“You’ve got less than a twenty percent chance of winning. I’ve done a bunch of these in the counties. Trust me, you’re screwed. They usually just want your guys to plead to a summary offense, anyway…” Jason said.
I was driving west on Route 30, talking to Jason on my cell phone about whether a legal argument had any weight.
“That’s such bullshit. Plus, I think I have a loophole because there’s some case law… Shit! Jason, I’ll have to call you back… I’m getting pulled over…”
Suddenly there were red and blue sirens behind me. I knew I was about to get my first speeding ticket out in the middle of nowhere.
“Oh Jordan, you’re such a mess…” Jason said, laughing. Jason was a reluctant solo practitioner with a little under 10 years in, always willing to lend me an ear when I needed to discuss something. Jason had lost a high paid legal job five years ago after going through a nasty divorce. Jason opened up his own shop while trying to find another job, but that job would never materialize. I could never tell if Jason was just bored or felt bad for me, but either way he was always willing to take my calls and let me bounce ideas off him. Jason was an excellent, seasoned lawyer who knew what he was talking about, even though he didn’t like solo practice. However, our call would have to wait…
“Why were you driving so fast?” the officer asked. Here I was, a young lawyer in a black car wearing a suit, in the the middle of rural Pennsylvania.
I knew better than to talk to cops. I was running late for a meeting with a client, but I wasn’t going to say that.
“I’m late for my audition on American Idol. Wanna hear me sing? I’m really good…”
The cop wasn’t amused. I knew I was getting a ticket. Hopefully my car wasn’t getting impounded, because walking home from the Turnpike would be a problem.
One ticket and more than $200 down the hole. Now I was losing money on this case, in addition to standing my wife up for dinner. Again.
The case itself was criminal defense matter for a former client. It involved a couple of farms out in rural Pennsylvania who were competitors. A farm owned by a guy named Bennett had a problem with my guy, Patrick. They had an argument, and ultimately Patrick was charged with baseless but serious criminal charges stemming from a business dispute. I knew that the criminal charges were baseless and meant to get some leverage in their business dealings. Against my better judgment, I had agreed to handle the preliminary hearing for less than half the going rate for an old friend.
At one point in time, their family farm business was one of my former firm’s best clients, often involved in multimillion business transactions.
But that was then, and this is now.
And now, Patrick didn’t have any money. Like many others, his business had tanked in light of “this economy.” When the business tanked, my former firm said “We can’t represent you anymore.” However, I was still close with the family and I wanted to help out; we’d known each other for awhile. I had agreed to drive out to rural Pennsylvania because Patrick couldn’t get to Philadelphia. And I needed all the clients I could get.
I had spent the weekend and the last two days doing legal research, getting myself up to speed on preliminary hearings procedurally, discussing the local ins and outs with more experienced criminal defense attorneys, and reviewing gobs of correspondence between the two farmers. My legal research unearthed a few cases that I was sure would vindicate Patrick. I felt pretty good about our case and the work I did. However, my hourly rate was probably about $2.25 an hour – less than I had made waiting tables at Ruby Tuesday.
Maybe I cared because things used to be a little different for me, too… I guess we had something in common. Just a few months ago, I had a “traditional” law firm job serving corporate clients and insurance companies. I had an expense account. My CLEs were paid for, and the firm equipped me with cool gadgets that made life a lot easier. I had a support staff that I could delegate stuff to, like marking my organizer or taking calls from people I didn’t want to talk to. Someone else managed the trust account, ethical compliance, data retention, and just about everything else. My job was to show up and do high quality legal work. And that’s what we did at the firm -some incredible legal work on sophisticated matters. I saw some of the best trial attorneys in the country try complex cases before juries.
I traveled to lots of different cities and states, which seemed so “important” to my friends. Of course, you have to realize that traveling for work a lot sounds a lot cooler than it is. Your friends think you’re flying to exotic locations, eating at fancy restaurants, and touring new and interesting cities, but that’s not the reality of it all. Truth be told, you spend a lot of time waiting in an around an airport only to end up in a remote location where most of your time will be spent at a hotel. It just ends up being a long day where you don’t get to go home at the end. After the work day ends, you hang out at a hotel by yourself, eat junk food, watch sports teams you don’t really care about, or maybe go to a local bar where you don’t know anyone. Traveling just made me miss my wife and cats. But to your friends (especially unemployed lawyer friends) it all sounded very important.
There were also a lot of other perks that came with firm life. My wife and I had spent time in expensive hotels. We could afford to hire people to clean our house so it looked good on the weekends. We shopped at Whole Foods and bought grass fed meat. The group of people I worked with were fun to hang out with, and I knew someone would have my back if I couldn’t get to something.
Sounds great, right?
Oddly enough, I didn’t leave the firm because I had to. I left because I wanted to. I was bored, personally and professionally. It sounded stupid when I told them I was leaving. It sounded silly. It sounded like the idealistic musings of a young baby lawyer who didn’t know any better, probably throwing away the best thing that ever happened to him. This was the type of job many lawyers, young or old, would kill for. The partners thought I was crazy. They even took me and my wife out to dinner, and put us up in a nice hotel to try and get me to change my mind and to remind me what I was throwing away. The point was well taken.
However, I had always pictured myself as a small town lawyer, like the ones you read about in John Grisham novels. I wasn’t in this for the money or prestige. After a few years in practice, I was determined to build my own practice, and do it one client at a time. To do a good job for everyone who came into my office, and if I couldn’t do that, refer them to someone who could. I wanted to build a practice based on integrity, honesty, and a commitment to justice. Not overnight, but over time.
Before I left the firm, I called my former boss James to get his read on things. His advice was this: “Work for someone else as long as you can. Then, when you think you have enough experience, work a little longer. But I think you’ve already made up your mind, so you might as well do it while you don’t have kids. Remember, just keep plugging away at it. If your practice is still viable after about five years, you’ve made it. It used to be three years but I think times have changed. Now it takes five years.”
Now, just like Patrick, things were a little different for us. The fridge was empty and I spent a lot of time worried about how to pay bills. We could no longer afford housekeepers, and our food came from the regular SuperMarket — not Whole Foods. Hopefully it was on sale.
Was leaving the firm a good decision? I won’t be able to answer that question for a long time. But I will tell you this – for the first time in my career, I was beginning to feel more like the small town lawyer I had always wanted to be.
But more importantly, would I have enough gas to make to the hearing tomorrow? Would I have to pay for parking? Would I make my mortgage payment this month? Would this be the last case I ever handled? Time would tell.
I reached the Patrick’s house around 7:30 pm, about an hour later than I said I would be there. Thankfully, dinner was on the table when I arrived. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. One day I was going to prioritize my health again… one day… but not tonight. Tonight I was going to eat.
“Sorry I’m late. I, uh, got caught up in, uh, a separate legal matter…” Goddamn speeding ticket.
I came in, put my file on the table, and began to talk lawyer talk. “Well, look, I think we have an uphill battle, but I found a line of cases that suggests…”
“Put that away. We’re going to eat dinner. That can wait.” Patrick said.
I took off my coat and I sat down with Patrick, his wife Nicole, and their young son. Then we ate like a family. And I appreciated it because I was starved and I didn’t want to talk about legal stuff right that second. There were ribs, potatoes, coleslaw, cabbage, beans, and plenty of beer. While we ate, we didn’t talk about anything related to the case until dinner was finished. No, we talked about more pleasant conversation — like my recent wedding, married life, and about the local sports teams. It was like we were old friends just sharing a meal. Here I was, eating dinner in a small farm house in the middle of nowhere – a far cry from the posh restaurants I was accustomed to – yet somehow this was much better. Just a couple of friends sharing a family dinner.
Patrick was an old school type of a guy, a farmer in every sense. He was a throw back to an era where men behaved like men and disputes weren’t resolved in court. The legal system turned Patrick off, because to him, it was needlessly over-complex and often nonsensical. “Why can’t we just have Bennett over for dinner and talk this out? Hell, I know Bennett loves my ribs. After everyone has a beer or two I’m sure it would all be over.” He had a point. Patrick always wanted to resolve things with dignity and civility. Sadly, if I were allowed to invite Bennett over for dinner, Patrick was probably right – the whole thing would just go away. We’d eat ribs, have a few beers, and they would go about their business. But there were pending criminal charges, so that couldn’t happen.
After dinner we got down to business – discussing the facts, the law, and our strategy. This lasted deep into the night. At one point, my phone started to ring:
“Jordan, your phone is ringing.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not important. Right now you’re what’s important.”
Sallie Mae liked to call me a lot these days.
When midnight hit, Patrick asked me: “Is your wife going to be okay with this?”
“Honestly, probably not… I haven’t seen her for almost a week. I blew her off for dinner again.”
“Here, take her some cheesecake – Nicole just made it. Women love cheesecake. Take it to her and she’ll be fine.” Patrick had an old school charm.
After prepping with Patrick, I went back to my office and continued drafting my outline. I finished prepping at around 3:00am and went home. To avoid waking my wife up, I fell asleep on the couch, where I got less than two hours worth of sleep. Hopefully the cheesecake would appease her. I left the next morning before she woke up without bothering to shower, leaving a note on the fridge: “Cheesecake in the fridge. Love, Jordan.”
We showed up to court bright and early that morning. Except this wasn’t court like I was used to. Corporations don’t usually litigate in these smaller Magisterial District or “DJ” courts. These courts were for “regular” individuals. It was not a courtroom like the federal courts or the Court of Common Pleas where I was accustomed. Here, the judge, an elected official, might not even be a lawyer. There were hundreds of people packed in the courtroom, which looked more like a big conference room. It felt more like a processing center than a court. Most of the hearings lasted less than three minutes.
Being a civil litigator, I figured I would try and talk some sense into the DA first. I had written the DA a short letter last week, at the suggestion of a more experienced criminal defense lawyer, attaching authority showing why the Commonwealth didn’t even have a prima facie case. Unfortunately, my attempts didn’t go over well.
“Hey Shelly, did you get my letter? I faxed it to you last week and put a copy in the mail. Here’s another copy. Look, this is all bullshit and it’s about a business dispute with Bennett – Patrick didn’t commit any crimes. Why don’t we just let them go back to business as usual?” Shelly looked at me like I had two heads: “Do you really think I’m going to read that? I have over a hundred cases. You must be new here…” she said, laughing. “Go have a seat with the other lawyers and wait until your case is called. If you want to talk about a plea bargain, we’ll discuss it when your case gets called.”
Cold hard justice.
I was invited to sit in an area restricted for lawyers. I guess they didn’t want lawyers to look like common criminals. While waiting for our case to be called, I overheard a conversation between two other lawyers:
“Yeah, the rates just keep dropping lower and lower. You gotta have a fee lower than the other guy.”
“Tell me about it. I got rid of my secretary. Why pay her $30,000 a year when I can just pocket that money for myself? I’d rather get rid of her and cut my rates to stay competitive.”
“The practice of law sucks. It’s a race to the bottom. You gotta offer the cheapest services available now, and then bring in a lot of cases. Good thing I can still charge $1500 for a simple bankruptcy and do about two hours worth of work.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. We just got rid of our office.”
I thought to myself: “Funny. Whole Foods isn’t the cheapest, but they don’t seem to be hurting for business. Maybe some people look for quality? Hell, I used to buy food there back in the day..”, but I bit my tongue. No matter how tough times got, I had vowed never to get involved in the race to the bottom. I went back and sat with Patrick in the common area. The conversation was more pleasant, and I didn’t care if anyone thought I was a defendant.
We sat for hours and hours, taking a only a quick break for lunch. Finally the case got called late in the afternoon. I handed the judge my memorandum and copies of relevant authority. The important parts were highlighted. The hearing lasted for about 3 minutes — I asked Bennett about five total questions. He admitted everything I thought he would. After my examination, there were no longer factual disputes. All of Bennett’s admissions served as reasons why this case should be dropped according to the law.
I knew that I was right. The judge knew I was right. The DA knew I was right. Hell, I think even Bennett knew I was right. Everyone knew it but nobody liked it.
After I said my piece, I figured the DA would just drop the charges.
But what did she do? She asked the judge for a continuance. A fucking continuance.
“Mr. Rushie wrote me a letter but I haven’t had a chance to look at it.”
“Yeah, except that I faxed it over a week ago, emailed you a copy last night, and then handed you a hard copy about five hours ago.”
“I’d like a little bit of time to review the case law and to figure out what we’re going to do with this.”
“Oh c’mon, Shelly, you’ve had plenty…”
“Case is continued for a month. I’ll see you all back here then.” the judge said. “Next!”
“I’ll review your letter and we’ll discuss it at the next hearing. If your guy wants to plead guilty to lesser charges, we can discuss it then.”
Great. We’d be coming back. The DA knew what she was doing. Jason had called it – they weren’t interested letting my guy walk away scott free. No, they were interested in getting my guy to plead guilty to a lower offense, because they knew my fees would outweigh the potential fine. Even though Patrick hadn’t broken the law. If Patrick wasn’t going to pay a fine, he was going to pay a lot off money in lawyer fees.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not pleading to anything. Plus, you know it’s going to destroy my business if I have to plead guilty to anything” Patrick said after the hearing. We’d have to discuss that at a later point in time, but I knew he was right.
Then Patrick pulled me aside and said “Jordan, thanks for having my back. I can’t thank you enough. You’ve stuck by us this whole time. Anyone else would have abandoned me. One day we’ll get back on our feet, and when we do, we’ll be your biggest client. And though we can’t do it today but we’ll get your bill paid. You’re like family to me.”
I didn’t know how to respond other than “Thanks.” I needed a nap. Except the nap was going to be difficult because the Smith matter was due before 5:00 tomorrow. The prize for winning the pie eating contest is more pie, I suppose.
While I was in court, Leo had left me a few voicemails asking how it went. I called Leo back:
“Hey Leo… it’s Jordan. I’m on my way back to the office.”
“How’d the prelim go?”
“Gotta go back next month.”
“Great. Did we get paid?”
“…I’ll bring whiskey back to the office.”
“We didn’t get paid, did we?”
“Put it this way, we’ll be drinking Ezra Brooks this week.”
“I’d prefer paying the rent on time.”
“…do you happen to know anything about defending a traffic ticket?”
The bills would still be there tomorrow. My traffic ticket would still be there tomorrow. The Smith matter would still be there tomorrow.
Whether our practice would be viable in six months, well, that wasn’t so certain. I don’t think we’ll know for at least five years if James’s calculations are correct, which they probably are.
But tonight, it didn’t matter. None of it did. Tonight there was bourbon. I would drink Ezra Brooks, because it was the best I could afford, yet somehow it felt fit for a king.
Tomorrow we would keep plugging away, one client at a time…