Trust me, I’m a lawyer: my debt to Clarence Darrow

Steve Cavanagh on his creation Eddie Flynn: ‘It struck me one day that con artists and trial lawyers share a lot of the same skills. They are great manipulators’

As a practising lawyer I’ve heard my fair share of jokes about the profession. My favourite is the one about the old miser lying on his deathbed. He knows he’s about to croak so he summons his priest, his doctor and his lawyer to his bedside.

“You know the old saying that you can’t take your money with you? Well, I’m going to prove them all wrong,” says the old miser. “I trust each of you as professionals and honest men to carry out my last wishes. Under this bed is £150,000. Each of you take £50,000 and put it in my coffin during the funeral. I want to be buried with it.”

A month later the priest, the doctor and the lawyer are standing at the miser’s graveside and as his body is lowered into the earth, the priest breaks down and confesses that only a fraction of the fifty grand in his care did in fact make it into the coffin. Although the church now has a new roof. Similarly, the doctor admits to using some of the money for new hospital equipment, and only half of the original sum was deposited with the corpse.

“You two should be ashamed of yourselves,” says the lawyer, “I put a cheque in the coffin for the full amount.”


At least he was honest.

My new novel, The Liar, is the third is the Eddie Flynn series about a New York con artist who now plies his trade as a trial attorney. Eddie hustles witnesses and juries, all in the name of justice. It struck me one day that con artists and trial lawyers share a lot of the same skills. They are great manipulators. Not just of hearts and minds. A good trial lawyer can twist a line of testimony to his client’s favour just as surely as a hustler can palm your wristwatch.

The question remains as to whether the lawyer is performing for good or ill. In Eddie’s case, he’s the one man who will break all the rules for the right reasons. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that Eddie has some real-life influences. Chief among them is the great American trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. His life and trials have been played out in movies and on the stage. Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles and Kevin Spacey have all played Darrow, the civil rights darling of American justice.

It’s true to say that Darrow’s record as a trial attorney was remarkable. In the civil field he was a pioneering labour lawyer – but was eventually forced to give up this practice when he was arrested for bribing a juror. He was acquitted in the first bribery case and settled the second, forcing him to ply his trade in the criminal courts. He famously lost his first capital murder case – the famous Leopold and Loeb trial in which he successfully argued against the death sentence for both men. Whilst records of all of Darrow’s trials are not conclusively collated, it is estimated that he went on to represent defendants in more than 100 capital murder cases from 1910 to 1932.

And with the exception of Leopold and Loeb, he got acquittals for his clients in every single one of those trials. In a great many of them he represented African American defendants, accused of the murder of a white man, whose trials took place in front of an all-white jury. In the rural America of the 1920s, getting an acquittal for these defendants was nothing short of a miracle.

But how? Was he bribing jurors? More than likely not.

It is true that he was a great orator – one of the very finest. This alone will not save a man from the noose in every case. One clue to Darrow’s success may lie in some of the tools of this trade. I don’t mean legal precedents, or weighty ethical texts.

Two of the most important weapons in Darrow’s arsenal were a hatpin and a cigar.

These items were inevitably deployed during the testimony from the prosecution’s star witness. Darrow would light up the cigar in the morning – usually a foot-long, hand-rolled Cuban cigar. Before entering the courtroom that morning, Darrow would surreptitiously, and carefully, thread the pin through the centre of the cigar, and when the trial began he would light up.

If he timed it correctly, which he usually did, just as the prosecution’s case was reaching its zenith the jury tended to lose focus. Instead of concentrating on the testimony, the jury’s attention was entirely directed at Darrow. He would sit, quietly in his chair, wearing his best, white linen suit, with his cigar in his mouth and the ashtray clean and unused on the table before him. Every pair of eyes on that jury panel was watching the impossibly long column of ash at the end of Darrow’s cigar. They were mesmerised. Either they were irritated that the defence lawyer had not tipped the ash from his cigar into the ashtray, or simply hypnotised by the sight of the Damoclean ash while they waited for it to fall on his suit.

Thanks to the girder-like qualities of the hatpin – the ash never fell.

And Darrow never lost.

He did what he thought was right. He saved lives.

In The Liar, Eddie Flynn has to walk that path. His client’s daughter has been kidnapped and Eddie is the only lawyer who will do the wrong thing for the right reasons. That choice comes back to haunt Eddie when his client is charged with murder. The only thing Eddie can do is trust his client, trust his skills, and pray that the client is the only one who is telling the truth.

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh is published by Orion