Q&A: Robert Habush reflects on fights that mattered
November 2014 - Stacey Burke interviews Robert Habush
Houston attorney Stacey Burke recently spoke with veteran trial lawyer and former American Association for Justice President (1986-87) Robert Habush after reviewing his biography, Courtroom Avenger. The book originally started out as a memoir for his grandchildren. “My daughter had made me promise that I would put something down about my early life and my cases, so the kids could get some kind of wisdom or inspiration,” Habush said.
He also recalled his happiest time: being president of AAJ—then the Association of Trial Lawyers of America—when the tort ‘reform’ movement was at its peak. “I would have taken that job for life if they would have offered it to me. I felt like General Patton going in a tank across Germany. We got an organization together to fight these people in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C. It was perfect for me—it was making war, what I love to do best.” At 78, Habush is still practicing law in Milwaukee with Habush Habush & Rottier.
Q: Which period of your life was most crucial in forming your career?
A: One was those early years where I felt on the outside and developed a big chip on my shoulder regarding people who found it necessary to express their anti-Semitism. That formulated a toughness in me, a mentality of “do not turn the other cheek.” The second major thing was my relationship with my father, which was not favorable and added to the sense of wanting to push back. The third, and probably most significant, was the damage to my daughter. We found out several years after she had a vaccination as an infant that the vaccination caused significant brain damage. The shot was defective and subsequently recalled. When I found out, I sued the drug company, and they settled. But I was enraged, and that fire has never stopped burning. Those three factors explain my passion and my relentlessness as expressed through my litigation experience. Frankly, I developed an attitude of not being afraid of failure. I didn’t worry if I would win or lose; it was the crusade that mattered.
Q: Which part of the book do you like best and why?
A: It is hard for me to ignore Wischer v. Mitsubishi, because that was the pinnacle of my career in court, but when I look back on my entire career, the case that was the most significant was McPhee v. Corinth Machinery Co. Lawyers had turned the case down, and the odds were against this young man who had lost his legs in a sawmill. I had no investigator, no paralegal—essentially no help—and I had a short time to prepare for trial, so I did everything myself. Against significant odds, I won that case for him, and it turned his life around. He became the mayor of a town in Wisconsin. I always look back on that jury verdict as the one that launched my career in products liability cases.
Q: What do you think is the book’s most important message?
A: Whereas lawyers generally get a bad rap, I represent a cadre of lawyers who have made a difference in public safety, both with respect to policing doctors and trying to eliminate unsafe products. That contribution is misunderstood and not well known. We are the true guardians of safety for the American public, and probably the only ones.
Q: What books about the law do you recommend?
A: The best set that I’ve ever seen was Matthew Bender’s Art of Advocacy, which goes all the way from opening to closing statement, with actual transcripts of the openings and closings, as well as the direct and cross-examinations from some of the top lawyers in the country. In it, trial lawyers teach you what to do by providing real-world examples and the reasons why they did it. To me, those are the greatest educational books you could ever get.
Q: What is your most important advice for aspiring, young trial lawyers?
A: Have no fear. Do not be afraid of losing, because it is going to happen, especially in the early years when you are learning. You are going to make mistakes. But you’ve got to get into court as much as you can, as often as you can, and that’s the only way you’re going to become skillful.
Q: How would you define the differences between current trial advocacy and when you first started trying cases?
A: Lawyers are not getting into court like they used to—that’s what’s changed. When my generation of lawyers started practicing in the 1960s, we hadn’t been recognized yet as terribly skillful. The defense attorneys typically were veterans in the courtroom, so we didn’t get any settlement offers that would even tempt us. As a consequence, by the time we were in practice for 10 years, lawyers like me had 50 to 100 jury trials under our belt—closer to 100. I used to have one every week. Nowadays, if a young man or woman wants to be a trial lawyer, they’ll be lucky to put together 50 jury trials in their lifetime.
You get a reputation by winning tough cases, not easy cases. The case that you shouldn’t have won, that’s the one that builds your reputation.
Q: Is there anything you learned from or see differently after going through the process of having your biography written?
A: Yes. First, I was amazed at my memory and that I could remember details of cases that happened 40, almost 50, years ago. The second part of it is that when I was able to put it all together, I sat back and said, “Wow, I did all that?”
Stacey E. Burke is a trial lawyer consulting for law firms through her own business headquartered in Houston. Her review of the book Courtroom Avenger appears in the November issue of Trial magazine, accessible at https://www.justice.org/magazine-article/trial/fighting-good-fight.