Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Law

Neighbor’s goats in your tree? Call a lawyer!

Once upon a time, everyone acted like idiots. It was truly shameful.

Then came the law. As a (former) lawyer, The Bear holds the law in high esteem. Now, people with grievances still acted like idiots, for the most part, but it’s a lot less fun at $300 per billable hour. Even before the  billable hour, lawyers invented something they like to call “client control.” (At first, large clubs were used, but those are no longer allowed.) 

(Client control for non-paying clients, such as a methamphetamine cook rolled up in a federal conspiracy is a true art form.)

It’s okay to blow off steam, but only in your lawyer’s office. The lawyer is used to it, and, besides, he’s getting paid to watch his client chew the scenery. The client soon discovers why his lawyer’s face assumes a pleasant, far-away expression. He learns the quicker he gets in and out, the cheaper. And, the lawyer rests easier knowing his client has been conditioned to leave the job in his capable hands, not pasting threatening notes together that will become defense exhibits A through Q.

Then, the lawyers, who have a great incentive not to act like idiots within their profession (their license) work things out. They’ll even go to trial if they absolutely must. (Expensive for the client and uncertain for the lawyer). The best part is that the judge and the jury don’t care as much about some limb hanging over the property line as the parties. They don’t think the case is worth nearly what the plaintiff does.

And, though they’ll do the job they are paid to, and do it with zeal and diligence, if they’re good, which most of them are, the lawyers’ concern over that overhanging branch does not, admittedly, burn with the same white-hot heat of their clients.

Mostly, lawyers are there to deliver the bad news that the tree limb over the property line - if it is over the property line - is really not worth three million dollars in “sunlight deprivation.” It is a rare moment in the legal profession when a lawyer gets to make someone really, really happy. Today’s “not guilty” verdict for a triple ax murder is tomorrow’s discouraging answer about a 20 million false imprisonment lawsuit. (Some lawyers may recall Jay Foonberg’s all-too-true Client’s Gratitude Curve.)

You see, the law, when it works, is really a mechanism to take highly emotional and contentious issues out of the hands of the people least qualified to resolve them - the ones who stand to gain or lose and hate the other party. (See first sentence of the piece.)

If everyone were perfectly reasonable, lawyers, whom it is fashionable to hate, would be out of jobs. But, thanks to lawyers, people don’t run around willy-nilly sawing off tree limbs or killing each other in vendettas.

So, as long as the Bear is not involved in a case, he says let the lawyers come to some reasonable settlement that will probably make none of the parties happy, or, if the parties insist, go to trial, which will at least make the trial lawyers happy, because they will get to jump to their feet and yell, “Objection! Rule in Queen Caroline’s Case!” and otherwise have a fine old time.


  1. And no matter how much they make faces at each other in court, they all go out to lunch together like pals.

  2. It may be hard to understand, but you’re right, although we try to avoid being seen having lunch with each other during trial.

    Not always, though. Some lawyers are just sleazy, and some prosecutors get into the Truth, Justice and the American Way head set and become insufferable. But, southern Illinois is a rural area with a very small criminal bar. We all deal with the same lawyers and judges every day. I remember when I was part-time felony PD in Alexander County, every morning we’d sit with the day’s stack of cases and smoke cigarette after cigarette until we had bargained each one to something approximating it’s “worth.” That was friendly, and fun, too. The cases that went to trial were the ones we had no choice about.

    Generally death penalty cases. “Sure, my client will plead guilty and then you can kill him.” But, in the end, the prosecutor always caved except in one case. That one came back with a “Not Guilty,” very rare for a homicide trial. He didn’t do it. If you think the prosecutor was hard to sell on LWOP, the defendant was nearly always harder.

    Boy, I could write a book...

    Back to Alexander County: “Come on, Jeff, you know I’ll never be able to talk him into DOC. Give me something I can pitch with a straight face- a few weeks in county and felony probation. If you’re right, he’ll screw up and you can revoke him.” Of course, I was the one who got to come back from lockup and say, “Sorry, he’s not moving from six months county.” Yeah, maybe sometimes I exaggerated my client’s determination (and, on the other side, the prosecutor’s) to get the best deal.

    It is MUCH better to deal cases that way with a friendly prosecutor. (The judge would join us for drinks after a long day, too.)

    But every county has its personality. Sometimes, though, being friendly (especially in a death penalty case with a hired gun from SAAP or the AG) was the last thing I was going for. I did not achieve a perfect record by being nice. The psyche of the prosecutor is always the weakest point of the state’s case. There Is still one former prosecutor who visibly paled every time he saw me. He thinks I ruined his life. Maybe when you say “Jesus Christ will come again before I get rid of the death penalty,” you should expect a comeuppance.

    Then there were the Feds. Not friendly, not much bargaining since they hold literally every advantage. Not one drug case has ever been won in the Southern District of Illinois. They dictated the deal. It’s like doing your freaking income tax, with schedules and tables and adjustments for one thing or another. If you went to trial, you would lose, and they would impose a severe trial tax of many additional years.

    The Feds have so many resources, it’s ridiculous. Had a tax case (it was a lawyer and he was a nightmare). A dozen FBI agents busted into his home and threw his wife and son to the floor with guns in their faces. Same thing with a Medicaid fraud case with a dentist. Feds have a name for it: shock and awe. It is intended to begin the process by terrifying the defendant and creating a feeling of hopelessness.

    I was everything from country lawyer to big-rep death penalty lawyer. Not to mention the Great Lesbian Mutiny. What a ride. Takes a toll, though.


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