“Make sure he doesn’t light anything on fire.”
Joyce Williams gave that warning as she led me into a room at the Illinois State Bar Association’s office in the Loop, where I would interview Fred Lane, the 89-year-old litigator, personal-injury lawyer, mediator and teacher of trial techniques.
No, the use of fire is not part of Lane’s legal strategy.
It is part of his magic act, which he has performed at The Chicago Bar Association’s Christmas show for more than 50 years. He is a magician, comic actor and monologist.
We sit down and, without a word of introduction, I pull a quarter out of my pocket and place it on the desk.
“Why did you do that?” he says.
“I just wanted to see what would happen,” I reply.
“You knew that I was a magician.”
“All right,” he says. “Let me have the coin.”
I hand it to him. He inspects it.
“This is the largest coin you have?” he asks.
I nod, thinking to myself, “Keep a close eye. He can’t put one past you if you’re sitting right here.”
“That’s all right,” he says, rubbing the coin between his fingers, “because when you’re a magician, all you have to do is rub and scratch.”
As I stare at his hand, he opens his fingers and reveals a gold coin twice the size of the quarter which, for now, has vanished.
He grins, and then closes his fingers around the gold coin, rubs his hand again and opens his fingers and hands me the quarter.
“Here, you might have lost this,” he says.
Lane’s been doing this for years. He performs as The Great Fredini, and he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
His interest in magic began in boyhood. The first trick he learned was a match trick — place a match in a handkerchief, crack it to pieces and then open the handkerchief to reveal an unbroken match. He learned that simply by reading magic books.
He expanded his repertoire through the years, adding card tricks, vanishing coin tricks, magic linking rings and sponge ball tricks.
He also learned how to rip up newspaper and put it together again. That’s a crowd favorite.
“My favorite routine is where he appears to tear up a document in full view of the audience,” said Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans, a former student of Lane’s trial technique class.
“In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, he opens his palm and reveals a fully complete document that you thought he had torn up. And there it is in plain view.”
Part of Lane’s charm is that he is fun for all ages. He can perform for children, who he says like tricks with colorful things, food and coins — such as the famous bit where a magician pulls a coin out of someone’s ear.
Conversely, adults prefer mature magic, anything in which they can stare skeptically at a magician’s hands until the trick is completed.
Like any good magician, Lane won’t reveal his tricks — unless he’s teaching magic, which he once regularly did at Tannen’s Magic Camp in Manhattan.
Intrigued, I pull a dollar from my pocket and set it on the desk. Could the Great Fredini tear this up and put it back together?
“I could,” he says. “But not now.”
He smiles, and leans toward me.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he says, “but there really is no such thing as magic.”
What would Fred Lane do?
When John F. Sandner, former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, was enrolled at Notre Dame Law School, he read a textbook called “Lane’s Goldstein Trial Technique.”
Sandner enjoyed the books but assumed that anyone whose name was on such an academic tome must be long dead.
Not only was Lane alive, Sandner learned, but he was still teaching his class in Chicago.
Sandner — who earned his J.D. in 1968 — signed up immediately.
“He invited you into that world, to feel real comfortable asking questions and creating a dialogue, which is the best way to learn,” Sandner said about Lane’s teaching technique. “It was never with him a passive experience. You just felt like he embraced you into the conversation of teaching.”
Sandner is one of countless people who have studied under Lane, either in person or out of his texts.
Along with the now-four-volume Trial Technique, Lane is the author or co-author of the five-volume Lane Medical Litigation Guide, the three-volume Lane-Goldstein Litigation Forms and the single-volume Lane-Calkins Mediation Practice Guide.
Since 1968, he has also been editor of the Medical Trial Technique Quarterly.
That was a year before Evans met him.
One of Evans’ first assignments after law school was to be a trial lawyer in the torts division of the city corporation counsel’s office. As part of that assignment, new lawyers participated in several programs sponsored by the office. Among them was Lane’s trial technique class.
“Fred’s point was to always be in the position to present your case so that the trier of the facts … can fully understand and appreciate the distinctions you’re making,” Evans said. “That was one of the main tenets of Fred’s approach.”
A tenet of his teaching approach was patience.
“I would stay after class and pound him with questions,” Sandner said. “He was so generous with his time that he would sit there for 45 minutes with me.”
Those sessions came in handy for Sandner, he said, on the occasions when he testified before Congress as chairman of the CME, including during the 1987 stock market crash.
“There wasn’t anything I wasn’t prepared for when I was testifying in the Senate and the House,” Sandner said. “It was presenting that testimony and being able to answer questions. That trial technique with Fred, that’s what he does.”
Lessons from Lane’s classes stayed with Sandner throughout his career.
“I’ve learned to pause before I make (ethical or character decisions) and say, ‘What would Fred Lane do in this situation?’” Sandner said. “You have to have a mentor and someone who you hold in such high regard that you can check your decision-making ethically with someone you hold at that level.”
The magic of mediation
Shortly after earning his J.D. at Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1950, Lane opened his own firm. Today, Lane & Lane LLC is a five-attorney shop including Stephen I. and Scott D. Lane, two of Lane’s four sons.
Since the mid-1990s, though, the bulk of Lane’s professional time has been spent in mediation, a field he was reluctant to even join.
While teaching trial technique at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, Lane became close with Drake’s dean and former Chicago attorney Richard M. Calkins. Calkins retired, became a mediator and enlisted Lane to help him.
“I felt Fred had the personality for a mediator,” Calkins said. “And I was right.”
Lane thought otherwise.
“I thought he was out of his mind,” Lane said. He knew nothing about mediation and was concerned his career as a plaintiff lawyer would make him disreputable among defense attorneys.
“On the contrary,” Calkins told him, “they’ll use you because you’ll have the ear of the plaintiff bar. You tell a plaintiff lawyer they have a problem with their case, you have credibility. They’ll believe you. And that can benefit the defendant. That’s a plus, not a minus.”
Lane was hooked soon after.
The two men launched the International Academy of Dispute Resolution with help from mediator H. Case Ellis, himself a former Lane trial technique student. The organization teaches mediation throughout the world, holding tournaments in locations such as the United Kingdom, India, Dubai, Canada, Ukraine and Germany.
In March, the 13th annual International Law School Mediation Tournament was held at Loyola over four days. Forty schools signed up, at which point Lane and Calkins had to close registration.
The tournament features a mediator, attorney and client squaring off against another mediator, attorney and client in a sample case.
“Fred has the mind of a genius,” said Calkins, who estimates that Lane has done more than 4,000 mediations with a success rate near 97 percent. “He’s so creative.”
Creativity in mediation means knowing your audience. It means helping two opposing sides find common ground in mediation as they stare skeptically at you, waiting for you to fail so they can go to trial. It means making them believe.
As a litigator, Lane loved going to court and fighting for his client. Today, his appreciation of the jury system comes from his love of mediation — without the former, the latter is impossible.
“You’ve got to have that alternative in order for people to be reasonable,” Lane said about mediation.
To get there, he guides the opposing parties through the process step by step, speaking softly to his audience and helping them see the value in pretrial resolution.
At the outset, they might be blinded by their anger. But slowly, steadily, the doubters become believers.
“After the case is settled, people usually get along so well,” Lane said. “These are good people representing their positions with strong feelings. But then they open their minds a little bit and see the other side.”
For their cooperation, they receive more than just a satisfactory resolution.
“You’ve been all so nice,” Lane will tell the group. “Would you like to see a magic trick?”
They usually do.