By Alexander Marsh
The John Marshall Law School
My expectations were low. I made them low intentionally to protect myself from disappointment. There was little doubt in my mind that the answer to my question, "How did it go yesterday [code for, 'How did the judge rule in the case we spent the past two months researching and trying?']," would be a negative one.
"I won!" my senior attorney said.
"Hot dog!" I shouted back into the phone, probably startling the copy machine repairman behind me.
Then, recalling advice my professor gave our contracts class when I was a 1L, I immediately regurgitated a piece of his practical advice.
The timbre of my voice changed from one of elation to one void of emotion.
"But you're not supposed to do that though, are you?" I said. "I mean, a lawyer should always keep an even keel and not get too happy when he wins because then he will only get really depressed when he loses."
"Well, I do both," the experienced attorney said. "I am very happy when I win and terribly depressed when I lose."
The senior attorney and his summer law clerk relished the moment with laughter. It felt great to win. Besides the same simple thrill that can come from dominating a game of checkers or a thumb-wrestling contest, I knew that the attorney (and the firm) would be rewarded for the dedication we gave to the case, as my boss had taken it on a contingent fee. And although I believe it best for a lawyer to keep his or her emotions out of the law, I couldn't help but feel that our client deserved to win, and it was satisfying to know we made sure she did.
Although I enjoy the mental challenges that force lawyers to be creative, it wouldn't be enough to keep me interested without its incorrigible counterpart: humor. Many years ago, when I first started thinking about what it would be like to be a lawyer, I never thought comedy would play much of a role.
I imagined a sterile and depressing atmosphere, like the counting house of Scrooge and Marley, where the closest thing to fun came from adding a single lump of coal to a very small fire.
I was wrong, and how wonderful it is to be shown that, time and time again.
For instance, this defendant liked to talk. He had his own agenda, and when he was on the witness stand, he would turn any question he was asked into an oral persuasive essay in (what he thought to be) support of his position.
His own attorney would repeatedly ask him to just answer the questions he was asked. When it was obvious that wasn't working, and the defendant continued to speak when no question was pending, the defendant's attorney began asking the judge, "Would the court please instruct the witness to simply answer the questions he is asked?"
At one point in the middle of my senior attorney's examination of him, the defendant was giving very long answers to very simple questions.
The judge was getting tired of it.
"Listen," the judge said to the defendant. "This trial will go a lot faster if you just answer the questions asked. He's asking you if you've ever seen the document before. It's a yes or no question. Have you ever seen the document before, yes or no?"
"No, but I know what he is trying to do," the defendant said.
"We are not interested in what he is trying to do," the judge said, cutting him off. "Just please answer the questions you are asked."
Soon afterwards, the judge excused my attorney to answer a phone call from one of his future witnesses. The judge then excused the defense attorney to the restroom. With only the judge, the court reporter and me in the courtroom, the defendant pointed to the letter about which my senior attorney had been questioning him.
"You see this part right here really illustrates how ." But the judge wasn't having it. "Please, just stop talking," the judge said with a sigh. "Your attorney isn't even here."
I sometimes say I'm not a religious man, but my gratitude for moments like these makes me think twice about that.
Most lawyers don't like to go to trial. Trials are expensive, time-consuming, frustrating and unpredictable.
Settlements are generally favored by everyone for these reasons. This sounds like the introduction to a chapter in a civil procedure book here, but of course it's true.
In preparing for this trial and watching it, however, none of that mattered to me. I was fascinated by every moment.
I observed and studied the questions, answers, objections, admissions into evidence, direct examinations, cross-examinations, stipulations and witnesses.
And to make it even better, I had an attorney explaining to me his strategy and strengths while admitting his faults, errors and shortcomings.
The whole experience reminded me of the old method of becoming an attorney by working as the apprentice of one; shadowing a master until the great divide between learner and teacher no longer existed.
While law school strives to reach the same result, the reality of the practice of law cannot be manufactured.