Many years ago, I chose to represent those who suffer harms and losses, rather than defend those who cause harms and losses. That choice resulted from my childhood background, life’s experiences and professional influences along my journey into law.
After graduating from St. Andrews High School in Charleston in 1983, I attended the University of South Carolina, where I studied political science. Having no family members in the legal profession, and no personal legislative contacts, I called my 10th grade social studies teacher, Martha Kanapaux, to see if she knew any legislators I might contact to work as a S.C. Senate Page. Senate pages help with administrative matters for senators, such as drafting responsive letters to constituents, doing light research, and running documents between the senator’s office onto the Senate floor, amongst other things. They also get to meet legislators from across the state. It was a great way to get connected.
Using Martha Kanapaux as a reference, I called Senator Cantrell’s office; and a week or so later, I was offered a Senate Page position. It was an exciting time. Senator Cantrell was a great mentor, being a young legislator, and Charleston lawyer. He encouraged me to apply to law school after finishing undergraduate school. He told me I had great people skills, and wanted to help me as a young lawyer one day once I graduated law school.
Then tragedy struck. In 1984, Senator Cantrell was killed while attempting to land his small plane onto the airstrip at the John’s Island airport, near Charleston. I learned of his death from the morning news, as I was getting dressed to go meet him for a hearing.
My friend and mentor was instantly no part of my life. Senator Cantrell, just 35 years old at the time, left his wife, his infant child, and many friends and family, too early It was a very sad time across the State of South Carolina, for the multitudes of people who loved and respected him.
Forging ahead, I landed a position a “runner” in the law firm of Fedor, Massey and Whitlark, in Columbia. The firm’s lead trial lawyer, David Fedor, was one of the most successful lawyers in the State of South Carolina. He handled some high profile criminal cases; but also, achieved multi-million dollar jury trial verdicts in complex product liability and wrongful death cases.
We would have lunch at least once a week at the Capitol Café, across the street from the South Carolina Supreme Court and Capitol, where we would sit with various legislators, fellow trial lawyers, circuit court judges, family court judges, and many huge personalities, such as the late Julius “Bubba” Ness, Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Then there was “Big John,” a rather burly man, who managed the Capital Café. Big John had more political pull than most people in the State of South Carolina, serving breakfast and lunch to South Carolina’s legislators and top level judiciary daily. I would listen quietly most of time. I found myself amongst these great men, dreaming about my future, watching some of the dots of my life begin to connect. They taught me about the importance of developing good relationships; but most of all, to work hard for common people.
These influential trial lawyers taught me to never trust insurance companies and large corporations. Their cases were on behalf of ordinary people. I was by their sides as they discussed case themes, witness testimony, and trial strategy. It was an unbelievable experience for a young man contemplating a legal career.
They taught me that society needs talented lawyer gladiators, who help keep people safe, in a world of corporations concerned with profit, rather than safety. They valued justice for ordinary citizens in the community. Being a Plaintiff’s trial lawyer was more than a means to making money. It was a calling.
After finishing my political science degree in 1987, I head back to Charleston, and got married. I sold life insurance for a year, learned some things about that industry, then sold industrial chemicals for another year. After two years, I was ready to get into law school. So I waited tables for a year at two Charleston restaurants, then headed to law school.
During law school, I worked as a summer law clerk for a small firm on Broad Street in Charleston, where I met attorneys, judges, other law clerks. It was an exciting time. I became a student member of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association (SCTLA), the organization in South Carolina dedicated to representing people, not corporations or insurance companies. I dreamed of becoming a plaintiff’s trial lawyer, like David Fedor and the trial lawyers I spent time with during undergraduate school.
Just prior to graduating law school in 1993, two former insurance defense attorneys, who had recently left large Charleston law firms, hired me to work in their new small law firm as an associate. Ironically, I represented Unisun Insurance Company clients of Stephen DeAntonio, and some construction and contract related cases with attorney Joseph Qualey for about 2 years. It was a great start. It put me into litigation right away, handling depositions, motions, some jury trials; and it helped me to see how the “other side” functions.
Then in 1995, things changed. I joined the Riesen Law Firm, a group of attorneys dedicated to representing people, not corporations or insurance companies. I immediately became active with the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association (SCTLA, now the South Carolina Association for Justice, SCAJ), and eventually served on the SCTLA Board of Governors for 6 consecutive years. Serving on the SCTLA Board of Governors put me in touch with so many of the great trial lawyers from across the State of South Carolina. I also became active with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), which is now known as the American Association for Justice (AAJ). In 2000, after returning from a one week trial advocacy course hosted by ATLA at Harvard University, I returned home to Charleston, excited about uniting local plaintiff’s trial lawyers, to help each other be better trial lawyers; hence, we got together and formed The Charleston Art of Trial Advocacy Workshop (CATAW). Charleston Plaintiffs attorneys had dinner monthly at the Hilton Hotel, Patriots Point. We invited judges to speak. Doctors would come in and give tutorials on various parts of the anatomy, such as the spine and extremities. We would roundtable cases and help each other develop case themes and hone our trial communication strategy.
After spending 17 years with the Riesen Law Firm, it was time for a change. In 2011, I founded the McKnight Law Firm. We Represent people who have suffered catastrophic injuries, and families who have lost loved ones due to the negligence and recklessness of others. This has been a labor of love and dedication my entire career. People come in after life changing experiences, looking for help, and answers. They want to be compensated for their harms and losses, to the extent that compensation will make things in some way better; but they also want to know why things happened to them and their families, so that perhaps, it will never happen again. Our job it to take the facts and law from ambiguity and confusion to clarity, and ultimately, to achieve fair and just compensation for our clients; and we hope that by bringing dangerous activities or dangerous products to light, our community will be a more safe place to live and work.
Being a Plaintiff’s trial lawyer has been an honor, and continues to be the passion of every member of the McKnight Law Firm. We represent people because that is what we are mentally hard-wired and trained to do. It is our passion, our calling. The McKnight Law Firm legal team would be honored to be part of your life experience, to help you and your family overcome difficult and seemingly impossible challenges. Please contact us if you think we can help.