Keith Mitnik, a senior trial lawyer and part-owner of Morgan & Morgan, is one of the unique attorneys that only come about once in a generation. Beginning at the firm of Robertson, Williams, Mitnik, and McDonald, Mr. Mitnik has made leaps and bounds throughout his career and helped litigate numerous high-profile cases, including Casey Anthony’s civil trial and the suit by the Backstreet Boys against their former manager. His ability to achieve multi-million dollar verdicts has made him a pillar of justice in the legal industry, and he frequently speaks at seminars and conferences to teach others how to pull off the same results. While other attorneys might wake up every day and go through the motions, Mr. Mitnik has made it his goal to use his career to help victims of negligence and unfortunate circumstances improve their condition, and he’s pretty good at it, too.
Over the last few years, Mr. Mitnik has reached jury verdicts of $1 million, $1.35 million, $2.4 million, $2.7 million, $5.1 million, $18.1 million, $27 million, and $40 million. In 2010, he achieved a $90 million verdict that was the sixth-highest in America for that year, earning his spot as one of the top lawyers in the country. We had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Mitnik about his career, and the transcript is transcribed below.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Did You Always Want to Be a Lawyer?
Keith: It was a dream job. Strangely, one time, the guidance counselor at my school told my mother that I said I wanted to be a lawyer when asked about my career plans. Honestly, I didn’t know a single lawyer at the time. There were no family friends, no neighbors, and no family that were lawyers. The only thing I can think that came from was my love for watching Perry Mason. Well, that, and I read a book that really moved me. It was one of the first novels I read as a youngster, and there was a lawyer in the story that changed everything for somebody. It really got to me, which probably solidified my goals, but it must have been Perry Mason because, honest to God, I wouldn’t even know what a lawyer was in elementary school. My guidance counselor mainly worked in the high school, but she had records of mine going back years and said, “Your son, every time he's been asked about his career since elementary school, has said he was going to be a lawyer.” It was just my destiny.
What Is the Key Ingredient Every Plaintiff Attorney Needs to Be Successful?
Keith: You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe that what you’re doing matters, and it’s righteous. You have to have integrity. Shoot straight with jurors, judges, your clients, and the other side. Once you get a reputation as someone who’s not a straight shooter, you’re in a different category and will never rise above it. You have to dedicate yourself to it like a professional athlete does.
Lastly, you have to be wired to run at problems rather than away from them. You have to be able to face hurdles, stare them down, and figure out a way around instead of panicking and running away. You’ll also need to have some steel in your spine, and some problem-solving intellect; if you have those three things, belief in what you’re doing, integrity, and the determination to overcome obstacles, you will rise to the top.
Successful attorneys come in all kinds of packages. Some are flamboyant, some are very low-key, but it doesn’t matter as long as you’re a reliable guide to the truth. That’s the key, and that comes in so many packages
Is There Something About Personal Injury That Spoke to You More Than Other Areas of the Law?
Keith: It does now, but the honest answer going forward is no. I didn’t know what civil lawyers did; I watched Perry Mason. I was going to be a criminal defense lawyer, and when I went to law school, I was told the best person that you can be a clerk for was a guy named Vandercreek. He’s since passed away, but he was a nationally known specialist in complex federal/jurisdictional venue-type things. He was hired by big-time lawyers around the country, and they said, “If you work for him, he can get you in with all kinds of great people when you’re looking for a job.” So, in my first year of law school, I walked into his office, knocked on his door, and said, “Are you looking for a replacement for your research assistant?”
He says, “Well, I don’t hire first-year students; I only hire third-year students.” I said, “Hold on, hold on. I have a four-year degree in doing legal research. You get one class up here, and I already have a degree in it. I promise you; I can do better research than any third-year law student can.” He looked at me and said, “Well, I’ve got something I have to file in the 11th Circuit Court appeals on Tuesday, and you’ll give it to me on Monday. But, I’ll tell you this: I’m not going to work on it this weekend, and if you bring me a paper of garbage on Monday, you’re done here.”
He asked, “Are you sure you want it?” and I said, “Yes, sir.” He laid out what I had to do by Monday. At the time, I was thinking, “What have I done?” as it was a complicated topic I didn’t fully understand. But I brought him the research paper back and held my breath. He never said “good job” or anything like that, but three days later, he said, “I’ve got something else I need you to do,” and that was that. Two years later, I walked into his office and asked, “Hey, do you know any trial lawyers in Orlando?” He said that he knew “two of the very best” and helped introduce them to me. Those two lawyers, Robertson and Williams, hired me for the summer and then hired me full-time once I graduated.
So, did I want to be a civil personal injury lawyer? I didn’t know what it was, but after meeting those two guys, all I ever did was civil cases, and I never looked back. So, did I want to be a civil personal injury lawyer? I didn’t know what it was, but after meeting those two guys, all I ever did was civil cases, and I never looked back. It just felt like the white hat fit my head better in that arena.
Is There a Case Over the Course of Your Career That Spoke to Your Heart More Than Others?
Keith: I’m going to give you two and a third one that others wouldn’t see as all that important, but it meant the world to me. I am driven to be an anti-bully. One case that touched my soul was the first time we took on cigarette companies and beat them. They’re gigantic and very difficult to beat. They are the classic giant bully. Their lawyers have been defending these cases forever, and we hit them for a $90 million verdict. To take on that industry, one that’s caused so much death and loss in our country, and bring back a substantial, meaningful verdict against them, was so fulfilling to the side of me that’s driven to stand up to bullies.
The second one just happened. I got a verdict representing this amazing lady. She was born paralyzed from the waist down, but she would not give up. Instead, she bucked up and had a full life in spite of her condition. She went on to get a master's degree in education and spent 30 years in a public school teaching special education kids. She retired and ended up with a broken leg, forcing her to stay in a nursing home for rehab. While there she developed a pressure wound that ended up going all the way down to the bone. Without going into too much detail, it had a profound impact on her life. Her situation moved me because she had such radiance and never felt sorry for herself. She loved her life in a way that others wouldn’t understand. I felt the weight of the world when the verdict was about to be read. If they did wrong by her and I didn’t come through, it would’ve broken my heart. The jury came back, and we reached an over $10 million verdict, which was so fulfilling. I did right by someone who needed someone to stand up and do right, so I’ll carry that case with me forever.
This third one might sound small to some people, but it’s not. I represented a guy in a first-party case where the client was fighting over a truck that had been burned up. He was a young man that immigrated from Cuba, came here for asylum, and was building a life, but an insurance company accused him of setting fire to the truck himself, all because they didn’t want to pay the $30,000 themselves. This was only my second first-party trial. When I met that young man, I again felt that calling to stand up to bullies. After we won, the man hugged me and cried, saying, “I loved this country, and now I love it more. If they had come back and said I committed fraud, I would have never felt the same about living here. This verdict and what you did, confirmed all the reasons I wanted to move here.”
That guy does beautiful, handmade furniture. Six weeks after the trial, a big van pulls up outside of my house and delivers the most spectacular handmade rocker and end table that he made himself. I still have it; It reminds me of why we do what we do.
If There’s One Thing You Could Be Remembered for in the World of Law, What Would You Want to Be Remembered For?
Keith: “For Keith Mitnik, law was a calling.”