LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2016: Ronald J. Waicukauski

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When Ron Waicukauski was a law student at Harvard, he was recognized as the most outstanding oral advocate in his class. He has lived up to that early recognition through his distinguished career. He served as a judge advocate general in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years, and later as prosecutor in Monroe County. His practice now focuses on plaintiffs’ complex litigation, and he has tried more than 70 cases to verdict as lead counsel in state and federal courts. In 2015, he won jury verdicts of $79 million representing Missouri landowners against a power company, and of $31 million representing a family in a civil rights case against the Indiana Department of Child Services. Ron also has taught trial and appellate advocacy at the law schools in Indianapolis and Bloomington.

waicukauski-15col.jpg (IL photo/Eric Learned)

You have given presentations on “the art of argument.” What’s one tip you’d give to an attorney arguing his/her first trial?

Get independent perspectives on your case. It is hard to avoid “drinking the Kool-Aid” and easy to assume that judges and juries will see the case as you and your client do. The hard reality is that different people will perceive the same set of facts in very different ways. Talk about your case to your barber, hairstylist, cab driver, Aunt Sally, or do jury research. Listen to their reactions and tailor your presentation at trial accordingly.

Do lawyers have fewer opportunities to go to trial? What skills do lawyers lose when they don’t bring a case to trial?

Yes, there are fewer opportunities to go to trial. Cross-examination is the hardest skill to develop outside of real trials. There are, however, occasions when you can use the same kind of short, single-fact, leading questions to control an adverse witness at a deposition as you would in a trial cross-examination.

Is there a case that you’ve handled that stands out?

I prosecuted a murder case in Bloomington where a bowling ball was the murder weapon. A lady dropped it on her boyfriend’s head four times. I discovered that the victim was being prosecuted by my office for theft — of bowling balls. The Indiana Daily Student had the most interesting take on the case, with a cartoon message from the Professional Bowling Association: “Bowling balls don’t kill people; people kill people.”

Why did you become a lawyer?

I was on my high school and college debate teams and liked the competitive challenge that debate presented. Law school was a natural next step. Although I started law school with the idea of going into government or teaching, I found that participating in courtroom battles as a lawyer was a better fit for me and offered the opportunity to do something really important with my life — obtain justice for clients.

What was the most memorable job you had prior to becoming an attorney?

During college summers, I worked for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., in an urban parks program. I hired performers, scheduled hundreds of events, toured the Potomac River on the Presidential Yacht and got invited to the White House.

What’s something about you not many people know?

I raised pigs on our family farm as a kid.

Why practice in the area of law you do?

Trial work in complex plaintiffs’ cases is challenging, interesting, sometimes financially rewarding, and when justice is done, extraordinarily satisfying.

What’s been the biggest change in the overall practice of law since you began?

Email, in huge quantities, has transformed the practice of law, both in the way in which we communicate within our firms and outside, but also in the volume of discovery with which we deal. The virtual elimination of printed books is a close second.

Have you ever added up the total in jury awards in your cases over your career?

No. But I did add up our two 2015 verdicts. That number ($110,364,140) is far more than the rest of my career combined.

What do you learn whenever you take on a mentoring role?

How much about the actual practice of law cannot be learned from books.

If you couldn’t be a lawyer, what would you do for a living?

Photographer. Since my daughter and I bought a camera store in California in 2008, photography has become my avocation.

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