Gregory Barnhart has been part of the backbone of his firm, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, for more than 40 years. Offered a job by the firm for his trial success as a young lawyer in 1978, Barnhart quickly proved himself and made partner just a couple of years later. Now a senior partner at the firm, Barnhart continues to help his clients every day, with nearly 100 verdicts and settlements in excess of $1M to his name.
A celebrated teacher and lecturer, Greg Barnhart enjoys sharing his knowledge with younger lawyers. He has been awarded the Distinguished Lecturer Award and the Al J. Cone Lifetime Achievement Award by the Florida Justice Association for his teaching ability and long-term leadership. Barnhart has also been appointed to key leadership positions, including serving as past president of both the Florida Justice Association and the Federal Bar Association.
“If you're going to be a trial lawyer, you should help your fellow lawyers and preserve the system,” explains Barnhart.
Lawdragon: I heard that your legal career started out because you watched "To Kill a Mockingbird" when you were a child. Can you tell me a bit about that story?
Gregory Barnhart: Sure. People often don’t know what they want to do in life, but I always have. I can thank my mother for that.
When I was a kid, if we were truly sick and not malingering, my mom would let us stay home from school. So, one day when I was 11 or 12, I was truly sick, and she said we were going to watch the movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I really didn't want to see it, but then when I started to watch it, I was in awe of Atticus Finch. I knew then that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help the good guys win in court. Good guys versus bad guys. It seemed like a career made in heaven for me. And, then, I am a pretty competitive guy who played sports year round. That probably helped as well. Still does really.
Then, when I went to college, I took every speech course they had. I was an English major, so I liked to tell stories. I was in plays in high school and college, not because I was such a good actor – I probably wasn't – but just to be able to walk around more comfortably in front of people on stage. To be convincing. To be persuasive.
LD: That makes a lot of sense. Then, obviously, Atticus was defending a criminal case, so how did you decide that you wanted to be a plaintiffs’ lawyer?
GB: Part of it was just serendipity. So, I'd started with another firm, a commercial law firm. I wanted to try cases, so I basically didn't ever settle. I think I tried 11 or 12 trials in my first year. They were not big cases but got my feet wet in the courtroom and got to be known by the judges.,
Then, the head partner of the firm I'm with now, although the name has changed, walked in and said, "I'm Bob Montgomery." I said, "I know who you are, Mr. Montgomery." He said, "What do you make?" I told him, and he said, "Well, I'll double it if you come on over." So, in 1978, I did. By 1981 I was made partner.
The important thing about being a plaintiffs’ lawyer, to me, is that I represent people who really need help. Most of them don’t have sophisticated knowledge about the law. So, I’m able to help them by going after these big companies, like tobacco, big manufacturing companies and so on. It's gratifying.
LD: That's admirable. You're a senior partner now, so you've obviously stayed with this firm for a very long time. What do you love about the work or environment of this firm?
GB: So, our firm has really become one of the biggest plaintiffs' firms in Florida, and people know us all over. I don't mean to be prideful, but when I walk into court in, say, Pensacola, which is 800 or so miles away, they may not know me, but they know the firm. The firm has a reputation for being tough, taking good cases, being straightforward, honest and not backing down. I think that's very important, and we’ve been very successful.
LD: Yes. That's also important.
GB: It really is, because it helps our clients settle cases. The defendant knows that if they don't settle, if they're not fair, then what’s going to happen? We’ll go to court, where we're more likely to win than not, and we're more likely to get a big verdict than most firms. So, they know to watch out.
LD: That makes sense. In trial, what would you say your style is?
GB: Really, I use storytelling techniques. I try to connect with the jury. Sometimes jurors call after a case and tell me what they thought of the case as presented in court.
LD: Do you have any particularly interesting instances of that happening?
GB: Yes, during the first tobacco case tried in Florida – which was one we tried, even though we didn’t know much about tobacco yet. The jury was out for four days after a lengthy two-month trial, and we ended up winning. It was front page news because it was among the first cases taking on tobacco. The tobacco company had their all-star team from across the country, but we won.
So, after the trial, this young pilot who was on the jury called and said, "You know, you almost lost." I said, "Well, after four days, we were beginning to feel that way." He said, "Well, I was the one that held out and turned everybody around." So, that helped me learn that one good leader can turn the whole jury and that has been reinforced again and again in watching jurors.
LD: That’s a great story. Then, what about your clients? Do you have any stories about representing somebody who really moved you?
GB: I definitely do. We’ve done a fair number of medical malpractice cases involving babies with brain damage that have gone to trial. In one case, many years ago, the parents were just so dedicated to their little girl. I'm telling you, the kind of work they were doing was 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Little kids take a lot of work, but then they move along in the maturity scale, so you don't have to stay up all night with them or anything.
GB: That’s not so for brain damaged kids. The mom and the dad were just so devoted and so supportive. I keep up with them – we talk every two or three years. We send Christmas cards. Their little girl is now 40-something, and I know now that we've taken care of her for the rest of her life.
LD: Wow. That's so impactful. How many kids do you have?
GB: I have three girls.
LD: Are any of them interested in the law?
GB: One is a lawyer. She just graduated from Cornell Law School, like me. Now she’s clerking for a top judge.
LD: Oh, that’s amazing. You also taught a trial techniques course at Cornell, right?
GB: I did.
LD: I know you’ve lectured a lot, as well, and you have a family of teachers. What’s meaningful to you about teaching?
GB: Right, well, as you saw, I give a lot of lectures, and I teach every year at the annual Florida Bar Legal Update and Board Certification Review. There, you lecture to people who are already lawyers, already interested in the subject, or they have to get their continuing legal education requirement.
Teaching at a law school, like Cornell, proved to be very different. When you’re teaching at a law school, the students are really smart and they want to be lawyers, but they don't know much at all yet from a trial standpoint. When you're trying to teach how to do parts of a trial to somebody who's never been in trial before, it's a lot harder. But it’s very rewarding.
And, as you said, my whole family are teachers. My dad was a college professor, my grandfather was a superintendent of schools and my mom was a teacher, too.
Teaching involves performing, and loving being onstage is sort of an inherited trait. Even if you get nervous, you either like being onstage or you don’t.
Being nervous, actually, has helped me because you have to be prepared. If you're thinking, "I'm really tired, and the trial's not for 10 days,” but then you start thinking about getting up there and making a fool of yourself, you'll put in the extra time.
LD: Of course.
GB: Practice really is everything. As you get more experienced, you have to use that extra energy to practice in front of a mirror or practice in front of somebody else. Sometimes, what you think is really so poignant, such a zinger, so elegant, sounds terrible out loud.
LD: That’s so true. Do you have any other tips that you'd give to the younger lawyers?
GB: I do. Number one: get in court. There is no substitute for experience, and so many cases settle nowadays. You want to get in court.
You have to draw a hard line. And the client has to call the shots, but I make sure I give them all the information so they know what’s at stake.
So, that's one piece of advice. The other is, take every opportunity you can to speak in public even if it is not in court. Just getting up there and giving a talk helps. If you’re not up there, you’re getting rusty.
LD: Absolutely. Those are both great pieces of advice. Then, speaking of giving back with education, your firm is known for its philanthropy. Can you tell me a bit about that?
GB: Sure. We've been very fortunate in winning cases and getting good verdicts. With that good fortune comes success financially, so we want to give back and we do.
We focus on partnering with charities who are aligned with the kinds of causes we fight for – those focusing on children and disadvantaged people; people who are subject to discrimination and environmental advocacy.
I'm Vice Chair now of 1,000 Friends of Florida, which is an organization trying to protect the environment – we involve people from across the political spectrum.
I’m interested and involved in these kinds of causes. Growing up in Florida was just beautiful, just beautiful. Now, due to development and money, it's getting to be so overcrowded and polluted. Legislators are giving in and not protecting what we have. We try to do as much as we can to help protect the environment, to protect people who are disadvantaged – just like we protect our clients every day.