Top Gun: Interview with James McLaren

Practical Takeaways From This Interview:

  • Speak less and listen more in your consultations. Use the consultation as an opportunity to harvest information and understand the client.
  • Use visualization throughout the case. During the consultation, visualize yourself standing in the courtroom trying that client's case. In all aspects of the case workup, visualize trying the case to a positive result.
  • Develop the theme and theory of your case early, as early as the consultation.
  • It is critical to understand both your good and your bad facts and how to build them into your case theory.
  • Learn how to take adversity in stride, never let them see you sweat. Take the spear and don't wince.
  • Focus on your theory and remain undisturbed with what your opponent is planning. Keep your eye on the ball and don't get distracted.
  • Witness control is imperative in cross-examination.
  • If possible, do your own deposition abstracting rather than delegating it.
  • Structure your cross-examination based on the various subject matters at issue. Focus on one area at a time.
  • Don't just react to statements said on direct during your cross. Stay focused on your theory rather than fixating solely on the opponent's direct examination testimony.
  • On cross-examination, don't go for the jugular out of the blocks. Chip away at the witnesses' credibility and confidence to soften them up first.
  • Structure your examinations using primacy and recency and use trilogies and selective repetition for emphasis.
  • Selective repetition helps judges remember key topics. But be subtle when using this technique.
  • Use your exhibits effectively. Make sure to highlight the important aspects of the exhibit. Artfully use the exhibits to tell the story.
  • Rehearse with your trial team in advance of trial so that exhibits are seamless and fluid.
  • Always have an original and five copies of exhibits: one for you, one for the opposing attorney, a scribble copy for the judge, one for the witness, and a "clean" or unmarked up copy for a potential appeal.
  • There is no black and white in the law. Everything is gray. It all comes down to your skill advocating your position.
  • If you can demonstrate (or appear) smarter than the other guy, you have a much greater chance of winning.
  • Never attribute a bad motive to an opposing lawyer.
  • Maintain your professional independence; don't become your client.
  • A lawyer needs the ability to step back and look at the whole picture.
  • There are three competing interests in any divorce case: the needs of the client, the needs of the spouse, and the needs of the children. To settle any case, all three of these interests must be considered.
  • There are no winners in family court. Winning is finding a solution that makes sense for the family.
  • The lawyer must exhibit confidence at all times.
  • There are no perfect cases.

Accidental Tourist

Jim describes his professional path as serendipitous; he playfully refers to himself as an accidental tourist. Jim worked as a private investigator while in law school. This is where he first learned successful techniques for gathering and preserving evidence and made contacts with future referral sources. He also clerked for a great trial lawyer, Henry Kirkland, who mentored him and taught him that self-confidence, finesse, and hard work allow you to win "unwinnable" cases. After law school, Jim hung a shingle and immediately got two lucrative (and apparently unwinnable causes) cases. He won both! As a result, he rejected offers to join other firms and struck out on his own.

While he originally tried many different types of cases (both jury and non-jury), he chose family law as his specialty. His family law career developed in part from the connections he made in Mr. Kirkland's office and as an investigator. While clerking at the Kirkland Law Firm, he befriended a lawyer who had the largest divorce practice in South Carolina. Later that man developed heart problems and needed to leave the practice. He asked Jim to collect his receivables, and in return, he would turn over the practice to him. He also asked Jim to continue practicing with his partner Dixon Lee. Jim agreed, and he and Dixon remained partners for 35 years. From there, Jim developed the largest family law practice in South Carolina.

Over the course of his career, Jim handled many politically sensitive cases and also represented many high profile clients. Today he is considered the Dean of the South Carolina family law community.

Emotional Control

Jim prides himself on managing his emotions. He never lets himself get angry or react to negative courtroom experiences. This superpower distinguishes Jim from most of us, mere mortals. Jim refers to this discipline as "taking the spear," a metaphor for handling an unfortunate event with equanimity. As Jim points out, "never let the other side know what you are thinking." Emotional control is a trait common to all great trial lawyers.

Along the same lines, Jim advises that family law is too hard of a profession for lawyers who don't love the practice. The stress, the challenges, and the difficult issues in a family law case requires fire and passion, and those without it should find a different area of law where they are better suited. He loves the practice of family law, and it shows both in his success and his bubbling enthusiasm when he discusses his practice. Loving what you do is one of life's great rewards.

A People Person

Jim loves people, and in particular, lawyers. As a past President of the elite American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, he has developed friendships with lawyers around the country. Jim works to maintain a good relationship with his adversaries and is friends with the vast majority of them. He goes out of his way to meet and help new lawyers. Like most of the greats, Jim relishes opportunities to mentor rookies. To sum it up, he is a bridge-builder rather than a bridge burner.

Philosopher and Storyteller

Jim is energized by helping people through the worst times of their life, And he loves the challenges of trying cases, which he analogizes to driving race cars. He thrives on the stress of the courtroom and the ability to use his skill to help people. He enjoys developing creative legal theories and using those theories to help his clients overcome their legal problems. And a core strength is his ability to tell a story. Most great trial lawyers are amazing storytellers, and Jim is no exception. He effectively uses stories to teach and to simplify complex matters. This skill is one we should all cultivate.

Jim's love of the practice is infectious. After 41 years in practice, he has no plans to slow down any time soon. It is clear why he is a top gun. His superpowers are many, but from my observation, they derive from his love of people and ethos of excellence in the practice of law.

Besides being a great lawyer, Jim is a passionate teacher of family law advocacy. He teaches lawyers at the ABA/NITA Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He has also developed an assortment of wise observations about the practice. Read his article The Ten Things I Wished I Knew Thirty Years Ago. Examples of his sage advice include:

  • Treasure your professional and personal friendships within the legal community and the Judiciary
  • Never impute ill-motive to a colleague
  • Professional courtesy is for you to extend, not for the client to decide or withhold.

Read the whole article and tell me if you don't agree that these intelligent insights confirm why Jim deserves his status as a top gun, one of the best of the best. Looking back on his illustrious career, it is clear that seizing opportunity + hard work + guts = Success. This accidental tourist is no accident!

To watch the full interview of Mr. McLaren, please click here.

Published May 29, 2020

About the author


Steven N.Peskind

Principal Attorney

To be successful, a lawyer must have insight into the whole human catastrophe and be able to effectively traverse the legal system. It is the intersection of these two disciplines that fascinate me. I have been a lifelong student of both human nature and the law, and have created this blog to help others following my path.


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