Coffey in 1985 (left), and flanked by George Walker and Nate Cohn of The American Board of Criminal Lawyers (right). He calls the board the “most
Q: An honor.
helpful” legal organization of his career. He calls Walker “one of the classiest, best-talking people you’ll ever meet.”
A: Yes, but it was a real life lesson in how
the law operated at every level. You started
in law enforcement, you went to the circuit
courts, state courts, and then you went to
the federal court and you wound up at the
Supreme Court. It was a real eye-opener in
terms of how it all worked.
Q: Anything about the way your brother
practiced his craft that sticks out for you?
A: I think the most important lesson was to
be me. He would preach at great lengths
about how I could not be him, he could not
be me, I had to learn to do it on my own, get
comfortable with who I was. He really took
a hands-off approach to it all. It was helpful
in a lot of ways that there were, at varying
times, anywhere between three to five other
lawyers that were all associated; and each
of them had their own personalities, so you
could pick something here, pick something
there, see if it worked, see if it didn’t work.
By and large, the most important thing
was to understand you had to spend a lot of
time, and you had to focus, and you had to
be prepared. I tell people on occasion when
I talk at seminars: You have to be able to tap
dance. Because no matter what it is I plan
on doing at 7 o’clock in the morning, by 9: 30
someone will have thrown a wrench at me
and I have to be able to react to that. And
if I’ve learned anything back then it’s the
ability to tap dance.
Q: Your brother died young, correct?
A: He died in 1988. He was 54.
Q: There’s a memorial award in his
name—bestowed by the Wisconsin
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Are you involved in who they choose?
A: I have intentionally not sought
participation. The board of directors
gives out the award based upon
recommendation from members.
Q: You’ve been practicing since ’72: What
are some of the biggest changes you’ve
seen in the law?
A: [Pause] Boy, I can get myself in a lot of
Q: Please do.
A: When I started—having a jury trial? It
was a once-every-three-week gig. It’s hard
to get a jury trial to go at this point. I mean,
there are crowded calendars, and there
are a lot of cases; but the reality is law
enforcement and prosecutors have really
gotten their act together in many ways;
and the reality is, in a lot of situations, that
which they will offer as a resolution to the
case, short of trial, is just too good for the
client to say no to.
[Sighs] I guess there’s something
else I’m troubled by. I think the system
isn’t requiring the formality I’m used
to. I see people charged with serious
felony offenses showing up in court
wearing jeans and T-shirts. I don’t get it.
So I don’t think there’s an appreciation
of the august nature of the system. I
think lawyers should spend more time
educating their clients—getting them to
understand that, really, showing up in
a clean shirt and a tie? It may not mean
you’re going home, but it may mean
you’re going to do better.
I think too many lawyers have too many
cases, and they’re not focusing enough on
individual clients. It drives me crazy. You
and I go into a federal conspiracy case,
someone gets indicted along with 27 other
people in a drug case, and two days after
the arraignment one of the defendants
is filing a signed plea agreement. I’m
going, “You can’t even have looked at the
discovery at that point.” So I don’t think
there’s enough attention paid to the craft.
We’re licensed, we’re professionals, and I
don’t think the system, the clients, or the
lawyers themselves get it.
Before I said there’s a pendulum? I hope
that one swings back.
Q: Any advice for younger trial lawyers—
besides the clean shirt and tie?
A: This is my rant for the week. Kids are
coming out of law school owing $120,000.
And there are no jobs! I mean, anyone who
reads any legal newspaper or magazine
[knows this]. I just think that’s wrong. I
think law schools owe it to the students
to be honest with them about what their
prospects are. I’m sorry—people my age?
We’re not dying off fast enough so there
are jobs for all those replacements.
Q: And the law is one of the few
professions where experience and age
are prized rather than dismissed.
A: Exactly. It’s amazing to me that there’s
this disconnect. The number of people
applying to go to law school presently: In
most instances they’d be better served
finding another area, another field,
because I don’t think the economics of the
law practice are going to get better in the
Q: Do you think the number of applicants
to law school will diminish as this
becomes better known?
A: I certainly would think so but there’s no
evidence of it. Just yesterday there was an
article about how more people are going
to graduate school because there are no
jobs. You take a deep breath and go: Well,
wait a minute. If there are no jobs, what is
graduate school going to do for you?
Q: I assume they’re hoping that in the
two or three or five years it takes to go to
A: The economy will be bustling. That may
be the logic but, sitting in an old person’s
chair, I go, “Pffft.” Four years from now,
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