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    In the first of this two-part series on Settlement Nation, we chat with with Keith Bruno, a trial attorney with Carpenter, Zuckerman & Rowley (CZ&R) out of Orange County. Keith shares insights into his beginnings as a young lawyer on NBC's "The Law Firm", what it's like to have 150 trials under his belt, as well as courtroom advice for up-and-coming attorneys. He also shares details on an acquittal in a first-degree murder case and why there's no substitute for doing the work.

     

     

    Courtney Barber:

    Welcome everyone to another episode of Settlement Nation. I am Courtney Barber and I'm joined today by my co-host Chris Bua, as well as a very special guest, Keith Bruno. Now Keith is a trial attorney and partner at Carpenter, Zuckerman, and Rowley out of Orange County, California, and he also has his own firm there as well. He has tried over 150 cases in his career so far and has been recognized by Super Lawyers as a rising star from 2009 to 2015, as well as a Super Lawyer from 2016 to 2018. In addition to all of those accolades, he has a $40 million verdict under his belt in a wrongful death case and an acquittal in a first-degree murder case, which we're also going to cover today. So welcome Keith.

    Keith Bruno:

    Good morning. And thank you, Courtney and Chris. Good to be here.

    Chris Bua:

    Thank you, Keith. We'll get right into it. When we were debriefing a little bit on your background, I saw that you won your first case just one month after you passed the bar in 2002. Now a few episodes ago, we had Brian Ward on Settlement Nation and he had a similar situation where he actually won his first case before his colleagues and classmates were sworn into the bar. So I don't know if this is the start of a pattern or not, but if you could maybe speak a little bit about that experience right out of law school, right out of passing the bar. And also the first couple of years of your practice, it looks like you had 11 cases go to verdict. So looking back, how did you jump right into bringing those cases all the way?

    Keith Bruno:

    So it's definitely a pattern among certain people. I was one of them. I guess Brian was one of them. I knew right away that I wanted to be a courtroom lawyer. I did not have the attention span or the discipline to be the type of lawyer who just went over documents all day and then got into his Porsche and wanted to make partner after seven years. So my experience was different. When I was in law school, I worked through law school because I had to, so I bartended and I worked in various law firms and I got a diversity of experience. I worked for a criminal lawyer for about a year, and then I worked for a civil firm and that civil firm, I was lucky enough to have, we had diverse clients that the key to that is that some can pay to have a senior partner as their trial counsel and some can't. And those that can't get someone like me to be their trial counsel as a very young lawyer.

    Keith Bruno:

    So the suit that I initially won, my boss at the time, a guy by the name of Chip Purdy, who still practices in San Diego, he had just this kind of really cool foresight that he was training trial lawyers. He wasn't training lawyers just to do his discovery for him or anything like that. So he actually made me serve the lawsuit myself, that I would eventually end up trying when I was in law school. So I went out and I served it on this lady and her sons in the middle of the hood. There was pit bulls that were barking at me. I made quite a stir when I rolled up my 86' Toyota Camry and walked along this alleyway and ran into this woman. And I'm like, "Are you Mrs. Guerrero?" And she's like, "Si." And I go, "Here. You're served."

    Keith Bruno:

    So I had all these kinds of really cool hands-on experiences that then I worked the case up as a law student going through through the discovery process and it wasn't, back then, it wasn't like it is now where every case seemingly takes five years to get to trial. This case went to trial in about a year and I was certainly supposed to lose it. I had no idea what the subject matter was. It was basically a case involving our client with a fire recreation company. And they were brought out to do a job and they were paid for the first third of the job. They did the second third, and then they were thrown off the job. And she had her cousins and uncles finish the job. So it was really basically a contract/fraud case.

    Keith Bruno:

    The lawyer on the other side, he was this supposed expert in construction. He had been a construction foreman and he knew everything about construction. I had a pretty good sense that it didn't matter that I didn't know anything about construction. This was about fairness. They did two thirds of a job. They got paid for one third and she tried to take advantage of them. The jury found that as well.

    Keith Bruno:

    So kind of like Brian and his experience, I think if this is what you're looking for as a younger lawyer, if you're looking for experience, if you're looking to do something, to get your hands dirty and go do something, you can find it. What you won't find, in exchange, is that's not going to be the highest paying job that you get, right? That's not going to be the one where you get to tell your friends that you're a summer associate at this big, important law firm that has big important clients that does big important things. And meanwhile, all you do is read big important documents all day.

    Keith Bruno:

    So if you're kind of willing to take the courtroom path, you're going to have to sacrifice quite a bit in money, but what you don't get in money and maybe perceived from your immediate friends, you'll get in terms of you doing stuff. I can tell you that after I started doing stuff, after I started actually going to court, all of my friends at big important law firms were like, "You get to do that? Get out! Who let you?" I mean, it's like, "Who's this gatekeeper of all things legal that let you show up in court? I'm not allowed in court. Why are you allowed in court?" So it's a really a unique and awesome experience in that way.

    Courtney Barber:

    That's great. And on that note, Keith, talking about younger attorneys and talking about your experience, when you're starting out, and this might be some advice for other people as well, how do you get the defense and the defense's experts to take you seriously and to strike some fear into them when you don't have a lot of practice or cases under your belt?

    Keith Bruno:

    So I think that's an awesome and important question, but it's two questions. The first one is you don't, right? You don't get them to take you seriously. They're not going to take you seriously, but you can strike fear in them. And this is how. You don't know what you don't know, right? So if you're just starting out and you have a case and you're going to depose an expert and there's some old crusty lawyer that is in his 60s or he's been practicing for 20 years like I have, and God, everybody that's been practicing for 20 years loves to say how have they been practicing for 20 years, especially when they see a new green lawyer.

    Keith Bruno:

    What's the first thing they do? They look up that lawyer on the state bar and they see that his number is 10 million and he just graduated and they go into that deposition with such a weakness. They go into that deposition underestimating the lawyer. They go into that deposition thinking that they're able to lecture that lawyer, that that lawyer is going to do the wrong thing. They have experience on their side where they can make you feel like you just asked a question that's going to get you disbarred. Not only is the judge going to throw your case out, if you continue to ask one more question like this, but you may never be able to practice law again. Well, that's all nonsense. So as a young lawyer, what you have is you have enthusiasm. You have time. You're never as busy as you will eventually be, right? So you're able to prepare for that one deposition in a way that either an experienced lawyer is unable or unwilling to prepare for such a deposition. You're able to get creative.

    Keith Bruno:

    Here's a secret that is kind of a dirty secret, but if you have subject matter expertise, if you've been doing medical malpractice forever, and you've been defending medical malpractice forever, you're almost on autopilot when you come into to many of these depositions. Both the defending attorney and the deposing attorney, they all know kind of what's going to be asked, and they just go through the motions in a lot of cases. It's really bad way to practice law, and I don't recommend it no matter how old you are, how experienced you are. But if you're young, you don't have that, right? You're not just into that, "Oh, I'm going to ask all the same questions that I always ask." You're going to ask different questions. You're going to ask more pointed questions. You're going to ask questions that the doctor or the defendant truck driver or the person most knowledgeable at Home Depot is not anticipating. It's not among the 17 questions that they've always been asked, and they've always answered this certain way, or they always shined you on.

    Keith Bruno:

    And you're also, you have that freshness of curiosity, where when you don't get an answer to your question, you can follow it up. You know that you didn't ... You thought of the question. You know that that person's not answering your question to your satisfaction. So you can really get creative and the creativity is the antidote to the lack of experience. And that's what's going to set the defense on their heels when they go back or an adjuster goes back and evaluates this particular transcript and says, "Oh my God, our defendant said this. Oh my God, our defendant admitted that."

    Keith Bruno:

    This is the product that somebody who doesn't know what they don't know. A lot of people are like, "Well, how do I walk in and get the same respect Nick Rowley would get or as Gary Dordick? How do I get the deponent to quake in his knees at the mere mention of my name, that maybe I'm showing up to this deposition?" And in reality, that's the truth for maybe, I don't know, 25 lawyers in the West. Maybe ... It's not the truth for me. It's not the ... Nobody's scared. But once I start asking questions that they start to realize that they're about to be in a world of hurt, and that's the same thing that any young lawyer has and can do.

    Chris Bua:

    Yeah. So Keith, we've got a little nugget of information that we found where it looks like you appeared as a competitor on a reality show called the Law Firm back in 2005, early in your career. It was a one season show on NBC where lawyers competed against each other on trying real cases with real clients where the results would be in a final outcome. Wanted to know how did you get on that show and what was that experience like for you?

    Keith Bruno:

    Well, thank you for bringing that up. I got on it because I was dissatisfied at my insurance defense job. I had been there for four months and I just hated it. I hated the work. It wasn't for me. At the time, they were doing the firm intranet thing and you needed a picture, a headshot, so that when you emailed somebody, your headshot would come up. Of course, because I wasn't happy, I was working on my resume as well. So on the same day, one of the firm partners sent around this email, "Anybody interested in being famous?" and sent out the casting call, kind of as a joke, right? And not kind of, as a joke. I was like, "All right, well, I already have my picture that they're taking and I'll send in my resume." At the time, that was all you needed.

    Keith Bruno:

    And I think people that are hearing this now, we live in such a different world than in 2005 or 2004, whenever it was, that at the time, I was told by family of mine, that is in the entertainment industry, "You can't do this. No one will take you seriously. Your career will be over if you do a reality show." Reality shows at the time was The Apprentice and Survivor. And that was it. And it wasn't this just massive ... Today there just shows, right? You just watch a show on Bravo. Chances are it's a reality show, but it's a show. So I was really told not to do it. And then I would kind of be clowned for being on a reality show from that point going forward.

    Keith Bruno:

    Of course, I don't know what people say behind my back. So maybe to this day they still do, but I kind of doubt it. And I met awesome people on that show and I really connected with a bunch of them, including the host, Roy Black, who's still a good friend of mine and somebody that I speak to on text and I go to his home and we have great affection for one another. And so to me, it was about building relationships. But then the bigger lesson was just do things differently. There's no reason why your career has to be this kind of escalator march to a partner at some firm. There's so many different, awesome paths that you can take and you can get off the path that you're supposed to take and take a separate path. I think that, more than anything, taught me how to look at my career as a series of opportunities that are either taken or not taken.

    Keith Bruno:

    And I do not regret taking it. I mean, Olivier Taillieu is one of my good friends. He practices personal injury in Los Angeles now. Jason Adams is a friend of mine from the show, who also practices in Los Angeles and is head of some large construction division of his firm. So I met a lot of dynamic and successful people and I'm leaving other people out as well, but just to name a few that I really benefited from professionally and personally, and it was fun. Kind of midway through the show, we knew it was dying. Shows have life. When it started, we had, each cast member had two production assistants with them at all times. And you could tell that the budget was really unlimited and then four weeks into filming all of a sudden, now three cast members have one production assistant assigned to them. You can just see the air coming out of the balloon.

    Keith Bruno:

    Then in fact what happened is, and you can't even find this on the internet. So feel free to Google, but you can't even find the footage. I've never even seen ... I've seen one or two episodes and it was bad. Then they moved it over to Bravo, which at the time, was a network nobody had ever even heard of it. And then my mom couldn't even find it. I don't think my parents have watched it all. And one of the reasons is they, David E. Kelley, who produced LA Law and all this other stuff, wanted to do a show about real lawyers trying real cases doing real stuff in the courtroom. And that's real frigging boring. If you're going to have a reality show, you need to put a hot tub in the middle of that law firm. You need to get a guy to girl ratio going. You need to introduce booze into to the equation. And we had none of that. They just wanted to show us working. As a result, America didn't really want to watch us working,

    Courtney Barber:

    Right? It's not as scandalous as it's made to look like on Boston Legal and those shows, I think, but I was actually, I was going to say I wanted to look it up, but if it doesn't exist anywhere on the internet, we can just imagine in our minds of a very young Keith Bruno. But on that topic, Keith, and with 150 trials under your belt, I'm sure you have a detailed trial preparation routine. I'd love to hear about what that entails.

    Keith Bruno:

    Sure. I do. And it might not be what you think. The only way you get that many trials is by being prepared and ready on about three at any given time. And it's invariably the one that you're prepared for or least want to try that will be the next one up. So I have this vision of the way I tried cases is like an air traffic controller at LaGuardia Airport, right? There's a bunch of planes in the sky and you land, the plane that lands the first is the one that has to, has the lowest fuel, has a pregnant woman on board, whatever the case may be. So I'm never just prepared on one case. I'm prepared on three cases at any given time. And that preparation is, of course, I have a wonderful team that works most of the cases up really until experts.

    Keith Bruno:

    And then once we're designating experts, I'll start taking the depositions. I'm an auditory learner, which is why I love podcasts, but I also record everything. So every deposition I take is recorded on video and audio, obviously. And then I get the audio and I just play it in my car, so everywhere I go in my car, I'm playing a deposition from a case. I'm thinking about it. I constantly keep my iPad essentially on my lap, even while driving. I know that's not smart and I'll deny it if I'm ever in an accident. Kidding. I won't deny it, but I'm constantly writing down vignettes, comparisons. I think in terms of analogies almost exclusively. And so I'm constantly thinking, "Well, this is like that." And then I jot something down.

    Keith Bruno:

    I think as a child, I grew up without a television and we had one, but it was only one. And my parents were really strict, so I could only watch like an hour a week or something ridiculous. It wasn't even worth it. So I would listen to the radio. I would listen to sports on the radio constantly, and it just kind of trained my ear to listen and think like that. And then, of course, there's nobody likes to hear this, but there's just no substitute for sitting down with every ounce of material that you have and reading it and reading it slowly, which is what I do. I'm not a fast reader. I'm a slow reader. I'm a fast thinker and a slow reader. And that's really how I get ready on three trials at once.

    Keith Bruno:

    And then, like I said, the case that you really want to go, the UPS truck with the driver with a shady record who was on meth, they crashed into a school bus full of children, injuring them. That case it's just going to settle. That nobody's ever going to hear about it, right? It's the case that is really difficult, and the defense is really stupid that maybe they should settle it, but it's not in their interest, or maybe it's just very hard for you. Those are the cases that always go.

    Courtney Barber:

    That's some fantastic tips there, and we'll definitely use some of those in our show notes for other people. Because as you said, a lot of people, I believe these days, there's always that element of looking for a shortcut, but at the end of the day, the success is directly tied to your preparation. And it might not be easy, but it definitely works. So we mentioned a little bit in the beginning about your acquittal on a first degree murder case, which is the Sosa case. Would you like to share some of the details about that with everyone?

    Keith Bruno:

    Sure. So Mr. Sosa was a juvenile who was charged as an adult in a homicide at the time, this was a gang related homicide. I felt, and ultimately I was correct, that the investigation of the case was just so poor. They basically picked up one of the more vulnerable gang members who didn't have a story about where he was, and then kind of tried to fit the together the evidence, just kind of pounding a round peg into a square hole, so much so that kind of the most ... One of the more interesting things about the case, this was in Riverside, is that I either set myself up to commit malpractice or to look like a genius, but it was really one or the other.

    Keith Bruno:

    I left a police officer on the jury. He was a retired police officer on the jury, which usually, in criminal cases, especially a gang case, I mean, that sounds so stupid and insane. And it probably was. I just didn't, I was young and I didn't know any better, but I had made the calculation that the investigation was so poor. And when I spoke to this man during voir dire, I got a sense that he was a very squared away professional. He was a man who cared about his career. He cared about his community. His shoes were shined to a high shine. He was impeccably dressed. I got the sense that if the case is really about a terrible investigation, a very sloppy, sloppy police work, that he would appreciate that, that that would resonate with him. And he would not countenance such negligence on behalf of the police and do so to the tune of sending this kid to prison for the rest of his life.

    Keith Bruno:

    And sure enough, he did. I believe he was the foreman. I could be mistaken on that, but I believe he was, and they acquitted him of all charges. One kind of cool little side note, it's always the benefits of practicing law. Sometimes it's the verdict. Sometimes it's the money, recognition, all that kind of stuff. Sometimes there's just little things. So his aunt was a parking attendant at the parking garage at Riverside and suffice it to say, and this is where you would park to go to court, either civil court work, criminal court in Riverside.

    Keith Bruno:

    So suffice it to say, every time she was working in the booth and saw me coming through in my car, that that arm just went right up and she would wave to me and talk to me and tell me how happy she was and grateful she was. And it's really cool. I mean, these people were truly grateful. I get Christmas cards from him still that update me on his progress and they moved out of the gang area. I mean, he completely took advantage of a second opportunity. And it's just a really cool reminder that what we do is important.

    Courtney Barber:

    If you're enjoying this episode, make sure you stay tuned for part two of Keith Bruno's interview, where we cover his Top Gun Award for an $11.5 million verdict and a $40 million verdict side-by-side with Nick Rowley in a wrongful death case. If you're enjoying Settlement Nation, make sure you subscribe, rate, and comment on this podcast and we'll see you for part two.

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