Thursday, January 13, 2011

JUSTICE IN THE COURT

If you think for one minute that you will prevail in court because the facts are on your side, because you brought your proof, because you lined up your witnesses and they are eager and waiting to tell what they know, then you are living in a land of white rabbits and red queens.

If you think that your opponent will raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth, and actually will tell the truth, you need to lay off the mushrooms. Better to hold your nose and swallow a strong dose of Reality. Assume from the start that he is a liar from whose stuttering tongue will roll the most astounding falsehoods you have ever heard.

If you believe the judge (especially if he is elected, and may not have even practiced law) will examine your evidence and allow your witnesses to speak, you are as mad as a hatter. If you believe that because you waded through muck to find one of that rare species—a good lawyer—that you will win your case, then you need to put the hookah away.

Here’s the pure, unadulterated truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: unless you committed a horrendous crime that has titillated the public’s attention and you have become the media’s darling or devil, you will be lucky to get ten minutes in court, much less Your Day. The whole truth is that if your appearance falls on a day when the caseload is heavy—and in these days and times, that is every day—your plan—and your attorney’s plan—should be on shoving the winning facts directly under the judge’s nose and wrapping up your case in ten minutes or less. If you don’t do that, you are going to leave the courtroom wondering, as I did, how did I just get screwed?

 
Let me tell you how: Judges, like everyone else, are overworked. I personally have waited in court from 8 a.m. when it began, to 7 p.m. the same evening, to go before a judge, and I can tell you that none of them, not the judge, not the state’s attorney, not the defending attorney, took a lunch break. I’m not sure they even took a bathroom break. They were all there, beginning to end.

Judges are just like literary agents staring down the slush pile: they hope there’s something interesting there, something that’s worth further attention, but they know the odds are against it. That’s like finding a diamond in a coalmine. They are looking for reasons to reject. They want to whittle that workload down to nothing as fast as possible so they can get home to their families and their dinner, just like the rest of us. Remember the last time you went to traffic court, saw a hundred other people there, and thought Gah! This is going to take all day. Now imagine sitting on the bench, behind the eight ball. When you’re done, you get to leave. The judge is still going to be there, no matter what, so he is looking for any reason to collect money for his district and dispatch you expeditiously. If you think for one second that in a contest between opposing parties that he won’t split it down the middle just to move on with his day, then you are truly a fool.

Good Lawyer, Bad Lawyer



I have spent the better part of the last four years wrangling with legal issues. There was the class action suit over the tainted pet food that killed one of my cats and hospitalized the other. There was the self-proclaimed literary agent who sued me, along with a dozen other writers, real literary agents, and publishing types, for calling her a pretend wannabe.  There was that lovely piece of work by my Insignificant Other, and finally, at least so far, an issue with a lying sack of shit that I prefer to forget about. I’ve dealt with a lot of lawyers during that time, and I want to help you determine when you’ve got a good one, and when you’ve got one who is likely the source of all greasy lawyer jokes. So here’s a shopping list:

BAD LAWYER

~ You meet for the first time as he opens the door to the courtroom for you on the day of your appearance.

~ The extent of his knowledge of your case is limited to the evidence you brought to show the judge, and he barely looks at it.

~ He misses one of your court dates and you neither know why, nor are able to reach him by phone.

~ He does not answer your phone calls or emails within reason. By “within reason,” I mean that you are not contacting him every day, or even every other day, or even once a week if this is a long, ongoing drama in your life. If every once in a while there is a small flurry of exchanges while short, pertinent, direct questions are asked and answers are given, fine, but when that business is done, leave him alone. You are not his only client, nor the only thing he has on his plate that day. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, a reasonable amount of time to hear back from him is twenty-four hours.

~ His secretary says he is in court every single time you try to contact him. That’s bull. Lawyers actually spend very little time in court unless they are over-priced high-profile attorneys like F. Lee Bailey or Gloria Allred.

~ His phone is always answered by voicemail. He does not employ even one full time secretary, assistant, or paralegal.

~ He agrees to represent you in a case where he clearly has a conflict of interest. This may be hard to discern unless you ask pointed questions. If you need a lawyer to represent you in a bank robbery, for instance, ask him directly if his account was at that bank.

~ He is an attorney in a class action suit where the only funds that are distributed are payments to the lawyers.

~ He guarantees that you will win. Says things like, “We’re going to get this guy.” Enthusiasm for your case is good. False promises are bad.

~ His diploma is from the University of Altered State or Beach College of the Bahamas.

~ He’s a showboat who loves publicity and to hear himself talk. If he has time to give to a weekly radio show, he probably doesn’t have many clients (ask yourself why), and probably isn’t giving sufficient attention to those he has. A good lawyer saves it for the trial.

~ Is under-dressed or over-dressed. If he shows up for court with toothpaste on his tie, or he’s more interested in the French cuffs on his shirt than the brace on your neck, you should look further for representation.



GOOD LAWYER

~ Meets with you in his office to hear your story and see your evidence.

~ Asks questions about your case that have never even occurred to you.

~ Would never dream of putting a witness on the stand without knowing what they are going to say.

~ Will tell you up front that there are never any guarantees. He cannot control the judge.

~ Keeps you informed! If you have a short case where you’re going to see a judge and it’s going to all be said and done in fifteen minutes, then this is probably a moot point. But if you’re involved in a case that will drag on for years, your attorney should be sending you letters or copies of documents all along the way to let you know what is going on.

~ Sometimes prolongs a case not to bank billable hours for which he can charge you, but to wear down your opponent. If your lawyer is excelling on every other point listed here under “Good Lawyer,” consider the possibility that this is the case, even if he doesn’t say it.

~ Obtained an excellent education, graduating Summa Cum Laude or Magna Cum Laude. Lectures, teaches, publishes. Provides a list of representative cases. Is active in organizations related to his field of expertise. Is respected not only in his profession, but in his community. And the #1 sign that he’s a good lawyer: He has achieved a degree of success that enables him to take on pro bono cases (even if it’s not yours) just because they’re interesting. This is the epitome of good lawyers, the Holy Grail. See example here.


GET A GRIP

~ Do not call your lawyer expecting him to bail you out of jail unless he is a personal friend with whom you have dinner or cocktails on a weekly basis. That’s what bail bondsmen are for. This is not TV.

 
~ Your lawyer is not a detective. Do not expect him to chase your opponent all over town to catch him red-handed. This is not TV, and that is not reality.

~ Never handicap your attorney by hiding the truth from him. He knows how to deal with whatever you’ve done. That’s his job. Nasty surprises on the witness stand will sink your ship. 


For a good attorney in the Memphis /  northwest Mississippi area, try Al Welshans, with the O'Brien firm.