Steven spent time in LA trying to make it in Hollywood before going back to law school at Baylor Law School. Since then, he has been an injury lawyer, a solo, a family and criminal practitioner and heavily involved in our community. Steven joins to chat about his practice and San Antonio.
Justin Hill: Welcome to Hill Law Firm Cases, a podcast discussing real-world cases handled by Justin Hill and the Hill law firm. For confidentiality reasons, names and amounts of any settlements have been removed. However, the facts are real and these are the cases we handle on a day-to-day basis.
All right, welcome to another episode of Hill Law Firm Cases podcast. As we've been doing, we have a few Q&A sessions with local lawyers. We like to get them on and talk to them about things. Today we have Steven Lopez, who's a partner with the Law Offices of Oscar Garza?
Steven Lopez: The Law Firm of Oscar A. Garza.
Justin: Okay, I'll make sure I got it right. Steven went to Baylor like myself. He was a little bit behind me at Baylor. It's a small group of lawyers here in town that are Baylor lawyers. I want to talk to him about a few things, talk to him about his community involvement. Because he's a little bit behind me, I want to talk to him about where his career is going and what he sees in our city. First, Steven, where were you born and raised? Where'd you do college and all that?
Steven: I was born in Chicago, Illinois. That's where my mom and dad lived when I was born. I was there for only about a year. I got to Texas as soon as I could.
Justin: What neighborhood in Chicago?
Steven: Southside. I was born in the south side of Chicago. Tough. It was tough-
Justin: White Sox people.
Steven: - living out there as an infant. That's where I got all my street cred.
Justin: You went to the RGV.
Steven: Yes, and I lived in the valley. I'm from Harlingen, Harlingen Cardinal. Cardinal spirit never dies. It's still alive and well in my blood. That's where I went to high school. After high school, went to UT. After UT, spent about nine years in Los Angeles and then went to Baylor Law School in 2009. Then did some time in Dallas after law school and then moved here about 2015.
Justin: Little known fact, Steven went to LA to make it as an actor. Your big break was a commercial, which one?
Steven: My big break was a Breakfast Jack commercial.
Justin: Jack in the Box?
Steven: Jack in the Box, but I did get edited out quite heavily. If you see the commercial today, you can see my head pushing a guy in a bed through the drive-thru.
Justin: I feel like I remember that. Now, we're not going to say the number, but when you told me how much money you got paid for that, it was a shocking amount of money for a commercial that you had a three-second spot. You made it, but then you decided, "This isn't enough for me. I'm going to go to law school." What made you choose Baylor Law?
Steven: Well, I wouldn't say that I made it.
Justin: Kind of made it.
Steven: I made some money. That commercial was the highest paying thing I did nine years. Mostly, I went on a lot of auditions, went to a lot of classes, and bartended at night.
Justin: Was it like Barry?
Steven: It was a little bit like Barry. There used to be a show with Brian Green, I think his name was, produced by George Clooney, about being an actor in LA. It was on HBO. Justin: Brian Austin Green?
Justin: Of 90210?
Steven: No, maybe not Brian Green.
Justin: Okay, we're getting sidetracked. This is a lawyer podcast. How'd you end up at Baylor?
Steven: I ended up at Baylor because it was the best school in Texas that accepted me.
Justin: I think that's fair. Did you want to do litigation?
Steven: I did. I wanted to do litigation. I thought it'd be best on my feet. It was a toss-up between SMU and Baylor. They were more tied in the rankings at the time I got into both. I chose Baylor because it was the boot camp of law school.
Justin: And better value.
Steven: Yes. It was supposed to be more challenging, so that's why I did it.
Justin: What did you learn in your acting classes that you think translates well into the practice of law that we do which is personal injury litigation?
Steven: Acting itself is truth-telling. You try to find the truth in whatever situation you're in, be honest with your emotions, honest in who you are in the moment. I think that translates really well to being in front of a jury, having stage presence, but also realizing that you're not faking it, and you're always giving a version of yourself and just having the confidence to show your blemishes and show your vulnerability in front of people. It helps a lot in front of a jury and in what we do with clients as well.
Justin: Do you think you learned that there or knew it before? Knew it before it got better?
Steven: Before law school or before Hollywood?
Steven: I definitely learned to be more vulnerable in LA. I don't think I saw it as much of an asset as much as I did when I went to law school. You got to remember, in LA, I'm 20 years old, I'm 21 through 30. At that age, regardless of your training, I think you're not as confident in who you are as a person. Especially being out in LA, where it's rejection after rejection after rejection, comparing yourself to really attractive people every day and getting rejected quite often. Works your self-esteem a little bit. There's just a lot of insecurity that you're dealing with when you're out in LA. Whereas when I went to Baylor and learned to use those talents that I had, I was more secure in who I was at that point.
Justin: Were you told that you had to wear boots in trial? Because I was. That's an aside. The next thing I want to talk to you about, you're really involved in the city, you're really involved in some organizations, why is it important to you to be involved in the community in which you work?
Steven: I think it's important to be involved in the community because as lawyers, but generally, as people, we have an obligation to give back and to ensure that the doors that were open for us are open for the next generation. On a selfish angle, I think also that you don't really see how well you've got it until you try to give back to people that are most vulnerable or try to tackle a problem. Being in the position to be able to give back, or to have the free time, or to be financially stable enough to donate to a cause and to give time to a cause is also very self-fulfilling. I think it's important to help the community, but also it can be a little selfish as well.
Justin: I've had a few people on and run the gamut between lawyers that are less experienced than you to lawyers that are national spotlight. What are some of the things that you think are the most enjoyable parts of working a case? What are some of the things you find to be the steepest learning curve in trying a case? Just talk to me generally about your views, and likes, and challenges, and things that you find frustrating. It's a practice of law. We're all learning all the time. What are some of the things you continue to learn and have found it to be a steeper learning curve?
Steven: I think for me, the parts that I enjoy about the practice of law are the interaction with the clients, being able to help them when they're the most vulnerable and most needy. With my background in theater and film, I enjoy the storytelling aspects of it. If I can meet a client, get to know them, sit in their living room, and be able to tell their story, I think that's my strength. Where I struggle a little bit more is personally, I try to be a bit of a perfectionist in certain things. If I don't have something exactly right, it affects my confidence in things like deposing an expert who's really good, who has tons of experience in a subject where they're well more versed than I am on.
I think that part is a steep learning curve for me because I think, well, if I don't have this science down perfectly, or if I don't know enough as much as the doctor that I'm deposing, it erodes my confidence a little bit. That's a steeper learning curve to me, as opposed to the opening statements, closing, where you're really telling the emotional story of a case. I think that's where I excel.
Justin: Which we get to do so rarely anymore. So few cases go to trial. I remember, as a young lawyer, I was very, very-- like you said, I had anxiety, and tension, and nerves about making sure I got it subjectively and substantively right. Everything had to be right from the science, to my questions, to blah, blah. I remember sitting in a depo with Tim Maloney who is an injury lawyer here in town. We were working a case together. I took a great cross, I thought, and I got all the facts and specific admissions that I needed lined up perfectly.
I remember him getting to the witness and saying, "Well, whatever you did that the bus crashed, do you think that's a good idea? Is it a good idea to have buses that crash?" I remember just thinking how flippant and nonchalant it was, but it allowed me to come into who I was, I thought, at that point, because I already knew how to prepare substantively, I didn't know how to be myself in those moments. I was probably a year out of law school. That was really important to me. Have you had those moments as a young lawyer? Now you're in your sixth year or seventh year of practicing?
Justin: In your seven years, have you had those moments? Can you recall any of those moments when you've either sat in a trial or sat at a depo and thought, "Wow, the light bulb just went off for me on this thing."?
Steven: I've had those moments deposing defendants. I haven't had those moments in expert depositions yet, but deposing a defendant a few moments where you know it so well and you know the facts so well that you can throw it away. There's a thing when you're learning a script or something, you get it down cold so well, and then you throw it away. I think in the practice of law, I have only been able to throw it away on one part of my cases.
I can throw it away, deposing the defendant if I know the story I want to tell, because I know it cold enough, and I know those facts hard enough to where I'm confident that I can bring around whatever point I'm trying to make, even if we get lost in the weeds. Whereas with an expert sometimes, if I get lost in the weeds, it's still hard for me to come back. I don't have, at this stage in my career, this overall confidence, "Hey, I can get this guy to do whatever I want and let's just see how it goes."
Justin: I remember thinking that exact same feeling and I remember trying a case early on in my career and realizing that if you're in the weeds, all 12 of those people are in the weeds, too. One reason I love what we do is it changes every day. Every time you take a deposition, you learn something. Every time you feel insecure, you realize that we all feel insecure about things because we're all learning, but I remember thinking that same thing and thinking, how can I ever go head to head with them, but at some point, they get into the weeds so much, nobody's going to believe them, because nobody's going to know what they're saying. Which is a double edged sword on our end to that we have to ask good questions that people can understand.
Moving forward, what are some of the things that you really want to learn more or get better at? I know, you recently tried a case and the defense lawyer told me how incredible you were. He went on and on about how good you were, but outside of that, what are some of the areas of what we do day-to-day that you want to get better at?
Steven: Thank you for that. I think in that trial in particular the one you're speaking of, that was one of those moments in closing where I thought they're with me.
Justin: Felt it.
Steven: We're connecting emotionally, they're with me and that felt really good, so thank you to that lawyer for that compliment. I want to get to that point with the science. In my practice, we deal primarily with a lot of car wrecks. There's the science of spinal injuries, but also the science of reconstructing an accident and those are the two types of experts that I primarily deal with, and I would like to get more comfortable in that area. At a certain point, I think it's realizing that, "Hey, you know enough to go attack this guy." You don't have to put yourself through eight years of med school to be confident enough to go head-to-head and deposition with those guys.
Justin: Because they're always going to know the science better.
Steven: They are.
Justin: If you were getting $1,000 an hour for a demo, like most of those doctors, wouldn't you know it better?
Steven: I would well if I also went to school with them, right? The most experienced trial lawyers and the ones that I look up to, they know that, right? They're a little more relaxed in those depos and a little more confident and I think that's where my anxiety is through the roof in those depositions, and I'd like to get to the point with that subsides. [crosstalk]
Justin: Anxiety makes you work harder and prepare more.
Steven: Well, it's a double-edged sword, right? Where's the trade off? Where's that sweet spot? Is something that I think we're-- [crosstalk]
Justin: One of my mentors would torment me with the anxiety as a young lawyer. If I was preparing for something and he knew it, I would get texts early and late about, "Did you do this? Did you think about that?" It just drove me nuts. It made me a better lawyer. It made me work harder than I would expect to. Okay, Steven, we're trying to make these short and pithy, if you will. We're going to have you back on at some point. We'll talk about how you're progressing. I hope this podcast provides a local sounding board for our local bar, which I think is the most special in Texas because we all get along. We all like each other. We all help each other. Thank you and we'll have you back on.