Lance Northcutt

Lance NorthcuttI decided that I was going to become a lawyer the moment I walked into my first courtroom, seeing a jury trial at age 11. My uncle was a detective in Area 65 in crimes at the time, and he took me to court one day. He pointed out the Assistant State’s Attorney. He was arguing the strong-arm robbery case that he was there for that day, and I remember being fascinated by the whole idea that someone had committed a crime and was still able to walk free on the streets. Afterwards, when court was over, my uncle took me over to meet the attorney, and that introduction to the prosecutor and the profession resonated with me over the years.  

Years later, I was in junior college, and I have my first criminal justice course. It was taught by a gentleman who was a judge at the time but had been a former prosecutor. After class, he asked me what I want to do after college, and I informed him that my dream would be to serve as a prosecutor, telling him about my first experience in the courtroom. He then looked right at me and smiled, saying that I was the prosecutor that day. 

Did working in law enforcement influence your decision to become a lawyer? 

Law enforcement was a pathway for me to becoming a lawyer. It seemed to be the most logical entry point into the profession. It gave me exposure to the courtroom, even though I wasn’t an advocate working in it just yet.  

I started out as a 911 dispatcher in a small suburban town, and then moved over to Naperville as a detention officer. I later went on to get a certification as a forensic specialist, as well. 

Going back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I had a unique experience — seeing the system from multiple angles. Having seen what police officers go through, seeing how cases are prosecuted and defended, and being conversant in civil litigation, made me the lawyer I am today. I wouldn’t have had that experience if I hadn’t paid my proverbial dues, and I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much if it would have come easier. 

How did mentoring impact your career? 

When I was in law school, I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t a judge’s kid or an alderman’s son or a trust fund baby. I didn’t think that there would be any reason that people who were paid to teach me the law would go out of their way to mentor me beyond what they were required to do.  

Two professors – Ken Kandaras and Ken Cunniff – took me under their wing and taught me everything I know about trial advocacy. That guidance didn’t end in law school. Ken Cunniff went to bat for me and helped me to land my first job in the state’s attorney’s office. I still work with Ken on cases to this day. 

Do you take the time to mentor others? 

Constantly – and the mentoring takes place in different countries. I’ve been teaching trial advocacy in the US and Ireland in one form or another since I graduated law school. I’ve tried to emulate exactly what was done for me, and it’s been a privilege to be able to say I’ve done that for others. I now understand why people sought to mentor me back when I was a law student. 

Tell me more about your work teaching trial advocacy. 

I began teaching trial advocacy at John Marshall shortly after I graduated law school. In 2005, I was asked to take over a trial advocacy class. Following that semester, I was asked to come on as an adjunct faculty member at the law school. From there, I became the Assistant Director of Trial Advocacy at John Marshall. In that role, I went on to develop a new iteration of the comparative trial advocacy curriculum that I went through when I was a student. We expanded on that and built relationships with members of the Supreme Court, the High Court, and the Bar of Ireland, which blossomed into something special. 

In 2013, I moved to Kent to work alongside Justice David Erickson. We established a trial advocacy program over in Ireland based on the foundation I had laid before at John Marshall which continues to the present-day.  

Why is civility so important to the legal profession? 

I work in a litigation firm. Within the firm, I lead our specialty litigation practice. The cases we handle are complex, contentious, and high stakes. Civility isn’t just a platitude that I discuss. It’s a guidepost that I must think about every single day. As a firm, we are dealing with human beings that have emotions who are very invested in the outcome of their case. And as an advocate, we become invested in the outcome of the case.  

So, as a commissioner, I made a point to put professionalism at the top of my mind, forcing myself to think of my role in broader terms. Rather than trying to find ways to steamroll my opponent or leverage an advantage, we must look at opposing counsel as a colleague who is just as thoughtful and impassioned as you are. Being able to strike that intricate balance between loyalty to your client with civility and treating your opponent fairly in the context of litigation is difficult, but critically important. 

What advice would you give to new lawyers working in litigation? 

Everything your grandmother taught you about being a good person, applies doubly in the courtroom.  

One of the things I see with great frustration, particularly with young lawyers, is the tendency to always revert to the bunker mentality as opposed to being congenial with your opponent. Try to talk to them as a colleague instead of a blood enemy. When you do that, you’re doing right by your client. You can get more leverage for your position if you have a partner on the other side.  

Karma is fickle. The one case you have with someone where you have them at a disadvantage and you try to leverage that in an unfair manner can come back to haunt you when you need a favor one day.  

A person’s name in this business is their stock and trade. By showing consideration and compassion, you will form great relationships which can and will help you in tangible ways. Some of my closest friends and professional colleagues, I’m happy to say are former adversaries. The fact that I am able to have relationships with those I am diametrically opposed to in a courtroom is amazing to me. It’s one of the incredible gifts that separates us from just a regular job.  

Outside of work, how you enjoy spending your time? 

With the little time I have free in my schedule, I rarely sleep. My colleagues joke that I actually sleep standing up. I love my time at work and I love my time away from my job as well. When I do get the chance to relax, I love listening to Irish music, I read voraciously, and I work out as much as I can, but not as much as I should. I also enjoy catching up with family and friends as much as possible to unwind. 


Lance Northcutt is a trial lawyer and partner with Goldberg Weisman Cairo, Ltd. in Chicago. He has served on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism since 2016.

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