Joshua Ritter of Werksman, Jackson & Quinn: “Don’t take this to mean lack of humility”

Pride. Don’t take this to mean lack of humility. I mean pride in your work and what you do. People are watching and your reputation can change in an instant. Never sacrifice your ethics or take shortcuts to simply get the results you want. Recently a colleague brought me on to be co-counsel on a […]

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Pride. Don’t take this to mean lack of humility. I mean pride in your work and what you do. People are watching and your reputation can change in an instant. Never sacrifice your ethics or take shortcuts to simply get the results you want. Recently a colleague brought me on to be co-counsel on a case because it involved elements in my expertise. When the Prosecutor heard that I had been brought on board he remarked to my colleague “I think I’m going to be sick.” That’s because he knew he was in for the fight of his life with an attorney that would take no quarter. I took great pride in that.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Ritter.

Criminal defense attorney and Los Angeles native Joshua Ritter worked as a prosecutor with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office for close to a decade and was awarded the 2015 Outstanding Prosecutor of the Year by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. During his career as a prosecutor Joshua specialized in complex and high profile cases culminating in more than 40 cases brought to verdict with a felony conviction rate over 90%.

Upon joining his current criminal defense firm Werksman, Jackson & Quinn, Joshua has continued to devote his talents to the tenacious and zealous defense of his clients. With a proven track record of resolving issues quickly and to the great satisfaction of his clients in no small part because of the continued strong relationship Joshua has with the District Attorney’s office. Specializing in matters of the utmost seriousness and complexity that oftentimes garner significant media attention, Joshua is well equipped to manage whatever concerns his clients, including Hollywood stars, professional athletes, and top executives, might be confronted with.

Joshua also hosts the podcast True Crime Daily: The Sidebar, which takes the listeners behind-the-scenes of the country’s most high-profile and notorious cases.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

Thank you for having me! No, actually. My father was a lawyer. My brother is a lawyer. I guess I had always hoped to buck the trend and become a screenwriter or something. But when it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. Same when I first went to law school, I had no interest in criminal law. It was not until I was placed in a clerkship with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office that my whole outlook changed. I saw young, bright and ambitious lawyers kicking ass and taking names — I was hooked!

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

Today I work at an elite criminal defense firm. I say “elite” because we are practicing at the highest level of criminal defense on a national level. The only reason I left the District Attorney’s office was to come work for this firm because of the reputation that they had built. Our practice deals with criminal defense on all levels, from multiple murders to low level infractions, on both the State and Federal level. Lately we have experienced a groundswell of cases dealing with sexual assault, especially allegations involving persons of power or celebrity.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Tenacity. This job requires grit. The whole system is adversarial. By and large I pride myself on being very professional and cordial with any counterpart I work with, but that doesn’t change the fact that every day they are trying to put my client in prison and every day I’m doing all that I can to prevent that from happening. If you don’t have the tenacity and grit to stick that out, you will not last long.
  2. Boldness. One of my mentors loved to say, “fortune favors the bold.” I think that is true especially for lawyers. Whether you are talking in respect to your career: ask for that raise, ask for that promotion, or even take that leap to hang your own shingle. Or, if we are talking about the practice of law itself: make that bold new argument, take that chance on cross examination. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  3. Patience. After what I’ve just said, being patient may seem contradictory, but it’s not. I have found that much of being a good lawyer requires knowing when to strike. If I have a bombshell of favorable evidence, being a smart lawyer means knowing when to drop that bomb for the most disastrous effect on the opposition’s case. Doing so might require tremendous restraint on my part. Same applies to your career, as much as I encourage colleagues to be bold and take chances, you must be able to see past your own impatience and wait for the right time to make a career move most successfully.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

Absolutely! I don’t think anyone arrives at a high level of success without having a little help from good folks surrounding them and a healthy sprinkling of luck. In my case I was lucky enough to meet the right people at both the right time in their career and the right time in my own career. These folks became my mentors and have had a profound effect on who I am and where I find myself today.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

In my case it did not. Whenever I’m speaking to young people aspiring to go to law school I tell them, unless you are going to a prestigious national university, go to the very best school you can in the city you plan to practice law. The networking and connections you will make with local attorneys is far more valuable than a law degree from some mid-tier school out of state.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

I would say “take the leap sooner.” Too often I see colleagues get bogged down in careers that they are unhappy with but feel like they have no escape from because life catches up with them. Don’t fall for the golden handcuffs. If you are at a place that you are unhappy with, don’t get complacent, take the leap! You have a whole career ahead of you to rebuild yourself, maybe even two or three different times.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

Above all else it is my family. Providing a future for them is without a doubt my primary motivation. But from a professional perspective, I would say you must guard your reputation with ferocity. No matter what I am doing I realize that every argument I make in court, every line of every brief that leaves my office, even every email I send has my name attached to it and therefore must mean something. Never forget that.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

The nature of my business leaves little room for boring moments. That is part of why I love it. The universe seems to know when I’m having a slow week and decides then is the best time to have some huge case fall in my lap. I never know when someone is going to call me from jail, the hospital, or to tell me that the Feds are knocking on their door with a warrant. Currently our firm has been completely consumed with defending a well-known movie executive facing criminal charges.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

I recently had an exciting opportunity fall in my lap. I have been a recurring guest on a true crime podcast with a large following. I found the experience fun, but never expected more to come of it. Recently I was asked by the True Crime Daily show producers to launch a spinoff podcast with me as the host. It has been a whirlwind experience and all the more exciting given that I had no expectation it was in my future. In this case the fun is all in the journey.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

I don’t know if this is the funniest or most successful, but it’s certainly the story that sticks with me the most. Soon after going into private practice, I was hired by a family to defend a man who had been arrested for bank robbery. We can call him “Joe.” Joe suffered from a severe case of impulse control. Joe was a successful businessman. Joe had no reason to rob a bank, but that didn’t stop Joe. Joe was taking an international business trip with an associate one summer. On the way to the airport Joe told his associate that he wanted to make a quick stop at a convenience store. Unbeknownst to the business associate, Joe had other plans. Next door to the convenience store was a small bank branch. Without any planning, Joe casually walked into the bank, covered his face with his shirt, and demanded the clerk give him “all the money.” Joe then just as casually exited the bank and got back in the car and headed for the airport. His associate never knew anything was amiss until they were both stopped by law enforcement while attempting to board their flight.

I first met Joe in county lockup. This particular jail had no bars or plexiglass between inmates and visitors. The inmates simply sat on one side of a long metal table and their attorneys on the other. Mind you this was one of the first times I have ever spoken with an inmate client in my career. At first our conversation went well, but as time passed Joe became more and more agitated and said that all he wanted was to “get out.” First, he asked if he could walk out with me. I explained to him that this was not how things worked. Next, he suggested that I create a diversion. When I was not persuaded Joe finally just jumped the table in between us and made a run for the door. Joe was quickly swarmed by deputies and his escape was short-lived. I guess in a way it was a success story because despite all this I was able to negotiate a deal that had Joe out of jail by Christmas. I will never forget Joe.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I work almost entirely onsite. The nature of our business requires some difficult and sensitive discussions that are best made in person. However, many of our court appearances are now being done remotely, which is fantastic. A court appearance that may have taken all morning to commute, find parking and wait in court, can now be done in a matter of minutes over the phone or computer. I do think that many of the changes we have seen will likely remain. There does not seem to be a good reason to have someone fly across the country to take a deposition or for a simple hearing. However, I do not think there is any substitute for the in-person experience when dealing with something as important and fundamental as a jury trial.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

COVID forced us all to take part in a great experiment. It asked the question, “Can we do all of this in a different way?” The legal system, especially the world of criminal law, is very averse to change. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the computer systems that still operate the courts for some of the larger jurisdictions like Los Angeles County — your smartphone is more advanced. But in a world where it may have been unimaginable to conduct court business over the phone or remotely, now we see that not only can it be done routinely, but often it is far more efficient.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

I am a strong believer in the power of networking. But I think the term itself has taken on a poor connotation. If by “networking” you mean some cringe-worthy mixer with a room full of uncomfortable people and bad appetizers, then yes, that is dinosaur thinking. But I personally need a strong referral base to keep my business thriving. That involves networking. Whether it be a lunch, cocktails, coffee or even a quick email, I want to remain top-of-mind with these folks. Also, your network needs to be ever expanding. Reach out to a professional contact you haven’t touched base with in a while. Make the effort. Continue to stir the pot. You will be surprised by how your seemingly fruitless efforts begin to pay off.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

Social media is an arena where young, savvy lawyers can probably have the greatest impact. The profession is changing and the old school way of doing business is quickly being left behind. I can’t tell you the number of lawyers I have worked with that do not have their own website, let alone a complex and engaging media strategy. Even law firms that are more sophisticated when it comes to web presence are still slow to engage in platforms like Facebook, Instagram or even consider TikTok. If the new generation of lawyers were to use these mediums to engage effectively with the public in a way that generated business, it could be game changing.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Pride. Don’t take this to mean lack of humility. I mean pride in your work and what you do. People are watching and your reputation can change in an instant. Never sacrifice your ethics or take shortcuts to simply get the results you want. Recently a colleague brought me on to be co-counsel on a case because it involved elements in my expertise. When the Prosecutor heard that I had been brought on board he remarked to my colleague “I think I’m going to be sick.” That’s because he knew he was in for the fight of his life with an attorney that would take no quarter. I took great pride in that.
  2. Empathy. You are dealing with people’s lives. Oftentimes this can be lost. The criminal justice system is so overwhelmed that sometimes the lawyers involved can be made to feel they are just pushing cases down the line of a never-ending treadmill. Don’t get that way. I’ll never forget when I was a prosecutor, and I was arguing with a defense attorney who was having trouble getting his client to plead to a case. I was frustrated because I felt he was getting a “great deal” because the prison time was “so low.” The defense attorney turned to me and said, “Ya, but he’s never been there before.” It stopped me dead in my tracks. I too would be terrified of the prospect of going to prison having never stepped foot inside before. Never lose sight of the fact that behind the case name and numbers there are actual people with actual lives who may be changed forever.
  3. Charisma. Sometimes being liked can go a long way. While you need to be tough and resolved to fight for your clients, that doesn’t mean that you must be a jerk. Sometimes just being a friendly and affable person can go a long way to grease the wheels of justice. The law may be the law, but don’t fool yourself into thinking a genuine smile is not often just as impactful as a Pulitzer winning argument.
  4. Tenacity. Much of this profession is seeing who blinks first. Sometimes you are simply going to need to outwork folks. I’ll never forget the time I was involved in a multi-day argument on a motion that was make or break for my client. The prosecutor was a very experienced and highly gifted speaker. His arguments were remarkable. But for each point he made, I countered with facts, documents, and testimony from the record. It’s not that I was more talented than him, it was that I was more prepared than him that carried the day. I had outworked him.
  5. Boldness. You miss every shot you don’t take. This does not mean to be reckless. You must be thoughtful and tactical with every move you make in court. But sometimes you must take a deep breath and go for it. Once in court I had a very challenging murder case that I was prosecuting. The defense had called a witness to testify that seemingly decimated my case. I had very little to go on in cross-examination. Traditional courtroom strategy would have advised that I avoid questioning the witnesses further and instead try to mitigate the harm to my case down the line. I said f*ck it. I started by just questioning the witness on what they had previously testified to, pursuing follow up questions where I could. Eventually a loose thread was exposed. And as I continued to tug and pull the witness began to fall apart completely. After the trial jurors told me that the cross-examination of that witness was some of the most convincing evidence in my favor. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Elon Musk. No other individual of my generation has been more willing to ignore what others have described as impossible and simply ask, “Why not?”

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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