READINGS FROM MY LAWYERS CUP

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I cannot swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about lawyering  because the truth is that I’m ambivalent. For one thing, the most interesting men I met but didn’t marry were lawyers. I met them in private life, though — and not in their professional capacities. Also, becoming a lawyer myself changed my life in late twentieth-century America for the better in so many ways it would take a whole essay to tell you about it.  However, most of these changes were attributable to (1) the law school curriculum, which taught me how the world really works, which my liberal arts education, however valuable in other perhaps more lasting ways, did not; (2) the social status attached to professional identification as a big firm lawyer rather than as a single middle-aged woman who dabbled in writing when she wasn’t just being a mother; and (3) the independence that comes from being beholden to no one because you earn your own comfortable living, with enough left over to give your children the good education they deserve, start putting something away for old age, and then indulge once in a while in nice clothes, season tickets to whatever pleases you, travel anywhere without having to ask anyone else.

That was the good stuff about lawyering. There was also what we actually had to do on a daily basis in what is referred to among lawyers as private practice. [I cannot speak for the life of in-house counsel — who I have heard actually get to go home before 7 p.m. — or of lawyers in “the public sector.”] We had to work, or be available to work, twenty-four seven. We had to represent huge corporations with big bad problems that had no easy solutions, for which said corporations were willing to pay the huge hourly fees — deductible from corporate taxes — of the armies of lawyers toiling at their behest. In the Litigation Department, we had to stall, delay. [Often for years.] File motions to remove, to dismiss, to continue. [“Continue” means to put off.] Torture the other side, and be tortured in turn, with discovery requests for roomfuls of boxed documents.  Really enjoyable work. Without end.

No wonder at least some of us reached the point where what was called “life-work balance” tipped too far to one side to be called “balance” at all, irrespective of the personal benefits that flowed from the really nice money, and had to sever our “commitment to the Firm.” (I still love those euphemisms.) In other words, had to flee.

That was how I came into possession of my Lawyers Cup. It belonged to S., a relatively young partner who had an office on the same floor I did.  S., who I hardly knew except by sight and to nod at in the halls, must have been doing his quiet suffering for some time, because you couldn’t just up and go. Even if you were asked to leave, you were given plenty of time in the 1980’s and 1990’s to look for another job while pretending to be still devoted to the one you had just been ejected from. Probably not so true anymore. Young lawyers may be looking back and sighing, “Ah, those were the days!”

Then, what do you know, S. announced at the weekly Department meeting — attendance mandatory but not billable –that he had accepted a position as Environmental Director of a corporation he’d been representing as a lawyer in some tangle with the EPA (federal Environmental Protection Agency)… and would be leaving in two weeks!  Alligator congratulations all around! The Firm threw him a farewell party in one of the bigger conference rooms! Lawyers from many other departments tore themselves away from their desks and telephones to gather around platters of large shrimp on toothpicks, slices of London broil, imported cheeses on imported crackers, and to imbibe at least one plastic glassful of free-flowing New York state champagne.  The Department Head made a happy-sounding speech. Was it because everyone was so overjoyed S. had managed to emancipate himself with honor from the Firm?  Well, maybe.  Or was it because everyone hoped S. would think back favorably on the Firm in his new role as the one choosing the law firm to represent his employer when it found itself in legal doo-doo?  One hand usually washes the other, doesn’t it?

Two weeks later S. was gone and his office vacant, except for a few empty file folders on the bookcase shelves and the large yellow cup which had held his pens and pencils.  I guess he felt he didn’t need it anymore. I can’t say he gave it to me as a parting gift. I can’t even say he told me to go take it when he circled the floor to say goodbye. I just did. I went right to his vacated office, took the cup, washed it out and kept it. I probably don’t need it anymore either.  But I don’t at the moment know anyone who does. So it stays in our kitchen cabinet, alongside Bill’s Freud cup, and a third cup with sunflowers on it that I made while visiting a paint-your-own-cup workshop with two of my young grandchildren and their parents.

Since the cup serves no particular purpose at the moment, unless a single person comes over for coffee, in which case the guest gets the sunflowers and I take the Lawyers cup, I might as well share some of what it says with you. It’s fairly bitter, like black coffee. Which is, I know, how many people do feel about lawyers. I just wish they could remember that lawyers are people, like everyone else. That “justice” is intangible and unknowable. And that in civil court disputes, nobody wins. But if the cup speaks to you, be my guest. And if it doesn’t, it may give you a few smiles, anyway.

  • Only painters and lawyers can change white to black.
  • A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.
  • It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to talk by the hour. (Thomas Jefferson)
  • Castles in the air are the only property you can own without the intervention of lawyers. Unfortunately, there are no title deeds to them.
  • The sharp employ the sharp. Verily, a man may be known by his attorney.
  • Lawyers earn their living by the sweat of their browbeating.
  • When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff. (Cicero.)
  • It is hard to say whether the doctors of law or the doctors of divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery.
  • There are two kinds of lawyers: those who know the law and those who know the judge.
  • A small town that can’t support one lawyer can always support two.
  • Money talks, but big money doesn’t: it hires a staff of lawyers.
  • Litigant (n.): A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones. (Ambrose Bierce.)
  • There’s no better way of exercising the imagination as the study of law. No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets truth. (Jean Giradoux.)
  • Every business has its own best season. That is why they say that June is the best month of the year for preachers. Lawyers have the other eleven.
  • Lawyers: Persons who write a 10,000 word document and call it a brief.
  • He is no lawyer who cannot take two sides. (Charles Lamb.)

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We’ll hear from the defense another time.  My lawyer skills are too rusty right now.

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AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 2

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[…continued from yesterday…]

Getting away for three weeks was no problem for Jake; he simply informed his patients that he would be gone in August and then found another shrink to cover for him in emergencies.  Sarah had to make more elaborate and extensive preparations.  Although the lawyers at her firm were supposed to take four weeks off every year (“We work hard but play hard,” was the mantra intoned for the benefit of incoming associates) — taking the four weeks, or even three weeks, all together was just not done.  (Suppose a client needed you!)  The customary modus operandi was a week here, two weeks there — as each lawyer’s practice, and annualized billable hours, permitted.

Sarah began announcing her vacation plans in May.  She announced them more frequently — at the coffee station, in the womens’ john — in June.  She made sure none of her cases was headed for trial over the summer and found colleagues to handle what needed to be done while she was away (thereby incurring several heavy IOUs).  In July she stopped taking on new matters and began to emphasize, at firm lunches, how difficult this tiny island was to get to. (She didn’t mention Turkey.) She explained that Greece was seven hours ahead of Boston, that she didn’t know if there was a telephone available to her on the island anyway, and that she understood from Jake mail could take as long as six weeks to arrive  — much of that period consumed between the time it got to Athens and arrived at its final destination — so that she would, as a practical matter, be unreachable during the time she was away.  “You’re so lucky!” exclaimed Mabel, the lawyer in the office adjoining hers.  “I always have too much on my plate for more than a week in Chatham!”

Sarah considered this comment to be less about three weeks away from the office in Greece than about the arrival of Jake in her life.  Mabel was eighteen years younger than Sarah, in the process of a drawn-out divorce, and frantically looking for a replacement husband. To her, Sarah’s near-miraculous acquisition of a new man represented a major triumph over the adversities of life for the older woman, and Sarah saw no reason to disabuse her.  Maybe Jake wasn’t absolutely perfect, she told herself, but she was pretty lucky.  How many women of seventy were going off to a small Greek island for a romantic tryst?

Privately, however, as August grew closer, she became less sure she was doing the right thing. Could three weeks away be a professional mistake?  She needed this job. If only she could just quit — and play the piano, travel, cook, maybe write, not always be hurrying to make deadlines, attend meetings, defend depositions.  The practice of law took a lot out of you. Even with a four-day work week, she always felt tired, and usually spent most of Friday just resting up.

But if she quit, what would she live on? Sarah had come late to the law, after marriages to two impecunious husbands who had nothing to share at divorce time. Social Security would barely cover her monthly mortgage and condo association payments. And she certainly couldn’t count on Jake’s contribution as a basis for retirement when — if she were honest with herself — they didn’t really know each other that well.  Not the way she knew her husbands by the time they had parted.

Then it became too late to cancel without losing a lot of money. And Jake would never forgive her if she put the firm before him. (“The firm?” she could hear him saying.) She would just have to apply herself seriously when she came back, and people would soon forget she’d been away for nearly a month, and then everything would be all right.

“So.   How does it feel to go away for three weeks with this man?” asked Feldman, long, thin and wrinkled. She had been seeing Feldman before work on Wednesdays for fifteen years. No one who knew about this could understand why she was still forking out good money for talk therapy now that she was long divorced.

“I don’t fork out anymore,” she would say.  “It’s Medicare’s turn.”  Or: “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I have a husband.”  Or (sometimes): “You know how Catholics go to confession once a week and feel better afterwards?  Well, here’s a place where I can go once a week and say absolutely anything and it’s okay.  I can just unload.  Where else in the world can you do that?”

That didn’t mean Feldman wasn’t often annoying.  His reluctance to say anything substantive, for instance.  (Was he just going to sit there?  “Of course,” he always replied.)  And his questions  — straight out of some How To Be A Shrink book. (“How does that make you feel?”)  Once, during the long lonely period preceding the arrival of Jake in her life, she had begun a session by exclaiming, without being asked, that she felt like shit.  He regarded her impassively.  “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.

“How does it feel to say I feel like shit? Come on, Feldman!”

“How does it feel?”  (Without even a smile.)

And now he was at it again.  “Jake,” she said.  “His name is Jake.  Why are you calling him ‘this man?'”

“There have been other men, no?  The two husbands?  Two old boyfriends, recycled? So when I ask today, my question is about this man.”

But Sarah already knew Feldman couldn’t admit he might be wrong.  “It feels fine to go away with Jake for three weeks, thank you for asking.”

“You have been very picky about your previous suitors,” he persisted.  “You go fishing for a new man from time to time, reel him into the boat, inspect him as he dangles at the end of your line, then flip him back into the sea. How is this one different?”

Suitors?  What suitors?  Those few pitiful specimens who had answered her previous ads?  The one seeking a woman willing to encase herself in soft rubber garments at bedtime?  The one whose wife had mid-stage Alzheimers, but was safely out of the way on Gardiners’ Island under the care of a round-the-clock nurse’s aide?  The one with an ileostomy bag and an adult daughter in a state psychiatric hospital?

“Oh, Feldman,” said Sarah, “stop already.  If there’s any problem, it’s not with the man, it’s with the three weeks away from the office.”

Feldman took her mention of “three weeks” as an opportunity to change the subject.  “You understand the time you will be taking off, the three hours we will not meet during your weeks away — those are your hours, and you will be responsible for them,” he said.  He meant that he expected her to pay for the three sessions she would miss.  They had had this conversation every year she had gone on vacation.  Usually, it had been for only a week at a time; needy, and therefore in a weak bargaining position, she had always paid.  The two Greek tours had taken longer, and each of those years she had paid for two missed sessions, resentfully but without any sense that arguing would do any good.  This time she dug her heels in.  She was on a tight budget for the vacation as it was.

“How come you don’t give me make-up sessions when you go away on vacation?” she demanded.

He looked surprised.  “That is a separate issue entirely,” he said.  “When I go away, you are of course free to go away yourself.”

Now there’s a dumb argument, she thought.  “It isn’t a separate issue at all.  If you’re entitled to a vacation from me, with the result that I lose out on therapy, then I’m entitled to a vacation from you, even though you lose out on income.  Fair is fair, Feldman.”

“Are you saying you won’t pay?”  His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t pay anyway,” said Sarah.  “Not any more.  Maybe Medicare can pay for the missed sessions.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Feldman.  “Medicare pays for treatment, not absence from treatment.”

“Then why should I pay for missed sessions if Medicare won’t? Tell you what, Feldman.” She had him now, she was sure of it. “Let’s leave it up to you, not me.  If, as you say, the missed hours are ‘mine,’ I won’t rat on you if you bill Medicare for them.  And if you decide you’re not entitled to Medicare payments for treatment you didn’t provide, that’s obviously okay with me, too.”

Aha!  He was slowly nodding agreement. Had she just connived in an act of insurance fraud?  Not really, she decided.  Not by merely making the suggestion.  After all, she didn’t know what he was actually going to do.

“Of course he’s going to bill for his time!” said Jake that night at dinner.  A piece of eggplant from the ratatouille they were eating fell on the tablemat as he waved his fork in the air for emphasis.  Jake’s table manners had deteriorated since he had begun to feel at home in her condo.

Sarah reached over to pick up the eggplant  — she hated mess — and put it in her mouth.  The mat now had a stain.  She sighed. Neither of her husbands had been neat eaters either.  “How do you know that?  Why can’t you admit he might do the right thing?”

“He needs the money.”

“He can’t be that hard up,” said Sarah.  “He’s one of the two best psychiatrists in all of New England!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jake.

“No, really.  I asked around before I started with him.  And I can never change the time of the appointment.  He’s always full up.”

Jake laid his dirty knife on the mat to explain.   “I don’t care how busy he is. Psychiatrists aren’t like orthopedists or dermatologists.  Those guys have a revolving door: patient in, patient out, new patient in, etcetera.  But Feldman sees a fixed number of patients for years, including you.  He can’t start with someone new for the three weeks you’re away, because when you return he has to give you back your hour.  And then what’s he supposed to do with the extra patient?  So a loss of income when you’re on vacation is just that.  A dead loss.”

Sarah hated not to win arguments.  “He shouldn’t count on it then.  Why can’t he assume each of his patients will be away a certain amount of time and average his income over the year, instead of anticipating a specific accounts receivable every month?”

“Why didn’t you ask him that?” said Jake.  “While you were at it, you might also have explained to the poor bastard what he was supposed to do about his monthly checks to her?”  He jabbed his finger in the direction of the floor.

(The ex-Mrs. Feldman lived beneath Sarah.  They did not get on.  She objected repeatedly to Sarah playing the phonograph.  She complained loudly about Sarah practicing the piano in the evening. They had eventually worked out their differences with the help of the condo trustees, but accidental meetings in the stairwell or the laundry room remained chilly.   Such being the case, Sarah welcomed those occasional instances when the mailman mixed up their mail, thus affording her the opportunity to inspect the outside of the ex-Mrs. Feldman’s correspondence.  In the days before Medicare began paying for her therapy, she had once even found in her mailbox an envelope addressed to Linda Feldman in the familiar, and highly idiosyncratic, handwriting which appeared on her monthly invoices for professional services rendered by Martin Feldman, M.D.  She couldn’t resist holding it up to the light before putting it on the ledge below the mailbox labeled Ms. Linda Feldman.  There was a check inside.  Alimony!  Her money was leaving the building only to come right back again.  She was personally supporting that odious woman.  She couldn’t read the amount of the check, though.)

“Ah yes, that,” said Sarah.

“He’ll be working till she drops,” said Jake.  “Or he does.  How old is she?  How old is he?  Over seventy-five?”

“Why are you so sympathetic to him all of a sudden?” asked Sarah.  “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t not like him,” said Jake.  “I just don’t like his method.  This silent Freudian business.  Besides, what do you need him for, now you have me?”

Sarah did not want to go there.  “Must we discuss Feldman’s financial difficulties?” She pushed her chair back to clear the table.  His place mat would have to go to the cleaners.  She should probably get the kind you could just wipe down.   “Dessert is frozen yogurt or grapes.  Which?”

[…to be concluded tomorrow….]