ALAJ Salutes...

Greg Cusimano

GADSDEN ---The discrimination that his father faced as a Catholic of Sicilian descent paved the way for Greg Cusimano to choose a career that would allow him to try and make things right.

A teacher at his Gadsden parochial school also played a role in Cusimano becoming a trial lawyer, he said. He tells the first story in an almost haunting tone, and returns to his characteristic jovial tone when he talks about his elementary school teacher.

"My father talked little about the discrimination he faced growing up," Cusimano said. "He knew that the KKK burned crosses in people's yards and actually burned one in his yard when he was a kid.  Greg's father knew he was Italian and Catholic, not like most people in Gadsden.

"He only mentioned this story to me one time, but it was apparent it made quite an impression on him, as it did me," Cusimano said.
 
As the story goes, Cusimano's grandfather owned an open, storefront grocery store. The name of the store was the "American" Fruit and Vegetable Market, or something similar. The market was on Broad Street, the main street. Cusimano's father, Jake, was about 10 and got to the store most mornings about three or four. One morning when the sun came up, Jake Cusimano's father, Gregorio Cusimano, who was called Uncle Joe by most people, noticed that the word "American" on the sign had been tarred and feathered. The elder Cusimano told Jake to get up on a ladder and clean the sign. While Jake Cusimano was cleaning the sign, some of the men in town took eggs and tomatoes from the store and threw them at him. Jake remembers tears streaming down his face wondering why they didn't like him and why anyone would be so cruel. Shortly, Jake Cusimano saw his father Gregorio run out of the store with a big butcher knife and chase the men.

"That story probably has a lot to do with who I am and what I chose to do for most of my life," Cusimano said.

Although in a lighter manner, but still just as serious, he said a teacher was among the first to lead him into the legal profession.

"I was in the third or the fourth grade at parochial school and I always had a lot of questions.  The nuns sometimes didn't like being questioned," Cusimano said. "I remember one of them telling me that I should become a lawyer because I had so many questions and all I wanted to do was argue."

Cusimano said it was several years after he received his law degree from his beloved University of Alabama and had been practicing for a while before he thought about that nun.

"It was about my third or fourth year of practicing law and I was sitting at my desk at the old Hawkins and Rhea firm and I realized that I had made a decision to become a lawyer as a nine or ten year old and had not thought about it again.

"I panicked for a minute, it scared the hell out of me," Cusimano said. "I swiftly wiped it out of my mind and have not thought about it since."

Cusimano said he originally wanted to practice criminal defense law, but a short trip to visit a client in jail, and opportunities to work with legendary civil trial lawyers, changed his mind. Cusimano chuckled and quickly told the story about the jail-house visit.

"First I wasn't sure whether the people were actually guilty or not," Cusimano said, "I always thought I would know". "Then one day I went down to the jail to visit a client who was accused of armed robbery. He told me he wanted to plead not guilty by reason of insanity and I asked him why he thought the jury would believe he was insane. He told me he bet they would if he attacked his lawyer ----I left there realized I needed to take another route-criminal law wasn't for me."

George Hawkins, the senior partner in Cusimano's firm, also was very good friends with the architects of plaintiff's law in Alabama: Francis Hare, Howell Heflin, Truman Hobbs, Alex Newton, Roscoe Hogan, and Frank Tipler, to name a few, and Cusimano as a young lawyer got a chance to work with them.

"I got to work with the legends and it didn't take me long to know what I wanted to do," he said.

Cusimano became involved in the then-Alabama Trial Lawyers Association and served as an officer and president during some of the association's most politically challenging years. He was president elect in 1984, when the association passed a bill to raise minimum limits---the only bill the association has passed in 23 years until this past legislative session.  He was president in 1985 during the seemingly never-ending battles over co-employee lawsuits.

Cusimano said the victories in those early years began to level the playing field for consumers but, much like a double-edged sword, also raised the ire of the business community, in Alabama and across the country.

"Once the law began to change and started moving toward a level playing field for plaintiffs and the awards became more than just a gnat on the backs of corporate wrongdoers, they started to push back," Cusimano said. "We suffered from our own successes, and the successes of our clients, and we became irritants."

After decades of practicing law, Cusimano partially has turned his focus to a new endeavor, "Winning Works," a trial consulting firm, where he uses the tools of his trade to help other lawyers prepare for trial, facilitate focus groups, strike juries and provide general education on trials and juries.

"When we used to try 10 or 20 different cases a year we were doing focus groups in reality all year long," Cusimano said. "Now, only a few cases go to trial and it takes a different kind of preparation."

Cusimano says he misses the "exhilaration and thrill" of trying cases all the time, but he also sleeps better.

"In my first big case as a consultant I was in the shower the morning the trial started and I was wishing that I was going to be making the opening statement," Cusimano said. "Then it dawned on me that I had slept like a baby the night before."

"In the final preparation for a case you have a lot of anxiety and stress, and that works on you after a while," Cusimano said. "As a lawyer you are representing a family that is depending on you, and you are under pressure to win and do justice for them much more than when you are working as a consultant."

Working as a consultant also allows Cusimano and his wife, Alice, an opportunity to travel, which they both enjoy. He also has more time to spend with his 11 grandchildren, go boating, play in the sand and waves at the beach, play golf, and read.

The Alabama State Bar Association just awarded Cusimano its Walter P. Guin Award for his contributions to legal education, an award that he is "very, very proud of." In addition, to his legal and consulting work, Cusimano also has remained active in the National AAJ and Alabama's ALAJ.

Cusimano says he has remained involved because being a lawyer to him is still a "calling and a passion."

"It goes back to the experience my family had, and that had a greater affect on me than I realized," Cusimano said. "I don't think anything is over until it is right and we don't have it right yet."

For continuing to try and make things right ---with or without his trademark beard ----Cusimano is a true ALAJ "Champion of Justice."