Photo by Josh Huskin.
Ricardo Cedillo binge-watches trials the way some television viewers consume entire seasons of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones.” He doesn’t do it to witness the “Big Bang moment” of the verdict, just as he doesn’t watch baseball for the thrill of seeing a home run.
The San Antonio attorney visits courtrooms, even when he’s not trying a case of his own, to watch other attorneys at work, dissect winning arguments, gauge what techniques work best with juries and judges and how he might adapt those tactics to his own style.
“I copycat everything,” Cedillo says. “Every successful trial lawyer is a thief. He sees good work and he says, ‘I'm going to try that.’ You get a good trial lawyer in a case, and I'll swing by and stop in and watch. I'll never stop doing that.”
In a courtroom, Cedillo can hear how an argument is phrased, when two opposing positions create a dilemma for a judge and consider how he might have handled the situation himself.
“I can start thinking, ‘Should he have done this instead of that,’ or ‘Boy, she really hit it right on the head,’ and make a note,” Cedillo explains. “If you can’t be in a trial, watching as many as possible is invaluable. I go all the time.”
One of the founders of Davis, Cedillo & Mendoza, the 1979 Harvard Law graduate has even taken his children with him to trials around the country.
Lawdragon: That’s amazing, having your kids accompany you.
Ricardo Cedillo: You know, I tell everybody that I've got two full-time jobs. My first job is to be a dad, because all five of them still require attention. They never outgrow parental involvement in my book. And my second job is to be a lawyer. Those two jobs are all-consuming, and they get harder. Because when the kids move away, the job doesn’t go away.
LD: It’s impressive how you’ve managed to integrate the dual roles.
RC: They’ve all been good students, they do well, they understand what I expect of them. They deliver and they have that same work ethic that I think I've passed on that I got from my folks.
LD: I know your parents ran a bakery in San Antonio, and that you worked there when you were growing up. It’s such a compelling background, how hard you’ve worked your whole life.
RC: And it pales in comparison to what my parents did. They were whirlwinds, they never stopped. They never vacationed. They had seven kids and they worked seven days a week, every single day. We closed the bakery when John F. Kennedy was buried and when one of us graduated from high school or college. Every holiday was a big day for sales: Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day. To have Mother's Day was a marathon. My mom would make thousands of cakes. Each one handmade, each one individually decorated. If you had a quinceañera or a wedding and my mom had made the cake, that was like a status symbol.
We, the kids, ran the bakery every evening. We wouldn't get out until 11:30, 12 o'clock at night, even if we closed the bakery at 10. I even got robbed one time.
LD: You're kidding.
RC: I was 12 years old. I was running it at the end of the day, and there was a guy standing at the corner bus stop, and I got suspicious. The buses wouldn’t run after a certain hour; they weren’t running then, and he kept looking in and occasionally walking toward the bakery, but he would go back to the bus stop every time a car drove up. I actually took all the money in the cash register, and I put it in a white little paper bag and I stuck it in one of our freezers because I thought, ‘This guy is up to no good.’ He came in and he pulled a knife on me, and then he came around to where I was standing by the register, and I was scared out of my mind.’
LD: Of course.
RC: And he took the knife, and he plunged it at me, but then he pulled back and just punched me instead, right in the solar plexus. He was a full-grown man, and I was a 12-year-old boy. I’d been hit in the solar plexus before, but not by an adult, and the wind went out of me and I went flying against the wall. He opened the register. All he saw was the loose change, the nickels and dimes. And he started looking around to see where I hid the money, and then a car pulled up and he grabbed the coins and took off. A customer came in, saw what had happened and called the police. The officer who came was a beat cop, who knew the bakery, knew where we lived and went to our house and brought my mom and dad back. They saw I was all right, and my dad said, ‘Well, they had to take the money.’ I said, ‘No, the money's in the freezer.’
A day or two later, the story in the paper was, “Got Donuts But No Dough.” Overall, the boys did a lot of the heavy lifting, but you know, it kept us all out of trouble. In the neighborhood, there were a lot of kids who always got in trouble, but we didn’t. We knew how to work for a living, and that made all the difference. And my parents – as hard as I think I worked – that was work: on your feet in front of 450-degree ovens, the whole day, in San Antonio, Texas.
LD: That's such a great story. Your family and your background seem to have given you such a sense of community.
RC: This town has been very good to us. That's not an unusual thing here. All of my friends, they're very close to their extended families. I've got great friends, but none are greater than my brothers and sisters. My brothers and sisters are my best friends in the whole world. And we still get together, just about every Sunday. When my parents were alive, we would always come and spend Sunday with them, kids and grandkids and everyone. They have now passed, but we've kept that tradition going.
LD: That's so nice. I guess there was never any doubt that you were coming back to San Antonio, even though you left to go to Harvard.
RC: You know, we almost went to Chicago, believe it or not. San Antonio also has its drawbacks. It’s a very large small town, and small towns always have the haves and the have-nots. And the haves have a monopoly on all the good stuff, and the have-nots are clawing their way up. And I've always been a little bit of a political activist. I've always been a bit of a hell-raiser. When I was growing up, there was an embedded political system where the City Council was run by the haves, and they would handpick people from the neighborhoods of the have-nots. So even our political representatives on City Council were the lackeys of the haves. All made possible because everybody was elected at large. Not a single-member district.
When I was a political science student at St. Mary's University, we started raising a little hell about that. I did my master’s thesis on equitable distribution of municipal services like storm drainage. There was flooding, and even topography was against the poor neighborhoods. The richer neighborhoods tended to go into the north, which is the base of the hill country. The southern part of the city is much lower in elevation. So when we had a storm, up in the north where all the development was going on and all the lots were being paved, the run-off became much worse. I did a study of how many water rescues the fire department had to do after we got a half-inch of rain in San Antonio and I plotted them on the map. And we presented all this to City Council and said, “Why is your budget not reflecting the need that you have on your infrastructure?” Lawsuits were filed, and things started happening. We got single-member districts in. We started electing real representatives of the community.
LD: And that's the good side of small towns and communities, right?
RC: Yes. That's the good side. I've often thought that it might be better for my blood pressure, on a personal level, not to practice law in San Antonio, but at the same time, I really wouldn't have it any other way. I mean, I could do what I do from anywhere in the country, but my family is here. My brothers and sisters are here, my mom and dad were here. I don't want to go anywhere else. There's a lot more good than bad in San Antonio.
LD: So when you started practicing in San Antonio, where did you land a job? Tell me how you built your practice.
RC: My first position was at Groce Locke & Hebdon, which was a tremendous collection of talent. Really good lawyers. Charles Smith was the big litigation partner at that law firm at the time, and I interviewed there during spring break of my third year in law school. Charlie had gotten tied up in a deposition or something and he called the receptionist and said, “I'm going to leave as soon as I can, don't let him leave.” I had been waiting since 1:30 p.m. and it was already after 5 p.m.; my wife was getting out of work, and I had ridden with her, so I said, “Look, I’ve got to go or I'm going to be stranded downtown.” So I thanked them and left. Well, I don't know how Charlie did it, but that night, I got a call at my in-laws’ house. He tracked me down, apologized and said, “I need you to come tomorrow and we're going to take you to lunch.” The next day at lunch, he had a bunch of partners there and a bunch of associates. Two of the associates who joined us were trying a case downtown – we were really close to the courthouse – and they said, “Why don't you come with us and watch a little bit of the trial this afternoon?”
I went back with them and watched it. Then, I think the next night, Charlie called and offered me the job and I took it. I graduated law school on a Thursday in Massachusetts and that following Monday, I started work. I already knew my way around a courthouse a little, because of work I had done at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and I knew how to get on my feet and to ask questions. I grabbed every paralegal, every secretary, every law clerk when I didn’t know how to do something; I learned real quick. And Charlie would assign cases. It was a joke at Groce, Locke & Hebdon that you didn’t come back from lunch on a Friday afternoon because Charlie would walk the halls with an armload of files and say, “Hey, I’ve got these for you.” I’d come back from lunch and say, “How many have you got for me, Charlie?” They were little cases, slip-and-fall actions and fender-benders. And I picked jury after jury after jury, I made opening statements, I made closing arguments and I did cross-examinations, all involving master the facts and issues and getting up to speed quickly.
Even today, all my cases require that I learn something that I don’t know anything about. I’ve gone from trade-secret litigation involving machine-learning and regression analysis to probate matters and pharmaceutical trials, like Johnson & Johnson implant surgery, and antitrust cases. And I love that.
LD: That's the best part of being a lawyer.
RC: Exactly. And it lends itself to my skill set. If I read something, I remember it for a long time. I can read it once and I'm good to go. And I just love learning new things. The bigger the file, the bigger the problem, the more insurmountable it looks, the more I relish it.
RC: After seven years, I left Groce Locke to start my own law firm. We didn't miss a beat. We left with pretty much every client I had developed in business litigation, except a few. And then I started building my practice. I learned that if you do really well at trial, people refer cases to you.
LD: That’s right.
RC: And that's the recipe. To the extent that I've been able to practice on a national level, it's all because it started in San Antonio. A case that I worked for with a client in San Antonio led to more work for that client elsewhere. All the lawyers that I've worked with will tell you that I come in and we get stuff done. My attitude is, “Look, if the best way I can help you is to run the copy machine, then I'm going to run the copy machine better than anybody has ever run it before. Where do you want me? How can I help you?” That's pretty much the attitude that goes in.
And I've got a hell of a support staff at trial. They're young partners, they're associates and they're paralegals. Anything I wanted, anything I needed, including my crazy lifestyle choices. Like, I wanted to meet at 5 in the morning, and they'd come in their pajamas. I’d be in my coat and tie. But they'd be there, and they'd have ready for me the stuff that I wanted. The people I've got in my law firm are all homegrown. They've been in the thick of this stuff from the day they started working with me.
LD: That’s awesome.
RC: It really is. The secret to any successful trial lawyer is the people backing him up. You don't do this alone.