20 Questions with Jerald P. Block
1. The LCA champions lawyers from New York to London to Seattle to Thibodaux, Louisiana, your home, always and forever. Our previous interviews have included mostly large city lawyers who highly specialize. Your practice and atmosphere are completely different. Tell us about practicing law in Thibodaux, where the Block Law Firm is a pillar of the community.
Our law practice began in 1971, when I began practice with my brother, Harold, who graduated from Tulane Law the same year I did. Literally, we hung our "shingle" and began accepting cases. Although we had no established clients, older, more experienced lawyers in our community began referring cases to us. Rest assured these cases did not grant instant riches. Most of the referrals were cases from lawyers who had too much on their plates and needed someone to handle smaller cases. Fortuitously, one of these more experienced lawyers was elected as a district court judge and he gave us his entire inventory of cases (some good - others bad).
Our practice developed and over the years, my brother gravitated toward transactional work while I was interested in litigation. During these years, several of my partners and associates became judges on the district courts, the state appellate court, and the Louisiana Supreme Court. Our litigation practice succeeded and increased with a client-focused, result-oriented emphasis.
Over the years, our practice transitioned from a community-based practice to a referral practice that has involved referrals from lawyers throughout the United States. Recently, we undertook representation for the State of Louisiana in pharmaceutical litigation, which generated over $200 million in state recovery.
2. I read you have been integrally involved in the Thibodaux Chamber of Commerce over the years. Take this opportunity to convince our Manhattan and Beverly Hills lawyers why the Jerald P. Block tour of Lafourche Parish would knock their socks off.
After our LCA Fall Conference in New Orleans, LCA Fellows, John McArthur (San Francisco) and Brad Engdahl (Minneapolis), spent several extra days in our home and surrounding area. Catherine and I had the opportunity to take them on a tour of a local sugar mill during harvest season, several operating sugar plantations, a swamp tour (gators and all), plantation homes along the Mississippi River, and some of our favorite local restaurants. Their testimonials, for which they have been highly compensated, will convince the non-believers.
3. Practicing law with your son, Matthew, also an LCA Fellow, is undoubtedly rewarding in many respects. I am certain that over the years your trial skills and practice methodology and philosophy have benefitted him. But what have you learned from him and his youth that has enhanced your practice?
Practicing law with Matthew has been exciting and humbling. His style is less confrontational and more inclined to effective dispute resolution. When I began practice, arbitration and mediation were not common place. Now, they are an integral part of our daily litigation practice. For instance, preparing for and engaging in mediation requires a different skillset; one more focused on a quieter, subtler approach as opposed to a courtroom approach. For various reasons, some economic - some societal, there are fewer and fewer civil trials with more emphasis on alternative resolution techniques. Matthew has been instrumental in transitioning my mindset from a rigid litigation approach to a more balanced approach to the resolution of our clients' legal disputes.
4. The Block Law Firm offices are in a charming old house near downtown Thibodaux. What is the history of that architectural marvel and its location?
The Victorian home built in 1907 on the banks of Bayou Lafourche is on the National Register of Historic Places. The original homeowners operated a cooperage (barrel-making) business on the bayou in front of our office. The abundance of cypress trees in our area provided the necessary resource while the waterway served as the commercial corridor for transportation to customers in New Orleans and other business centers.
5. There is a certain pedigree for law in Thibodaux. The ninth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Edward Douglass White, was born there. Did that history play into your decision to go into law as you reached your late teens? At what point in your life did law become an interest or goal?
While he was a historic figure from Thibodaux, to me Chief Justice Edward Douglass White was a name in a history book. While our local Catholic high school is named after him, his influence was not instrumental in my decision to practice law. I attended public schools throughout my elementary, middle school and high school education. My teachers promoted critical analysis and encouraged students to invest in their potential. Our teachers were engaged and engaging. While in high school, and later in college, I participated in debate training. Throughout my early education, I enjoyed the thrust and parry of debate and eventually, it shaped my career path.
6. To what destination do you go to find your own version of solace?
While Catherine and I love to travel, the destination is not critical. A well-written, good book is often more important for comfort than a physical location. Connecting with our children and grandchildren is the ultimate in relaxation and enjoyment. Being involved in their lives enriches ours.
7. What roles should confidence and humility play for a trial lawyer?
Confidence versus humility reminds me of the joke involving the teacher who asked her class the difference between ignorance and apathy. Unfortunately, her very best student responded by saying, "I don't know and I don't care." All kidding aside, to be a successful trial lawyer, one must have confidence balanced with humility. Neither trait should be contrived. At times, confidence is more important while at other times humility is the better choice.
8. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried?
Surely, the discovery process has increased costs, paralyzed our court system, and at times makes us appear frivolous to clients and the general public. Without a doubt, disputes about discovery discourage the ultimate resolution of a case and postpone resolution between the parties.
9. What do you consider your most unusual accomplishment?
Approximately 20 years ago, I volunteered as a Board member and eventually became Board chairman of a local assisted living facility. It is one of my proudest but most unusual accomplishments. In a million years, I never thought I would embrace a facility for senior citizens. After all, I started my volunteering when I was in my mid-40s. Yet, having served as a Board member of this non-profit facility has given me great joy and tremendous satisfaction. The seniors are fun-loving residents who sincerely appreciate having someone connect with them. I have learned more from them and have been given more by them than I have ever returned.
10. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places, and what fascinates you about them?
I love New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Austin, Hawaii, Israel, Rome, Florence, Paris, London, and the wine country outside of Capetown, South Africa. Perhaps growing up and living in a small city makes it easier for someone to love larger cities. The cultural amenities, offered in places like New Orleans, New York, and Boston, as well as other metropolitan areas, are great advantages. Of course, as lovers of fine cuisine, we are always on the search for great restaurants regardless of location.
11. What is your greatest extravagance?
For some peculiar reason, I buy coats, jackets, and cold weather gear that I will never wear in south Louisiana's usually balmy climate. Most of this clothing hangs in my closet even on the coldest Louisiana day. Catherine seems to enjoy questioning my wardrobe choices with "Another jacket you will never wear unless we move to Alaska." With the threat of global warming, I may decide to abandon this unusual extravagance, but probably not.
12. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
Photos of my parents, now deceased, serve to re-energize me. My parents were hard-working, dedicated parents from humble origins. They provided nurturing, encouragement, love for south Louisiana culture, and love for travel. They were true role models for enjoying work, enjoying life, and respect for others. My father's favorite saying involved our relationship with others: "Don't ever forget you're just as good as everyone else but not any better."
13. If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
No surprises, as an American history buff, I would love to have met and conversed with Abraham Lincoln. Abe was resolute but pragmatic, compassionate when necessary, eloquent always. Lincoln's words in his first Inaugural Address in March 1861 are timely and relevant even today: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Anyone who could write and speak with such eloquence would surely have been a remarkable person to meet.
14. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as the Diversity Law Institute's website. In a word, sentence, or paragraph, what, in your opinion, is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
If we don't encourage diversity, we are doomed. The strength of our nation, challenged by some, lies in our differences that translate into strength. Our law firm has encouraged differences and diversity that translated into a richness that makes all of us proud. Encouraging and developing diversity is a key component to the future of our profession and failing in that mission should not be acceptable to anyone.
15. What trait do you most value in your friends?
16. If you could not be a lawyer, what would you like, or have liked, to be?
A dancer. The elegance of dance has always attracted me and, as I age, the grace of a well performed dance never ceases to amaze me.
17. Okay, softball time. Who makes the best boudin in Louisiana?
Best boudin in south Louisiana is from the Lafayette area. Don's in Scott, LA, is well known for its great boudin. Don's is conveniently located on I-10 just west of Lafayette. Another well-known spot for boudin is Best Stop Supermarket also in Scott, LA. Boudin, like scotch, is an acquired taste. [P.S. Even my spellcheck didn't recognize the word "boudin."]
18. And bread pudding?
This is an easy answer. The Palace Café on Canal Street in New Orleans has the best bread pudding. Palace Café's iteration of traditional bread pudding is White Chocolate Bread Pudding. The recipe is available online. Calorie counters beware!
19. Okay, realizing you are a Tulane man undergrad and law, I have to ask anyway. Were you or was anyone you know among the apparent two million people in Tiger Stadium for Billy Cannon's Halloween night run against Ole Miss in 1959?
Even as a Tulane grad, the Billy Cannon run on Halloween night is one of the greatest memories in Louisiana football history. In Tiger Stadium that night LSU was ranked #1 and Ole Miss was ranked #3. LSU was trailing 3-0 when Cannon returned a punt 89 yards for a TD, breaking seven tackles and running the last 60 yards untouched. It was the only TD of the game, resulting in a 7–3 victory. Unfortunately, I was not in attendance but most Louisiana football fans claim they were. Legend has it that families living near the campus came running out of their homes fearful of the noise from the stadium.
20. What is your motto?
Never be afraid to fail.