Bad Day at the Bar

I’m a lawyer.  I have been for almost 25 years.  Some say I’m a pretty good lawyer, at least to my face.  I’m sure others have different opinions but, for the most part, they keep those opinions to themselves.  Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.  Here is one example.  Again, like all my blogs, it’s more or less true, depending as it does upon my ability to recall details.

When I was a young lawyer, I worked with an older lawyer who was a bit disorganized (hereinafter [lawyer word!] called “Older Lawyer”).  Now, he was a good lawyer, but details were not his strong suit.  Often, he would send one of the younger folks in our office to the wrong court or the right court on the wrong day or to the wrong court on the right day or to the right court on the wrong case.  The variations on this confusion were endless.  After awhile, you expected something to go awry.  You got used to it.  That said, he was a fine fellow.

When I started out as a lawyer, I was in a big law firm, at least by Kentucky standards.  I had to do the usual grunt work of research and writing, staying in the library (yes, law firms had actual BIG libraries back then) for endless hours.  Only later in my career did I realize this was usually to search for the answer to some question which was essentially unanswerable.  What I wanted to do was go to court.  I had never been in a courtroom until I became a lawyer.  I actually tried the first jury trial I ever saw.  Honestly, none of that is uncommon, but it makes me sound like I came up through the Law School of Hard Knocks.

One way to go to court was to ask the aforementioned (lawyer word!) Older Lawyer for work. He would certainly give it you.  Court appearances, depositions, even trials.  So, that’s what I did.  He covered up me with work.

For you non-lawyers, we have something in Kentucky called Motion Hour or Motion Day or Rule Day, depending on the county.  The protocol varies, but it works basically the same everywhere.  This is the day when attorneys are heard by the judge on motions they file.  A motion is just a request for something.   They vary from the mundane (a motion for a trial date) to the ridiculous (motion for sanctions).  The judge has a list of all the cases with motions to be heard.  He or she will read them off to the assembled attorneys.  If the parties have agreed or there is no opposition, the judge usually deals with it immediately.  If not, you say “We need to heard, your honor.”  Some judges will then hear oral arguments.  Others will pass the motion to the end of the docket for hearing.  After you make your arguments, the judge will either tell you the ruling or take the motion “under submission.”  Motion Day can last from a few minutes to most of the day, depending on the county and the judge involved.  When I was a youngster, I loved motion practice.  You got out of the office.  You went to Court and you could bill time for doing very little actual work.  Pretty sweet deal.

Older Lawyer came to me one day with a thick file and said he needed me to handle a motion for him.  He had already prepared and filed the motion.  I just needed to read through everything and appear in court for the argument.  So, I started digging through the file.  This motion involved an arcane issue with a mechanic’s lien.  For the uninformed, a mechanic’s lien is a lien (lawyer word!) placed on a piece of real estate to secure payment to someone who provided labor or materials that “improve” the property.  In other words, if you do something that increases the value of a piece of land, the law believes you should get paid and allows you to screw up title to the property until you’re paid.  I suppose there was a time when people who worked on real estate were called mechanics. I don’t why.

Older Lawyer did talk to me about the motion, which was a bit odd since he usually just sent me off with a “Good luck!”  He said it was a “novel question.”  This is lawyerspeak for “No one has ever asked this question at anytime, anywhere.  Yes, it’s that stupid.”  He also said we had a “thin argument.”  This is lawyerspeak for “Our position is laughable.”  I’ll admit that this made me a little nervous.  Once I read our brief (lawyer word!) and did some research of my own, I realized that we had not even a colorable argument.  In other words, I would lose the motion.  Oh well, I would do the best I could.  I worked very hard preparing.  As is the case with many young lawyers, I went into overkill.  I might lose, but I would know everything you would ever wanted to know about mechanic’s liens.

Actually, we were opposing a motion–a motion to dismiss our entire case on the basis that our case was idiotic.  Okay, that might not have been the exact wording, but you get the picture.  Our clients were actually a small business which had placed a lien on this property.  Evidently, many decades of Kentucky jurisprudence dating back to the writing of the State Constitution all pointed to one irrefutable fact:  there was no basis in law for the claims we were pursuing on our clients’ behalf.  This kind of thing is where one might say that “your good lawyering” comes in.  I was the man called upon to do it.

The big day arrived.  I prepared more.  I arrived at the courthouse early.  The battle was joined.  Our judge had been on the bench many years.  An attorney who practiced regularly in his court described him as “traveling unencumbered by the law.”  He was of the “by guess and by God” school of jurisprudence.  He was also known for rarely reading–and even more rarely comprehending–motions filed before him.  Of course, I knew none of this at the time.

He called my case. Then he said:  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a case of first impression here. I am very interested to hear the arguments.  Counsel, approach the bench.”  My stomach sank.  First impression?!?!?  I knew enough to know that meant he didn’t think there was a sensible answer, either.  First impression means no one knows anything about this. 

I made my argument, and I must say it was pretty damn good.  I argued.  I made my points.  I explained how the law must support my position otherwise the Republic itself was jeopardized.   I cited cases from memory.  I deftly countered every argument made by my opponent.  I lost.  Case dismissed.  The judge said it was an issue for the Court of Appeals to address.  Oh well.  I still felt pretty good about myself–for a few minutes.

When I left the court room, I stopped in the hallway for a moment when I heard:  “Hey! You!”  I was being approached by a middle-aged man dressed in a dark pin-striped suit oddly mismatched with an open-collared, canary yellow golf shirt.  He wore a spectacular gold medallion around his neck.  We had the following exchange:

HIM:  Who are you?

ME:  I’m a lawyer.

HIM:  Where’s Mr. [Older Lawyer]?

ME:  I work for him.  I don’t know where he is.  [This was a true.  I had no idea where he was.  All I knew is that he was somewhere else].  Who are you?

HIM:  My name is Mr. Johnson [This isn’t his real name.  By the way, anyone who introduces himself as “Mr.” is a braying jackass].  I’m here watching this for your clients.

ME:  Oh, good to meet you.

HIM:  How much time did you spend preparing for this?

ME:  I don’t know.  Half a day, maybe.  [Actually, I spent much more than that.  Being in a large law firm, I had very little experience with clients at that point.  I didn’t want to sound like I was overdoing it].

HIM:  No wonder you lost!!

ME:  What?

HIM:  That was the worst argument I ever heard, and I’ve sued a lot of people and seen a lot of lawyers! You are the worst!  [NOTE:  anyone who says he has sued a lot of people should be avoided at all costs, whether or not you are a lawyer].

ME:  Sorry you feel that way.  I’m going to go now.  I’ll tell Mr. [Older Lawyer] to call you.  [I turn to leave].

HIM:  [Grabbing the back of my coat]  I’m not done!

At this point, you should be aware that I was only 25 years old and had been removed from Harlan County only a few years.  I still had habits and reactions which were not always acceptable in civilized society.  I had made great strides over the years, but he grabbed my coat.  This, of course, meant it was ON.

ME: [Turning around and dropping my file] You’re done.

HIM:  Listen….

ME:  I said you’re done.  I’ve heard enough.  I’m leaving.

HIM:  You’ll leave when I’M done!

ME:  You’re done or I’m taking you outside and whipping your ass in front of everyone.  Don’t touch me again!  I will kick your ass right here!

HIM:  You can’t talk to ME like that!

ME:  I just did, and I don’t think you’re going to do anything about it.  Are you ready to GO, ’cause I am? Let’s go!  I’m dead serious.  Outside!

HIM:  I’ll be calling Mr. [Older Lawyer]!

ME:  You do that.  Just be sure I don’t ever lay eyes on you again.  You better drop this right now.  If you don’t, you’ll see me again.

Then, I left.  A volatile situation deftly handled by dazzling people skills.  Needless to say, as I drove the 30 minutes back to my office, I began to panic.  I would be fired for sure.  I better hurry back and confess that whole scene.  Maybe I could put a spin on it that would make me look less psychotic.

I immediately went to see Older Lawyer.  He was his usual affable self.  I recounted my argument and how we lost.  He said:  “Don’t worry about that.  It was a tough position.  Sounds like you did super.”  Then I told him about my encounter in the hall.  I sanitized it a tad bit, leaving out the whole “ass kicking” part.  Older Lawyer just said:  “No kidding?  I never heard of that guy.  Thanks for the warning.”  After not hearing anything for a few days, I moved on to other things. I have to admit, though, that I was still pretty rattled.  One day, Older Lawyer stuck his head in my office and said:  “Hey, that guy called me.  Boy, you were right about him.  He sure doesn’t like you!  I told him they could find another lawyer if he was that upset.  What an ass!”  That was that.  End of story.

I’m a better lawyer now–or at least more confident. I’ve learned that the practice of law doesn’t resemble Law & Order or John Grisham books.  Want to see what trial work is like?  Watch My Cousin Vinnie.  It’s pretty close to real life.  Herman Munster makes a very believable small town judge.  Good movie.

This is what we lawyers call a “war story.”  We say we hate war stories, but we all tell them.  I’m sure some lawyer reading this can top it.  He or she probably garroted a client during trial or shot a witness.  We’re like fisherman, someone also caught something bigger.

I don’t threaten people anymore, and thankfully my clients don’t send representatives to berate me anymore.  At least not yet.

© 2012

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