Imagine this scenario: You’re a young lawyer standing before a jury, in a nail-biting moment in a trial.
You paint such a rich portrait of the value of a life lost that the entire courtroom is captivated; the room is so silent, the tap of your shoes on the floor is the only sound as you return to your desk next to your awed legal partner (who is also your husband).
Is this a scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith? No. It’s just another day in the life of Angela Bruno '07. On June 18, 2015, she and her husband, who comprise the firm BRUNO | NALU, won a landmark lawsuit against the restaurant chain TGI Fridays. $40 million was awarded to the family of a 33-year-old man, Orlando Jordan, who was murdered by an underage man who had gotten drunk at one of their bars. The last settlement offer TGI Fridays had made was for $1.2 million.
Bruno had been out of law school for six years, specializing in family law and civil litigation, when she and her criminal-lawyer husband, Keith, decided to hang up their own shingle. The idea – and it was just an experiment – was to open a personal injury firm, but not the kind that markets directly to clients. Rather, they would approach other firms whose cases were going to trial rather than settling out of court, and split the fees. They had no idea if it would work.
“Typically, [personal-injury firms] don’t have a trial attorney on staff, since 90% of those cases settle. For the other 10%, they hire our firm.”
You could say the experiment was a success. In the short time they’ve been independent, “We have proven that when we go to trial, whatever the estimate is of the settlement or the verdict, we are tripling or quadrupling it,” Bruno said.
Or, as in the TGI Fridays case, increasing it fortyfold. Two criminal cases had already gone through the system, with both ending in plea bargains. The victim’s family had gotten no justice and wanted restitution.
To draw a direct line between TGI Fridays and the murder, the Brunos had to prove many things: First, they had to pin the actual stabbing on the under-aged drinker, since the criminal case hadn’t done so. (Keith’s background came in handy here; he knew how to find crucial DNA evidence ignored by the prosecutor’s office.) Once they knew who the culprit was, it was up to Angela to prove the value of a human life.
“A lot of my role, in our division of labor, is working with the witnesses. So I was the one who prepared the head bartender, John Campbell, who testified that they were not checking IDs, that they were regularly serving underage drinkers, and that they were doing it to increase profits. … They turned a deliberate blind eye to what was happening; there was an implicit understanding that this was approved.”
In addition, she had the victim’s family take the stand. It might seem easy to pluck heartstrings with a grieving father, but it’s actually quite difficult, Bruno said, for nervous civilians to open up in front of a roomful of people. “A lot of my contribution was working with the client to develop the story and our strategy and helping him articulate his feelings. People are not comfortable in court – when they’re in that kind of emotional turmoil, they tend to close off. If you understand how to connect with people in one of the worst times of their lives, they can open up in a way that makes that testimony much more effective,” she said.
Her experiences at UC Hastings were directly responsible for her success, she said. “I have to absolutely give an enormous amount of credit to one of my professors, Chris Knowlton [now retired]. She was the head of the Negotiation and Mediation department. As a member of the team, I learned the art of communication which is a critical skill when it comes to picking a jury, knowing people, developing case strategy and understanding how people will perceive evidence. It’s very different from legal analysis, case law and statutes – more intuitive. But at the end of the day, it’s the jury who helps you win, and the jury is made up of people. They view things through a different lens from the attorneys. If you can understand where they are as people, you can produce magical results. So much of what I bring to the table in these cases is directly because of her.”