Great trial lawyers are often renowned for their unique paths to success. But no personal story quite compares with that of New York's James Wilkens. For starters, the 60-year-old Wilkens, today trial counsel at Duffy & Duffy in Uniondale, owns a record nearly unmatched in trial law. He's won for his clients some of the landmark jury verdicts of his generation, including a $96.4 million verdict in 2002, and a $109 million medical malpractice award in 2007, the largest in the U.S. In five of the last ten years he has had one of the top 100 personal injury verdicts in the country. Yet the Brooklyn native and onetime college quarterback is utterly free of the bravado typical of some plaintiffs' lawyers.
In fact, Wilkens is a kind of Abe Lincoln of modern trial law: He never formally attended law school, and is largely self-taught. He landed his first law-firm job after reading a Daily News classified riding the subway. Of course his career now is the envy of any Ivy League J.D. "I don't have much in the way of pedigree," he says, almost apologetically. "But once I committed myself to being a trial lawyer, that never held me back."
In its own way Wilkens' upbringing was exceedingly privileged: His father was a New York City fireman - "a very, very smart guy" - who challenged his son to verbal jousts over the dinner table every evening. Wilkens and his four siblings inherited a sense of quiet competitiveness and a dogged resilience, only reinforced by growing up on the streets near Flatbush Avenue. "I wanted to become a fireman, and always thought I would." Wilkens nailed the entrance exam (top 2%), but the FDNY turned him down, citing a mild deformity of a lower vertebra. After Nazareth High School he entered Marist College, where he was a football walk-on. His team lost only two games both seasons he was its signal-caller.
Though Wilkens pursued a business degree, "I wasn't exactly valedictorian material" and never considered law school. He landed an underwriting job with a Manhattan insurance company. Restless and dissatisfied, on the way to work one day he spied The Daily News classified (Headline: "A Great Career in Law Firm Bookkeeping!"). He went to work for an old-line Brooklyn firm preparing client tax returns. ("Computers do all that now.") A year later, in 1975, he jumped to Shea & Gould, whose partners gave the promising Wilkens more responsibility. Back then, clerks and paralegals who'd worked at a law firm for five years were eligible to take the bar exam. (No longer: it's since been outlawed in New York.) In February 1981 Wilkens passed on his first attempt. Still, he "wandered around professionally for a few years," he says, and by the mid 80s, "I was doing what I had to do to make ends meet."
Wilkens briefly ran his own practice in Brooklyn, but "all that did was put me into debt." So, married and with an infant daughter, he took a $40,000-a-year job with a Staten Island firm ("I thought I was rich"). Slowly he began taking small civil claims cases, and "I loved it. It was cool helping people who needed the help." At the time Wilkens, still self conscious of his background, made it a point to attend as many seminars and trial-advocacy exercises as possible. He remembers one held at nearby Hofstra: "They were 12-hour marathons, and we were on our feet all day. After 160 mock trials, only two plaintiffs 'won' - one was mine. People came up to me afterwards and said, 'Don't you ever write another will again.'"
Wilkens had many influences along the way - Brooklyn attorney Tony DeMarco, Matthew McMahon - but most of all, his wife Mary Ellen helped him to "stay at it, keep fighting." Wilkens spent more than 11 years with Yonkers-based Fitzgerald & Fitzgerald, taking more and more plaintiffs' cases. He spent an entire summer studying obstetrics texts in the library of the New York Academy of Medicine, preparing for his first medical malpractice case. "When that trial started I was ready to cross examine Dr. Jonas Salk." A jury awarded the permanently injured patient more than $3 million. More verdicts followed. Along the way he became an expert on lead-paint litigation, long a major issue in New York City.
Competitors today try to downplay Wilkens' success - pointing out that jurors connect almost too easily to a self-described "typical Brooklyn guy." But Wilkens has none of it: "Yeah, I've probably held every job of most of the jurors I see, but it's always - always - about preparation. There's no way around it. No one hands you anything in life." Jim Duffy lured Wilkens to his firm in 2003, and today their team is one of the truly standout firms of the state's plaintiffs' bar.
Today Jim and Mary Ellen Wilkens (herself now a retired phys ed teacher) still live in Gerritsen Beach , Brooklyn, where they moved "temporarily" 25 years ago. He enjoys an occasional round of golf, and he's a certified Scuba diver, but "I rarely get the chance to do it." Their daughter Jaclyn is waiting to enter medical school. Wilkens seems fully aware of his good fortune ("Life's breaks could've gone a lot differently for me"), and he takes no credit for it. "It was Mary Ellen's strength that kept me going through all the tough times. She's the reason I'm where I am today."