I am one of those lawyers who tries litigation cases from time to time. Various forms of snobbery attend even the nomenclature of law. Although many lawyers, like myself, do a blend of cases (in my own case, the blend tilts toward litigation), some lawyers make a huge distinction between "litigators" and "transactional attorneys". When I attended law school, I never quite figured out what transactional attorneys, pejoratively called "ribbon cutters", actually did.
I therefore decided to do trial work, because I had an inkling of what trial lawyers did.
Even the term "litigator" attracts its own form of snobbery. Some lawyers who try cases sneer at "litigators", who they deem not to be "real" trial lawyers. A "trial lawyer", in this parlance, actually takes cases to trial. A "litigator", the stereotype goes, merely pushed the procedural paper and motions, but never quite takes the case to full trial.
The castes go on and on untouchably.
I want to speak to you tonight, though, about an opposing counsel.
I never think there is any advantage in writing overmuch in a weblog about clients' cases and trial work. For one thing, clients deserve a deference and privacy, not to mention the confidentiality attached to law. I have never been one for chuckling about the foibles of clients in some parody of lawyer after-dinner behavior. I think that trial work is interesting, but trial lawyers as chroniclers tend to be a bit self-aggrandizing. The editing gets extreme.
I therefore don't want to tell you about my motion today, or the case it relates to, or whether I am a "litigator", a "trial lawyer", a "patent lawyer", a "transactional lawyer", an "insurance company insolvency lawyer", a "commercial litigator", a "Texas lawyer", a "California lawyer", or even a "never votes party lines about judges" lawyer.
I dislike dwelling on opposing counsel as they are neither my bane nor my delight, but in the main working professionals who try to win cases I'm trying to win. In the main, it's a collegial but not chummy situation.
But tonight I dwell on one.
He was my adversary today in a motion. We knew each other a bit before today, but not very well.
I am a civil lawyer. We were in a county in which the judge hears both civil and criminal matters. Ahead of our civil motion was a criminal matter.
There was a criminal defendant, a pleasant-seeming woman. There was the prosecutor, a clean-cut, earnest looking young man. But there was no defense lawyer.
The judge pointed out that this hearing had been continued a time or two so that the accused could get a lawyer. The defendant advised that she had gotten a lawyer, and paid 1200 dollars, but that the lawyer was owed 800 dollars before he would finish the case. She was in court to plea bargain without a lawyer.
The judge gave her great advice, about how even lawyers who represent themselves have a fool for a client. The judge patiently and without condescension explained that even a consensual plea bargain had bells and whistles that often are not ironed out until the plea hearing. In a felony case, the judge explained, this could make a huge difference as to one's record or one's probation conditions.
The defendant explained that she would have a hard time working out the money right away, but she was getting on the right track. She was getting credit counseling. With time, she hoped to solve this.
The judge had a dilemma. Justice in criminal matters requires that things move. The defendant, by contrast, had a need for counsel and an earnestness about her. I don't know what she was accused of--I have a guess, based on experience, but it is only a guess--but she did not strike one as the career criminal type. She struck one as someone who made a horrible decision, perhaps. Perhaps not. Presumption of innocence, all that.
Then a real lawyer stood up.
He was my opposing counsel. He volunteered to take her case for free.
He explained to the judge that he did some criminal work. He would read her file, advise her on her plea bargain, and handle her plea hearing. If, when he advised her about it, it turned out no plea was in order, he would help her with trial.
Out of the blue, no hope of compensation, this young lawyer took on a case to help someone who was 800 dollars short of what she needed. He'll get a little positive cred with the judge, perhaps, but in the main, it was simply an act of kindness and courtesy.
I could not have done it. I do not try criminal cases. I am not sure I would have done it if I could. I take on pro bono cases from time to time, but I tend to look into them a bit more rather than pop up, from scratch, to take on a plea bargain on a strange matter.
People stereotype lawyers, just as people stereotype barbers, football coaches, and New York cab drivers.
Sometimes lawyers break those molds.
I watched a lawyer today do just that.
We still have a case against one another. I will try to beat him. He will try to beat me. Let's skip over all that.
I was proud, anyway, to see him work. I respect what he did.
I hope his client understood what a big task he undertook, taking on a client in open court, as a kindness, on an October Tuesday in a suburban county.
I understand,though, and I admired watching him work that miracle.