Super Lawyers selectees encounter a vast array of cases and situations. In this month’s magazines, attorneys from Maryland, Louisiana, Illinois and Southern California show off the humor, ingenuity and confidence it takes to become a selectee.
Steven Widdes, principal at Rockville, Maryland’s Stein Sperling Bennett De Jong Driscoll and co-chair of his firm’s estates and trusts practice group, brings levity to the serious business of estate planning. When talking death and dispersal with his clients, Widdes is quick to diffuse the somber situation with humor.
“Providing guidance to people as they navigate what they want to happen [after their death] is not the easiest subject to talk about,” says Candace Kaplan, founder and senior partner of Kaplan Financial Group and Kaplan Benefits Group. She’s worked with Widdes numerous times. “In planning meetings, Steve will be very caring about people’s children and their grandchildren. But he will always crack a joke or say something in a self-deprecating manner that manages to lighten the mood. He has a real talent for setting people at ease.”
Through his accomplishments – a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, a frequent lecturer at universities and bar associations, and listed among the Top 10 attorneys in Maryland Super Lawyers – Widdes remains humble. Born in Hinckley, Minn., to a cattle dealer, Widdes down-to-earth nature helps him make the obscure comprehensible and his work ethic pushed him to the top of his profession. He enjoys passing on what he’s learned to young associates, paying back the mentors who helped him out.
For much of the 1990s, if you couldn’t find Ben Slater III in his office or the courtroom, your best bet was in the suburban New Orleans office of a cantankerous fried chicken entrepreneur. Slater represented Al Copeland, the founder of what was first called Chicken on the Run, then Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits, against the company that came to own Copeland’s business and laid claim to Copeland’s spice formulas.
His work on behalf of Copeland, who in 1972 founded what became the fast-food chain and a string of sit-down restaurants, spanned nearly a decade during the prime of a legal career in which Slater has also gone to bat for railroad, energy and food industry clients.
Slater is well-suited to the courtroom. “I think I was always cut out to be a litigator,” he says. “I liked the battle, and I enjoyed being in public and standing up and articulating my position. I knew my strengths were using my instincts and abilities to think quickly on my feet.”
He’s grateful to have spent a lengthy career doing what he loves.
Kathleen Zellner‘s work in criminal and civil defense appears right off the television screen and sometimes that’s exactly right.
She’s gotten a witness to confess to the murder from the stand as the courtroom erupted. And currently she’s defending Steven Avery, of Making a Murderer infamy.
Based in Downers Grove, Illinois, Zellner is a unique package – part psychologist, part sleuth, part storyteller, part stickler for details, and part psychic.
“You have to have an eye for detail to organize a case, but you can’t get lost in the weeds,” she says. “I’m extremely interested in motivation, like the psychology behind the cases. What motivated the wrongdoer, whether it was intentional or negligence? But you have to create overarching themes that are pretty basic. Everything is ultimately geared toward explaining the facts to the jury. You have to understand what’s of interest to people and what’s going to bore them to the point where you lose them.”
Zellner has overturned 19 wrongful convictions since starting her firm, and she’s been equally effective on the civil side. During one 362-day period beginning in 1999, she won five multimillion-dollar verdicts. Such is the life of Kathleen Zellner.
Jennifer L. Keller garnered her moniker (The Trial Specialist) through a long-and-winding, but nonetheless successful career arc through odd jobs and public defense. When she received a $309 million judgment in her client’s favor against Mattel, she had already tried more than 150 cases to jury verdict.
The endless odd jobs exposed her to people of varied background, which eventually helped her with jury selection.
“She’s spellbinding,” says Tom Malcolm, former president of the Orange County Bar Association. “Her mind is so fast and covers so many topics. If you give her a glass of chardonnay at a party, she is so compelling and captivating that you look up and two or three hours have gone by.”
Keller started her own law firm in 1996, and partnered with Kay Anderle, a former deputy district attorney, in 2007. The 14-lawyer firm’s edge lies in having four attorneys with hundreds of cases to jury trial, which fits her perfects.
“I specialize in simplifying complex concepts for a jury and helping them understand my client’s point of view,” she said. “I specialize in trials.”
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