Business Q & A

February 17, 2013

A conversation with Ken Peterson

Ken Peterson has spent more than four decades trying cases in courtrooms across the country.

Ken Peterson has spent more than four decades trying cases in courtrooms across the country.

The trial lawyer who works for Morris Laing law firm has spent much of his career representing and defending dairy famers, mom-and-pop retailers, and large companies in oil and gas, computing and software, and banking.

He won a $17.5 million verdict on a case against Idaho Power for damage to milking cows because of electricity.

He also successfully defended two Marine pilots charged with hate crimes in San Jose, Calif., in 1999.

Peterson said he only took that case because thee father of one of the defendants — who was a client from an earlier business case — asked him to.

“I told him I will take this case if you let me hire the best criminal lawyer in San Francisco (to help me defend it),” Peterson said.

Peterson earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Dakota.

His dad was a pharmacist in Chicago. And then Peterson’s dad had a chance to buy into the family’s grain elevator business in rural South Dakota, where Peterson grew up.

“Why would you want to leave pharmacy and run a dirty grain elevator?” Peterson asked rhetorically. “He loved it. I hated it.”

Peterson said he was making plans to practice law in Chicago once he graduated from school.

That was until a recruitment letter from a law firm in Wichita came to the university’s law review office, where Peterson worked as associate editor.

“I didn’t know a thing about Wichita,” he said.

But he responded to the letter, and came down to Wichita to interview in 1971.

“I’ve been here ever since,” he said. “I’m a one-firm, one-wife man.”

You were exposed early on to business by working for your dad who owned two grain elevators in South Dakota. Tell me about that.

“From the time I was 6 years old, I learned how to run a business. I gained an intuitive understanding about how a business runs because that little stinkin’ elevator did everything. We had inventory. We had marketing. We had sales. We had accounts receivable. We had accounts payable. Every aspect. Same as General Motors.”

What did you gain from that experience?

“It inspired me to get out of that environment because it was horrible. But my dad did teach us how to work, how to run a business.”

How did you end up becoming a trial lawyer?

“I lucked out there. (The University of South Dakota) was one of the first law schools in the United States that was almost strictly a law school for trial lawyers. The place was filled with trial lawyers (as faculty).”

You said you knew business like the back of your hand. Did you consider a career in business instead of law?

“I wanted to combine the two because I thought it would be a nice match, especially as a business trial lawyer.”

Are there any special skills you have to have or develop as a trial lawyer?

“In a business case, I can tell intuitively if someone’s hiding documents. I know how systems work, so I have a nose for that. The other thing, I can relate to blue-collar people because I am one of them. I grew up working 18 hours a day, back-breaking work. I can take something extremely complex and make it simple. And I have a gift for thinking very quickly on my feet.”

What do you like most about trials?

“When that foreman comes in (to deliver the jury’s verdict) my heart is thumping so hard I think it’s going to come through my head. It’s like a surreal experience. It’s the damndest feeling you’ve ever had.”

How many of the cases you take actually go to trial?

“I would say I have a low volume because I have such big, complex cases. The highest volume I might have is five or six cases. I probably actually try about a third of my cases.”

How many cases do you think you try in a courtroom in a given year?

“I’ve spent as much as nine months going back to back to back (in trials) ... and I obviously had help to do that. Today, I’d say because there are fewer cases filed, I probably will try an average of between one to two trials a year. Those trials can last anywhere from six to 14 weeks … almost all of them out of state.”

You said you think that even though there are a small percentage of trial lawyers in the country, most of them would rather settle a case than try it in court. Why do you think that?

“Because they are afraid to lose. I see it in their eyes. I don’t have any fear of losing and I’ve lost. Guess what? The sun comes up. If I think I’m right, that case is going to trial.”

How did you end up as co-author of the book, “The Angry Genie: One Man’s Walk Through the Nuclear Age,” with Karl Morgan, the Manhattan Project physicist?

“I knew him as an expert witness, and he was a dear friend.”

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