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Jerry Blackwell
Jerry Blackwell

The POWER 30: Jerry Blackwell

Jerry Blackwell became familiar to court watchers last summer during the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, but he has been impressing lawyers and juries for more than 30 years.

He came from North Carolina to work at what is now Robins Kaplan, representing the government of India on the mass tort resulting from a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. The gas leak occurred in 1984 and the case settled in 1989, reportedly for $470 million.

Blackwell is now the chairman of Blackwell Burke, founded in 2006. The firm tackles complex civil litigation including business, toxic torts and class actions, as well as state investigations against corporate clients.

Blackwell said that toxic tort cases are a great training ground for trial lawyers. They are high-level cases because they often have more than one trial, that way getting to a high level of skill. He was able to use skills garnered in toxic tort cases in the Chauvin trial, Blackwell said.

“You have to earn your trial stripes,” Blackwell said. “You have to put yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Start with public speaking of any kind, to “get comfortable in your authentic self in front of an audience,” he said.

Also, Blackwell said, lawyers should associate with people who are not like them. “Those are your jurors,” he said, and “you may find that they have traits that are familiar to you.”

Earning the trust of the jurors is crucial and requires that the lawyer is a “straight shooter,” Blackwell said. Jurors and other lawyers know when a lawyer presents an inauthentic self, he explained.

Trial lawyers who travel should scope out the community where they are venued and try to understand the people. They also should remember that they are a guest, he said.

Blackwell recalled trying a case in Honolulu, where the jurors were from various places in Asia. He learned a few words in foreign languages and when the case was over, the court clerk told him that the locals didn’t like it when people tried to talk to them like that. “Don’t assume things about the locale. You need to know their views and practices. Be respectful, don’t condescend,” Blackwell advised.

The lawyer who is her authentic self will gain confidence in the courtroom, Blackwell said. The lawyer will have less fear of judges and will be able to cope when the audio-visual doesn’t work or the exhibit that is called up is wrong.

Those mistakes happen. Blackwell recalled one trial when he could not find the clicker he needed to move the exhibit slides along. He was looking for it when a juror pointed to Blackwell’s pocket, where he had put it.

Generally, race is not the issue when Blackwell connects with jurors and the same considerations apply. Which is not to say that there aren’t pockets of racism or hostility in the country, he said. “I’ve been in many places where I’m not going to be out after sundown.”