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Success is in the details

Caley Clinton is associate editor of the Wisconsin Law Journal.

Caley Clinton is associate editor of The Daily Reporter.

Attorney Larry Coté’s representation of ex-construction foreman Walter Love could be seen as a failure.

Coté represented Love in a federal lawsuit against Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc. Love claimed that racial motivations were behind his termination from a Milwaukee City Hall project site on which Cullen was the lead contractor.

Cullen denied the allegations, and Magistrate Judge Nancy Joseph dismissed the lawsuit in September.

Coté knew it would not be an easy case and initially resisted taking on Love as a client, Love said. But the Milwaukee man won Coté by insisting, Love said, that he would “sell his car, borrow money, whatever he needed to do so that we could take it as far as we could take it.”

Coté, who was a steward for the Graphic Communications International Union, said representing “working people” has been his passion.

“It’s not real glamorous work, but it’s something I’ve always had an interest in,” he said. “I have a small-town practice and focus on the things working people need done.”

Love needed to be heard. Coté listened.

During multiple in-person sessions, the two men went over the details of Love’s case and the incidents that led to his Feb. 28, 2008, firing from a roughly $60 million renovation of the City Hall’s façade.

Nailing down the details of the case and then presenting them to the court in an engaging narrative form was exactly what Love wanted.

“I don’t know how to write this stuff,” Love said.

Coté does, and he proved it in a brief in opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Avoiding much of the legalese that can bog down court filings and dull the interest of even the most attentive judge and jury, Coté clearly laid out the details of the on-site altercation that led to Love’s firing. He then brought to life the human element of the case: Love’s suffering as he failed to find work and saw his life fall apart.

“[Love] felt as though life had closed in on him,” according to Coté’s brief. “… [he] had to go to friends, hat in hand, and borrow money. … Depression, including thoughts of suicide, became part of what he lived on. … At times he was afraid to sleep because of the nightmares.”

Love said he appreciated the detail with which Coté told the story and how hard he worked on the case.

“I think that Larry, he knows that I’ve been wronged,” Love said. “He was a stand-up guy, and I respect the work he did.”

That ability to tell the client’s story, and tell it in a way that might appeal to a judge or jury, is crucial, said attorney Matthew Fernholz of Cramer, Multhauf & Hammes LLP, Waukesha.

“You have to think about your audience always,” said Fernholz, who worked as clerk for judges and justices at the Court of Appeals and Wisconsin Supreme Court before going into private practice. “You really should try to make it enjoyable to read. Judges much prefer briefs that tell a story.”

It’s a practice Coté understands.

“Details matter a whole hell of a lot,” he said.

Love and Coté’s success is the details. The jury still is out on whether Love has a case — he is working on an appeal — but Coté took the time to listen.

And that was enough to help Love fight the dark thoughts that never were minor details to him.

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