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Trial lawyer looks to Honest Abe for inspiration

John Skilton (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

After four decades in law, John Skilton still marvels that a history major could argue patent cases — and that his specialty started almost accidentally.

“A potential client walked in and asked me if I could handle a patent case. And one case led to another,” said Skilton, a managing partner and commercial litigator at Perkins Coie LLP.

It’s challenging, Skilton said, always trying to translate complex technological or scientific concepts into language everyone can understand while arguing the nuances of patent law.

But, when it works, “it is rewarding,” he said.

And humbling – at least, when he reminds himself that patent cases are often decided on some of the same intangibles at play in other trials, most notably: expert believability.

“To some extent, that’s the reason a history major can try patent cases,” Skilton laughed.

It’s a commonality Skilton has carried into his involvement with the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers and as a member of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates and the American Law Institute, which recently embraced him as a life member in honor of his 25 years of service.

And, next year, he’ll mark another milestone: 20 years in the American College of Trial Lawyers.

Wisconsin Law Journal: What do you consider your biggest achievement so far? Why?
John Skilton: First of all, I’m still doing it after 42 years. It’s a very tough way to make a living, being a trial lawyer. I’m simply most proud of hanging in there and doing the best I can. I’m also very proud of the fact that I have spent an extraordinary amount of time doing professional work that is not paid for. It’s a labor of love, serving with the American Bar Association. You don’t do it for credit; you do it for the right reasons.

WLJ: What is the best part of being an attorney?
Skilton: I think the best part is the privilege of attempting to resolve problems that are part of society’s functioning. No matter what you do in the law, we’re problem solvers. The best part of being an attorney is being a part of that process.

WLJ: What can you spend hours doing that’s not law-related?
Skilton: I have very much enjoyed reading history, particularly biographies of persons who have made a difference in this country. I’ve also become conversant about Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer. I’ve given lectures on it. I feel there’s a translation of history and how it relates today that should not be forgotten. It’s also comforting to me, in letting my mind relax, to read about the struggles of important people who tried to solve problems.

WLJ: What trait do you most like in others?
Skilton: Honesty, loyalty

WLJ: What do you consider to be the most overrated virtue?
Skilton: Power, looks

WLJ: What was your least favorite course in law school? Why?
Skilton: I guess my least favorite was – and this is ironic to say – civil procedure. It’s because in law school, it’s taught out of the box. And first years, unless you have a concept of the functioning system, it seems arcane and somewhat remote and deadly dull.

    WLJ: What was your most useful course in law school? Why?
    Skilton: Corporations. It’s not because I’m a corporate lawyer, although I do corporate litigation. It’s because it provided me a basic understanding of how law relates to corporations and organizations, and how those organizations function in the environment of law. And it was taught by George Currie, a former justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Perhaps my interest in particular is because he was teaching it?

    WLJ: If you could develop one CLE course for credit, what would it be about?
    Skilton: I’ve already done it, and it is on the legal ethics of Abraham Lincoln. I taught it at the law school in Madison. The reason that I believe that’s useful for all lawyers is I believe Abraham Lincoln was the perfect foil on what I would hope to be the traits of a lawyer: honesty, a sense of justice and fairness. That is the little child’s view and, I believe, the common view of Lincoln. I believe it’s interesting to test these traits in the context of his casework. And he was a lawyer for 24 years, so there’s a lot of material available. By looking at his decision-making, sometimes his trial tactics, and how he dealt with clients, you can overlay modern ethical dilemmas; although, at his time, there was no formal ethical code. It’s very practical. Lawyers are confronted with those situations, just as he was when he was a full-blown trial lawyer.

    WLJ: Which famous person would most like to have a drink with? What would you drink?
    Skilton: Abraham Lincoln. I believe he was a teetotaler, so I guess the answer is Diet Pepsi.

    WLJ: What is your greatest fear?
    Skilton: The greatest fear that any trial lawyer has is the fear of failure, however defined. It’s a subjective, relative concept. The hardest part of being a trial lawyer is to take that risk of failure in a very public way and live with the result. I guess, my greatest fear is that I’m gonna get sick of taking the risk. I’m 68 now; I’m not as resilient as I was once.

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