Lance Unglesby has done it all. He was a public defender in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he fought for prisoners on death row with the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana, and he’s gone up against some of the largest corporations in the world in class action and mass tort lawsuits. His work has been featured on Dateline NBC, CNBC, and the Times-Picayune, but he’s here to talk with us today.
In this episode, Lance explains the work he’s doing to bring balance back to Louisiana’s Justice System, his victories against big companies in mass tort and class action lawsuits, and the deep-rooted passion that drives him to be one of the most talked-about lawyers in Louisiana.
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KATIE WOLF: Welcome to The Filevine Fireside. I’m your host Katie Wolf and today we’re talking to Lance Unglesby. He was a public defender in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he fought for prisoners on Death Row with the Capital Defense Project of Southeast Louisiana and he’s gone up against some of the largest corporations in the world in class action and mass tort lawsuits. His work has been featured on Dateline NBC, CNBC and The Times Picayune. But he’s here to talk with us today. Thank you so much for being with us today Lance.
LANCE UNGLESBY: Sure, no problem.
KATIE: My first question for you is concerning the sheer breadth of your work. Why is it that you’ve chosen to work on such a wide range of case types, criminal defense work and plaintiff side civil litigation?
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LANCE: Yeah, hey, good morning, good afternoon. It’s Lance Unglesby. I got into this work because I think I’ve just gotten lucky enough to have these opportunities come before me. Also, my dad is my mentor. It’s what I grew up around. My dad was a lawyer and I always wanted to be a lawyer and then I was lucky enough to like criminal defense work and I lived in New Orleans and realized there was a need for public defender work and you know once I started to do that work I kind of got the bug of what it felt like to get a good result for somebody who really needed a lawyer. And you know, I think you can’t just be one thing I don’t think. I think you have to have more than one thing that you’re passionate about.
KATIE: Yeah, I heard a story about your father that he encouraged you not to immediately come into the firm that he was running but to go somewhere else instead, so you became a public defender.
LANCE: Well, yeah, because you know I didn’t really…I wanted to do my own thing. I also just wanted to be a public defender. It’s something that I was really passionate about. I mean, when you’re representing people in New Orleans who couldn’t afford lawyers and at a time there were a lot of issues with the police department and there was not a very good public defender’s office, these kids, for the most part, are very young and they were going unrepresented in some form or fashion and there were a lot of other really nice impressive lawyers coming in to New Orleans after Katrina with the same type of passion, to represent these kids and these young adults and fortunately we were able to form a really good office and we just kind of took off from there. It was a great job and it was probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in my life, was being a public defender. I mean there’s nothing like representing somebody who didn’t even have a choice as to who would be their lawyer. It’s a big privilege and a big responsibility.
KATIE: Yes, a tremendous responsibility! Yeah, I’ve read that you were able to get two acquittals of people who had been charged with murder who were innocent and that the office won the Frederick Douglass Award for human rights while you were there.
LANCE: Well, I mean we had a lot of good lawyers that came in to help. I mean even the cases that I won I can’t take credit for all of those cases because they weren’t, you know, necessarily…I just always had a good team working with me and that made a huge difference. The folks that have dedicated their lives to public defender work, some of them are still there and you know they just insist that everybody get good representation and it’s something that we had to challenge judges on and we had to really stand up for that premise and for that idea and it was something that in many places across America still doesn’t happen. I think some of the Netflix shows brought some light to that but reality is everybody does have a right to a lawyer and forcing that right to a lawyer doesn’t really require a right to a decent lawyer.
KATIE: You mentioned that the team you were working with in the public defender’s office was an incredibly strong team. I want to ask you what you think makes a good legal team? Is it just brilliant people or is there something about the culture that can create a good team?
LANCE: No, you’ve got to care about the client. You’ve got to have passion. I don’t think anyone can just be smart when it comes to being a lawyer. You’ve got to be passionate about what you do and you’ve got to also have the courage to stand up for your client in court. And that generally means standing up to the prosecutor and standing up to the DA’s office. These prosecutions are never completely clean. It’s a very adversarial process and if you can’t stand up for your client then you really don’t have any business as a lawyer or a public defender.
KATIE: Now some of the people you’re standing up to include some of the largest corporations in the world as you do these medical device defect cases. What has that been like?
LANCE: Well, you know, it’s no different than doing any type of single event injury and/or any other type of case. You know, you just take it step by step, collecting your evidence, asking for discovery. It obviously…I think it requires a larger team and fortunately what I’ve learned very quickly is you’re better and stronger as a bigger unit and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve gone out and developed a large team of lawyers and, you know, we may not have the resources of these multi-billion dollar companies but we’ve got enough resources and enough intelligence to properly prosecute the case and so, you know, I’d say that I think maybe having the background that I have allows us to be a little scrappier than our opponents and a little bit fearless and so I don’t necessarily think that the size or scope of the corporation makes any difference whatsoever. At the end of the day the greatest thing about the American judicial system is they don’t get any advantages once they come to court, especially if it’s in front of a jury.
KATIE: Has that been your experience, that the judicial system is operating fairly right now, or do you feel like you’ve got to do some extra work here and there to make sure that it operates fairly?
LANCE: Well, I think that it probably would depend on where you are but for the most part, yeah, I think that there’s going to always be push back from corporations. They don’t like the idea that they can be brought into court and have their case heard before a jury. And they will do anything and everything to avoid that. But at the end of the day, that’s what makes our judicial system so great is that they don’t get any type of special treatment and that’s probably why they spend so much money in Washington through the Chamber of Commerce or some other organization to try and shut down our ability to sue them. This is some scary times right now with what’s happening nationally and so, you know, if you’re a lawyer who represents individuals and you stand up for people’s rights, there’s a little bit to be concerned about right now with what’s happening in Congress and some of the bills that have been put forth but you know I think we’ve been here before. Other lawyers have seen this happen and hopefully it will all work itself out.
KATIE: Yeah, I want to ask you about some of those things that are happening on the congressional level that affect your practice right now, like mandatory arbitration agreements. How have you found ways to work around some of these rules that are in place, ways that make it difficult to do class action lawsuits.
LANCE: Well, the pharmaceutical cases are medical device cases. They’re not generally considered class action. They’re more considered, I guess if you were to categorize them as a mass tort. And what you would want to do in a pharmaceutical medical device case is, you’re better at representing more than one person because you’re going to be spending that amount of money on resources any way. So, you know, right now fortunately, being able to sue corporations for a pharmaceutical medical device acts is still available and no law has been passed in Congress that has prohibited that. There are things that make it a little more challenging, but the ability to sue them is still there. If the Chamber of Commerce had his way, that would go away. So, when you add that, what benefit is that to any public citizen? How does that help? How does that help us as citizens and there is no good answer to that. I think that, you know, the checks and balances system of the judiciary is exactly what is needed to keep these, you know, to keep us safe. And that’s what essentially, we’re doing, which is when you make a bad product or device you should be held responsible for it. And that’s the whole way that we can ensure that safe products enter the market and so, you know, just simply relying on, for example, the FDA isn’t ever going to be enough because there’s just not enough resources for the FDA to handle the volume of work that gets put out into the public. So, that’s what the courthouse is for. Let’s call a jury, you get your experts, I get my experts and let’s let the citizens decide, you know? Was this a safe product or not? Did you do your due diligence? And unfortunately, what we’re finding out time and time again is that these corporations put their profit over people and unsafe products hit the market and people’s lives are inherently affected by it.
KATIE: So we’re witnessing a time when the regulatory agencies are being cut down and hampered and are you worried that at the same time some of these reliefs you’re talking about in the judiciary branch that have more weight put on them right now because the regulatory agencies aren’t handling these issues, are you worried about what could happen to the judicial branch as well?
LANCE: Well, yeah, I mean imagine the day when there is no enforcement powered by the FDA plus the use of corporations are immune from any type of lawsuit. And at that point they’d have carte blanche power to do whatever and to harm to whomever they so choose. So, you know, it is clearly a checks and balances system and allowing it to be a free market, which if you are a conservative and you believe in a free market well then you should believe in the idea that part of that free market is when you mess up you should be able to be sued. And so, I think that if you take the conservative philosophy you can’t come to the conclusion that they should be immune from lawsuits. But because of the amount of money that has gotten into politics, there is no philosophy about why there shouldn’t be a lawsuit simply just because these people have tons of money and resources.
KATIE: Yeah. Have you encountered preemption laws as an obstacle to doing your work?
LANCE: Well, you know the preemption laws are…one is still allowed. A corporation is not immune from a lawsuit simply because they have, for example, they have a class 3 medical device. I mean, what gives them that status is an obligation, an ongoing obligation to report adverse events and to keep the public and to keep the FDA and to keep doctors and everybody apprised as to what exactly is going on with the device and so if a corporation finds out that people are getting injured and they fail to educate the public, educate doctors, educate the FDA about these injuries well then, they can essentially lose that class 3 status of immunity. And so, you know, what I’ve found is that, and as it should be, is that corporations and these medical device companies can still be sued even if it is a class 3 medical device simply if they don’t do what they promise what they will do about the regulations. The regulations require that they report adverse events. And time and time again, you’ll find that they just don’t do that. Because what happens when you start to report adverse events is doctors and scholars and people who do study, they begin to recognize what’s happening and they begin to conduct their own studies and that can cascade into more and more problems and more scrutiny for the device. I mean we saw that in the Essure litigation, or we’re seeing that. If you look at the amount of adverse events that were withheld in the beginning and then you look at how many have come out since as a result of that, more and more studies have come out criticizing the safety of Essure and other countries have picked up on the reporting and done their own investigations and, for example, Bayer right now has withdrawn Essure everywhere in the world but the United States and that’s partly due to the scrutiny that was placed upon the device once it became more apparent that a lot of people were being injured, which is what an adverse event is. It is when a person, either through their doctor or themselves, reports that they have been injured from the device.
KATIE: Yeah, just to back up a little bit, could you tell us more what the Essure case is specifically and what you’re working on with it?
LANCE: Essure is a permanent birth control that is a metal coil implanted into a woman’s fallopian tubes. Two coils, one for each side, and it was designed to be a permanent birth control device. It was supposed to be safe and effective and easy to implant. But what we’ve seen over and over again in these women, their body is rejecting this device, even if it’s properly placed and they’re having serious side effects from it and the only way for them to get well and to be healed is to have it removed and the removal process can require a hysterectomy and can be extremely invasive. And so, I think what we concluded was you took a perfectly healthy woman, you convince them that they need this permanent birth control, even though there are many many other alternatives as to how to avoid getting pregnant, and you’ve made them unhealthy. They’re not able to take care of the kids the way they were beforehand. They’re not able to be the mother that they were and it’s because of this device and so this device is just a bad product. It was started by a company called Conceptives. It was the only profitable device the company had. They put everything they had into the device in terms of trying to make it a success. And so, basically if you look at it like, they had a motive. They had a motive to cover things up and a motive to hide things. That’s what we allege and believe they did.
KATIE: While you’ve been working on this case, I know Congress has also taken up the question of Essure’s safety. There was a bill put forward suggesting the product wasn’t safe. Erin Brockovich has sought to raise public awareness. I’m wondering in your work as an attorney, how does it affect you to have the product you’re dealing with be so much in the public eye and have this sort of widespread public support for what you’re doing?
LANCE: Well, I think as lawyers we also have an obligation. We first have an obligation to our clients and second we have an obligation to the public and if we’re able to bring more awareness to the public and help these mothers understand why they are sick, then I think we’ve done a good service to not only our clients but also to the public. And so, any time these types of cases start to get a little bit of scrutiny or publicity, that’s good because that allows for there to be a forum to educate and what we find over and over again it is the lack of education that is hurting these mothers. I mean they go to the doctor and the doctor can’t properly diagnose them. The doctor doesn’t understand what’s wrong with them and they don’t understand what’s wrong with themselves. And it’s because nobody has educated anybody as to what are the side effects of Essure? And so, you have a lot of women who begin to get very depressed; you have a lot of women who are frustrated and it’s because they didn’t know why they were having these symptoms. So, I guess to answer your question, is the more publicity the better because it brings awareness.
KATIE: What advice do you have to attorneys who are maybe mostly focused on car collisions but are interested in moving into mass tort law? What advice do you have for them on how to do it well?
LANCE: Well, I mean, probably I would suggest that they do exactly what I did which is reach out to lawyers who do it and have done it and observe how they do and try to partner up with some lawyers. I mean, one thing that I never did was act like I had all the answers and knew what I was doing. There are a lot of lawyers out there who have done some really good work and we partnered up with those lawyers and we’ve made a lot of good progress as a result of that. This litigation can be treacherous and can be complicated so the more of you working together the better.
KATIE: Are you able to mentor other young lawyers now that you have reached this space in your practice?
LANCE: I would like to think that I have been able to and I surely give advice to a lot of lawyers whenever they ask for it. I mean practicing law is extremely challenging and it takes long hours, it’s hard on your family and it’s hard on yourself, so yeah, I mean I have a lot of young lawyers that I mentor.
KATIE: So it’s sort of a notorious truism that lawyers are overworked and hate their jobs. Does that have to be the case? Have you found any way, even as you’re running these huge cases, have you found any way to have a good work/life balance?
LANCE: Yeah, I would like to think that I have. I try to exercise and take care of my mental health. I think that’s probably the most important thing you can do as a lawyer, is practice awareness and have some balance personally and professionally. You can’t always only be (inaudible). You can’t always just work. You need to have other outlets. Whether it’s hobbies or spending time with your family. But I think it’s important that you have balance otherwise you burn out. And the other part is, you have to watch what type of cases you’re taking on and working on. I mean one of the reasons that I don’t do the amount of criminal defense work that I used to do is because at times it was extremely depressing. As you can tell it’s starting to become more of an issue in America. In Louisiana, we incarcerate a large amount of our population and we do it for a long period of time. And you’re watching these drug laws, you’re watching some of these laws take effect and you’re watching how it affects your client and their family and you realize how just out of the norm it is compared to the act and so fortunately it seems like America is starting to pay more attention to the incarceration rate and the sum of our drug laws and they’re starting to see some changes to try and bring some sanity to it but, you know, it’s a slow process. So as a lawyer, I didn’t want to participate in it at the level that I was participating in because it was hard to watch.
KATIE: I can imagine that, yeah. Highest incarceration rate of any region, right?
LANCE: Louisiana? Yeah. That is what we are famous for sadly right now. Now we have done an incredible amount of reform and that is happening right now. A lot of inmates are getting released and we’ve had a governor who took the leadership of this and we’ve had some legislators who did it and it seemed to be a bipartisan effort so it’s nice to see Louisiana making progress.
KATIE: So what are your secrets for maintaining some of those boundaries between your work life and the rest of your life?
LANCE: Well, you know, I think you can’t solve every person’s problem, but you can surely do the best that you can. But you can’t, you know, take all of it so personal because it is hard to watch but at the same time you want to do the best job that you can for your client and, you know, sometimes your client shows up and by the time they become your client they have made some decisions that you wish they hadn’t made and you wish they had called you a lot earlier so that you could have given them some advice. So, I would say that, you know, you work with what you have.
KATIE: Your father is famous for being excited about fighting in court. Do you feel like you have that same eagerness to try every case rather than settle?
LANCE: Well, I don’t think that anybody would describe him truly like a fighter in court. I think what they would describe him as somebody who stands up for his clients and I mean when you’ve tracked government prosecutions, a lot of times there is some misconduct and when you as a lawyer recognize that there is some misconduct or some decision making that doesn’t seem fair, you have an obligation to stand up for your client and I think everybody would describe him as somebody who was always standing up for his clients for the right reasons.
KATIE: So while you’re under incredible stress, what are moments that have made this job worth it for you.?
LANCE: Well, I think some of the moments that I’ve had that have made it worth it is the bonding moments of being in trial with my father and getting that experience and us doing good work together and working really hard, preparing for it and then watching it take place in court. I think that when people you represent thank you for the work you’re doing and they recognize how hard you’re working for them and they appreciate it and then of course the reward of helping them when you’re successful and you’re taking what you would consider a wrong and trying to right it, and to watch that come to fruition, it’s powerful and it’s very addictive and so that’s truly what, you know, makes one continue to come back to this over and over again, which is, how do I help this person?
KATIE: Thank you so much Lance for talking with us. This has been The Filevine Fireside. I’m Katie Wolf. We’ll see you next week!