Tuesday, March 14, 2017
“Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?” (Or, An Open Apology to Curves for Women)
Actually, the courtroom wasn’t the real problem (more on that in a minute); the lead up to the courtroom was.
The exact circumstances are foggy now, since it happened so long ago, but I’ll give you
the gist. The firm I worked for represented all sorts of clients, but each attorney focused on one area. “Jane” did 75% family law, even though she still took on a few criminal cases since that was what the firm was known for. “John” did 75% criminal but also did civil litigation, etc. My focus was criminal law, although I had a bit of experience helping out on personal injury and family law matters. I always figured I’d eventually find my niche once I learned more about each specific area. My plan got fast-tracked one day when one of the partners called me into his office and told me I needed to cover a custody dispute hearing for him.
The thing about being a young associate is you can’t say no to anything because saying no doesn’t generate revenue. You’re basically there to clear the partners’ desks of any piddling stuff so they can take on the big cases that make the real money. So whether it’s an injunction hearing, a DUI sentencing, or a summary judgment brief in a slip-and-fall case, if you greet it with anything other than a “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”, you can kiss your paycheck, your Westlaw subscription, and your discounted parking space goodbye.
So when “Tom” decreed that I would handle an emergency motion to modify our client’s custody arrangement with her ex, I nodded enthusiastically and jotted down the pertinent facts. The hearing would be held the next morning, but Tom told me that since there was so much paperwork to go through, I should request a set-over.
“Even though it’s our own motion?” I asked.
“Just go work something out,” he said, then told me to scram.
Tom had a reputation for doing this sort of thing. Jane had complained to me on more than one occasion about finding herself on the business end of a “Go work something out.” I knew there was nothing I could do, though. Not with the hearing less than twenty-four hours away and a student loan balance that could rival the national debt. It was like I’d bought a Tesla but never got the keys. So I went to work.
Now, by all outward appearances, I’m sure I looked like a typical lawyer doing research for an important hearing. I grabbed my statute book, opened up Westlaw, and took out a legal pad. I removed a ream of documents from the tattered Redweld Tom had handed me, and sifted through page after page of messy handwritten notes from the client laying out all her ex’s crimes. I looked up the local court rules to make sure I covered all my bases. Just a typical lawyer, doing typical lawyer things.
Inside, though. Inside, things were different.
There are all sorts of ailments that can mimic a heart attack, but aren’t actually a heart attack. I learned that back in law school, but didn’t fully live it until I started practicing. Esophageal spasms, anxiety, indigestion, muscular aches. I had all of them as soon as I woke up in the morning. Court only exacerbated them. On that day, as I clicked through Westlaw, I felt that familiar burning in the center of my chest. The kind that crept up slowly and intensified if I looked at my Great Lakes* balance. I reached for the Pepto and soldiered on. I tried to, anyway, but the voice in the back of my head wouldn’t shut up.
I’ve never done more than a status conference in a family law case. I’m toast.
What am I going to do if the judge doesn’t grant a set-over?
I’m going to get fired.
I’m going to get disbarred.
Why didn’t I go to nursing school?
Remember back in college when I worked at that bookstore? Remember that one called ‘How to Disappear Without Being Found’ or something like that? Maybe it’s still out there.
I checked Amazon, but no such luck. Plus, with the hearing only a few hours away, the book would never arrive in time for me to fake my own death beforehand. I was screwed.
I buzzed Jane. “Hey, can I ask you about a family court thing I have tomorrow?”
“Sure, come on up.”
I ran upstairs to her office and explained the situation, but she interrupted me before I could get to the meat of things.
“Why is Tom having you do this?”
“I don’t know, he has something else going on. The client says her ex is pulling their son out of Little League because Little League caused his wife to have the affair that—”
“No no no,” she said, shaking her head. “The client paid him to do this, right? Not you?”
“Yeah, but he has something else—”
“He’s going to get in trouble one day for pulling this kind of thing.”
“I know. She says Little League wasn’t the problem but the ex wants their thirteen-year-old daughter to testify about some incriminating texts—”
“Can’t you just ask for a set-over?”
“That’s what Tom wants me to do, but it’s an emergency motion. Will they do that if we’re the ones who filed it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about the daughter’s testimony? Do you think they’ll allow that?”
She made a face. “Almost never.”
That was all I could get out of Jane. Not that it was her fault. “I don’t know” and “Almost never” are why lawyers were invented. My civil procedure professor once told us that the answer to any legal question is always “It depends.”
I soldiered on.
My Pepto bottle sat empty at the bottom of my trash bin by the time I left work that night. The next day would be a shit show, I could feel it. I still hadn’t read all of the documents in the file and the ones I had didn’t clarify anything. Old report cards, nasty emails, hotel receipts. I couldn’t make sense of it, even after reading the supporting narrative attached to the motion. Tom told me to get to the courthouse early so the client could explain it all to me.
When my husband got home, he found me lying in bed, a glass of Chardonnay sitting on the nightstand.
“Rough day?” he said.
“Mm,” I mumbled, reaching for the glass. “I’ve got that thing again in my chest.”
“You can always quit, you know.”
“And Great Lakes will just forget the whole thing?”
“I know what you need.”
He always made me cupcakes for my birthday, the number corresponding to my age. That year he’d made me thirty-one, which meant our freezer was still full of them. He set the icy Tupperware container on the kitchen counter to thaw while he made dinner and I continued to drink.
“Did you know I’ve lived thirty-nine percent of my life?” I asked as I downed another glass.
“You’re in a good mood tonight.”
“If I live to seventy-eight, which is the average lifespan of an American female. I’m not sure about the average lifespan of an American lawyer, though.”
“I can try to get you into IT. Do you know what a motherboard is?”
“No. If we have children, we’re never signing them up for Little League.”
I don’t remember what we had for dinner that night, but I do recall going overboard on the cupcakes. Food was one of the only comforts in my life. It didn’t fill the void, but it was fun trying.
The next morning, I woke up tense and focused on the next three hours. The hearing was in another county an hour away, so I had to get on the road early. I picked out my nicest suit and dressed in a hurry. I didn’t have anything for breakfast except water. On the way out the door, I decided to lug the file to court in my briefcase, a soft leather satchel that was a gift from my husband. As I drew closer and closer with each mile, my stomach churned while I mentally rehearsed my argument.
The only reasonable thing to do in this case is set things over so the parties can come to an agreement.
Lather, rinse, repeat. But still, the words of my contracts professor echoed in the back of my mind: Equity is the last bastion of a party with no leg to stand on.
I soldiered on.
As predicted, the morning was a shit show. The client turned out to be crazy – I recall lots of hand wringing, a flurry of documents whipped in front of my face in quick succession, slurred words from alcohol or pills. That wasn’t anything new. Most of the time we didn’t see clients at their best because we met them under stressful circumstances. But what was different about this case was that the client wanted me to advise her ex-husband on how to proceed.
“I can’t do that,” I said. “I’m not his lawyer.”
“He just wants you to listen to him.”
“Ok, but I can’t tell him what to do. You filed this thing because you’re having a dispute, right?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know what to do.”
My mind was spinning. Now, I not only had to worry about family law statutes and procedures, I had to worry about legal ethics, too.
I’m definitely going to get disbarred.
I spoke to the ex-husband – or, rather, I let him speak to me. It was the usual stuff you might hear from an ex. “My wife is crazy,” “The kids don’t want to live with her,” “How much did she pay you to do this?”
I had no idea what I was expected to do, so I listened to him for a few minutes before going back into a small conference room with my client and telling her we needed to get a new court date to sort things out. She hung her head and burst into tears.
“Didn’t Tom tell you we were going to try to get a new date?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, just kept sobbing into the rickety card table, shoulders heaving.
The Tesla I’d bought had caught fire and was about to roll off a cliff.
Court was a blur. I asked for a set-over and the ex objected. He said his daughter was ready to testify.
“Absolutely not,” the judge barked.
Score one for Jane.
“The only reasonable thing to do here is to set it over so we can try to reach an agreement, your honor.”
He nodded, waiting for me to cite some legal precedent. When I didn’t, he got out his calendar and we set a new date.
Afterward, I ran back to my car and let out a sigh of relief, my hands gripping the steering wheel as I felt a quiver in my stomach. I’d expected my anxiety to dissipate as soon as the hearing ended. It didn’t because now I had a new problem to worry about. Fourteen weeks of legal ethics lectures, twenty-four hours of dread, and three chocolate chip cupcakes rumbled through my insides like a freight train.
I needed to find a bathroom.
It couldn’t be the one at the courthouse or I’d never be able to show my face there again. I raced out of the parking lot toward downtown, which wasn’t really downtown considering the population barely breached the four-digit mark. It was still early and not much was open. As my intestines threatened to erupt all over $129 worth of Ann Taylor polyester/lycra blend, my breath came harder and I frantically searched for the word ‘open’ along the abandoned main drag. The only sliver of hope I could see was a neon Curves for Women sign, which in that moment, was like purple manna from heaven. I squealed into the first space I could find and rushed inside.
It was empty, save for a middle-aged brunette with a smart haircut wiping down an elliptical machine.
“Could I use your bathroom?” I said, tight-lipped and hoping she couldn’t tell I was desperately trying to control my sphincter by sheer, rapidly dwindling force of will. She pointed me in the right direction and I finally let go.
Eastern mystics won’t tell you this, but diarrhea is one way of achieving Zen. There’s nothing like an intestinal demand to make you truly live in the present. In the Curves for Women bathroom, I didn’t think about the past or the future. I didn’t think about Jane or Tom or the judge or Great Lakes or the average lifespan of an American lawyer. There was no suffering, just sublime relief that I had everything I needed in the entire world at that moment.
Of course, Zen moments are fleeting. As soon as it was over, the voice in the back of my head started up again.
I had no idea what I was doing in court.
I have no idea what I’m doing anywhere.
The Curves manager thinks I’m disgusting.
I should have gone to nursing school.
Maybe it wasn’t ‘How to Disappear Without Being Found.’ Maybe it was ‘How to Disappear and Never Be Found.’
When I got back to the office, I typed up a hearing note for the file and left the Redweld in Tom’s office. It occurred to me how much emotional – not to mention physical – energy I had wasted worrying about a hearing that turned out to be so uneventful. But wasn’t that the point of being a lawyer? Contemplating worst case scenarios and trying to head them off? Maybe my body wasn’t cut out for worst case scenarios. Or maybe I’d set the bar too high for what constituted the "worst case.” For some reason, it always involved me lying penniless in an alley somewhere.
As I left the office that evening, I ran into Tom in the parking lot when he emerged from his Lexus, neatly coiffed and probably in possession of a sizeable retainer judging by the grin on his face.
“Client says you did good this morning,” he said.
My shoulders perked up. “Glad to hear it. I hope they can settle things.”
“That’s a nice briefcase.” He nodded toward my leather satchel, then turned and disappeared into the alley that led to the back door of the firm.
I knew when Tom found the file in his office, he wouldn’t look at my note. He’d toss the Redweld into the corner until a few weeks later, when he’d toss it back to me for round two. I’d cleared his desk for another day and lived to tell about it. I didn’t get fired. I didn’t get disbarred. I didn’t fake my own death.
I soldiered on.
* Great Lakes was my federal student loan servicer.