Bill Wilkinson died over the weekend. His ghost is haunting me this evening.
Most people knew Bill Wilkinson as a top-flight attorney. Which he was. But he was a special breed of top-flight attorney, unique to a special time and place in the Columbus legal community. A hybrid beast of rainmaker and street fighter known as a Big Swingin’ Dick. A term used for Bill and his like, sometimes affectionately, sometimes mockingly, sometimes respectfully, sometimes derisively. But one thing was for sure: you knew a Big Swingin’ Dick when you came across one.
These guys were all around the same age. The first generation of Baby Boomers and men just a few years older than that. Men who came into the law in the late 60s and early 70s, just as the age of genteel and respectful Officers of the Court who epitomized the legal profession for decades before began to retire and die off. The Big Swingin’ Dicks would pay lip service to their grand profession and tradition of high ethics and collegiality of their elders, but they were in fact amoral warriors who made the legal culture of the 80s and 90s what it came to be, for better and for worse. Men who sought to crush their enemies, to see opposing counsel driven before them and to hear the lamentations of their financial advisors.
By the time I graduated law school in 1998 there were maybe ten Big Swingin’ Dicks left in Columbus. Ten of the original ones, anyway. Some 40-year-old junior partner may have been called a Big Swingin’ Dick once in a while, but he was second generation at best. He was not one of the big shot lawyers who made their bones and reputations by the end of the 1980s but who nonetheless still went into the trenches to keep doing it every day. He was a lot more like the Big Swingin’ Dicks’ contemporaries who had eased into lives of schmoozing clients, billing cases (but not really working them) and having long lunches at the Columbus Club, all while still claiming the status, but not really living it. Not really getting their hands dirtied and their mouths bloodied from time to time. By 1998 only a few true Big Swingin’ Dicks remained. I somehow ended up working for three of the Big Swingin’ Dicks in my eleven year legal career. Bill was the last. We worked together at Thompson Hine from May 2003 until the end of 2008.
And he was the most interesting. Certainly the smartest. Bill’s undergraduate degree had been in the sciences and he approached every case as though it were mathematics, physics or chemistry. He took a fact pattern and read out all of the human emotions and motivations — all of the subjective flotsam that most people think animates a lawsuit — and simply deduced what would happen and how, as if there were no uncertainty at all.
“Johnson will file the lawsuit on Friday,” Bill would say, “and he won’t include the tort claims.
“I’m not sure I see it that way,” I’d reply. “He has every reason to wait and then throw as many claims up as he can just before the statute of limitations is up.”
“No, he’ll realize by Friday why he can’t do that.”
He didn’t say it as though it was a matter of fact. He said it as though it were a matter of immutable universal law. And, when it came to matters of law, he was almost always right.
This scientific approach extended into everything he did. Once, toward the end of my legal career, when I had clearly lost my motivation and my work began to suffer, I was called into Bill’s office. I expected to be chewed out or put on notice. Instead I was given a lecture on the concept of entropy.
“Craig, a legal career is like any system subject to the laws of physics. If you don’t add energy to that system, it degenerates into a state of thermodynamic equilibrium. That may sound like a pleasant phrase, but thermodynamic equilibrium is bad for people like you and me. That’s when there are no driving forces. When the system is isolated from its surroundings. We must constantly battle entropy. We must stoke the system with energy. We must avoid thermodynamic equilibrium. Do you understand?”
I understood what he was getting at. I was completely bewildered by how he put it.
The scientific approach also extended to small, personal matters as well as big picture concerns. He would always have his secretary bring him a cup of ice water to go with his cup of coffee, and he would explain to you, in great detail, how alternating sips between the coffee and water would lead to optimal hydration and alertness. He took great pains to explain how he had discovered — and acted as if he were the first to discover — that one could use a rewards credit card for everyday expenses and household bills, thereby maximizing one’s rewards. Everything Bill did was rational, as Bill would be the first to tell you. Everything he did had purpose, and no small amount of righteousness, behind it. If you doubted him, all you needed to do was ask.
A corollary to Bill’s scientific certitude was the notion that, once he had come to rest on an idea or a course of action, the matter was forever settled. This was not a product of stubbornness on his part. There was not a sense that one couldn’t bring up the matter again if one wanted to. Rather, it was as if all previously available courses of action had never existed in the first place. Indeed, it was as if the very choice or controversy itself had never existed. To change Bill’s mind about something or to remind him about something already settled meant presenting it to him as if it were a totally new matter that had never before been presented.
My first experience with this corollary came the day Bill hired me to work at Thompson Hine. I wrote a mildly fictionalized version of this once before, but the upshot of it all was that a former boss of mine was a friend of Bill’s and, three years prior, assigned me to represent Bill and his wife in a dispute with the company that built their home. I dealt mostly with Susan, not Bill, but Bill knew who I was. The representation ended abruptly, however, when Bill was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in a grocery store parking lot on the way to work one day. All communication was cut off and the day of my interview was the first day we had spoken to one another since the incident.
It was not surprising that his arrest never came up — it was a job interview after all and I certainly wasn’t going to mention it — but my representation of Bill and his wife never came up either. I learned much later that, yes, he remembered me and still had the files of our case together in his office. But for purposes of the interview we were total strangers. I came to realize that Bill had decided that that unfortunate mistake in his life never existed and thus nothing even remotely surrounding it existed either. It had been in the papers, but was never discussed in the office. Not because to do so risked embarrassing Bill, but because it never happened.
I spent the next five-plus years working with Bill on the sorts of cases the Big Swingin’ Dicks tended to work. High-profile cases, many involving public officials and many which were accompanied by no small amount of media coverage. Fixer work. Some white color crime. It was mostly interesting and engaging and occasionally even exciting. It all culminated in the biggest such case he or I would ever have. A political scandal which turned into a highly-publicized criminal prosecution. A case which resulted in my eventual burnout and which, eventually anyway, led to Bill’s professional and personal downfall.
The case developed quickly. The scandal hit the papers and as all of the implicated politicians ran for cover it became clear that our eventual client would be the fall guy. He went to two or three other Big Swingin’ Dicks but they turned the case down either because their firms represented some of those politicians running for cover, they didn’t want the publicity or because there was no obvious way for the client to pay what would certainly be enormous legal bills. I was sitting in Bill’s office the day the call came in. Bill took it immediately and set up the first meeting.
Bill made two audacious decisions at the outset of the case. The first one involved legal strategy. Though not a criminal lawyer by trade, Bill would handle the representation. Unlike the usual approach of a criminal lawyer, Bill would not seek to merely create reasonable doubt as to our client’s guilt, he would seek to prove his innocence. He would do so via objective and clinical means involving contract law and no small amount of science. In order to do so, he’d make several claims and admissions early in the case which confounded the expectations of the press and the prosecution. The sorts of claims and admissions a criminal lawyer normally would not make. Only a man certain of the outcome and completely and utterly dismissive of the notion of failure would do what Bill did in defending this case.
The second audacious decision was made with respect to how we would be paid. The case was going to cost the client millions of dollars he clearly did not have. The firm’s administration was extremely uneasy, but Bill convinced them — again, through the sheer force of his logic — that it made perfect sense to accept the representation and to seek payment via a complex set of business arrangements with the client and his family.
With a strategy and approval from firm brass secured, he and I spent the next two years consumed with the case in ways no other case had ever consumed us before.
Two years later our client was beginning a 20-year prison term. And to this day only a small fraction of his bill was ever paid. After that, everything changed.
With the case over, I spent the first two months of 2007 mostly idled and completely and utterly burnt out. After two years of brutal legal combat I only wanted to think of things which brought me joy. I spent more time at home than I should have and, in April, began a baseball blog to take my mind off things. I would never be fully committed to the practice of law again.
Bill seemed to take the defeat in stride, at least initially. There’s a saying in the law that it takes one hell of a lawyer to lose a big case. There’s some truth to that, inasmuch as no one gives a big case to a crappy lawyer to begin with. Losses like that can be shaken off and, eventually, even joked about. Bill couldn’t joke about it — his refusal to acknowledge failure or mistake on his part made that impossible — but he immediately dove into the next case.
It soon became apparent, however, that not everything was well in Bill’s world. Always a significantly overweight man, Bill shed nearly 100 pounds as the case wound down. It wasn’t a healthy weight loss. It was accompanied by Bill’s turning into a chain smoker and dramatically increasing how much he drank. When his weight was commented upon, Bill would claim that he had discovered the key to a healthy diet and, when he had the time, he’d gladly explain it to you. He never did seem to have the time.
Not long after the case was over Susan kicked him out of their house. The rumor was that Bill had taken up with prostitutes again. His divorce records make reference to a “longterm extramarital affair.” One story I heard was that the girlfriend was, in fact, a prostitute and that Bill had simply bought out all of her time for his benefit and she never left. I don’t know if that was true but it feels like something Bill might explain to himself and anyone else who would listen as an arrangement that made simple economic sense. As it was, he explained the breakup of his marriage as something that was as inevitable as ocean tides and, ultimately, a good thing.
I left Thompson Hine in late 2008. I was pushed, even if it was a gentle push. Bill delivered the news to me. He said he was sorry to be doing this and that, however bad things seemed now, I would eventually land on my feet. He once again referenced entropy and equilibrium as bad things and said that he knew I was capable of introducing energy into whatever system I chose and good things would happen. I didn’t want to hear any of that. Bill seemed so phony and hollow to me by then and the idea of equilibrium seemed wonderful to me, no matter how he characterized it. I didn’t feel any hostility at all for him, however. I felt sorry for him and how deluded he was. I was relieved to be leaving law firm life and the world of the Big Swingin’ Dicks. A world where such thorough denial was necessary to get through the day.
Bill only lasted at Thompson Hine until 2010. He had become unreliable and his drinking became too much of a burden. Really, though, the seeds of his demise were sown back in 2005 when he agreed to that fee arrangement with our now-incarcerated client. You can be a raging alcoholic and stay in a law firm’s good graces. You can’t cause the firm to be stiffed on a multi-million dollar bill and expect the same amount of leeway. After some time off he resurfaced as the partner of a solo-practitioner who, while well-known in town, is not well-respected. At least not among the remaining few Big Swingin’ Dicks. Bill himself used to mock and denigrate the guy when we were still at the law firm. For the last couple years of his life, Bill was basically his assistant.
Though I never saw Bill again after our final discussion about entropy, I did hear from him. About two years ago he saw me on television and emailed me, congratulating me on my new career. Since then, and until about a month ago, he would send me an email every few weeks about some baseball topic or another. Usually it was a link to an article with some sabermetric element to it. Bill wasn’t a huge baseball fan, but the science of the game was something he was naturally drawn to.
I believe he was unaware of my sabermetric leanings, because most of the time his emails came with explanations of the topic at hand, as though the theories being discussed were new and unknown to me. I never had the heart to tell him that, most of the time, what he was sending me was old news or, in some cases, obsolete thinking. Maybe because I feared that he’d respond with his old air of authority in an effort to correct my clearly mistaken ideas. Maybe because I feared that he had fallen so far in life that he couldn’t bring himself to do that anymore.
Bill died of a massive heart attack in his apartment. He was alone at the time and was found by his girlfriend some time after his death. I’m told that there will be no funeral service. I’m told that his girlfriend is disclaiming any responsibility and that his ex-wife and his daughters have refused to claim his body. A few of us are going to meet up at a bar sometime soon to pay our last respects. That’s about all he’ll get, I suppose.
It simultaneously seems like too much and nowhere near enough.