing great things. Frankly, it would have been difficult not to know this because, almost monthly, Lawyers Weekly had a front-page article, accompanied by the picture of an NCATL member, detailing a recent success. I also knew (but didn’t understand) that these lawyers, despite being in different firms and technically being competitors of each other, were banded together and were helping each other fight their common foes. I knew the organization epitomized the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In short, I knew that I not only wanted to join the organization, but that I needed to.

And that’s exactly what I did. I joined the Academy and immediately started taking advantage of everything it offered.

John McCabe joined the Academy in 1995.

For me, the most important thing was to learn. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could from anyone who was willing to teach me. While I certainly was interested in learning the nuances of the law, I really wanted to learn how to be a great trial lawyer.

At that time, we didn’t have Listservs. We didn’t have online document or video banks. We couldn’t just email a colleague to ask for a go-by complaint, motion or brief. To learn, you had to go to NCAJ’s CLEs, which were — and remain — the best in the state. So, shortly after joining, I signed up for the Season Pass and started attending as many CLEs as I could. My bookcases quickly filled up with blue notebooks with yellow spine labels containing world-class CLE materials.

In what remains one of my most formative experiences, in 1998, I attended NCAJ’s four-day Civil Trial Advocacy Clinic, chaired by Professor Carol Anderson and then-President-Elect Bill Mills at Wake Forest Law School. This was an intense, hands-on (and at times humbling) seminar where a group of 20-or-so new lawyers learned trial skills from the most accomplished and talented lawyers in the state. Don Beskind covered direct examination while Mary Ann Talley brilliantly taught us cross-examination. Wade Byrd and Jim Fuller presented on exhibits and demonstrative evidence, captivating us with some of their outside-the-box exhibits. Bill Mills taught opening statements and Charles Becton demonstrated how to give a passionate, dynamic and inspired closing argument. (To this day, I remember Bec’s closing — it was that powerful.) John Edwards, who was at the peak of his career and who had recently received a record-setting $25 million jury verdict for a young girl who was disemboweled by a pool drain, taught voir dire. Those lawyers were my heroes, and I still cannot believe I had the opportunity to learn directly from them. I remain forever grateful to NCAJ for providing me with this experience. I also am very grateful to Vernon Sumwalt, who during his presidency two years ago resurrected programs like this by starting NCAJ’s Skills Academy, which is one of our most highly attended and acclaimed CLE programs.

Never Stop Learning

Another benefit of attending so many CLEs, as well as other NCAJ functions, was I got to know these phenomenal lawyers, both personally and professionally, and they became tremendous resources to me. Despite their success, I was incredibly impressed — and frankly, amazed and slightly puzzled — by their accessibility and their willingness to help a young lawyer. I remember placing several phone calls (and sending an occasional fax or two) to Burton Craige, Cliff Britt, Robin Hudson (now Justice Hudson), Hank Patterson, Victor Farah and Lenny Jernigan. Each time, they took my calls, answered my questions and provided sound guidance, never once making me feel like I was a bother (although I’m sure I was). Back then, I didn’t understand why these great lawyers gave so freely of their time, but after being around for a while, I realized they simply were doing for me what other lawyers had done for them. And today, I’m proud that NCAJ’s paying-it-forward spirit is alive and well.

Of all the lawyers who helped me, one in particular took me under her wing — Liz Kuniholm, who was our president in 1998-1999. In addition to her leadership within NCAJ, Liz was heavily involved in AAJ. She was — and still is — universally recognized as one of the best attorneys in the country. Liz’s practice focused on medical negligence and sexual abuse cases, and in 1999, she drew national acclaim after winning a highly publicized trial on behalf of a group of women who were sexually molested by their physician. Despite the demands that accompanied her success, Liz always took the time to speak with me, and she became my first mentor, although we never formally used that title. Liz guided, counseled and encouraged me. We eventually worked together on my first medical malpractice case. I learned a lot watching Liz meticulously and methodically approach the case, including her skillful preparation of expert witnesses. To this day, I continue to use many of Liz’s techniques. More importantly, I saw — and have since tried to emulate — Liz’s fighting spirit and her unwavering commitment to obtaining justice for her clients.

When Liz started stepping back from actively practicing, I knew I needed to find a new mentor. One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that everyone, regardless of their experience, age or success, needs a trusted mentor and a reliable sounding board. That’s because we need objective feedback, we need to see our weaknesses (both in ourselves and in our cases), and we need to remain teachable. If we don’t, we’re in trouble because the old way of doing things will eventually become the way to failure. I learned this lesson from the great Howard Twiggs. During a memorable fireside chat at Mountain Magic, Howard explained to me that he, despite his enormous success, including being president of NCAJ in 1981-1982 and AAJ in 1996-1997, had listened to audio cassettes on trial skills during his drive up to Asheville because even in his 70s, he was still searching for ways to get better.

I struck gold a second time when Doug Abrams unknowingly became my next mentor. I have had the pleasure of working with Doug on numerous cases, and we quickly became close friends. Over the last 15 years, he has been a steady and guiding force in my career. We’ve enjoyed many back-and-forth discussions, strategizing and developing our cases — and he has always generously given his time to help me on cases that he’s not involved in. To this day, Doug continues to take my calls and answer my questions, and he remains one of my biggest supporters. In fact, I’ve often joked with Doug that he should consider changing the name of their firm to Abrams & Abrams & (sometimes) McCabe. (I’m told the request still remains under consideration!)

In addition to having great relationships with more experienced attorneys, NCAJ has given me the opportunity to develop deep, lasting relationships with my peers.

Looking back, one of my favorite NCAJ memories is helping create the Young Lawyers Division, now the New Lawyers Division. In the mid-1990s, a group of then-young lawyers, inspired undoubtedly by a late-night idea hatched following a Harmless Error performance (with Jay Trehy on vocals and Rick Hunter and Don Strickland on guitar) at our Annual Convention, realized younger lawyers needed to have their own place within the organization. So, with the organization’s full support, Chris Nichols, Brian Davis (who would later become my law partner for nine years), Asa Bell, Karen Rabenau, Anne Harris, Bill Trosch and I formed the YLD. We immediately began organizing socials, putting on CLEs and collectively inserting ourselves into the fabric of NCAJ. Today, I take a little pride and get a little nostalgic when I see how engaged the New Lawyers Division is. I’m also proud that we have continued our deep commitment to supporting new lawyers, and I’m especially excited to see what our inaugural NCAJ NEXT class will accomplish in the upcoming years.

Adapt and Thrive

Undoubtedly, one of my most important experiences with NCAJ came in the Kellie Crabtree case, which remains one of the defining cases of my career. In 1998, Kellie suffered catastrophic injuries after being hit head-on by an N.C. Department of Transportation dump truck. The cost of Kellie’s medical treatment far exceeded the maximum recovery allowed under the North Carolina State Tort Claims Act, which at the time was $150,000. Recognizing there was no judicial route to justice (the cap’s constitutionality had been affirmed), I realized the only way to help Kellie was to change the law legislatively. I was still a relatively new lawyer (no more than five years out of law school), I had zero political connections, and I knew there was no way I could do this on my own. So, I presented the case to NCAJ and asked for help. To my delight, the organization stepped up to the plate and immediately jumped into action. NCAJ found a bill sponsor and then arranged for Kellie and I to meet with key legislators and to speak at hearings before the Judiciary committees. We spent a lot of time on Jones Street and overcame a lot of opposition. Ultimately, moved by Kellie’s story and with lots of help from NCAJ, the General Assembly raised the cap to $500,000. I remain forever grateful for NCAJ’s efforts in this case, and I’m especially proud that in 2001, our organization created the Kellie Crabtree Award to honor a client who, like Kellie, has demonstrated an extraordinary fight for justice.

Having been a member of NCAJ for almost half of its existence, I am perhaps most impressed by our organization’s ability to adapt. By our very nature, lawyers must adapt — we must shift and pivot as evidence is uncovered, as cases develop and as legal theories strengthen (or occasionally evaporate).

Unsurprisingly, that inherent flexibility and adaptability are deeply engrained in our organization. For example, in the early-to-mid 2000s, our adversaries and certain politicians began attacking “trial lawyers” and mounted a propaganda campaign falsely blaming us for doctors fleeing the state and “runaway jury verdicts.” In response, under President Peggy Abrams’ leadership, we made the difficult, but wise, decision to change our name to the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. In other words, we adapted. But the most critical part of that process was that while we changed our name, we didn’t change who we were. In fact, I remember the keynote speaker at that year’s Annual Convention emphatically saying: “I’m a trial lawyer. I will always be a trial lawyer. And I will never apologize or be embarrassed by that.”

Similarly, when the political landscape in North Carolina seismically shifted in 2010, we faced a critical choice: Do we keep doing things as we always have or do we start doing things differently? Wisely, we chose to do things differently. Once again, we adapted. And while we took hits at the Legislature, we persevered. We learned how to deal with tort reform. And we never lost sight of who we were, while at the same time remaining keenly aware of the political realities we faced. Today, our ability to adapt, without losing sight of who we are, remains one of our greatest strengths. North Carolina, along with the entire country, is deeply polarized, and we are seeing unprecedented political discourse, antagonism and vitriol. Thankfully, NCAJ’s ability to adapt to this ever-changing landscape will help carry us through these challenging times.

So, as NCAJ celebrates its 60th anniversary, it’s a time for reflection and celebration. It’s a time to recognize who we are and what we stand for. It’s a time to thank our founders — Allen Bailey, Bill Thorp, Charlie Blanchard, Gene Phillips and James Clontz — for their foresight and wisdom. It’s a time to recognize those (many of whom are mentioned above) who helped make NCAJ the third-largest trial association in the nation. And it’s a time to thank each of you for your unwavering commitment to protecting people, preventing injustice and promoting fairness.