Turning Pain into Power
A successful trial lawyer reveals how to turn challenges into triumphs.
Posted May 15, 2018
“I implore you to find my client not guilty!” thundered criminal defense attorney Peter Liss as he concluded his fiery closing argument to a jury in a quiet San Diego courtroom. The jury did just that in record time. Peter Liss is always impassioned in his representation of the accused, whether it be a death penalty case or a misdemeanor matter. The calling to law began in courtrooms abroad when Liss as a young boy would accompany his father, a civilian air force court reporter to court in places as far away as Japan, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Even then Liss loved the thrill of the courtroom, a devotion that has not diminished in his thirty-five-year career. Yet the road to his success was not easy.
Liss was born on Johnson Air Force Base in Tokyo, Japan. As wanderlust burned in his father’s soul, the family embarked on a moving schedule that would make anyone’s head spin. When Liss was two, the family moved to Tripoli, Libya, followed soon thereafter by a move to Zaragoza, Spain. Liss’ grade school years were spent on the Hahn Air Force Base in West Germany, the Yokota Air Force Base in Fussa, Japan, the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, and the Ramstein and Wiesbaden Air Force Bases in Germany. Middle school took Liss to Aviano, Italy, where he could have happily lived forever. Yet relocation was inevitable, and the family returned to Tucson, Arizona and then Lompoc, California where Liss completed his high school education. Liss’ mother, an expert at quickly packing up her household and her three children, at last found the constant uprooting too difficult, and decided that California would be their permanent home.
While the nomadic lifestyle may on one hand be adventurous and exciting, the penalty of constantly saying goodbye can be tough on anyone, particularly a young child. Liss learned he must not grow too attached to a person or a place as the moves came every year and a half. In addition to the continual relocations, Liss was struggling to contend with a mother suffering from extreme mood swings, which were caused by being an untreated diabetic. His mother was a lady with a generous heart, and instilled in him many positive qualities, particularly the importance of helping others. Her example of always assisting the less fortunate no matter the country of her abode remains vivid in Liss’ mind. Yet when she was unwell, she would swing from loving kindness to irrational bouts of screaming, raining down words of cruelty and belittling statements. Liss lived in a constant state of stress not knowing which personality would emerge. In his heart, he knew she was a good person, but in need of medical intervention.
A feeling of deep insecurity developed within Liss. He yearned for a sanctuary from the effects of displacement, and his feelings of worthlessness from the harsh criticism. Today, as a successful attorney and grounded family man, Liss reveals how he took these negative psychological experiences and transformed them for his good.
Emerging from his childhood, Liss was angry all the time and became overly aggressive. The anger was openly present, prompting an attorney one day to tell him bluntly, “You are an angry young man.” In time, he realized the anger was destroying him, damaging his relationships, and not helping the clients he was entrusted to serve. “You can’t let psychological abuse keep you forever angry. You must channel it into something positive” Liss states definitively. He decided he would channel his anger and aggression into being a tough advocate inside the courtroom, and into fighting for other people’s rights. Discovering the verbal attacks had made him psychologically tougher and able to withstand any encounter with attorneys or judges during contentious litigation, Liss burst forth as a “verbal warrior.” He determined he would always stand up for himself and others as a powerful persuasive advocate.
It is little wonder than that Liss spent fifteen years in public service, first as a lawyer at The United Farm Workers of America, then The Legal Aid Society, and the San Diego Public Defender’s Office. Liss has continued his steadfast allegiance to human welfare in his private practice of twenty years, by serving as the President of Affordable Housing Advocates, by teaching at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and by his volunteer mentoring with law students. Liss has been the recipient of numerous awards for his pro bono service as well. The good he has done he also credits to his mother’s example of always helping the less fortunate.
Another turning point came in Liss’ life when he learned to create his own self-worth. As constant belittling causes one to doubt one’s value and lovability, Liss replaced the negative branding with positive self-talk, becoming his own best cheerleader. He said, “When you learn to believe internally in your own self-worth, you can accomplish anything.” This new mindset gave Liss the courage to apply to the preeminent law school, University of California Berkeley School of Law, where he was accepted and excelled.
In taking control of his life, Liss offers empowering advice to anyone struggling, “When you are facing severe psychological abuse or stress, and you start to feel debilitated by it, remember you get to choose how you respond. You don’t have to let a negative situation destroy your life. Instead, find a way to use the experience to make you stronger. Don’t be a victim. Be a fighter. You have the power to create your own foundation and life.”
With his positive outlook, Liss was able to find the beneficial life-skills his constant moving bestowed upon him. He credits being adaptable as paramount. He says, “I am a better person today because now I understand that you have to adapt to changing circumstances. You can’t be set in one way of living or doing anything, so when the situation demands you have to change.” This valuable lesson has not only helped Liss in his personal life but has afforded him the ability to formulate unique and successful defenses for his clients, to remain unruffled in the capricious environment of courtroom litigation, and to manage the challenges of running his private law practice.
Liss further credits learning to make friends quickly as a benefit. “You move. You have to meet new people. You just do it.” Liss’ outgoing personality and love of talking emerged. He further developed a quick wit, finding humor can break through any situation. Liss still loves to tell jokes and can make even his opponents laugh.
The moves also made Liss a better parent to his two boys, now seventeen and twenty-one. He understands the importance of providing stability and a solid social structure to his children, foundations lacking in Liss’ formative years. Liss’ desire for his boys to have stability has grounded him firmly in San Diego. His greatest joys come from spending time with his sons, whether attending his youngest son’s soccer game or hearing about his eldest son’s latest college achievement.
Liss continues to remain physically and mentally strong by his commitment to intense exercise and prolific reading. On weekends, Liss puts advocacy aside to push himself in punishing spin classes and rugged biking. On holidays, he hikes with his family in the tranquil beauty of the Cuyamaca Mountains or Anza Borrego Desert. After exercising, he may sit down and read one of the four newspapers he reads daily.
Today Liss still possesses the travel gene and when not in a courtroom can be found on a plane bound for a foreign destination. Liss’ wife was born and raised in Ireland, and trips to her homeland have been frequent through the years. Yet Liss always happily returns to his San Diego home, grateful for the stability and security he has found at last.