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Lawyers—As Superstitious as the Rest of Us Print E-mail
by John Browning    Mon, Oct 8, 2012, 09:24 am

“Superstition ain’t the way.”

- Stevie Wonder


Show me a particular occupation, and I’ll find you a superstition or two unique to that group.  Whether it’s sailors and their many nautical beliefs, architects designing buildings without a thirteenth floor, or theatrical performers insisting on hearing “break a leg” instead of “good luck,” everybody has their own lore.  Athletes are perhaps the most notorious for their superstitions, from wearing lucky colors or equipment to sticking to ritualistic meals during a streak or taking specific steps (however nonsensical) to break a slump.  But what about lawyers; those rational beings who dwell in the realm of logic and reason?  Surely, they are the exception to the superstition rule.


Nope.  It seems that lawyers can be just as superstitious as the next person, and trial lawyers are perhaps the most superstitious of the bunch.  I’ll admit it—I always wear a lucky tie on the first day of trial, and I frequently will stick with the same lunchtime spot close to the courthouse.  Once, I even managed to park in the same parking space every day (no mean feat at a busy urban courthouse), convincing myself that this little ritual had something to do with how well the trial went.


Often, the superstition is associated with a talisman or lucky object.  For most lawyers, that’s a lucky tie or suit (one prosecutor used to wear her “hanging suit” during every capital murder trial).  Ira Lee Sorkin, who represented Bernie Madoff during his big Ponzi scheme legal wranglings, always wears a particular type of Hebrew University tie during his opening statement.  Celebrity lawyer Benjamin Brafman wore a “bendel” (a slender bracelet of red thread from Israel that is supposed to ward off evil) every day while defending P Diddy (aka Sean Combs) during a 2001 weapons possession trial.  Combs was acquitted, and Brafman has been wearing the bendel at trial ever since.  Brafman insists he’s not superstitious, but says “I just wear it because since I’ve put it on, I’ve enjoyed good luck, both personally and professionally.  Do I think about just breaking it off and throwing it away?  Yes, the thought has occurred to me, But I haven’t.”  In California, Van Nuys Deputy District Attorney Terese Hutchison would never try a case without her trademark Batman watch, saying “My Batman watch is sacred to me.”  For Houston criminal defense attorney Jack Zimmerman, it’s his lucky boots that he feels make the difference.  Another Houston defense attorney, Joe Bailey, swears by his lucky shoes.  He says “The last success, or catastrophe, dictates which pair I wear.  They must be newly polished.  The left one goes on first and cannot be tied before the right one is on.  Even though they may develop a hole, I refuse to deviate from a ‘successful pair.’  They can be resoled.”


For other lawyers, it’s not the lucky talisman or article of clothing that brings out their superstitious side, it’s what they put in their stomachs.  New York defense attorney Murray Richman repeatedly eats the same meal—a Mayan sun salad with a sautéed filet of salmon—at the same restaurant every day during trials that can last for weeks at a time.  For Peter Quijano, his ritual meal during trial was a cheddar burger and bloody Mary from the same restaurant (the Whiskey Tavern), served by the same waitress and eaten at the same booth.  Quijano also has another quirk to ward off jinxes; he tries to insert the name of his Scottish terrier, Watson, into every closing argument.  “The trial gods are very powerful,” he says.  “You respect them.  You make little offerings.”


And for many attorneys, the superstition has nothing to do with items of food or clothing.  David Ruhnke, who specializes in defending capital murder cases, avoids the color black at all costs.  “I believe that black is a color particularly associated with death and mourning, so I will not write in black ink.”  He sends emails with blue letters, and uses blue, green, or white binders.  Maybe he’s on to something—he’s won 14 out of 16 capital trials, and hasn’t had a client executed.  Other lawyers ritualistically take the same route to the courthouse or always go in a particular entrance during trial, like Deirdre van Dornum of the federal public defender’s office in New York.  Meanwhile, still other attorneys refrain from getting their hair cut, while some listen to particular songs as part of a pre-trial ritual.  For Houston appellate specialist Brian Wice, it’s always Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (a favorite of mine as well).  Bill Rosch, another Houston lawyer, is particularly fond of a classic, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”


Whether it’s a rabbit’s foot in your pocket, a lucky tie around your neck, or a ritualistic meal, why do otherwise rational professionals allow themselves to be governed by superstition?  Frances Cattermole-Tally of the UCLA Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology has a theory.  “They’re in a profession where they’re sort of under the gun all the time,” she notes.  “When people are under a lot of stress—and lawyers are—they do things they might later recognize as irrational but which don’t hurt anyone.  And they might help.”  Arthur Miller, a law professor at NYU, says it really amounts to lawyers behaving much like, say, a baseball player tapping his cleats or a stage actor not whistling backstage—they’re only human.  “It’s part of the human condition that no matter how many years of education you’ve had, you still have faith in certain totems,” Miller observes.


Ultimately, trial lawyers are people, too.  And, hey, if wearing lucky socks makes your heart surgeon, airline pilot on your flight, or even the lawyer handling your case, feel better about his or her performance, should you really care?

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