Denver Bar Association
May 2002
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‘John Travolta’: Abide by Rule No. 1

by Diane Hartman

  How “A Civil Action” made this attorney recognize his heart.

Jan Schlichtmann doesn’t look exactly like John Travolta, but he may be forever linked to the movie star who played him in the movie "A Civil Action." ("Good movie, but much better book," he commented.)

Talking to students at the University of Denver College of Law, Schlichtmann (we’ll call him Jan) was an energetic and inspiring speaker on his favorite subject—a new way to practice law.

As you may remember, Jan was once a successful lawyer in the old sense. He had "the" car, good clothes, a condo and a good career—he was a zealous advocate.

Then he went through what he calls "a Cuisinart of an experience." It was one he ran away from for a long time, then "finally embraced."

In the 1980s, he was a PI lawyer and liked it. "I got justice for my clients and something for myself." But then he met with some mothers in Woburn, Mass., who told him their story.

Anne Anderson and her husband Charlie had moved to Woburn in the ’60s and life was good. In the ’70s, their son Jimmy got leukemia. Anne started running into neighbors in the waiting room at Massachusetts General, all with sick kids. They wondered about the water in Woburn, which smelled and tasted funny. But Charlie reasoned that if something was wrong, they would be told. In May ’79, the Environmental Protection Agency said that indeed the wells were contaminated but they didn’t know who did it or where it came from.

When the mothers came to his office, Jan explained to them that there must be wrongdoing and causation . . . "I can’t help you," he said. Then they held their children up and said, "We need your help."

W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods—the suspected culprits—had never been sued. It seemed challenging, Jan said, "to do the case nobody had ever done.

"If you had asked me what I was trying to do, I would have said there was a power out there trying to destroy these people. I would use the power of the law to destroy them."

But: "How does a power destroy power? It’s a physical impossibility."

He wondered if there was a role for him as a lawyer. He literally dug in, going out in the fields, digging in the pits, knocking on doors, having water tested—and using any part of the law to try to prove that the companies were negligent and responsible for the childrens’ illnesses. "We uncovered a lot, but never got to the bottom of it. And the court didn’t seem interested in the truth. In fact, one judge said it’s too late for the truth!" They would have a victory, followed by a defeat, etc.

At the end of nine years, he had nothing left and for a while, he was homeless. "I went to vote and they asked for my address. I didn’t have one and they wouldn’t let me vote. It was the lowest point of my life."

  

It ended in exhaustion, "like all wars do," he said.

Jan tried to start a new life and couldn’t. He was immobilized for a long time. But he did watch as the EPA took data from the case and brought the companies and the people from Woeburn together in one place. They talked—and within two years, the companies wrote checks for $70 million to the families.

"It’s been 17 years since the wells were closed. The truth is not what I thought. It’s not what you have to take from someone. The truth is all around us, when we share our experience . . ."

Where do you start with this new philosophy? "After 20 years as a lawyer, I’ll tell you it starts right here (pointing to his heart). It changes you as a person and a lawyer."

"I decided to come back as an integrated person. Now, when a client starts telling me problems, I say strange things, like ‘What do you think you did that caused him to do this?’ Instead of ‘sue the bastards,’ I make a phone call to the other lawyer. I come back and talk to my client. After a couple of months of this, we usually solve the problem."

"There’s a rule I never looked at . . . it’s Rule #1! Rule #1 of the Federal Rules states that the rules should be construed to ensure the ‘just, speedy, and inexpensive’ resolution of civil actions. It’s a very simple rule. For 20 years as a lawyer, I’ve been in violation of this rule. Speedy? It took nine years for that case. Inexpensive? It was the most expensive case in the history of that circuit.

"We should be healers. Instead, sometimes clients come in with little problems. They leave with bigger problems and a big bill."

Jan is now working as counsel in Florida and works with environmental firms around the country. They’re currently working on contamination in the Gulf of Mexico, and he uses mediation as a primary tool.


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