Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Myth of the Exciting Legal Career and the Earth-Shattering Kaboom

In spite of the stigma of being a lawyer and those very, very, very tired lawyer/ambulance chaser jokes, a lot of folks want to go to law school.  Well, “a lot of folks” don’t know what in the hell they’re talking about. 

The people who think that they want to go to law school get their highfalutin’ ideas from the crap shows on television, John Grisham’s even crappier novels and the occasional engaging but inaccurate movie.  As one might expect, the entertainment media glosses over the fact that 98% of the practice of law is tedious drudgery, but the illusion is bigger than that.  The real problem with all of the lawyer shows and books is that they disregard a very present and soul-killing truth:  You lose.  A lot.

It takes a while to learn that, if you lose a motion or even an entire case, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad lawyer.  Hopefully, a young lawyer will catch onto this truth before flinging themselves off of a bridge in despair.  As one very wise attorney told me before I started my legal career:  “If you can’t take the ass whippings, you need to go and be a librarian.”

It’s a scenario all trial attorneys are familiar with:  Meet with a client, chat about their situation and take on the case.  Notify the necessary parties of representation and gather the necessary information with regard to the case.  An attorney can usually tell that all might not be rainbows and daffodils after reviewing information and speaking to other parties, but one expects differing points of view in situations where litigation might be necessary. 

Sometimes there are other warnings, such as when the client starts to act unreasonably (I’ve had perfectly sane individuals in an intake interview turn into Charles Manson and Kate Gosselin’s love child on Day 2) or very pertinent information that the client failed to tell you is discovered during evidence review (Really?  You didn’t think to tell me that the store had a security video of you stuffing the T-bone steaks in your pants?).  Yes, sometimes those little jewels get dropped in your lap and it’s not too late to abandon ship or—at the very least—rethink things and employ corrective measures, i.e. damage control.

Of course,’s too damn late.  Once an attorney files suit on behalf of the client, things get kind of complicated.  Many judges have a problem with letting an attorney withdraw from a case that is in active litigation unless there are exceptional circumstances.  The further you get into the case, the less likely it is that the judge will allow you to walk.

So, what do you do when you find out that your personal injury client was convicted of felony insurance fraud a in a different state?  What do you do when your client—on probation for a DWI and a wealth of other substance related charges—gets fired from her new job at the beauty salon because she drank all of the wine that they offer to their customers?  What do you do when private investigators get video footage of your down-in-the-back worker’s compensation client single handedly pulling his boat up onto the shore?  What do you do when your charming client is caught on film for a nationally broadcasted reality show as she bites and claws and pulls out the hair of the girlfriend of her baby’s daddy?

What do you do?  You do the best you can and you sail that Titanic to the bottom of the ocean with dignity and respect.

Part of our training in law school consisted of mock trials.  Teams of two students each were assigned to represent the plaintiff and defendant.  We were given a fact pattern and were told to be ready for court at the end of the week.  The problem was that the fact patterns were fairly obvious in that there was a clear winner and crystal clear loser.  I don’t know how it happened—maybe the professors had it out for me—but I managed to get on the side of the glorious losers every single time. 

I wasn’t alone in the constant mock representation of the underdog, there were a few of us who always got the short end of the stick and all we could do was joke about it.  Little did we know that the lessons we learned at the bottom of the pile and the coping strategies formed therefrom proved to be pretty darned valuable during our legal careers.

Lesson Number 1:  Remind yourself that you can’t make the facts and you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.  (see When All Else Fails, Chant Chicken Sh*t and Sue ‘Em)  I cannot stress enough the importance of repeating this chant as often as possible.  Your ultimate goal is to dream the chant in your sleep.

Lesson Number 2:  Show up for court looking like a million dollars (or at least a convincing, but less expensive consignment version).  The hope is that the jury would think that a million dollar attorney wouldn’t waste their time on a case that had little or no value.  Little do they know.

Lesson Number 3:  Razzle and dazzle with high tech thingamabobs.  PowerPoint presentations, video reenactments, laser pointers, models and anything else you can think of that will make your side look sleek and professional.  Again, you’re lending to the myth of the million dollar attorney in Lesson Number 2 and it never hurts to look more put together than the opposition if you can help it.

Lesson Number 4:  Look and act like you know what you are doing at all times.  Sure, maybe you don’t have a plan and a chance in hell, but damned if you’re going to let the jury know that!  Get all rabid on cross examinations, never exhibit surprise if you are caught off guard by an answer, object with gusto at every opportunity, have bench conferences (even if you’re just getting together a lunch menu) and talk low and firm with lots of expansive hand gestures.  You believe in your case, dammit!  Dammit, dammit, dammit.

Lesson Number 5:  Bring a good pair of running shoes so you can haul ass out of that courtroom when the verdict comes down.

Yes, you must distract as much as possible from the other party’s annoyingly legal argument:

“Don’t listen to their valid logic!  I’m flapping my expensively manicured hands and employing dramatic inflection in my tone!”

“Sure, the Plaintiff’s doctor testified that he cleared Plaintiff for a return to work, but I’ve got color slides!”

“Yes, yes, the fact that the Defendant was caught and filmed in his car with his pants down and a thirty-time convicted hooker in the passenger seat is plum fascinating, but notice my 3D model of the intersection of the known prostitute area!  I even added little Matchbox cars for effect.  It’s super cool!”

Yeah, I often liken myself to the captain of the Titanic, but I sometimes thing that trial attorneys are more like Rocky Balboa:  We get the crap smacked out of us, fall over, get back up and wobble over for more of the same.  Either way, we’re a masochistic bunch of folks, but you need us.  When the chips are down, we’re the ones that saddle up on our donkeys and charge off for that windmill.

1 comment:

  1. I went to an attorney once to try and help someone and I have never forgotten the phrase he used. "You cannot take chicken shit and make chicken salad" This is one of the great truths of all time. Love it!