Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The life of a young lawyer

During the same time I was getting my feet wet in our church I was also learning what it mean to be a "real live" lawyer. Not at all what they teach in school. Like many of my fellow seminarians now I went straight from high school to college to law school. So I am 25 or so and the people whom I am representing are frequently much older than me.
I took a position as an associate lawyer in a mid-sized firm but my primary location was as the second attorney in the town where I lived ( about 10,000 people). At the time many people living here were "from here." And I was the only female lawyer in town so I became known as " that lady lawyer."
I also learned that since many people did not think of women as lawyers, if I was standing near the receptionist's desk, I must be a secretary. This was still a time where women were required to wear a suit with a skirt to Court and this rule applied even in winter when men came in with khakis, a blazer and duck boots. I was once chastised for wearing snow boots for a brief routine presentation in Court where I had just driven forty minutes through a foot and a half of new snow to get there.
So.. I expected to mainly write wills, maybe do some real estate closings and some other civil law things, and lots of research for other older lawyers. And I did do those things. But what really happened was this..
Two weeks after I started my boss went on vacation and there were thirteen-fifteen real estate closings to do every day. I had seen him do one. Mine. Thank the Lord for a good paralegal. Several of the closings had weird issues come up but the strangest one was where the people had a house built and by the time of the closing, it became obvious that the wife had ordered a lot of "extras" like special fixtures for the house. She had not, however, talked with her husband and the total was ore than the amount of money they had.
So there sits the wife in tears, the husband in shock, the builder in fits. And this was not something I was prepared for- having to tell everyone what happens if people walk away and litigation starts. Deep breath. They have no idea that as scared as they are- I am petrified.
I suggested we take an hour break for everyone to evaluate their options and come back ( after all other people are stacked up waiting for their closings). I suggested it was in everyone's interest to not be too hasty. For some reason they listened.
I still do not know what happened during that hour but the buyers came back with money from a friend or family member and we closed the deal. They are, miraculously, still married.
Pretty soon after I started, my supervising attorney started giving me files to handle start to finish and many of them were the divorces he did not want to do. I never had a family law class in school ( because after all I was going to write wills). I realized quickly how little I knew about the dynamics of these cases, even though I have practiced in this area now for many years, I have struggled with the context of reducing lives to numbers and formulas. From the perspective of each person there is too little or too much, or too soon or too late.
Wanting litigation experience I answered a posting for a part time-public defender in criminal cases. When I was called to tell me I had the job, I was now working full-time for my law firm and part time for the county. I was handling preliminary hearings for everything from stolen lawn ornaments ( real case) to arson. Routine traffic violations and aggravated assault.
I had the chance to get in a couple of trials as well. One of which involved a 14 year old who got mad because a known drug dealer made fun of his girlfriend and he bought a fully loaded gun on the street for $40 and came back and blew the dealer away. My job was to handle the juvenile certification phase- should he be tried as an adult or a juvenile? In the process of preparing his defense we learned a lot of the markers of troubled people.
He was Hispanic, living in the worst part of town. No father in the picture. His mother was clearly overwhelmed by raising several children. She did not speak English well and therefore was relegated to working in a laundry. Long hours, not good pay. And this young man had learning issues, and ADD- which was not fully addressed in school or at home because this city school district did not have the resources, and the mother did not have the time or the desire or the energy or could not make it to school without missing work because if she did she would lose her bad job - but it was her only income. ( Yes that was a run-on sentence for effect- this is how people relate the stress of their lives).
So what does a young guy with no hope who people make fun of with too much energy and a brain function issue like ADD that prevents you from properly reading social cues do? He acts impulsively, angrily. And yet after he shot the dealer, it did not seem real. It seemed just like the video games. And since nobody cares about the dealer because he is a bad guy, does it matter?
Years later I watched a movie called Children of God about the drug slums of Rio. I thought of C. the young man who shot the dealer.
And the truth is that C was also using drugs so he had another relationship with this dealer. And the dealer had another tool to taunt C- you need me to feed your addiction so I can mess with you and what are you going to do about it?
He was tried as an adult- there was after all no real way to successfully argue otherwise. And he got a life sentence. That was 16 years ago so he is now 30.
Over the next years I would condense a lot of quick learning about much more than just the law.


Diane said...

wow... what a learning curve... and I'm still thinking about that young man.

David said...

Great story. I'm glad you are still finding time to blog during Greek.