In Approaching the Bench: Tales of a Personal Injury Lawyer, attorney Jan Weinberg shares some of his most fascinating cases over a career that has spanned decades. Beginning with stories of his time at Harvard Law School-years marked by anxiety and skipping classes-to his first assignment to a client while still a law student, and then being a partner in a law firm and finally practicing on his own in Hawaii, Weinberg offers a revealing portrait of not only the clients, judges, and opponents he faced in the courtroom, but also a look at how being a lawyer at times affected his personal life.
Anyone who loves good courtroom drama will find much to enjoy in this book. There are fascinating details about how Weinberg researches his cases and finds precedents for his arguments; there are female clients more interested in hitting on him than having him defend them, and there are some heart-wrenching stories of clients who desperately needed someone to stand up and fight for their rights, and Weinberg was able to do that for them.
While I can’t detail every story here, I’ll briefly mention a few of my favorites. One case Weinberg wasn’t involved in but that was a key case he learned about in law school was the case of the hairy hand-in this case, a doctor did a skin graft by taking skin from a patient’s chest and using it for his hand-when chest hair grew on the patient’s hand, the patient was not happy. This case is one every good law student apparently knows about.
In Weinberg’s first case, which he was assigned while still a law student through Harvard Legal Aid, he handled a divorce. He quickly discovered how much he still needed to learn despite his law school training. His client was getting divorced for the first time, but her friend, who accompanied her to her appointment with Weinberg, had been divorced three times and apparently knew more about court protocol when it came to divorce cases than he did, so he learned a thing or two from her.
In another case, Weinberg was assigned to do some research in a pro bono case where a partner was representing a convicted bank robber in his appeal. The conviction was based on an identification of the client’s left elbow that was hanging out of the getaway car’s window.
Throughout his career, Weinberg has proven himself very good at researching his cases and preparing for trial as well as examining and cross-examining witnesses. As Weinberg states at one point, “So, if an attorney isn’t willing to spend time after hours and on weekends to think about cases while walking, gardening, working out, and even performing basic bodily functions, to research, to question, and to worry, then an area of law other than a personal injury practice would almost certainly be a better fit.” Weinberg’s stories and results testify to the fact that he was always, like Perry Mason, trying to figure out his cases and strategy from every angle possible.
One story that really made me admire Weinberg’s techniques in the courtroom was when he was questioning a doctor who was an expert witness in the trial for his side. Feigning full disclosure, but really to get the jury’s sympathy, Weinberg asked the doctor whether it was true that he was a convicted felon. The man replied, “Yes, I am a convicted felon. But, please, may I explain. As I told the jury, I am a Hungarian. You may recall that in 1956, the Soviet Union sent tanks and troops to overtake our country. I was a young man then, and with other young men filled Coke bottles with gasoline and inserted rags in them. We would run up to the tanks, light the rags, and throw the bottles under the tanks. We called ourselves ‘freedom fighters.’ The Soviets called us ‘terrorists.’ I was convicted of terrorism and spent two years in a Soviet prison in solitary confinement.” Weinberg goes on to say that the doctor “spoke in a mellifluous tone of voice, with a distinct Hungarian accent. His performance was operatic. He was mesmerizing. He spoke directly to the juror who seemed to be attracted to him. She had tears in her eyes as he finished his answer. The Hungarian dance of love looked like it was succeeding.”
Plenty of other stories in the book will fascinate, surprise, and entertain readers. One landmark case from 1996 that Weinberg was involved in concerned a pedestrian who was hit by a driver who may have been using a cell phone. This occurred long before there were discussions about the dangers of cell phone use while driving. Ironically, twice during the trial, the driver’s cell phone rang, which only made her look worse to the jury. Other stories demonstrate how handwriting samples are used to determine prospective jurors’ personalities, and how Weinberg has used mock jury trials to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a case before going to trial.
Approaching the Bench will appeal to law students, lawyers, and anyone else involved with the court system or simply a fan of courtroom drama. I’m sure that after so many years of practicing law, Jan Weinberg has only shared the tip of the iceberg with the stories in this volume. I wouldn’t be surprised if he writes another book someday. I’m sure fans of this volume will welcome it.