According to Lin Wood of L. Lin Wood P.C., the practice of trial law is more art than science. Success depends on having conversations with judges, juries, clients and, in some cases, the media.
It’s an art that he has been practicing for more than 37 years since his early days handling medical malpractice to his evolution as a nationally recognized First Amendment and defamation lawyer.
Wood has had his own firm for much of his career, with the exception of his early years and a timeout to try big firm life at Powell Goldstein, now Bryan Cave, from 2006-2011. He quickly realized that his practice was not cut out for a big firm. “The nature of what I do cannot be described as under the radar, and large firms shy away from the types of high-profile cases that are central to my practice,” he says. “It was nice to have additional staff and resources, but my hands were tied in terms of taking on some of the cases I would have enjoyed handling.”
As a result, he resumed his own practice in 2011, first as Wood, Hernacki and Evans with two colleagues from Bryan Cave, and has come full circle with his return to L. Lin Wood, P.C. effective Sept. 1 of this year. He is joined by associates Jonathan Grunberg and David Ehrlich and is excited to have a team in place from which to grow. The litigation boutique handles high stakes cases, whether personal or business in nature. Wood jokingly refers to their areas of specialty as bizarre litigation. Practice areas include defamation and First Amendment cases including handling the court of public opinion, cases related to the False Claims Act and general business litigation.
Part of Wood’s success comes from his resilient character. He was an achiever in high school, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and a pitcher on the baseball team. His grit was proven early when his father killed his mother in a blackout following years of alcoholism and domestic violence. Wood, who was 16 at the time, raised funds to hire a defense attorney for his father so he would have adequate representation, then went on to attend undergraduate and law school at Mercer University in Macon with scholarships, student loans and working a variety of part-time jobs.
He began his legal career in Macon with Jones, Cork, Miller & Benton and moved to Atlanta in 1979 where he practiced with mentor and trial lawyer Paul M. Hawkins at Freeman & Hawkins. Wood says he was fortunate to obtain the “trial and error experience” needed to become a good trial lawyer, something he says that most young lawyers don’t have the opportunity to do now. “My career developed during a time when young lawyers were allowed to go out and do,” he says. “I took 25 cases to a jury verdict in my first six years of practicing law. You won’t find a lot of true trial lawyers among young partners in large law firms today.”
According to Wood, another change in the profession is that most cases today are now won or lost at the deposition level. “The art is in taking and defending depositions because so few cases get to trial. If you follow a script rather than a checklist, you will miss answers that can lead to better questions. Start with a blank pad, listen and have a conversation with a curious mind.”
An Olympic Decision
For much of his first 19 years practicing law, Wood handled primarily medical malpractice cases. In 1996, he received a referral to represent Richard Jewell, the security guard who was named a suspect by law enforcement and the media in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Wood’s decision to take on Jewell’s case would change his career and set him on a course to become one of the most successful and high-profile libel and defamation lawyers in the country. Wood describes the experience as “intensive on-the-job training in cases tried before the court of public opinion.”
Although, Jewell was cleared by the FBI of any involvement in the bombing, he never recovered from the treatment he received by the media. Wood handled numerous cases on behalf of Jewell spanning almost two decades. Libel settlements were reached with CNN, NBC and Tom Brokaw, Piedmont College and the New York Post. Another suit against the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which took 17 years to resolve, was not successful.
In an age of 24/7 news channels, the Internet and social networking, the case remains a lesson in caution for the media almost 20 years later. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Let’s not Richard Jewell this person,’ says Wood. “ So I think Richard continues to stand for caution. His case created a yellow light that says slow down, take care before you go to the intersection of accusation.”
In a November 2000 article in Editor & Publisher Magazine, editor Jim Moscou described Wood as the man responsible for “taking Jewell’s reputation from ‘the 1996 Olympic Bomber’ to ‘the man who didn’t do it’,” adding that “while the world sees a lone bomber, Wood sees a victim of an overzealous, unprofessional media – then uses that media to ‘win’ his case.”
Rather than thinking of himself as a First Amendment or defamation lawyer, Wood describes himself as a lawyer who handles civil litigation representing clients who he believes are victims or underdogs. The Jewell case put Wood in the spotlight. Clients with cases being judged by the media and public, despite no arrests being made, increasingly sought him out to represent them as they fought for their reputations.
In addition to the Jewell cases, Wood has been the lead attorney in many national high-profile cases, representing clients like Howard Stern, Beth Holloway, former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, John and the late Patsy Ramsey, as well as many companies.
In recent years, he has represented presidential candidates Rick Perry and Herman Cain against allegations of impropriety in the media, suggesting there is an appetite among high-profile campaigns for a more aggressive response to damaging stories.
Despite his role in pursuing cases against the media, Wood considers himself a supporter of the First Amendment, within limits.
“I think that a First Amendment without accountability for wrongdoing weakens the system as a whole, because it fosters bad reporting and poor journalism. I can make a strong case that, when I seek accountability for genuine wrongdoing, it ultimately strengthens the First Amendment.”
He believes that the courts have steadily eroded the ability of individuals and entities to redress false attacks on reputation by overemphasizing the need to safeguard First Amendment rights since the 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan.
A Life Well-Lived
Wood works hard and plays hard. Outside of the courtroom, he played for and managed a senior league baseball team for 15 years that he loaded with former minor league players. He plays golf, boxes and has entered horse jumping competitions. However, he is the first to admit that his first love is practicing law.
When Wood reflects on his career, he feels very fortunate. He limits the number of cases he takes because he devotes a slice of his life to each one, many of which last years. His clients are special to him. He delivered the eulogy at Richard Jewell’s funeral and was a pallbearer for Patsy Ramsey. “You’re only given so many slices so you try to make good decisions with a desire to do justice.”
He says that the only trial lawyer who has never lost is the one who has tried just one case and was lucky. “It’s part of the game. You pick yourself up and dust yourself off; you’ll be better for it the next time.”
For Wood, the conversation never ends.