Valparaiso attorney Steven Langer brings to bear more than 30 years of experience as the new president of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association.
Langer told Indiana Lawyer he hopes to build on the organization’s successes in its 58th year, and he opens up about his expectations for the year ahead and what he tells his two kids who are now in law school.
Q. What are some of your priorities for the coming year?
A. I intend to continue ITLA’s long tradition of focusing on the right of every person to have access to courts and the public policy arena and the right to trial by jury. I think that maintaining open access to courts and the right to trial by jury to address civil disputes guarantees freedom for all of us.
The recent landslide of immunity bills erodes all of our rights to have open access to courts and carves away at our rights to trial by jury. There appears to be a trend among policymakers to treat Hoosiers, especially those who can afford it the least, like ATM machines to pay for the mistakes of special-interest groups.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself, and feel free to add any extremely personal details.
A. I was born in Chicago. At the end of fifth grade, we moved to Valparaiso after my parents purchased a business called Fetla’s. I started working in sixth grade. Fetla’s sold groceries, furniture, clothing, shoes, hardware – pretty much everything. Fetla’s was one of the largest sellers of firearms in the state of Indiana. While working at Fetla’s, I got to hang out with my dad, who taught me about business, and I met tons of people. I still run into former customers today.
We had a pet black bear named Sally that drank Coke from bottles.
My wife, Diana, and I have been married for 26 years. We have two children, Rob and Sara. In our family, the practice of law has been a family endeavor. I have had the strong support of my wife throughout my career.
Q. From what you’ve seen, how would you describe the state of the ITLA?
A. When ITLA started, there were approximately 20 to 30 members. Now the organization has over 1,000 members. ITLA is a very nimble organization. I want to make sure that ITLA continues to be responsive to the needs of its members and maintains its close connections with its membership.
Q. What are the secret perks of being ITLA president? There’s swag, right?
A. Tons of perks. I get to drive “Golf Kart 1” at the annual golf outing primarily because I don’t golf and no one would want to include me in their foursome. Finally, after 12 years of being on the executive committee, I will get to choose where to order lunch. So, it looks like Shapiro’s Delicatessen is going to be delivering food for the next year to the ITLA office.
Q. Let’s say I’m a solo or small-firm lawyer, and times are a little tough. I’m on the fence about becoming an ITLA member. What’s your pitch?
A. We all have tough times. In my view, the challenges that have confronted me have made me a much better and stronger person. ITLA is full of members who have had tough times and challenges. Together, we are over 1,000 members strong, so when there are issues, personal or professional, there is always someone with the experience and the wisdom who can help.
Q. What area of civil law in Indiana is most in need of reform, and how would you change it?
A. My practice focuses on medical malpractice work. So, from my own perspective I think the Medical Malpractice Act is draconian. The damage cap is irrational. The practice of medicine today, which is pretty much run by corporations, follows a business model focusing on profit over patient safety. The hospitals and insurance companies make tons of money yet Hoosiers who suffer serious injuries oftentimes go bankrupt because of medical expenses, then must fall back on Medicaid, also funded by Hoosiers, just to get minimal health care. The folks who caused the harm walk away free while all of us have to pay for their mistakes and choices.
On a broader sense, the onslaught of immunity bills is a real problem for every Hoosier. Special interest groups
hire lobbyists to attempt to lure policymakers to make special carve-outs for their mistakes thereby forcing the victim to pay for the mistakes and choices made by others.
Q. What are some of your proudest achievements in your three decades as an attorney?
A. Having two children in law school. Our son will be a 3L at Kansas next year. Our daughter will be a 1L at IU Bloomington.
I think my proudest achievement is in an area outside of my practice area. My wife and I started the Porter County Reading Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, from scratch. The purpose of the foundation was to make it possible for all children to develop the skills to read. The foundation provided early-intervention programs for elementary school children in partnership with community schools, continuing professional education workshops to provide educators with information about scientifically based effective methods of teaching reading, and intensive one-on-one summer school programs. The services were provided without charge. The PCRF trained hundreds of teachers and helped thousands of children.
Q. You and your brother, Michael, founded Langer & Langer 30 years ago in Valparaiso. You both were just a few years out of law school. What would you say to young attorneys considering starting their own practices?
A. I would tell the young lawyer that it’s difficult to start a law practice from scratch, but looking back it was easy because when you start from scratch you don’t have clients, your operating expenses are low, and you have minimal costs. Life is simple.
But I also look back and remember how hard it was to start on your own. Life is tough and not always fair, but I think hardship makes one a better lawyer and a better person. I would tell the person not to be fearful of failing because everybody fails and success comes about only after failure. I would say what my grandfather told my dad and what my dad told me: You can’t hit a home run if you don’t swing at a pitch.
Q. You mentioned you’ll have a son and a daughter in law school this fall. What would you say to students who hear a lot these days about why they shouldn’t go to law school?
A. People should be guided by their passion and not limited by artificial barriers. There is always room for good lawyers. I would pass on what I overheard Judge (James) Kirsch saying one day to a group of high school students in Valparaiso: “he has never worked a day in his life,” meaning that in starting a job, whether it’s starting your own practice or working for someone else, just do whatever makes you happy. That’s what I do.
Q. What’s your favorite legal movie, and why?
A. “Hang ’Em High.” Clint Eastwood movies are awesome. Somehow by the end of the movie, justice is always done.
Q. What would you say is a guiding philosophy for you both personally and professionally?
A. Do the best you can every day. Live a productive life. Continually force yourself to try new things that are outside of your comfort zone.•