Not a month goes by that I don’t hear the name Ralph Madsen. Who is Ralph Madsen? I don’t really know. He has been dead for sometime. All I know is how people talk about him. Depending on who is talking he was either a legend of a trial lawyer, or a terribly misguided attorney. Either way, I hear about him a lot. Something in court reminds somebody of “something Ralph used to do.” Or, some lightly-experienced lawyer pulls some trick he thinks he invented and somebody who knew Ralph has to explain that “Ralph was doing that in the 50’s.”
You know how you know you’re a legend? The people remember you.
Back when I was fresh out of law school, I used to do something they didn’t like at the Public Defender’s office. Actually, I did a lot of things they didn’t like. One, in particular, though- I watched trials. Lots of trials. I watched hours and hours of more experienced lawyers putting that experience to work. I thought it was a good way to pick up new tricks and to learn new things.
There were a couple lawyers I loved to watch. Guys who were masters of their craft. Criminal lawyers who could take the facts of a case- any case- and spin a compelling story. One of them had left the Public Defender’s Office a few years before me. That guy was William Charles Gracik. Nobody called him William, though. Nobody really called him Bill, either. Everybody called him by his street name: “Big Smooth.” Or, if you knew him personally, it was just “Smooth.”
You know how your know you’re a legend? Other lawyers give you a nickname like “Big Smooth” and it sticks.
Smooth was a little older than me- maybe 10 years. In a lot of ways he was just like the other great criminal defense attorneys around- he liked knowing about his rights, he didn’t care too much for the government’s use of police powers, and he enjoyed the thrill of thinking on his feet. He was missing one trait that motivates the rest of us, though. He wasn’t full of piss and vinegar. Or, if he was, he sure didn’t let on in front of the judge or jury. Ever
That’s why we called him the Big Smooth… the legend. That guy’s feathers never got ruffled. He took everything in stride, and kept on going.
I learned a lot from him. I was lucky enough that he actually flipped the tables on me at my first jury trial. When I finished closing arguments, I looked back to see that he’d watched the whole thing. In Big Smooth fashion, he told me what he thought of the closing. He told me that I did good, but pointed out some things I could have done better. Encouraged that Smooth thought I did well, I asked him which way he thought the jury would go. Without hesitation he said something to the effect of, “oh, you’re going to lose.” And, I did… after only 9 minutes of deliberation. I still remember the advice he gave me that day, as well as a lot of what he’s told me over the last 12 years I’ve known him. You don’t disregard the advice of a legend.
Over that time I got to know Smooth well. He gave me advice. He talked with me about cases and trials. He was my landlord for a few years. He kicked my tail at card games. I spent a weekend together with him and another friend in Wisconsin and we watched hockey and talked about fishing. He had the quickest mind of anybody I’d ever met. It was amazingly accurate, too. Headed to Vegas to place a wager on the NCAA tourney? Call Smooth. He will nail the picks. Seriously. I’m glad to have gotten to know him as more than just a lawyer I watched.
Of course, he wasn’t perfect. People who didn’t get to know him when I did (or like did) might remember him for the imperfections. I suppose if you didn’t know the Smooth when he was at his “Smoothest” you have only the memories you know.
I’m not perfect, either. Neither are you. I guess none of us can really control how we’re remembered. Ralph Madsen would be the first to tell us that.
All I know is that there’s going to be a day when I see some new-jack lawyer puff out his chest over some legal trickery he thinks he invented. Or, maybe he’s going to nail a closing argument and think winning the case is a foregone conclusion. Somebody, no doubt, will tell the kid about Ralph Madsen. I won’t be shy to take that opportunity to chime in and tell that kid the Legend of Big Smooth. I’m going to tell him that Smooth was doing that stuff in the 90’s. I’m going to talk about how Smooth invented, used, and forgot more legal angles than any of us will ever come up with. I’m going to tell him that I learned more by watching Big Smooth do jury trials than I ever did from anybody in years at the Public Defender’s office. I’m going to tell that kid that Big Smooth was one of the best I’ve ever seen, and that it’s too bad that kid wasn’t lucky enough to watch him in his prime.
Thanks, Big Smooth, for making me a better lawyer. Your legend will live on.
Godspeed, Bill. William C. Gracik 1961-2012