Cross: Chris Seaton: An Angry Good Ol’ Boy
Dec. 2, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield crosses Fault Lines contributor Chris Seaton, who practices criminal and family law at Quest Collaborative Law in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Q. You’re still in the baby lawyer phrase of life, and you’re one of those relatively new lawyers who came of age during one of the most trying times to enter the profession, entering Appalachian law school in 2007. Did you realize what you had gotten yourself into? What made you decide to be a lawyer? What did you think when you learned that the future for lawyers just plopped into the toilet? Did it matter to you? Did you adjust your plans or did you just plow ahead?
A. I can assure you that I had no fucking clue about what I’d gotten myself into when I decided to uproot myself from Kingsport, Tennessee and head to a coal town in Southwestern Virginia to learn law. Hell, I’d hated lawyers for most of my life since my first stepdad was a lawyer who thought it fun to beat on me and my mother, get stinking drunk, and urinate on couches in the living room. Going into law was a means to actually make a difference and do things that I thought I’d always been good at: reading, writing, speaking, thinking on my feet and bullshitting whenever I needed to.
I was floundering on a year to year contract working the family Workers’ Comp business for what was called BWXT Y-12 at the time I made the jump to law school. It was utterly mind-numbing work heading to a nuclear weapons facility each day to hand people who got injured or sick a series of papers that gave them free medicine and a doctor’s visit. Having lunch with my mom and my boss one day just made me decide to say “screw it,” take the LSAT, apply for law school, and see what I could do. At the least, it would beat taking phone calls from retirees asking about getting free hearing aids and pain pills.
Funny thing is that when I got into law school and actually started learning the law, I became addicted to it. I’d managed to coast through undergrad and never really had to work at anything, so it was a shock when I didn’t do so well on my first law school final. But when I got something, and I mean really understood it, I wanted more. Every single case I understood, every concept, every principle, I had to have more of it. It ended up costing me my first marriage, but I didn’t care. Sitting in that quiet little coal town in Virginia gave me a passion that I never knew I could have for something.
By the time I got out in 2010, I was quite aware that the wonderful law degree just handed me wasn’t the license to print money many people thought it was. I’d also contracted a degenerative eye disease, called Ocular Myasthenia Gravis, and had a damn good idea that I wasn’t going to land a six figure job at a major law firm. Fortunately for me, I am a stubborn son of a bitch, and have a tendency to try and figure out ways to make what I want to see happen work. So no, it didn’t really matter to me that the law school bubble had burst. I didn’t give a damn. I went to work.
Q. By the time you graduated, jobs were awfully hard to find, and, let’s face it, you didn’t come out of Harvard. How was it trying to find a home? You started your own practice, Quest Conflict Resolution. Was that by choice or was that the only avenue available to you?
A. I had an office available to me that I literally lived out of for two years, so it wasn’t hard finding a home. It was a double-wide trailer on West Irish Street in my home town of Greeneville, Tennessee that my parents owned, about twenty feet from train tracks and right across the street from a toothless old man who made illegal moonshine and his son who had a fondness for cock fighting. The front of the trailer was my office; I had a keypad toward the back of the space where I met clients that led to the bedroom, kitchen, and living room. I joked for a long time that I literally “lived my work.” I had no idea at the time what that truly meant. Five years later, the definition of “living your work” has evolved dramatically.
Starting my own practice was a matter of necessity and choice. I really wanted to work for the guy I had clerked with for two years, John T. Milburn Rogers, as he was a hell of a trial lawyer who showed me what law was really like and gave me some great memories in the process. Hiring me as an associate just didn’t really work out financially, and I have developed over the years a really bad habit of not playing nice with others, so I started Quest.
Q. And as long as we’re talking about Quest Conflict Resolution, what exactly was that? You were doing family law matters, divorce, custody, using the mediation model. Did you know what you were doing? You were still raw, and this is one of the nastiest, bitterest areas of law to practice. Were you able to pull it off?
A. Quest Conflict Resolution was the evolution of the business I started while I was waiting on my Bar exam results. I had a wonderful mentor, a professor named Paula Young who taught me how to mediate and gave me the chops to where I had my Rule 31 Civil listing as a mediator in Tennessee before I graduated law school and my Rule 31 Family listing before I passed the bar. When I came back to Greeneville, I hung a shingle on the trailer and it read “Quest Mediation.” When I was admitted to practice law it became “Quest Conflict Resolution.”
The name change was a reflection that I now had two different play books with which to serve clients, and it was chosen with the understanding that I lived and worked in an area full of hill people. Hill people are an interesting bunch in that they hate lawyers. They’re extremely mistrustful of the legal system and think everyone with a badge is out to get them. I wanted to make sure that someone who came to me knew they could relax and trust I would do my damnedest to help them using every trick in the book.
Mediation in family law matters was a hellacious trick to pull off as a baby lawyer, since most people think you have to have a ton of experience in the law to mediate a family matter. A lot of lawyers think that mediation is where you take your experience in a given field, walk into a room with two people and their attorneys, and say “This is what this judge is going to do if you take (x) issues to trial, so it’s better you figure out a way to settle this case here” and then work from there. That’s complete and utter bullshit. It’s called “alternative dispute resolution” for a reason. You give people the chance to figure out their own ways to settle matters outside a court and they’ll actually do it. I was able to pull it off, even getting called to do some cases that involved specialized cultural knowledge (one couple who immigrated from Liberia and got a divorce in America stands out quite heavily).
Quest wasn’t just mediation though. It was where I litigated, too. Shoot, the first case I tried literally came three days after I was sworn in by a circuit judge who saw me grow up in middle and high school. To make matters even more interesting, the Magistrate in front of whom I tried said case was my mother’s attorney for many years!
I wanted to try cases, so I got on the criminal and juvenile court appointed lists in town and started trolling for cases every chance I got. Some days I would go to the courthouse and sit in a business suit and sneakers with a book from my law school days and a legal pad and just doodle or write stuff. The days that I didn’t get a case appointed to me I still had quite a bit of fun talking shop with other attorneys, clerks, judges and cops.
Q. In 2013, you got a job as an associate at Holland Law, where you got your teeth into your first real criminal cases. What made you turn away from family law and move into criminal law? What made you close up your own shop and go to work for someone else? Aside from getting a paycheck, what was the difference between taking orders and running your own practice?
A. I was still doing family while at Holland. In fact, I didn’t get a chance to do a criminal case until a friend of the boss’s got into trouble. After that and the way I handled it, the boss decided it was worth giving criminal a shot. I also didn’t get a paycheck while I was there. It was essentially an office sharing agreement I had with the boss, where I would give her a percentage of what I brought in for the privilege of having an office, an assistant, and a paralegal. In fact, during the nine months I was there, I made the least amount of money I’ve ever made in my professional career.
I closed up shop and went to work for someone else in a town with over three thousand lawyers and two law schools, and pumping more out each month, because in 2011 I met whom I am now privileged to call Mrs. S., a veterinarian with the compassion to put up with my jackassery and still think it wise to give me two wonderful children. At the time we got married, a decision had to be made: she would have to give up her veterinarian job in Knoxville and come find a job in Greeneville or I could go raise hell in the big city. I have a very loud mouth and a Stone Cold Steve Austin sized penchant for raising hell, so I chose to come to Knoxville.
I was lucky enough to find a person to practice with that could teach me a few things here and there, and did give me pointers that I’ve incorporated into Quest Collaborative Law since. To answer your question though, the biggest difference between taking orders and running your own practice was the realization that (1) the boss’ matters were what mattered most, and (2) when the shit hit the fan, the only questions you asked were clarifying ones on how to get what needed to be done done right away.
Q. You didn’t stick around Holland Law very long, leaving after nine months? What happened? Some people find it very hard to go from being their own boss to working for someone else, particularly when you’re low on the totem pole. Was that the problem?
A. The answer I’ve told everybody for ages now has been the diplomatic “creative differences.” But this is Scott Greenfield’s Cross at Fault Lines, and that shallow answer will not satisfy you, so for the first time I will come clean and explain why I left. During those nine months, my wife gave birth to my now two-year-old daughter, Talia. The day I became a dad changed my life and the way I saw everything about the world. I was also completely unprepared for the lack of sleep that came with the first few months of being a new father and had no fucking clue as to what I was doing. The pregnancy was difficult, and I took about two weeks off to make sure my wife was OK and that my kid was actually going to live. After I came back to work, the boss and I had several talks that made one thing very clear: I could either choose a career at the firm or having a kid. I didn’t get both.
After that, I politely packed my shit, told the boss I was done, left, and never came back. Consider that bridge officially burned, I guess. I’ve tried to send my old boss and her boyfriend business on numerous occasions and they both act like I don’t exist. Leaving that place, in retrospect, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
Q. After Holland Law, you hung your own shingle again, this time under the name Quest Collaborative Law, doing both family and criminal. But you also worked with entertainment folks. Was this a matter of doing whatever came in the door, or was there a conscious effort on your part to figure out where you really wanted to be? Did you find it a problem trying to cover too many bases?
A. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out where I want to be. Covering too many bases is a problem that I’ve had for a while, and something that still bites me in the ass on occasion. The entertainment thing came out of sheer dumb luck and my willingness to talk to and be nice to just about anybody. A friend in D.C. had an issue where someone tried to use his name and reputation to sell clothes for a competing clothing line, so I handled it. That guy ended up becoming best man at my wedding to Mrs. S.
A lot of my work in entertainment has come with stand up comics. Knoxville has an incredible independent comedy scene, and one where newbies are welcomed to open mics on a regular basis. One night I checked off a bucket list item and went to an open mic, signed up at the venue as “The Bitter Lawyer” because I was afraid of bombing, and performed five minutes of stand up comedy I’d written that day. I actually got a few laughs, and went back to another mic. Eventually, I made friends with most of the stand up comics in the area and they started asking me to do work for them!
I still do the occasional stand-up bit. I have a recurring spot on a radio show here in Knoxville that sort of serves as free advertising. People have told me working in stand-up has actually improved the way I represent clients, too. One case I worked with co-counsel recently saw us talking shop after a hearing. She asked me “What happened to you?”
I was dumbfounded by the question. “What do you mean by that?” I asked her.
She said “When you started practicing, your questions were long and winding, your closings were homespun narrative speeches, and you would go into the occasional rant. Now when you ask questions, your punches are short, brutal, and to the vital spots of the person on the stand. And your openings and closings actually make a point.”
Only excuse I have is hanging out with stand-up comics a lot and doing work for them will make you get to a point really damn quick.
The entertainment stuff has been awesome. I’ve worked with writers, people on American Ninja Warrior, TV chefs, stand up comics, and professional wrestling promoters. It’s let me host comedy shows, be a professional wrestling manager, and given me the opportunity to meet one of my biggest public speaking influences ( legendary pro wrestling manager Jim Cornette) while my son was languishing in a NICU unit. I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people and help them at really rough times. Family and criminal law are still my bread and butter though, and the majority of my practice revolves around that.
Q. So your cross was a long and winding road, that went nowhere on summation? What was it about the comedians that taught you how to get to the point, make the point and get out before someone started throwing rotten tomatoes? Do you now look back at your early trials and wonder, did I really suck that bad?
Successful joke writing requires you take a nugget of thought and then strip it to its rawest form of truth that will garner a desired reaction from your audience. Applying that to the practice of law, it means you take the point you want to make, strip it to the rawest form of the truth you need to convey, and hope you get the desired reaction.The most successful comedians with my favorite comedy albums and specials work around a theme. At the very least, the go-to, killer joke is at the point when the light comes on. That light tells you you’ve got precious seconds to leave the audience with one final salient bit to remember you by. That’s how I start trial prep now: by beginning with the final go-home point I want to leave the trier of fact with and then working out the rawest forms of the ideas I want to convey through questioning and evidence that back said point.You’ve also got to know the room. Different crowds react to different bits, and different triers of fact will react to different tactics. What works for one room may not for another, and if you find yourself bombing in either a mic or a courtroom you’ve got to reassess the situation and rebound accordingly.Do I look back and wonder how I sucked so bad at my early trials? Absolutely. I look back at every case I try or negotiate with the most critical eyes possible after it’s over and try to find where i could have done better. If you want to get better, it’s a duty incumbent on you to try and evolve after every case. Staying stagnant and relaxing on the same tired tactics and talking points doesn’t make you a better attorney, and it doesn’t serve your client well. If you’re not working constantly to be better at what you do, what’s the point?
Q. Of the various practice areas you’ve done, it seems that criminal law is the one that really seems to have stuck with you. What made you decide to go to the dark side? One of the biggest issues with new criminal lawyers is that there is a steep learning curve between the time you start practicing and the time you have a firm grasp of what it takes to serve your clients. How is that going? Where do you think you are on that curve? What pieces of the learning process have proven most difficult?
A. Criminal law is definitely a thing for me, and what made it “stick” was seeing how “good ol’ boy” law was practiced at the start of my career. I got a really good look during my formative years at the ways even local Sheriff’s deputies treated people suspected of crimes and it made me sick. I saw the way people were wrung through the system and told it was better to plead than actually fight a case to the core. Watching three young girls get tossed on the hood of a cop car after a pot buy, roughed up by male DTF (drug task force) officers, and cussed at was a big breaking point for me.
Going to Knoxville was an entirely different experience from Greene County. You speak of a learning curve. I learned really quickly that curve turns in a completely different direction when one goes from “good ol’ boy” law to a big city where people actually try cases by the boatload, the prosecutors are absolute sharks, and the judges expect everyone to follow the law to the letter instead of each case getting tried on a “who does this guy know” basis. Plus, I jumped from having to learn the habits and mores of five prosecutors to fifteen and keeping book on the quibbles of three criminal judges instead of one.
I still think I’m sitting on the “learning what it takes to serve your clients” edge of the curve. Probably toward the lower end of it, if I’m being completely honest with you. I don’t think I’ll ever learn all of it, and I never will. That just comes from a mentality that I keep of knowing that I know a hell of a lot less than I think I do each day, and that every day is a new chance for a learning experience.
What’s the most difficult portions of the learning experience? Aside from learning what arguments will work with different judges and prosecutors, I’d probably say learning what cases need to go to trial and what probably needs to be pled out. A corollary to that would be getting the client to understand they might actually have a chance of winning something they think is a lost cause. It’s a sad point to discuss, but a very real one: it’s tougher to convince a black man to fight a charge than a white one because most honestly think they’ll never get a fair shake simply because he is a black man.
Q. Criminal defense lawyers are, first and foremost, trial lawyers. How many trials have you done, and what types of cases? Most of us learn a harsh lesson at our first trial, and we learn it good and hard when we realize that the demands of a good trial lawyer take time to learn. How did your first trial go? Any major screw-ups? When you walked out of the courthouse after your first verdict, what did you say to yourself?
A. I’ve lost count of how many trials I’ve done in five years for two reasons: one is a severe lack of sleep due to two children under three in my house, and the other is because I’m stubborn and get an adrenaline rush from trying cases. I’ve worked DUIs, drug possession and sale cases, one rape case (which is interesting given I was sexually assaulted at gunpoint in undergrad), theft matters, weapons charges, and lots of delinquency and what we call D&N (Dependency and Neglect) cases.
My harsh lesson at my first trial was telling my client to stipulate to a D&N after we torched the State’s case on a cross examination. The kid had been removed from Mom’s home and placed in an environment which was absolutely toxic to the child’s health and well being. I destroyed the DCS caseworker and psychologist they put on as witnesses to the point where one keyed my car after the hearing. I’m sure of it.
We took a break during the hearing and the Guardian ad Litem told the State’s attorney “Based on Seaton’s crosses I’m going to declare an improper placement and ask the kid be removed from the home and placed with the mom unless you two come up with an agreement. Do it before we get back in the courtroom or else you’re going to get embarrassed.” The State offered my client visitation with her kid, which is what she wanted desperately after having her child snatched by DCS workers. She took the stipulation. The case ran on for a year, and eventually the system wore my client to a nub. She surrendered her child for adoption, and it’s a mistake that I’ve sworn never to repeat.
After that first verdict, I was full of piss and vinegar and ready to call myself “Best In The World.” I was glad that I managed to get something for the client in the face of the overwhelming resources of the Volunteer State. Now I realize I fucked up big in agreeing to even settle a single matter with DCS, and I’ve done my damnedest to make sure that clients get all they need and then some if I can help it.
Q. Before you came to Fault Lines, you were an aficionado of the blawgosphere. These were a pretty tough bunch of lawyers, with a tendency to be a bit critical at times. What did you think you were getting into when you decided that you wanted to write for Fault Lines? Was it what you expected it to be? Do you feel a pressure to make sure you don’t make people stupider when you write? Are you glad you took the leap, or was this a huge mistake? Do you sweat every time you submit a post for publication, hoping that someone doesn’t tell you that your post was the dumbest thing they’ve ever read?
A. I don’t think “aficionado” is the right word. “Rampant fanboy” might be closer. I was afraid to comment at first on several blawgs, and actually used the pseudonym “Kerwin White” to comment on stuff. One of the first times I actually commented on something as “Kerwin White” was a post you made about the Riley and Wurie SCOTUS cases, and that was when I got my first good SHG smackdown!
When I auditioned for Fault Lines, I thought I was getting a chance to write with some of the best, and if I didn’t make it, then screw it–I had a lot of other stuff to do. Basically, writing is something I’ve done all my life as a release, and if I got the chance to write for Fault Lines then I had the chance to get better at something I loved than I’ve ever been in my life. That was exactly what I expected it to be, and you of all people have made no bones about telling me when things I wrote were absolute shit. Working to bring issues to the public’s eye every Monday and Thursday (and sometimes more depending on what I read that pisses me off) and having everyone on the FL crew kick my ass repeatedly has definitely made me a better writer.
I wish Ken Womble and Jeff Gamso would stop stealing my damn heat, though. I think I write something that will be noteworthy, and then those two blow me out of the water.
Do I feel a pressure to make sure people aren’t stupider when I write? Absolutely. One of the biggest sins of the Internet age is that every asshole with a voice and an agenda has the ability to post it somewhere for people to see. The worst part is when 99% of them talk about the law, none of them have a damn clue about what they’re talking. And when you use a platform like Medium, Vox, HuffPo, or otherwise to make someone dumber, you’re committing a cardinal sin. Especially when it’s about the law.
I’m glad I took the leap. I’ve gotten the chance to expose issues to the public that people never would have seen otherwise. Children getting beaten in schools by cops there to ostensibly protect them. Registries created to cost people jobs and careers when they’ve never even been convicted of crimes. Cops breaking an NBA player’s leg just because he stopped to give a homeless man a $20 bill! Every single time I submit a post, I know that I’m doing something to expose a portion of the ugly side of our justice system the public needs to see badly.
And as far as sweating posts, that would be a qualified “no.” Someone telling me that what I wrote was the dumbest thing they’ve ever read has absolutely no effect on me. I’ve been called “the knife faced bastard child of a lawyer and Smeagol” by a comedian on the radio, for crying out loud! Now if it’s my editor telling me that I fucked something up, then I’ll sweat it, but that’s because I took this gig to get as good as I could be at writing, and I have an obsessive desire to keep getting better.
Q. One of my earliest admonitions to you was to write about things that pissed you off. And since then, you’ve found no shortage of things that piss you off. How has this affected your view of the law? Has this made you a better lawyer? Do you have a different appreciation of what your duty is to your clients and what it means to be a lawyer?
A. I think I told you once that my formula for writing stuff at Fault Lines was “I read a thing. I get mad because it’s bullshit. I write a thing.” And it’s sad that the criminal justice system continues to give me no shortage of things to piss me off. However, I think it has made me a better lawyer and given me a different appreciation of what it means to be a lawyer and my duty to clients.
I think it’s made me a better lawyer because I can get all my anger out at FL and then work from a place of zero emotion (unless I need it) in the courtroom. Anger serves no advocate, and if you’re pissed about something outside your case then you’re not going to do well by your client. As far as gaining appreciation of what it means to be a lawyer and understanding better the duties to my clients, I get to read FL every day, interact with folks like Ken Womble, Greg Prickett, Jeff Gamso, Ken White, Andrew Fleischman, yourself, and even a Federal Judge! And that’s just scratching the surface! If you have that opportunity and you don’t learn something from it then you’ve got to be absolutely brain dead or in an echo chamber.