Trial Briefs

President-Elect John McCabe: ‘This Is a Great Time To Be a Trial Lawyer’

Tags: NCAJ News
June 15, 2021   |   John McCabe

President-elect John McCabe accepted the presidential gavel from 2020-2021 President David Henson during NCAJ Annual Meeting on June 11. McCabe will begin a one-year term as the 47th president of North Carolina Advocates for Justice beginning July 1. This column is based on the speech delivered at NCAJ’s Virtual Convention 2021.

When I was 8 years old, my grandfather, whom I admired and adored, looked at me and said, “John, you should be a lawyer.” Now, when most people hear that, their first thought is that I must have loved to argue as a child. But that wasn’t the case and that wasn’t why my grandfather encouraged me to be a lawyer. Now, my grandfather wasn’t a lawyer. He was a businessman. And we had no lawyers in our family. So, why did he want me to be a lawyer? He wanted me to be a lawyer because he knew the law was a noble profession. He knew that lawyers did tremendously important work – work that was important for people and their communities. He knew every-day, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people needed lawyers to stand up and fight for them against the powerful, the influential and the well-funded.  

And that’s what makes what we do so important. Lawyers are the great equalizers. We level the playing field. We make people play by the rules. We demand accountability. 

So, ever since I was 8, I always wanted to be a lawyer. That desire never wavered and, ever since I received my law license, I have cherished being a lawyer. It’s in my DNA – and I know it is in yours as well. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. The work we do is too hard for the timid or the dispassionate. It requires tremendous commitment and dedication. 

We must never apologize for being lawyers. We must never apologize for helping the victims of wrongdoing. We must never apologize for fighting for justice. We are lawyers – trial lawyers – lawyers who fight for people. We must always take pride in that.  

The Power Of Help 

When I joined NCAJ 26 years ago, I didn’t know much, but there was one thing that I knew for certain – that there were great – and I mean great – lawyers in this state. Lawyers such as Wade Byrd, Doug Abrams, Janet Ward Black, Liz Kuniholm, Joe Cheshire, Charles Becton, Jim Fuller, John Edwards, Mary Ann Talley, Bill Mills and Burton Craige. Lawyers of great intellect and incredible skill. Lawyers who commanded a courtroom. Lawyers who were dedicated to fighting for what was right. These lawyers were – and many still are – the titans in our profession. And they are my heroes, the lawyers I wanted to emulate. So, I joined NCAJ. I got involved. And I quickly saw NCAJ’s three-legged stool – community, education, and advocacy – on full display.  

The foundation of NCAJ’s community was crystal clear – and this still holds true to this day and it is something that must never change – the members of NCAJ help each other. One of my favorite sayings is, “Help is received, not given.” That means there are plenty of people who are willing to give help, but you also need people who are willing to ask for help. In NCAJ, we ask each other for help, and the help comes in droves. We see it every day. The sharing of pleadings and discovery and briefs. The sharing of experience. The sharing of successes and failures.  The only thing you need to do in return is provide help when others ask for it. That’s how NCAJ works. This is our community – it’s the community we have created for ourselves. We help each other. We take care of each other. We need to lift each other up. And that has never been more evident than in the way we have collectively supported each other through this pandemic. I miss being with each of you. I hope we never have a virtual convention again and I cannot wait for us to have a big party – hopefully by early fall – so that we can all feel the energy that comes from all of us being together.

The second leg of NCAJ’s stool is education. When I think of our education efforts, I’m reminded of a wonderful quote from NBA star Draymond Green: “Greatness doesn’t happen by mistake.”

NCAJ’s founders created this organization – in part — because they wanted to ensure that the next generation of trial lawyers were able to build upon the foundation they had established, to further the greatness of the academy. Their vision is achieved with NCAJ’s CLEs and Skills Academy programming. We have the best lawyers in the state teaching all of us new trial techniques and new approaches to litigating. And isn’t that another reason we are all here? Aren’t all of us trying to get better? To learn a thing or two that will make us better lawyers?

Greatness is about never being satisfied and never thinking you’ve learned everything. Research is developing like never before on psychology, imprinting, cognitive biases and decision-making, and we’re incorporating that research into our practices. We are developing new litigation and trial techniques, which years ago would have been considered crazy. We adapt. We learn. And we keep working toward greatness. We have a tremendous group of lawyers in NCAJ, including an incredibly talented group of rising stars, and I cannot wait to see what they accomplish, especially as we launch our NCAJ NEXT leadership program this year.

A Plan For Playing Offense

The third leg of our stool is advocacy. And that’s what I would like to spend the rest of my time discussing this morning. When NCAJ began working on its overall Strategic Plan back in 2019, one of the first questions the facilitators asked was: “What would happen if NCAJ didn’t exist?”

Think about that for a moment, “What would happen if NCAJ didn’t exist?” There is no other organization in the state that does what we do – there’s no other organization to the fill the void. So, when we were asked what would happen if NCAJ didn’t exist, the answers were resounding and quick: “There would be a complete imbalance of power.” “People’s rights would be trampled.” “There would be pervasive injustice.” All of those answers were spot-on, and each one underscores the importance of our work.

And that’s why one of NCAJ’s core beliefs is that “advocacy is essential to creating fair laws and a level playing field.”

It’s advocacy that makes NCAJ so special. Advocacy is in our name. We are the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. But what is advocacy? Advocacy is action. It’s acting in support or defense of a cause. Advocacy is not passivity. We are not the North Carolina Passivists for Justices. Nor is advocacy sitting around and complaining that something is “unfair.”  We are not the North Carolina Complainers for Justice. We are the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. And that means we take action – we do something about it. Sometimes we act proactively, sometimes defensively. But we act strategically and realistically, not recklessly and quixotically. We act with courage to change the things that we can, recognizing that change occurs sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. For the things that cannot be changed right now, we accept that reality, but at the same time, we recognize that acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. It means figuring out how to alter the landscape so that change can eventually take place.

But, how to we go about that? How do we determine what is realistic? How do we decide what issues NCAJ needs to pursue proactively? How do we decide when and how to act on a particular issue? These are tough questions.

Over the last year, NCAJ undertook a comprehensive review of its entire advocacy program. We took a deep dive into our legislative efforts, our legal affairs program, and our PAC. We looked at what was working, what wasn’t working, what needed to change, and how we could do things differently.

The result of that effort was NCAJ’s Advocacy Strategic Plan, which was unanimously approved earlier this year. As part of that plan, we crafted a mission statement to serve as the North Star for all of our advocacy efforts: “Working for fair laws and a level playing field across all branches of government for our members and those we represent.” That mission must guide us and drive us as we move forward.

This plan represents a new approach for our advocacy efforts.

For the first time, NCAJ has a written, formal public policy agenda. And it is a proactive agenda. Our days of just playing defense are over. We are going to play offense too. Nowhere has that been clearer than in the introduction earlier this year of the Victims’ Fair Treatment Act in the North Carolina Senate — legislation which would abolish contributory negligence in this state.

To guide NCAJ, we have created and disseminated an Advocacy Decision-Making Funnel which we will use to help formulate our public policy agenda. The funnel will also be used in all other areas of advocacy, including deciding: 

(1) whether and how to respond defensively to proposed legislation,  

(2) whether to provide amicus support in a case, and  

(3) whether to take up other causes when requested to do so by outside organizations.

As Janet Ward Black said during our planning process, the funnel not only helps us form a proactive agenda, it also creates riverbanks to direct us – so that we don’t get pulled into matters – that while important – don’t directly further our mission.

We have also created an advocacy committee to oversee and coordinate all advocacy efforts.  

Under the Advocacy Strategy Plan, leadership will be asking members to get more involved and engaged in our advocacy efforts by helping us build and strengthen relationships with legislators and policymakers.  

We have adopted criteria for supporting legislative and judicial candidates. We will support candidates who are willing to work with us, listen to us, and have a relationship with us. At the same time, when necessary, we will oppose candidates who actively challenge our mission. 

A Pendulum Swing  

As we come out of one of the most challenging and bizarre years that any of us could have imagined – one in which we faced a global pandemic, one in which we saw rioters (including a shirtless shaman wearing a horned bearskin headdress) overtake the U.S. Capitol, and one in which we saw too many painful examples of the racial inequities that continue to exist in our country, it is not lost on me that this was also a year in which we saw great examples of the importance of the law and the accountability and justice it demands. This was evident in the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd or more recently the $75M wrongful conviction verdict obtained by our own Elliot Abrams on behalf of two innocent, mentally challenged men who spent over 30 years in jail for a rape and murder they didn’t commit.  

So, as we sit here today, there is one thing that is abundantly clear – this is a great time to be a trial lawyer – and it’s a great time to be a member of NCAJ. The pendulum has swung. Trial lawyers are now seen as champions who fight against corporate misconduct, bad cops and greedy insurance companies. Our communities are counting on us to hold these bad actors accountable – to be the equalizers. And we are doing that and we must continue doing that. And I know we will.  

I’m really excited to see what we collectively accomplish in the upcoming years. I love this organization from the depths of my heart and I thank you so much for allowing me to serve as your president.  

I am grateful to the many people who helped me reach this point, including my grandfather, who introduced to me the idea of becoming a lawyer when I was 8 years old.  

John McCabe, the principal attorney at The Law Offices of John McCabe, P.A., in Cary, is the 2020-2021 president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Campbell University School of Law and has practiced as a plaintiff’s attorney since 1995. McCabe is licensed to practice law in all North Carolina federal and state courts, and he devotes a considerable amount of his time to teaching legal concepts and advocacy skills to fellow attorneys and law students. He is also an active volunteer with the North Carolina Lawyers Assistance Program.