Updated: Feb 23, 2020
By Elizabeth Gracen:
It's been quite a treat to read and edit the work from one of our newest writers, Bill Collins. Bill's work came to us via my great friend and collaborator Don J. Paonessa, who once told me about one of his buddies who used to be a criminal prosecutor with a treasure trove of interesting, entertaining stories about his life in the legal profession in Southern California. Cut to two years later, and Bill is now a member of the Flapper Press team.
Bill's amusing stories open up a world that most of us have no experience of. It's a fascinating study of the machinations of law and, more importantly, of how human beings make their way through some of life's more challenging situations. Flapper Press is thrilled to have his stories for our site.
Please Meet Bill Collins!
EG: Bill, we are so happy to have you as part of the Flapper Press Team. Will you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
BC: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio,
March 4, 1944. I always feel March 4 was a historically significant date. This was the original date for the inauguration of the president until changed to January 20. My parents were classical musicians. My father played in the world-renowned Cleveland Symphony. In 1947, he accepted the position of Assistant Principal Violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As a result, I grew up in the Los Angeles area, primarily in Sun Valley in the San Fernando Valley. I attended John H. Francis Polytechnic High School. I played football and was honored with being named to the first Los Angeles Times All-Valley Football Team. After graduation, I went to Cal State Northridge. I gave up football and threw the javelin, setting a new school record. I majored in political science and history. Then Loyola Law. After passing the Bar—which was a miracle because I contracted mononucleosis two weeks before the exam—I applied for a job with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office. Contrary to popular belief, some of the very best attorneys are Public Defenders. It was the very best place to learn and develop trial skills. I will always be grateful for the training I received from senior lawyers in the Office. After 7 years, I entered private practice and settled in downtown Hollywood, at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga Boulevard. This was a wonderful location for business as well as social. Two modeling agencies, Wilhelmina and Jack Rose, and Goodson and Todman Productions were located here. The Gong Show was also produced from there. An interesting fact about this location is the parking lot of the building was the site of the Hollywood Canteen, famous for entertaining the troops by Hollywood actors in WWII. I finished my career with an office in Encino, where I shared space with other former Public Defenders.
EG: How did you become interested in law? Do you feel it has been a rewarding career? What advice would you give a young person who is considering it as a profession?
BC: My earliest recollection of thinking about law as a profession was in the 11th grade at Poly Technic High school. My American Literature teacher, Mr. Rasky, asked me what I wanted to do. I told him law, and he said, "Good, we need liberal lawyers." I have always had a contrarian tendency, which made law a good fit. My vision of what it meant to be a lawyer was vague. I was attracted to the prestige of being a lawyer, but my exposure to law was garnered through television and movies. The problem was I had a fear of public speaking. I disregarded this concern and carried on. In college, I was forced to take “Public Speaking,” which greatly relieved much of my anxiety.
The events of the times also contributed to my career choice. Vietnam was frequently discussed and argued about in all classes. I argued the anti-war position and realized that in these debates with classmates and sometimes professors, I came out on top. These were passionate debates ending with a disregard for the subject matter of the class. Another issue for me at the time was race relations. The Watts Riots, the assassination of MLK, the war on drugs, the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi . . . I saw a need to fight back against what I perceived as government oppression against minorities, especially blacks. In 1970, some students protesting the Vietnam War were shot at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard. My motivation to become an attorney were these social causes that I thought I could address if I became a lawyer. I was wrong.
The first thing I learned in the Los Angeles Public Defenders Office was that lawyers represent individuals not causes.
Law has been a very rewarding career. I have kept many letters from clients expressing thanks and gratitude. Money was also a reward of the practice. But the money gets spent; I have the letters forever, and do reread them from time to time. It reminds me of what I did for people and that I made a difference in their lives.
As for advice to anyone considering law, give it some time.
Law school is not what the practice of law is like. It is, rather, a place where you are taught “how to think like a lawyer.”
I didn’t know what it meant then. Today I can only speak for myself as to how a lawyer thinks. He becomes dispassionate, objective, and analytical. Much like a game of chess, you must anticipate your opponent’s next move. You can save the passion for the courtroom. The acquisition of trial skills is a process and usually long. Know “Evidence“— a class taught in all law schools. It can be a weapon in any trial attorney’s arsenal.
EG: In the forty years or so that you have been involved in law, is there an overriding “life lesson” that you’ve learned?
BC: This is a difficult question. My practice was criminal law. My 40 years of representing people accused of crime proved the lesson I learned early was true: lawyers represent people, not causes. Each client had different circumstances influencing their conduct. In some instances I truly liked some and disliked others. It made no difference; I gave my full attention and effort to “winning“ the trial. My determination to win was not just dedication to the defendant’s case—I hated losing, period. The same competitive spirit that fueled my athletic career. This taught me another lesson:
Trials do not necessarily reveal the truth; it is, rather, a way to resolve a conflict. In the process sometimes the truth is shown and sometimes not. I know this is not very satisfying to those who want truth, but that expectation is unrealistic. The system is adversarial in nature, and the primary motivating factor for both sides is to win.
EG: You’ve dealt with a lot of people in your career. Have you come away with a basic philosophy about what makes people tick? Any observations that you would like to share?
BC: I don’t think I have the qualifications to answer that. Perhaps a psychiatrist or psychologist would be a better choice. But to the extent I can draw any inferences from the people I met as clients, I would say what made them “tick” was as varied as they were as individuals and caught in the circumstance of being accused of a crime. Some acted out of greed, others because they had addictions to alcohol or drugs, and still others acted out of an inability to control emotions and tempers. To be sure, some defendants had no legal or moral defense to their conduct; they were just bad, evil people. And there was another group, perhaps a handful, who were factually innocent, one step above not guilty in my opinion. What made them tick was a need to be heard and have twelve people exonerate them.
EG: Please tell our readers what to expect from your writing series for Flapper Press.
BC: Thirty short stories about trials in which the defendant was accused of committing a crime. They are real, no embellishments. It was my habit to write everything down. I kept many of those notes as well as many jury selection sheets. The recreation of the cross examination was derived from actual trial preparation. I also wrote my closing arguments.
It’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.