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Lawdragon Hall of Fame Limelight: Patrick McGroder

Photo by Eric Cassee.

Patrick McGroder’s grades in law school weren’t the sort that attracted offers from high-end firms. Struggling to find a job after earning his law degree, he eventually struck out on his own, a self-professed “dirty-shirt lawyer” who learned on the job.

“I was sworn in on Saturday and had my first jury trial on Monday morning,” McGroder of Beus Gilbert in Phoenix recalls. It was a criminal case, and one he lost.

“I didn’t know anything, and I don’t think the jurors left the box,” he says. “They probably wanted to find me guilty of impersonating a lawyer. I left there completely humiliated and mortified.  I vowed that was never going to happen again.”

McGroder turned that promise into a career winning more than $600M for hundreds of injured people in high-profile cases, including 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a team of firefighters who perished during a 2013 wildfire, winning compensation for their families and prompting new safety procedures for battling such blazes. He settled a landmark case against Ford Motor Co. over police interceptor vehicles that burst into flames upon rear impact during car crashes, prompted by Phoenix police officer Jason Schechterle’s near-death in a March 2001 accident. There were 18 such cases across the country that he and David Perry litigated. The case ultimately led to the carmaker’s modification of 350,000 vehicles.

McGroder made his mark in complicated high-profile cases, all involving catastrophic injuries and product liability – most with a social justice component. His accomplishments and dedication to have an impact helping attain justice for victims – as well as his philosophy burnished in his Buffalo, N.Y., roots – have made him one of Arizona’s most acclaimed trial lawyers and a member of the Lawdragon Hall of Fame.

“I gravitated to those types of cases, and I was very fortunate to have a staff and lawyers to work with me that subscribed to my commitment to humanity, to social change,” he says. “Virtually all of my cases involved some type of remedial change to not only make the world a better place, but to make it a safer place and to ensure that tragedies like I’ve seen, preventable tragedies, don’t happen again.”

Lawdragon: Your. career and accomplishments are incredibly impressive. Where did your drive to effect social change come from?

Patrick McGroder: I was raised in Buffalo, N.Y., an incredibly ethnic, blue-collar rust bucket – as they now refer to it – a town where I learned what’s important in life is loyalty, commitment, to not only your God, and family, but also to your fellow man, and the dignity that your fellow man represents. So that’s how I was raised. Philanthropy and social service was not an option in my family. My sisters and I were raised by incredible parents. They were not well educated, but came from a generation where basic human rights were respected and those who were victimized in life must be afforded dignity, compassion and empathy.

And then there’s my Catholic faith. So that’s why I believe so strongly that great human beings make great lawyers – people who are respectful, civil and understand that our profession is not a business, but a calling.  It’s a calling that ensures that we use the power of our licensure to effectuate solutions to problems, and I don’t care if it’s as simple as a will or a divorce or someone buying a home, or in my case, someone who’s catastrophically injured. It doesn’t matter. Our profession should be about understanding what our clients’ needs are and doing everything we can to ensure that those needs are met in a legal, ethical way. We’re not here to make problems. In my experience, there are a lot of lawyers out there, perhaps unwittingly so, who cause more problems than they solve.

LD: How did you decide to become a lawyer yourself? What inspired you – did you know lawyers?

PM: My father was a first-generation American and was a great believer in education. I had gone to Catholic boys schools all my life – grammar school and high school. Then, eventually I went to Notre Dame, which was my father’s dream, because he was Irish. I’m not sure I was all that crazy about it. My dad was executive vice president of the Buffalo Bills football team. I spent four years at Notre Dame. I really had no desire or burning passion to be a lawyer. I always wanted to be a doctor, but my failures in life were generally directed towards the study of science and math, so…

LD: I feel your pain.

PM: I wasn’t particularly equipped for the medical profession but ironically, I wound up in the personal injury/medical malpractice field, where 50 percent of my practice is medicine, so I guess in a roundabout way, fate took me where I wanted to be. After Notre Dame, it was the height of the Vietnam War. I was getting called for physicals all the time. My father, who – as I said was a great believer in education – wanted me to go to law school. And I really had no desire at that point to be a lawyer. So I said, “Look, you always wanted me to go Notre Dame, but if I’m thinking about going to law school, I’d like to pick the law school myself.” So he said, “That’s fine.”

So coming from Buffalo, where there are essentially two seasons, July 4th and winter, and then spending four years in South Bend, Ind., where it snowed from the time I got there to the time I left, I applied mostly to warmer-weather schools and co-ed schools. Notre Dame, when I went there, was all boys.

LD: Clever man.

PM: I was fortunate enough to get into the University of Arizona and arrived in Tucson in the late ’60s, and quickly thought that I’d died and gone to heaven. There was sun, and a variety of other things that a co-ed school had to offer. I arrived there, driving a ’67 Corvette and pulling a Triumph TT motorcycle, and I was about 215 pounds then, and I thought of myself as an athlete. I wasn’t exactly mentally prepared for law school. But I was quickly befriended by my mentor, Professor Junius Hoffman, who was a brilliant man. He had an undergraduate degree in Greek mythology, I believe, from Harvard and a Yale degree in law. We were kind of the odd couple, because I was about three times his size, not mentally of course, but physically. Within the first year, I realized that being in law school was not only a privilege, but that it might be the start of a very promising career. So I finished law school, and still wanted to go back to Buffalo and work for the Bills.  I came up to Phoenix and took the bar exam in Phoenix and just fell in love. It was only about 600,000 people then, and it was just a fabulous town.

Because my grades were not prestigious in law school, I struggled finding a job. So I essentially became a sole practitioner; I learned to practice on the street, and I hit my first personal injury case for a million dollars within a few years and took off from there. I started my own firm and ran that firm for about 25 years. A lot of my partners retired, and I went with a semi-large firm here in Phoenix.  I established a large personal-injury practice. I realized that I could be much more effective if I took fewer cases and concentrated on those in which there was catastrophic injury or wrongful death associated with some social architecture. So I became known for taking those kinds of cases, whether they involved road design, aviation disaster, corrections, accounting, legal, and certainly medical negligence. Eventually, most of the high-profile cases in Arizona that involved catastrophic injury or wrongful death would find their way to my door, from the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the firefighters who were burned alive, to the news helicopters that crashed over downtown Phoenix.

LD: We have the honor of knowing numerous great lawyers who are great people, and then we’ve also seen the folks who want to be the same as those great lawyers, but maybe don’t have the moral underpinning, right? It seems to me a lot of what drives you to take the kinds of cases that you take and fight the way that you do comes from your personal code, from who you are.

PM: You know, I can’t heal the sick, I can’t raise the dead, but I can restore a modicum of dignity to my clients who have faced the most overwhelming adversity. And I hope that I do it in a way that’s empathetic, compassionate, and at the same time represents a full measure of justice. I don’t have any desire to be on the cover of any magazines, nor argue in front of the Supreme Court 10 times a year, although that would be a great honor. But what I do changes lives, and to me, that is my calling.

LD: Can you describe what it’s been like to be an advocate for your clients in court as well as to be an advocate for the openness of courts to people who lack financial resources?

PM: A lot of defendants talk about jury reform. I think juries are the ultimate reformation. They truly try to do the right thing. Do they come off the rails sometimes? Sure. Do they decide things based on irrelevancy? Sure, I mean that happens sometimes. But juries are the great equalizer, as is having a plaintiffs’ bar that’s available and affordable. To bring people justice that heretofore would not have a voice nor the financial wherewithal to litigate against institutions, people of means and wealth, governmental agencies, or any other potential defendant in a superior financial or leverage situation. We provide access to justice in a way that doesn’t penalize the poor, the voiceless, and the underserved. And I strongly believe in that.

LD: How do the victories that you’ve won for your clients motivate you when you wake up in the morning or when you’re finishing a long day at the office on a difficult case?

PM: It is beyond fulfilling to be able to use the power of your personality, intellect, creativity, and ingenuity, to bring justice for those who otherwise would simply never have an opportunity to bring their cases into the system. The scorecard of life, it’s not measured by wins and losses; it’s measured by the justice that we’re able to obtain for our clients. And especially in the plaintiffs’ bar, those clients who have been devastated, destroyed by injury, by travesty, by death. And to be able to say to them, “Look, what we’re able to do from a justice standpoint or a compensation standpoint, at the end of the day, perhaps is meaningless in your world. But maybe we can make your life a little bit better. And maybe the defendant will remember your name. And maybe the defendant will ensure, through changes and remedial measures, that something like what happened to you, is never, ever going to happen again.”

LD: You’re a nationally acclaimed plaintiff lawyer, but I know your heart is in Arizona, and many of the hallmark cases that you’ve done are Arizona-based. Obviously, Phoenix has grown into a major city while you’ve lived there – do you feel satisfied when you think about the ways that you’ve contributed to what it is today?

PM: Yes, absolutely. I’m silently proud – because I’m not somebody who wears my achievements on my sleeve – when I go by a road that has been redesigned because of what we’ve done, like Route 89A up in Sedona, for example, where our cases resulted in rock-fall remediation on a very scenic highway where rocks were falling and catastrophically injuring and killing people. Or considering the transformation of a waterway here where two doctors were killed or, whenever a police car drives by, thinking that we made police vehicles safer in this country, I feel quietly satisfied.

LD: What advice do you give your son, who’s following in your footsteps, or other attorneys who are starting out?

PM: I learned the hard way. I learned to practice law as a dirty-shirt lawyer. I didn’t have any clerk jobs. I was not recruited by silk-stocking firms. I did not have the types of mentors that one would find in a large law firm. I learned to practice law in the courtroom by trial and error, by doing everything I could, and through working 24/7 for probably the better part of 45 years.

Now a lot of that may have been fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of not doing what is in the best interest of my client, maybe because I didn’t know what was in the best interest of my client. So fear, for me, was a great motivator. But what I tell young people is, “Look, you need to learn every day. There are no stupid questions.” Because, let me tell you something, I ask every stupid question there is. I have seen so many lawyers, so many young lawyers, who are afraid to ask that stupid question. They’re afraid, because someone might think that they’re something less than as smart as they think they are. Or they’re afraid to put in the time and the commitment and the effort it requires to be a trial lawyer.

If you want to be a trial lawyer, you’ve got to learn about the human condition. And you’ve got to learn to listen and learn to communicate. And without those tools, you’re not going to be much of a force in the courtroom.  You’ve also got to work. You’ve got to sit down, analyze, be creative, be innovative, you’ve got to apply facts and theories of the law, and then work backward and understand the law and apply those theories and facts to the law. You need to know the other side’s case as well as they do. You need to understand how you can lose, because if you understand how you can lose, then you understand how to win.