Getting Out of the Way
Laurie Koller helps juries draw their own conclusions
Published in 2022 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on October 17, 2022
Updated on January 12, 2023
In 2014, in the midst of a sexual assault trial, Tulsa litigator Laurie Koller listened intently as church officials struggled to explain why they failed to fire a caretaker who abused an 8-month-old boy at their day care center. Despite investigations by the police and district attorney’s office, the victim’s family declined to pursue charges to avoid toppling their church’s reputation.
The perpetrator was later hired at a different church-based day care that wasn’t made aware of the accused’s history. Now, Koller was suing the first facility on behalf of an 18-month-old girl injured so badly during a diaper change at the new center that the child needed surgery.
“The jury got pretty upset about all of those facts,” says Koller, 56. “And they came back with a verdict of $2 million.”
Koller believes her decision to step back and let the defendants ensnare themselves was one reason for the high-dollar amount. “The jury latched onto the fact that the church was more worried about that worker [bringing] some kind of employment case against them than they were about the safety of the kids,” she says. “A lot of it is getting yourself out of the way. It was much more inflammatory to hear from their own lips.”
Calm under fire, Koller has gotten out of the way many times in her 30-plus years in the courtroom. “The jury is the one that needs to have the emotion,” she says. “If you let them get there themselves, they’re going to hold onto it much tighter than anything you tell them to do.”
“She does not let her passion and emotion for her client’s case negatively affect her ability to communicate with the jury,” adds Tulsa trial attorney Tony Laizure, who once tried a medical negligence case with Koller and often consults with her on tactics. “That is a skill not a lot of lawyers have.”
Ken Adair, who handles personal injury and criminal matters at Wirth Law Firm in Tulsa, once saw Koller litigate a case before him when he was a district judge in Okmulgee County. The two began conferring on cases after going through the Trial Lawyers College together when Adair left the bench. “I’ve never seen jurors nod their heads so much for any other lawyer. Jurors cannot help but love her,” he says, recalling a trial he second-chaired with Koller in late 2021. “She is the only attorney I have ever seen that uses her softness as a devastating tool against her courtroom opponents. … Opposing counsel will never ‘out-nice’ her.”
A self-described spunky kid whose family moved from West Virginia to Oklahoma shortly after she was born, Koller was a biter in kindergarten. By elementary school she’d transitioned to debating those with whom she disagreed—including a little boy who insisted that girls couldn’t play basketball, prompting a defiant speech that got her sent to the principal’s office.
A report card from the time noted, “Laurie is very interested in justice.”
She wanted to be president of the United States until a shooter tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. By the time she was 8, she had set her sights on law. “When adults were meting out discipline, I wanted it to be fair,” Koller says. “I had learned—I really don’t know where—that’s what lawyers did.”
Koller’s tendency to argue served her well on the debate teams in high school and at undergrad at Duke University. She loved the idea of swaying people through storytelling, but hefty student loans prohibited her from pursuing her first choice after graduating from Duke’s law school in 1991: the district attorney’s office. Instead, she spent the first decade of her career at two defense firms and Allstate.
In St. Louis, she cut her teeth on trial work, litigating on behalf of Union Pacific and other large transportation companies, frequently visiting train yards and barge lines. She also once defended a chiropractor in a southern Illinois court against a patient who’d had a stroke shortly after an adjustment. What fascinated her most was the way the plaintiff’s lawyer presented the case and won. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, he’s really changing the facts to fit what he wants them to. I disagree with that, but he’s really persuading these people,’” Koller says.
In those days, she’d occasionally hear snide remarks from clients who would have preferred that male attorneys handle their cases. One prospective employer told her, “Women don’t do trial work, but you’re welcome to join our tax department.” Once, when she tried to speak up, a judge condescendingly advised her, “Little lady, you can just sit down.”
A career turning point came during her fifth year at Allstate. Watching a trial play out, Koller realized she was apathetic about the result. In 2002, she answered a blind ad in the Oklahoma Bar Journal and joined Carr & Carr, where she litigated for clients injured in car accidents and medical procedures, as well as by defective products.
Looking back, Koller suspects her great-grandfather’s death in a West Virginia coal mine had something to do with her move to the plaintiff’s side. She’d grown up hearing stories about the hardships of her widowed grandmother, who raised four children in a “dirt-poor” household. “It’s very obvious what kind of impact a significant injury can have on the whole family,” she says. “It’s even beyond the immediate family—to the extended family and friends of that person, the support system that we all have—and what happens when somebody, who’s an integral part of such a system, is taken out of action because of the negligence of someone else.”
Koller had no idea that her first sexual assault case—involving two children who were allegedly molested by a teenager at a day care center—in the mid-2000s would lead to another fork in the road.
“It was, really, very early in the whole movement of sexual assault and sexual harassment issues. They weren’t on a lot of people’s radar at that time,” Koller says. “But these facts were compelling to me because I had little kids at that time. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”
The day care center’s defense attorney, also a mom of small children, agreed to work with Koller in a way that wouldn’t further harm the victims. Koller settled the suit for an undisclosed amount, and the day care changed its policies to better protect the children. “It was the first time I’d really seen policy changes from litigation,” she says. “Everything we do now is really to try and prevent there from being more sexual assault cases. Most often, what the potential client says to me when they first call in is, ‘I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else.’”
Sexual assault victims currently make up about half of Koller’s caseload, her other focus being personal injury—partly to balance the intensity of working with clients who are grappling with the aftermath of rape and abuse.
One such case, the litigation she considers the most memorable in her career, centered around tiki torch fuel. Boosted with pleasant-smelling additives and colorants, the amber liquid came in clear bottles with safety caps that didn’t always work. To toddlers, it looked like apple juice; she notes: “Just a couple of drops of that can kill a 2- or 3-year-old.”
Koller and her team filed multiple suits against two manufacturers between 2013 and 2016, leading to settlements in each instance. Now, most tiki torch fuel is packaged in opaque bottles. “When I think, ‘What good have I been to anybody?,’ that’s the case that always comes to mind,” she says.
In 2018, Koller struck out on her own to focus on sexual assault cases, as well as advocacy work; she is fiercely committed to supporting women beyond the parameters of her practice, regularly giving talks on sexual assault and civil law. As past president of the Oklahoma Association of Justice, Koller created the first mentoring program serving women and minorities. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, she ran the Women Trial Lawyers’ Collective, a group she founded in 2018 to provide mindfulness training, voice coaching and self-empowerment training for female trial attorneys.
Around the same time, Koller met Rena Cook, through Vocal Authority, a training consultancy that helps attorneys, entrepreneurs and other clients sharpen their speaking and presentation skills. By 2020, shared interests had led the two women to publish, through the ABA, Her Voice in Law: Vocal Power and Situational Awareness for the Female Attorney.
Despite her co-author’s heavy caseload, Cook found Koller extremely focused and task-oriented as they waded through interviews over takeout lunch in Koller’s office. “She is smart and creative. She is fearless,” says Cook, who founded Vocal Authority. “Her sense of humor is wry and a little irreverent, which I just adore. She is a feminist and is not afraid or shy about offering her opinions of the patriarchy.”
Koller attributes her success to both her strong organizational skills and the taming of her sense of self-importance. “I’ve found, when working with other lawyers, that ego is probably our biggest enemy. And when you work to really practice humility, you become much more effective at persuading other people, because they’re not put off by that giant ego that’s in the room,” she says. “It’s hard, hard, hard to do. I still struggle with it every day.”
Most recently, this paid off in a 2022 civil bench trial, wherein four victims molested by an Oklahoma City neurologist were awarded more than $14 million. For Koller, it’s one more step in the right direction.
“I am seeing systematic changes,” she says. “We have to change the culture, and my only way of doing that is one case at a time; I can’t change the whole world. All I can do is help the people who are around me, and hope that other people are out there helping people around them.”
Releasing the Trauma
Laurie Koller regularly brings in psychotherapists and other professionals to help clients process emotions that arise as they talk about their ordeals. But she also knows the dangers to the attorney.
“You can internalize a client’s story,” Koller says. “And if you find yourself being haunted by that story, that is, by definition, secondary trauma. It’s important that we as lawyers recognize it and take steps to deal with it.”
Not dealing with it, she feels, is one reason many lawyers end up with substance abuse problems: “Every day, you’re getting this onslaught of horrible information, and you have got to find a way to deal with that or it’ll kill you.”
Her advice? “Go do something different, something fun—whatever it is that helps you calm down and get back into your own skin,” she says. For Koller, that’s hiking and playing pinball. Her current favorite machines are The Addams Family and The Mandalorian, and there are two spots in Tulsa she likes to play.
“One of them, Magoo’s, they have pinball tournaments. I haven’t done that yet, but I think I’m going to. It’s kind of a new, different goal—to win a pinball tournament,” Koller says. “It sounds like a really weird hobby. But I’m focused on that ball, and not on whatever happened that day.”