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Cynthia McGuinn convinced all but one juror that her client deserved millions of dollars for a shoulder injury. But the dubious holdout, Pauline Shaver, was impressed with McGuinn nonetheless. At the end of the trial, she asked for McGuinn’s card. “If I ever need a lawyer, I’m going to call her,” said Shaver, who manages a private art collection in San Francisco. “She’s incredibly smart, she’s rigorous about her job, she’s very thorough.” McGuinn’s ability to connect with jurors has been one of the keys to her phenomenal success. The San Francisco-based plaintiff lawyer says she hasn’t had a defense verdict in more than 40 trials spanning two decades. “To have the kind of winning record she has is extraordinary,” said veteran San Francisco plaintiff lawyer Ronald Rouda, a past president of the American Board of Trial Advocates, an invitation-only group that requires members to have at least 20 jury trials under their belt. “I don’t know any trial lawyer who doesn’t lose cases. It’s the nature of the profession.” Renowned San Francisco trial attorney James Brosnahan praises McGuinn as “one of the best trial lawyers in California and maybe around the country.” And last year the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association jointly named McGuinn and her colleague, William Veen, Trial Lawyer of the Year. McGuinn, 55, specializes in personal injury, wrongful death and product liability cases. In a practice niche that often features big egos and aggressive courtroom tactics, she is known for her low-key approach. Colleagues and jurors alike cite her warm personality and skill at drawing people out on the witness stand as her most powerful weapons in court. “She’s a kind, gentle person that comes across that way in the courtroom,” said Robert Slattery, of Walnut Creek’s McNamara, Dodge, Ney, Beatty, Slattery & Pfalzer, who tried a case against McGuinn two years ago. “She stands out from the bombastic, argumentative people you run into.” But there’s steel beneath the sweetness, he added. “I don’t want to say she’s homespun with a jury, but she conceals how effective she is,” Slattery said. “She comes across so nice and then is putting zingers in during cross-examination.” In the case Shaver heard in August, the jury awarded $5.4 million to an orthopedic surgeon who suffered a nerve injury when a 38-pound piece of plywood fell off a downtown San Francisco high-rise and slammed into his shoulder. McGuinn worried that jurors wouldn’t sympathize with a doctor who was making $400,000 annually despite the injury. But she convinced them that he couldn’t perform delicate, highly complex surgeries anymore and should have been earning about 50 percent more. “She came across as very credible, very articulate, and had a good rapport with the jury,” said jury foreman Charles Cooper, who works as a CNet reporter. He said McGuinn reminded him of David Boies, whom Cooper had seen in action when he covered the Microsoft antitrust trial in Washington, D.C., six years ago. Boies, who represented the U.S. government in its landmark case against Microsoft, and McGuinn both “had a clear recall of facts and were able to weave together a narrative that was convincing,” Cooper said. McGuinn works out of a spare, uncluttered office at the Veen firm’s headquarters on Van Ness Avenue. Upcoming trials are marked on a dry-erase board on one wall. On the wall behind her desk hangs an ink drawing of a horse. McGuinn, who began riding 10 years ago, also has a photo of her 20-year-old Arabian horse on her computer screen saver. McGuinn comes across in an interview as a lively, engaging woman. She wears a dark, stylishly tailored suit and enthusiastically discusses past trials with almost total recall: how she presented her case, how the jurors reacted, what questions they asked. She is friendly and at ease but talks with a quiet intensity, her eyes never drifting from her listener’s face. She clearly loves telling stories, a quality that allows her to hold jurors’ attention. As she talks, she pulls out various trial mementos, including letters from former jurors. One man whom McGuinn excluded from a jury wrote that he had disliked being called to jury duty but got so excited about the case during McGuinn’s questioning that he was sorry to be rejected. McGuinn reads aloud the note she’d written back to the juror, a lexicographer, explaining why she hadn’t picked him. She speaks fondly of the man, as she often does about the jurors, clients and even defense counsel with which she’s worked. “I enjoy talking to juries,” McGuinn said. “I like to find out their life experience and how that’s shaped what they think.” Her approach with jurors is to be simple and honest. “Sometimes admitting weaknesses in a case is an empowering thing,” she said. “You see how the problem is likely to be evaluated” by jurors. McGuinn’s husband, John McGuinn Jr., said her credibility with a jury is her most defining characteristic. An employment litigator at McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky, he likened his wife to the writer Raymond Carver. While she’s not the minimalist Carver is, she “doesn’t become flamboyant when she speaks,” McGuinn said. “She commands attention,” enunciating clearly and looking directly at people. McGuinn said her father taught her how to tell a story. And her husband now helps her refine her narrative. “John has been a huge influence in how I come up with themes for my cases,” she said. McGuinn said she likes being a lawyer because it gives her a chance to help people. She forms especially tight bonds with certain clients. Kristy Summers, the daughter of a former client, works as a law clerk in her office. McGuinn represented Summers’ family 10 years ago when her father was killed in a traffic accident. Summers, who was about 11 years old at the time, is studying at St. Mary’s College in Moraga to become a paralegal. MIDWESTERN ROOTS The daughter of Italian parents, McGuinn grew up in Ohio. Her father was a mailman and her mother, who died when McGuinn was in her late teens, cleaned houses. After graduating from the University of Akron with a degree in education, she moved to Hawaii with her then-husband, a U.S. Navy officer. McGuinn couldn’t get a teaching position there, so she took a string of jobs — modeling in catalogs, selling cars and mobile homes, doing landscape work and bartending. She decided to become a lawyer after an unsuccessful audition as a fur model. One of the people in charge of hiring told her that at age 26 she was too old for the gig. She proceeded to get her J.D. from Golden Gate University School of Law in 1981 and began practicing on her own. She had considered joining a firm but was turned off when an outfit with which she interviewed offered her $10,000 less than a man in her graduating class. McGuinn first set up shop in Fremont, primarily doing criminal defense work, and eventually moved to San Francisco, where she handled plaintiff employment cases for eight years. She first teamed up with Veen in the late 1980s when she sought his help on a personal injury case. McGuinn then rented space in Veen’s office before he convinced her to join his firm in 1989. McGuinn and two other lawyers head up trial teams at the 10-attorney firm. McGuinn said it’s a delight to work with Veen. “He’s the finest negotiator I’ve ever seen,” she said. “He’s a fabulous trial lawyer and a generous spirit.” McGuinn frequently works cases with Veen, and those who have seen the pair in action say they are an extraordinary match, complementing each other’s personalities. “Bill is more aggressive and confrontational,” said Slattery. “Cynthia pulls him back a little, puts a soft spin on things. They’re very effective together.” Veen laughed when asked about their different styles. “Sometimes I’m like a bull in a china shop,” he said. “I don’t think jurors necessarily want to hug me as I’ve seen them do with Cynthia at the end of a trial.” Besides McGuinn’s skill at bonding with jurors, Veen said she is impressive in presenting complex information, drawing out her witnesses’ personalities and putting them in the best possible light on the stand. Two years ago, the two handled a medical malpractice case in which doctors failed to diagnose jaundice in an infant who subsequently developed cerebral palsy and became quadriplegic. Veen said they had to prove causation and convince the jury that the child would live a long life. McGuinn, he said, was able to illustrate the difference between the standard of care for newborns and the hospital’s conduct. They won an $84 million verdict, and the case settled before it was appealed in a confidential agreement. McGuinn said that case, Leyvas v. Paragas, has meant more to her than any other. In addition to helping the family pay for long-term care for their crippled son, she said the case may have changed hospital protocols for detecting jaundice in infants. Framed on her wall is a copy of a professional liability newsletter that cites the verdict as an example of why hospitals should change their procedures. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Sabraw, who oversaw the Leyvas trial, said the case was well tried on both sides. McGuinn is “very articulate and someone the jury relates to,” Sabraw said. “Some people are very knowledgeable, but do not have the personality or speaking skills she has.” PRAISE FROM OPPONENTS Although she stays out of the media limelight, McGuinn is well known among her peers. She and Veen won Trial Lawyer of the Year for the Leyvas case as well as a $14.4 million verdict for a woman who lost an eye in an explosion. McGuinn is a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, and other prominent trial lawyers, such as Brosnahan, don’t hesitate to ask her advice. McGuinn even evokes admiration from her opponents. Establishing trust with opposing attorneys, she said, is often crucial to resolving a dispute. “I always try to learn a little bit about opposing counsel and talk to them from the heart,” McGuinn said. “You have to � find out what is important to them and their client.” Lawrence Kern, of Kern, Noda, Devine & Segal, who lost a case against McGuinn earlier this year, said it was nonetheless a pleasure to work with her. “There’s so much animus in this business,” he said, adding that McGuinn treats opponents “in an adversarial way but in a totally professional manner and doesn’t let personalities get involved. She doesn’t take the battle and turn it into a war or fight every issue.” Kern represented Yellow Cab Co. in his case against McGuinn. She was counsel for four people who were injured when an airport shuttle bus they were riding in slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting a taxicab that had stopped on a highway ramp. She won a total of $3.5 million for the plaintiffs. One of the jurors, Jackie Schar, said she was impressed with McGuinn’s efforts to clarify each point raised during the trial and with her interaction with the jurors afterward. “She wanted to know everything we were thinking, what the whole quotient was,” Schar, a school bus driver, said. “She was brilliant when I look at it now.” In fact, like the holdout juror in the surgeon’s case, Schar plans to hire McGuinn if she ever needs an attorney.

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