Mike Papantonio, law partner of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., says trial lawyers
without some rage in their hearts aren’t doing it right
INTERVIEW BY BETH TAYLOR
Q: You are a plaintiff’s lawyer, author,
environmentalist and TV commentator—
plus, you do a radio show with Robert F.
Kennedy Jr. Let’s start with lawyer: What
makes you so successful?
A: If you get the best trial lawyers to tell you a
fundamental part of being a little better than
average, [they’ll say] there has to be some
rage. I have watched young trial lawyers
come up. They can have a technical ability,
but if they don’t have some underlying sense
of rage about injustice, they are never going
to be an excellent trial lawyer.
A: I don’t think people would ever
characterize me as a raging, angry person.
[But] you have to have that in your heart
when you are doing battle with a corporation
that you have every right to be angry at. They
have killed your clients in mass torts. My God,
they have killed them by the hundreds. You
have read the documents. And for you not to
be able to say, “This really makes me angry,”
and not draw on that sense of anger that
becomes part of your personality … you are
probably in the wrong business.
Q: Did you develop a sense of injustice as
a child? I understand you did not have a
A: I think that’s an important point. I
was raised by many different families all
over Central Florida, from Bradenton to
Sarasota, Tampa, Arcadia. Growing up like
that, you do see a remarkable amount of
inequality. You develop your own sense of
what’s right and wrong. Even though people
along the way have been very kind, you still
know something is different [for you].
There is no way to grow up like I grew
Q: All the moving around resulted from a
up and not have some sense of [injustice].
The trick is not to let it affect other parts of
your life. You have to be able to separate
a courtroom from how you deal with
other parts of your life, but I’m absolutely
convinced there has to be some underlying
element of anger to be able to call on and
have the jury see it.
dysfunctional birth family?
A: I think, in the long run, it really helped
prepare me to do what I do now. It doesn’t
sound magical, but it was, in so many
ways, because it exposed me to so many
things; I never think of it as a negative at
all. At one place I learned to be a musician,
another place I learned to paint, another
place I learned to fly airplanes. I would
live for a year and a half at one place, and
then somebody else would invite me to live
with them. It’s a great comment about the
decency of people, I think; it’s just had a big
impact on me. I try to give back.
Q: When did you decide to go into the law?
A: I loved the character Atticus Finch. But I
was going to become a journalist, and then
somebody introduced me to Perry Nichols.
He was just a huge, huge force in trial law.
He, along with Melvin Belli, had developed
“demonstrative evidence” and really taken
it to a whole new level. And, oddly enough,
Perry Nichols had a ranch in Arcadia.
Somebody said to me, “You know, Mike, you
really ought to think about law school. I want
to introduce you to Perry Nichols.” I went to
meet him there in Arcadia, and in the short
time I was around him, I was very moved by …
what he wanted to do in his life. He did well
by doing good in so many ways.