Maine Bar Journal
Fall 2003 #2.
Commentary - Head to Head with Melvin Belli
Maine Bar JournalFall 2003Commentary - Head to Head with Melvin Belliby Derry RundlettBefore Perry Mason, before L.A. Law, and before Johnny Cochran, there was Melvin Belli. Melvin Belli - "King of Torts," master of demonstrative evidence, attorney to the stars. In the 1950s and the 1960s he was a household word. I remember my mother holding her hand up to quiet us down whenever his name was mentioned on radio or television. Like many other Americans she was fascinated by his prematurely white hair, the glasses perched slightly down his nose as he cross examined witnesses, and his penchant for attracting high-profile plaintiffs and defendants. Movie stars, famous and infamous, flocked to his office for advice, counsel, and the best of representation.
So, it's no wonder that I jumped for joy the day I received an invitation to speak at his annual seminar - The Melvin Belli Annual Trial Lawyer Seminar, held every year at the American Trial Lawyers convention. It was a one-day seminar at which trial lawyers from around the country would present approximately fifteen minutes' worth of wisdom pearls for less experienced trial attorneys. I had just published a book on personal injury practice that was selling pretty well, and Belli's staff had told him about it. His invitation was short but apparently signed personally by him. I was thrilled.
I called immediately and accepted the invitation. His staff told me to prepare a short speech, no longer than fifteen minutes, which summarized the topic of my book: handling ordinary personal injury cases for plaintiffs in auto collisions, product liability cases, and slip-and-fall actions.
It took hours to prepare the speech as I worked diligently to put the greatest amount of information, humor, and substance in the short period of one quarter hour. Within two weeks of the conference I had the speech down pat - thirteen and a half minutes including introduction and final punch line. This was destined to be one of the great days of my lega1 career.
Several days before the seminar I asked to be the first speaker so that I could attend a board certification exam held the same morning. Belli's staff assured me my request would be granted, and it was. I arrived ten minutes early to bask in the glow of...