Why Solo Success Looks Like Jose Baez

Jose Baez’s win for Casey Anthony wasn’t pretty. From an opening statement that promised much but didn’t fully deliver to cross-examination questions that went nowhere or elicited evidence that seemed to hurt more than help to the clumsy cardboard exhibits, no one will ever confuse Jose Baez and his band of solo lawyers with the smooth, make-it-look-easy elegance of Johnnie Cochran and the Dream team (who can forget “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit“).

But it doesn’t matter.

At the end of the day, Jose Baez won Casey Anthony’s case not because he was innovative or tech-y or trying to turn the legal profession upside down — but because he was dogged.

Consider these tidbits from Baez’s bio:

  • Baez couldn’t even gain admission to the Florida Bar after graduating law school and passing the bar due to the Bar’s belief that Baez lacked the requisite character. Baez spent eight, long years to convince the Bar otherwise, and in 2005, finally succeeded.
  • While waiting for admission, Baez did what he could to get by and shoe-horn his way into the legal profession. The headlines make much of Baez’s past gigs as a bikini salesman, but more seriously, Baez also devoted his desert-years to more law-related pursuits, such as founding a non-profit group against domestic violence and working as a paralegal for the public defender.

And Baez’s ascension in the Casey Anthony case wasn’t any smoother either:

  • Baez found his client in the most pedestrian of ways – not through a pay-per-click website or an online campaign, but by word-of-mouth through the jail house grapevine as a result of a reputation honed by working on lots of small matters.
  • Baez screwed up several at trial. Though the talking heads may had no business picking apart the mistakes, Baez certainly made them. Like every other lawyer. But – Baez didn’t let those mistakes mire him. The closing arguments (or at least the parts I saw), by Cheney Mason and Baez methodically attacked every single weakness in the prosecution’s case, from the failure to explain motive down to the arrogance of the prosecutor’s smirk. The argument wasn’t fancy or sophisticated or even always entirely riveting. But like a dog that won’t give up a bone, Baez wouldn’t give up the case either.

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into the Casey Anthony case. But at the end of the day, I think that Baez won quite simply because he wanted more. For the prosecutors, Casey Anthony was part of the job; just another of the hundreds of cases passing through the office where a victory means a notch on the belt and maybe a promotion or increase in pay. For Baez, the stakes in Casey Anthony’s case were much higher. Of course, Baez had a duty to save his client’s life, but also, an opportunity to change his destiny. Baez wasn’t going to give up on either without putting up the fight of his life. He wrested a ruling from that jury by sheer force of will.

Though I’m not a criminal defense attorney, Baez’s experience resonates for me because it’s a microcosm for the solo’s story.   What I’ve learned from covering the solo beat as a blogger and practicing lawyer is that those solos who find the greatest success aren’t the ones you’d predict. They’re not the most tech-y or the ones with the greatest tag-line or fanciest website and business cards (though of course, those accoutrements don’t foreclose success either). Instead, it’s those solos who are perpetually underestimated as lawyers but who want so badly to do what they do – whether it’s defend clients or research knotty legal issues on a freelance basis or unravel the mysteries of the tax code – that they’ll start work at the crack of dawn, hop a budget red-eye flight for an opportunity across the country, beg seasoned lawyers for twenty minutes of advice and keep push-push-pushing, seizing every seemingly insignificant possibility until they birth a successful law practice that would have never otherwise existed…and alter the course of their destiny in the process.

Just as Jose Baez’s victory wasn’t pretty, neither is the solo’s success story. No glamor or brilliance or four-hour work week. Just doggedness and enough guts to carpe diem when opportunities stumble your way.  And the grace to ignore sour-grapes and resist saying “I told you so” when you finally break through.