“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
-Shannon L. Alder
At this point in his career, it would be easy for Scott Ortiz to just coast for the next few years. His career speaks for itself and it would be easy to just switch to autopilot, shake the right hands, say the right things, and leave the “real” work to his associates and paralegals.
But that’s not his style.
When 18-year-old Ortiz found himself in a bit of hot water, he hired Frank Neville to serve as his attorney. It would not be the first, nor last, time a future associate called upon the services of Neville and his law firm. Neville tends to make a strong impression on people, especially on young men with the passion, drive, and intensity needed to become a lawyer. Neville made an impression on Ortiz, which is why, years later, he was the first person Scott called when he moved back to Casper.
But before that happened, Ortiz first had to graduate high school, which he did. He then went on to earn his B.A. from the University of Wyoming in 1985, before earning his J.D., with honors, from the University of Wyoming School of Law in 1988. As Ortiz remembers it, however, that almost didn’t happen.
“I screwed around a lot during my undergrad and almost didn’t even get into law school,” Ortiz laughed. “I did nothing but tend bar and goof off. Thank God I had a really good LSAT score.”
Still, for a time, Ortiz was just like the rest of us- a sharp young man who just needed a little bit of guidance. He needed a mentor, and that’s exactly what he got when he began working at WPDN.
After spending just under 3 years working at a law firm in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, Ortiz returned to his hometown of Casper in 1991 and immediately called his old friend, Frank Neville. There was a place at the table for him and Ortiz has been a part of WPDN ever since.
For the past 29 years, Scott Ortiz has been an integral part of Williams, Porter, Day, and Neville. He has tried in excess of sixty jury trials and more than one hundred and fifty arbitrations and contested case hearings. Ortiz has a trial practice specializing in professional liability claims, defense of transportation carriers, oil and gas-related litigation, and labor and employment law with large energy-related employers. In short, Ortiz stays busy and he loves, loves, going to trial. In fact, Ortiz said, part of his job is to help maintain and preserve case trials that require a jury system.
“I’m on the American Board of Trial Advocates in Wyoming and a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers,” Ortiz beamed. “Both of these organizations stand for the concept that we need to preserve jury trials in civil cases- cases where you’re fighting about money, personal injury, breaches of contracts, and more; just something other than a criminal charge. Jury trials are slowly but surely going away because of mediation and the idea of alternative dispute resolution. Things have gotten so expensive that you have fewer and fewer civil jury trials. Tragically, there’s a whole generation of attorneys coming in behind me that have had very little civil trial experience.”
For Ortiz, that’s unacceptable. His favorite aspect of being an attorney is going to trial and he wants to pass on what he has learned to the next generation- which is hard to do when fewer and fewer cases are actually going to trial.
“One of the most important things I see myself doing before I retire is trying to get as many of my young partners and associates experience in a courtroom because I tried ten or eleven jury trials in my first two-and-a-half years as an attorney. And only two of those were criminal trials. With the current system, if you file a lawsuit, it might be 18 months or two years later that you get a trial date, and less than 1% of those cases actually go to trial. And that’s a tragedy.”
In many cases, it’s easier…and cheaper…to settle. Settling becomes less a matter of fault or responsibility, and more a matter of cost/benefit.
“It’s easier,” Ortiz said of settling a case before it goes to trial. “You can cap your risk and the costs. The costs of a two-or-three-week jury trial with experts these days have made it so much easier for clients to say, ‘I’d rather settle.’ The experts we hire charge so much more money than what the actual lawyers charge. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that- that’s just the reality of the world.”
More often than not, if a company can spend less money on a settlement than if they were to go to trial, they’ll choose to settle. But, if Ortiz had his way, there would be more trial cases.
“I’d like to focus my practice on getting more cases to trial; big, hard-fought cases where you’re trying against good lawyers. It’s scary and it’s risky, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Ortiz likes the competition between the attorneys. He also likes the camaraderie. His competitiveness should not be confused with a lack of respect, though, because Scott Ortiz has an enormous amount of respect for his colleagues; especially ones he finds himself up against in a trial.
“There are so many people at various other firms, that I truly consider friends,” he said. “Yet we’ll still slug it out against each other in a trial. There are great camaraderie and great respect among Wyoming’s attorneys. Wyoming has great trial lawyers, especially compared to other states.”
If it sounds like Ortiz is waxing poetic about the relationships between trial lawyers, it’s because he is. Despite what John Grisham or Dick Wolf present in regard to the external affect of attorneys, most of them get along or, at least, are civil towards each other. Ortiz is a big proponent of civility amongst his colleagues and that is one of the biggest things he hopes to pass on to the next generation of attorneys.
“I’m a strong advocate that we need to be more civil to each other,” Ortiz pontificated. “Both of the organizations that I am a part of, as well as some others, preach civility. You can be hard-nosed, you can be a hard competitor, but we need to be honest with our opponents. We need to treat them with civility, as we do the court. If an opposing lawyer calls and they’re jammed up and they need an extension of time, there has to be a really good reason for me not to just immediately agree to that. What you see in public politics right now is not the way most lawyers are talking to each other. That’s not the way they out to be trying cases. Unfortunately, I think a lot of young lawyers coming up think that they need to be fire-breathing dragons, or that they need to be sarcastic or condescending.”
“You can be smart and clever and quick-witted and be a great counter-puncher and still never, ever be uncivil to your opponent,” he added. “That is a big thing for me and I’m proud that the other lawyers at WPDN share that philosophy.”
That shared philosophy is one of the many reasons why WPDN is such a respected law firm in Wyoming and beyond. Over the last 70 years, WPDN has earned its reputation as one of the most preeminent, client-focused law firms in Wyoming and beyond. Ortiz said, however, that the perception of WPDN could change on a dime if each employee is not committed to growing and getting better, together.
“[The reputation we have] is a reputation that you can lose easily,” Ortiz remarked. “We’re all capable, myself included, of losing our temper and saying stupid things. And it’s important to know when it’s time to apologize and when it’s time to say ‘Hey, those comments were out of line and I’m sorry. Let’s find a new path.’”
The path that Scott Ortiz has taken hasn’t always been an easy one. Like those who have come before him, Ortiz has had to make mistakes and learn from them in order to grow. These days, he wants to help teach the newer generations that are coming up how to be the best attorneys and the best human beings, that they can be.
“I have a super-strong sense of loyalty to WPDN,” Ortiz stated. “Every good lawyer in my firm has gotten offers to leave WPDN and go to another firm for more money. We all got offers. But when I moved back to Casper, Dick Day, Frank Neville, and Barry Williams basically gave me my dream job. WPDN gave me such a great opportunity as a lawyer, so I kind of consider it my mission to do everything I can to give every young lawyer the same opportunity that I was given.”