Craig Staudenmaier joined the law firm of Nauman Smith in August 1981, became a partner in 1985 and was the Managing Partner for 12 years. He has been a practicing litigator for more than 35 years. Recently, Craig sat down with Sarah Schrank from the firm’s marketing department to discuss his litigation career.
What can you share with us about your earliest entrance into the world of litigation and some of your experiences from that first season of your practice?
One of my mentors here was David Eaton. He occupied the same office I work from now. Dave represented the railroad, among other clients, when I came to the firm and was handling most of the firm’s litigation work – the actual knockdown, drag out, day-to-day litigation. I started helping Dave with motions, discovery issues,
You mention the “knockdown, drag out” part to litigation, and I think that’s what many people picture. They picture trial and drama and excitement. What is litigation actually like?
What a lot of people don’t realize is that the trial, or even the hearing, is usually the end of the process. There’s so much that takes place before you get there. The average piece of litigation takes anywhere from 2-5 years to reach fruition. And with COVID now, you can add more time to that.
You mean my favorite law show isn’t real??? How about when one of the attorneys strolls into the courtroom with some new piece of evidence that blows the jury’s minds and completely changes the results of the trial?
It’s very, very rare for that to happen. In fact, if something like that takes place, it means that one of the lawyers hasn’t done his or her job. When you get to a trial, it’s pretty much like a play. It’s scripted for the most part. By that I mean that you pretty much know what your witnesses are going to say. You know what their witnesses are going to say. You know what the relevant documents are. You have legal rulings from the judge. And so, it’s fairly well cast at that point. Now, some unexpected things do happen during the course of a trial… sometimes the witness doesn’t quite say what you think he or she is going to say… or a piece of evidence is included or excluded and you’re thrown for a loop. In fact, it does still amuse me because you’ll spend five years preparing for a trial and then the day or week before, something happens, and you’ll end up scrambling.
Has that happened to you?
Oh yeah. It happens almost every time.
So, you prepare. You assume. You have your script ready… but you don’t hold your breath because something unexpected will inevitably happen.
Right. Because at trial, I think you cease being a litigator and you become a storyteller or a teacher–. whichever you prefer. You and your opponent have spent years preparing for this trial, but you’re talking to 12 or 14 (state juries usually have 2 alternates) people who you purposefully selected because they know nothing about the case. And you expect them, over the course of a week or ten days, to get to where you took five years to get to. So, you really have to be a good storyteller or teacher so that your client’s position is fully presented.
We’ve discussed how you got into litigation, but 35 years later, you’re still doing this. Why? What do you like about litigation?
I think one of the reasons is that I’ve been fortunate to have good clients–people who have been sued because they’ve been accused of doing something tortious, and they didn’t. They need someone to stand up for them–someone to tell their story so a judge or a jury can decide the case fairly. Many of the cases that I handle are terrible in that someone has been severely hurt or killed. And there isn’t always someone at fault, or sometimes the person at fault is unfortunately the one hurt. Whatever the case may be, it’s my job to make sure that story is told also.
Other than being a good communicator, what other qualities does a litigator need to be successful and best serve their clients? What skills have you had to sharpen over the past 35 years that make you a better litigator now than when you first set out down this path?
I’ve learned that not every problem is a crisis. Things are not going to go your way, and you’ve got to learn to live with it. When you live with these cases for years and years, they become sort of a part of you. And I’ve learned that you’re going to take some lumps, but not every setback is the end of the world. If you’ve done all you can do, you have at least represented your client well— and sometimes that is all you can humanly do.
Let’s talk about your wins. Are there any that stand out in your mind?
My very first jury trial – I won. It was only a small property damage claim, and it didn’t involve any personal injury, but the jury came back in my favor and I felt really great for my client and me.
Did you celebrate?
Oh yeah and my poor wife had to listen to every detail of the 2 ½ day trial.
Nauman Smith recently celebrated its 150th Anniversary. We are a small firm in size, but quite rich in history and the legacy of relationships we have maintained over the years. What is it about Nauman Smith that makes us successful in our litigation practice?
I’m hard-pressed to think of another firm of our size, who has and continues to work in, some of the areas we have and has had the kind of impact in those practice areas that we’ve had. Our knowledge, which comes from that experience means the client doesn’t have to educate us. If you’re a business like the railroad for example, after 100+ years, we kind of know what we’re talking about. We know the terminology. We know the people. We know the problems. We know what to look out for. I also think our excellent reputation in the legal community, both to our opponents and to the courts, is a plus for our clients.
Something that we discuss here at Nauman Smith is how more and more cases are being settled outside of reaching trial. Do you believe that trend will continue and what does it mean for our clients?
Yes, I believe this will continue to be the trend. There comes a point when a business decision has to be made. We as lawyers can advise our clients on the law and what we think will happen and which way to jump, but there comes a time when it becomes a business decision. By that I mean, if a party is seeking damages against you, there’s always an amount of money they will take instead of what they are asking for, and the decision that needs to be made is, “Am I better to buy what I know now, or to proceed with the jury trial and see what happens.” As lawyers, we can advise you on what the probabilities are, but we can’t tell you what business decision to make. We can help you make it, but we can’t make it for you. One of the implications of this trend is that it makes it difficult to train new litigators because you don’t have as many cases actually going to trial.
How do we address that training challenge at Nauman Smith?
We do it by integrating newer associates into the process. Sort of the way I learned. You don’t walk in to your first day on the job and walk into court. Our associates start off by helping with the other 90% of litigation… discovery, motions, interviewing witnesses, getting police reports, analyzing documents. Steadily, we work them into the process. And then, they’re going on their own to argue a motion, rather than going with a partner. And eventually they go into the courtroom. We try to give our younger associates as many opportunities as we can, given the current climate, to walk before they run.
And then to spread their wings and fly?