The First Time by Paul Pearlstein

May 12, 2011


There is much they do not teach you in law school. Socratic Method does not anticipate a client’s request to locate an alibi witness named Slim, who can be found at the 7-11 at 4th and L Sts, SE, between 2 and 3 AM. Neither does it teach the newly minted graduate what to do when there is a fist fight at a deposition; when an heir files a Bar Counsel complaint of theft because his estate account is stuck on an auditor’s desk; or when a judge has not ruled for over a year after completion of an emergency high priority bench trial.

 I have often thought of the lawyer as a forensic anthropologist or perhaps a voyeur, observing the curious and extraordinary behavior of clients. My eclectic practice has endured some eye-opening experiences.

* A woman who was unwilling to accept the death of her sister though the sister lay dead in their shared bed for months.

A greedy sibling who forcefully removed a 7 caret diamond ring from his dying mother’s finger.

* A 69 year old, recently released bank robber who intentionally bumbled a new robbery so he could return to his familiar jail cell.

* A divorce client who asked if his case would be improved if his spouse were to die suddenly.

* A defendant in a divorce case who committed suicide; with my latest pleading found next to his body.

* A criminal defendant client who “shot up” at the break of his jury trial and then nodded off when it resumed.

* An opposing counsel who arrived for an 8:00 AM deposition, incoherently intoxicated.

As I began to work in different areas of the law, a few of my “first time” rights of passage seem bizarre even now.

My first probate case involved the estate of a young man who had died suddenly in the kitchen of his apartment. The decedent’s body was not discovered for several days. To add to the tragedy, the man had a dog who was left alone, unfed and uncared for. When the body was finally discovered, the dog had consumed a portion of the corpse in the absence of any other food.

My first jury trial provided a lesson in humility. My client was injured in a cab ride gone bad. We completed jury selection and then the judge adjourned the proceeding for lunch.

When I returned to court, my client and her witnesses were absent. The judge waited about 10 minutes and then instructed me to proceed. I tried to filibuster my opening statement praying that my client would show up. After the longest opening in a nothing case, I sat down hoping that the defense’s opening statement would buy me more time. However, the defense smugly announced that they would waive opening statement.

“PROCEED COUNSEL” was the command from the bench, but I was not prepared to do so. Within seconds, the court ministered a coup de gras, dismissing the case, with prejudice.

My bankruptcy practice began with a pedestrian Chapter 7 liquidation case. While gathering the information for the petition, I was advised by the client that the debt on one of his credit cards had just increased by a cash advance, the exact amount of my fee. I also learned that the debtor had over 37 unpaid traffic tickets totaling at least $2,000 in fines and penalties. The timing of the cash advance was unfortunate but it was fully disclosed in detail as were each of the traffic tickets, although they were non dischargeable. The case was filed, nothing was challenged and a full discharge was granted. Apparently the sovereign had backed off and accepted or never noticed the discharge of the traffic tickets. I concluded that bankruptcy courts have the most amazing powers.

Lawyers are not alone. Anyone dealing with the public has their stories to tell, some hilarious, some shocking, many pathetic.  But there is something unique about lawyers dealing with troubled or troubling clients that makes for great TV and fascinating literature. Despite years of practice, I continue to be bemused and startled by new cases. What next, my first cannibal or a Chapter 11 for a bordello?

Paul Pearlstein is a member of the three local bars, former Editor and Publisher of Real Estate Practice in DC, MD & VA and an active paddler and rower.