The Birth of a Legal Career

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Orangeburg Massacre

I was a sophomore in high school in 1967-68. My academic credentials were good, not great. My girlfriend and sports were my top priorities.  I disrupted classes (too often) with attempts at humor.  Some of my teachers were good and some average.  The good teachers struggled to inspire 15 year old students like me to think about more than our social lives, hobbies and those taboo things that our parents fretted about.

There was one teacher who, for me, stood out that year. She was less than eight years older than us which made her perhaps the youngest teacher in school. Her name was Mary and she taught World Cultures. Mary cared deeply about social issues and she would often weave current events into her lectures trying to awaken our complacent minds to the reality of the turmoil in our country and the world at that time.

The summer before, July 1967, Newark, NJ erupted in a massive riot after the news spread that a black man had been beaten to death by police. Twenty-six people died and over 700 were injured.  Detroit was next to explode.  That school year the Vietnam War was escalating and the death toll was mounting. In response the protest movement was growing. The civil rights movement, having won legal protections a few years earlier, was still fighting for acceptance in many parts of America. There was a groundswell movement of college students pushing hard for change in social policies and laws. Clashes between students and police turned deadly. In Mary’s class we heard a message that upended the conservative, middle-class perspective in our school. Throughout that school year I grew more interested each time she challenged us with the turmoil of current events.

At our school, where history lessons never reached the Twentieth Century, our World Cultures class was hearing a young teacher’s liberal perspective of current events.  On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. On June 4, Robert Kennedy, who had won the hearts of idealistic people looking for change, won the Democratic Presidential primary in California. In the early morning of June 5, he was murdered.

The day of Kennedy’s assassination, Mary stood before our class and in a broken voice said they keep killing our best leaders. She then walked out of the room and I think I saw tears in her eyes.  I had never seen such passion from a teacher before. The civil rights, anti-war and anti-poverty movements that King and Kennedy led did not die with them. A sense of purpose began to grow in me that year. Beneath my carefree exterior were questions about how activism, politics and law impacted lives.

Later in June my girlfriend, Sharon, and I talked about the future. I told her that I wanted to pursue a law degree and maybe run for political office someday. The world around us had become a volatile and uncertain place and I think we were both a little frightened about the future. She told me she would support whatever I wanted to do.

We remained together for the next 6 years and then married. She supported us while I went to law school. It is now 49 years after that June night that we talked and she  has supported and nurtured me so I could pursue my dreams and goals ever since.  A teacher sparked my yearning to know the law. My wife and best friend has tended the flame for a lifetime. As for me, I still have more questions than answers.

When Lawyers Are Bullies.

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I dislike it when a lawyer grandstands or tries to bully others for his clients.

Tim and Kathy Deere nervously sat in my office. They told me they had just received a letter from Gary Berger, a lawyer, who represented John Wolf, the man who had just purchased their home. Mr. Wolf was demanding over $100,000 because he claimed he developed a respiratory illness from mold found in duct work of the house. The claim was for removal of the mold, medical bills, loss of income, pain, suffering and punitive damages. He alleged that the Deere’s had committed fraud.  We discussed all of the facts and circumstances of the sale. The Deere’s not only did not know of any mold, nothing about mold was reported in the home inspection Mr. Wolf had done before he bought the house. Neither of them had ever been diagnosed with any medical problem from mold. Nothing they told me indicated any liability on their part and certainly no fraud.

I sent a letter to Attorney Berger explaining my clients’ lack of knowledge and refusal to pay any money to Mr. Wolf. In few days a phone call came.  I picked up the phone and the troubling conversation went something like this:

Kurt: Hello.

Berger: Hello. This is Gary Berger. I represent John Wolf. You represent the people  who fraudulently withheld information about mold in the house sold to my client. Your clients are lying about the mold. We will prove it and if we have to go to court we are increasing our demand to $500,000. Your clients will lose and then you will have egg on your face for not recommending that they settle this case.

Kurt: Gary, is your client in your office with you?

Berger: Yes, he is right here.

Kurt; I am not interested in discussing this with you while you are grandstanding for your client. If you have a reply to my letter, send it to me in writing. Good-bye Gary.

I hung up the phone.

What I really wanted to say was, Gary stop being a jerk!  Gary Berger was putting on a show for his client. His aggression was also intended to intimidate my client and me.

I have run into several lawyers like Gary Berger in my career. They like to bluster, posture and bully. I have never been impressed. I quickly learned not to take Berger’s phone calls and told him that all communications must be in writing. That took away his performance stage.

Lawyers who approach a controversy by bullying tactics are not interested in reaching an equitable result for the parties. They are interested in building their reputations as lawyers to be feared. They believe this is the way to achieve success. The lawyers I have most respected and tried to emulate take an approach that, instead, relies on preparation and fair resolution. We know that success is measured by more than just financial gain.

Mahatma Gandhi said: I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.

*This story combined elements from several experiences with certain lawyers over the years. 

One Divorce, Two Countries and Lots of Lawyers.

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Over two decades ago, when I was still handling divorces, I needed to find a Solicitor and Barrister in London quickly. Solicitors in England are basically the same as general practice attorneys in this country. English Barristers are specialists in the law. My client would need both because this divorce was being waged in two countries. I was confronted with the most novel legal strategy of my career. Here is the story with fictional names, of course.

Jack filed for divorce from Marge in Pennsylvania after a thirty year marriage. Marge hired me to represent her. Jack had climbed high into the corporate executive structure. Marge managed their home while also working at a job but her priorities were their home life. Jack had now developed other interests in a world where Marge did not fit in. His income dwarfed hers as did his retirement plan and other assets in his name. We petitioned for temporary alimony, available in Pa. to bring some economic equality to the parties during the divorce litigation.

But Jack held the power at this juncture of their relationship and he knew how to exploit it. He wanted a divorce with more favorable terms than he could obtain in Pennsylvania so he secured a transfer of his job, established what he called a “permanent residence” in London and filed for divorce there. Marge was very hurt by Jack’s callousness.

Under English law Marge would not get alimony nor the equitable distribution of marital assets that she was entitled to in Pennsylvania. Marge needed legal representation in London to fight for her interests. Her funds were limited but we worked out a suitable arrangement. Not every person could stand up to the power-move Jack had employed but Marge was strong. She would fight.  So now I needed to find a London law firm that would work with us.  Where to start?  Very little in my legal career had prepared me for this task except for one thing. I had learned years before about the importance of building a strong network of referral attorneys to help with cases I was not equipped to handle alone. After hours of research and phone calls to my network I vetted and secured a law firm in London that would work with us to fight Jack’s divorce action in England.

Discussing legal strategy with our London legal team was very interesting.  At times our accents, the differences in our laws and legal systems made for lots of questions and  a steep learning curve for both of us. After several months of hard work, court appearances by my English counterparts, hours of phone calls and faxed correspondence, our inter-continental legal team had successfully stalled the London divorce in favor of the Pa. legal action.  Marge stayed strong and the power dynamics were back on a fair footing in Pennsylvania.

After some tough negotiations, the alimony and property settlement issues were resolved here in Pennsylvania fairly and without further court appearances.  Fortunately, there were no children drawn into this international drama. In the end all that Jack succeeded in doing through his legal maneuvering was to increase legal fees and inflict  needless emotional damage on Marge  that would leave scars on her and maybe him too for a long time.

Not Dressed for Court!

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Back in the late 70’s, law office attire was much different from today. Dress casual is common today. Back then the guys in my law office wore ties virtually every day. Beyond the tie it varied from suits to slacks and jacket. Clients expected this level of dress and courts required it. If I wasn’t going to court or didn’t have a client meeting, the style of slacks varied from pin stripe to dress slacks. At the time I owned a pair of slacks with a (somewhat) subtle blue, white and thin red plaid that were in-style sportswear. One Friday I decided to bend the rules and wear them to work with a red tie and blue blazer.

Late morning one of the partners called me into his office to meet a client.  After introductions I learned that the client’s son had a disposition hearing in juvenile court early that afternoon.  It was a sentencing hearing. The father was facing assessment of the costs to cover his son’s placement in a youth program. The partner told his client that I would represent the father and son at the hearing. Mild panic set in. There was precious little time to prepare for the hearing and no time to go home and change. I was going to have to wear this outfit to court.

The jacket and tie were fine but plaid pants for court? Unconventional to say the least.  I spent what time I had preparing for the hearing and got in my car to drive the half hour to court. I was really stressed-out about those darn plaid pants. I had appeared before this judge before and the best way I can describe him is “grumpy.” He probably never owned plaid pants in his life.  As a young attorney it was challenging enough to project confidence and competence. Conservative business attire for court was always the safest bet. How would the judge react?  Would he say something that would embarrass me in front of my client and the court staff?  Studies have shown that how we feel about our appearance affects our self-confidence. I didn’t need a study to make the point that day.

The hearing started and things went reasonably well. The judge didn’t comment about my pants but I am sure a few eyebrows were raised. The result for the client was about the best we could expect; maybe better than a young lawyer wearing plaid pants had a right to expect. I was happy to get out of that courtroom and back in my car.

I had spent hours worrying about what people would think of how I was dressed. I have found over the years that it is easy to fear the worst and that the fear of anticipation is almost always worse than dealing with the situation.  Suppressing anxiety is not easy but I do better by simply tackling hard things head on, accepting that the outcome may not be perfect and then putting the situation in perspective. In the big picture most situations do not live up to the worry.

I retired those blue plaid pants from their professional career after that day but they went on to live out their days in comfortable retirement, on the golf course.

 

 

 

Listening to a Father’s Love

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Jimmy Wilson (a fictional name) was 17 and born with cerebral palsy which confined him to a wheelchair most of his life. He had outgrown his manual wheelchair.

Jimmy’s family lived in a two level house.  It had a ramp from the front door to a sloping sidewalk leading to the rear entrance of the lower level. Someone had to push Jimmy in his chair from one level to the next because of his diminished upper body strength.

Jimmy’s parents learned about power-assist accessories that could adapt a manual wheelchair into one that moved greater distances with each arm thrust.  Jimmy had an opportunity to try a power-assist chair at home for a week and loved it.  This convinced his parents that this was the right replacement chair for him.

The Wilsons’ health insurance company so far had refused to cover the cost of this type of wheelchair because it was more expensive than even a fully motorized wheelchair. The power assist technology was so new that their health insurance company did not have a payment code for it and no guidelines for justification.   There were criteria for manual wheelchairs or for fully motorized wheelchairs, but not for power-assisted chairs.

When I first met them, Mrs. Wilson seemed very engaged in the effort to convince their insurance company to help with the cost. Mr. Wilson was supportive but more subdued, quiet and less involved.

We filed an insurance appeal. This appeal would be heard by a board of medical practitioners via telephone conference. In the following weeks Mrs. Wilson and I worked to get a new letter of medical necessity for this type of wheelchair from Jimmy’s doctor. Mrs. Wilson created  a photo array of their house showing the logistical problems for Jimmy to get from one level to the other with his current wheelchair.

A half hour before the appointed time for the conference call, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson came to my office for last-minute preparations for the appeal conference.   They decided that Mr. Wilson would present their case to the panel. As we began to discuss how to present the evidence it was clear Mr. Wilson was both nervous and angry that a panel of strange people would decide whether or not the insurance company would pay for the wheelchair.  I wondered how he would present the situation to the panel.

Finally, the call came. We were introduced to a five member voting panel. With introductions completed, Mr. Wilson began to tell the story of his son’s struggles around the house and in public with his manual wheelchair. He told the panel about the week they were given a power assist chair to try. Jimmy, for the first time, could wheel up the driveway without assistance and he was so excited, he wanted to do it again. Jimmy had found new freedom and independence.  Mr. Wilson explained that a totally motorized chair would give Jimmy mobility but not the exercise of his weakening muscles that a power-assist chair would offer. Exercising his muscles was the only defense Jimmy had against the condition that was crippling his body. This challenge and independence, Mr. Wilson explained, was extremely important to a 17-year-old who would be going to college next year. He told the appeal panel that Jimmy was an honor student with a very bright future and, “ would make a very positive impact on the world.”

As Mr. Wilson spoke passionately about his son’s challenges and dreams for the future, the love he felt for his son filled the room. I was moved. Mrs. Wilson reached for a tissue to dry her eyes.  When Mr. Wilson finished, the panel asked some questions and then the call was over.

Two weeks later the decision came. The insurance company had reversed its prior decision and approved the power-assist wheelchair for Jimmy. The decision came on his 18th birthday.

That phone call lasted about 15 minutes and occurred many years ago but I will never forget it. I had, for the most part, sat quietly and listened. As I have reflected on this case in the weeks, months and years that followed, I have come to understand how important listening carefully and patiently to my clients is. Lawyers are so conditioned to get to the relevant facts and think ahead to what they will say next that we often fail to fully listen to our clients and hear their concerns, their needs and their frustrations. Sometimes clients simply want someone to listen and hear them.

 

Spiderman Gets Divorced

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One evening I was meeting with a new client; a woman who was recounting the stormy relationship between her husband and herself. The meeting was in my second floor office. All of a sudden there was a police officer standing at my office door asking: Is everything alright?  Stunned, my client and I looked at him and I asked why he was there. He told us that a neighbor reported seeing a man climbing up the outside of my office building toward my lighted office window. The headlights from the neighbor’s car as he drove into the parking lot had scared off the man. The building has a brick exterior with architectural corners that would allow someone who was nimble and strong to climb up the wall to the second floor.

While the man was never caught we concluded that this guy was the husband of my client who apparently followed her to my office and wanted to see what was going on. From that night forward he became known in my office as Spiderman.

Over the weeks and months that followed my client reported that despite their separation, Spiderman was not ready to end their marriage.  My client shared with me details of angry verbal battles between them. I knew my client well enough by now to know that she could hold her own in this regard.  Fortunately, they had no children.

In 1980, years before I worked on the Spiderman divorce, Pennsylvania had enacted a no-fault divorce law. Under the law, if one spouse did not consent then the couple would need to be separated for two years before either could obtain a no-fault divorce without the consent of the other. My client and her husband were now living apart so the clock was ticking.

Prior to 1980, a spouse petitioning for a divorce would have to prove the other was guilty of marital misconduct while the Petitioner was “innocent and injured.” My experiences dealing with fault-based divorces taught me that many married people seeking divorce were injured but few were completely innocent. The old fault system forced many married couples who wanted to be divorced to conspire and lie to the court about who did and did not commit misconduct. People were also forced to share with their lawyers and the court all of the ugly details of their married life.  Prior to 1980 the ratio of women to men practicing law was small. This forced most women seeking divorce to share with their male attorneys some very intimate and painful stories. Our system was adding insult and humiliation to the injuries these women had already endured.

Eventually, my client and her husband agreed and the no-fault divorce was finalized.  I didn’t have any contact with this client for several years after the divorce was finalized. When I saw her again she told me that she and her ex-husband had resumed their relationship, had a child and remarried. Relationships are complicated and maybe more so when one party has the other climbing the walls.

The Angry Judge and the Paperclip

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A routine day in court turned into quite a spectacle. I was in Judge Nameless’s courtroom to file a motion. I presented the motion to him, an original and two copies as required by the local court rules.  Judge Nameless looked at the motion, stared down at me from his elevated bench in the courtroom and said: What is this?  Without hesitation I replied, a motion for continuance your honor. He snorted back: I can see that. Where is the regular form? And then, he jerked the paper-clipped original from the copies with such force that the paper clip flew up into the air and landed ten feet away next to the court reporter. I had apparently committed a grievous mistake.

The judge objected to my audacity to use a paperclip to hold the copies with the original instead of that court’s special preprinted form. The special form was a product of 1980’s technological wonder which attached the original to the copies with adhesive at the top and imprinted the copies as you filled in the original. It was that lousy paperclip! Don’t get me wrong, to this day I am no fan of paperclips. What other inanimate objects have the ability to attach themselves to one another, multiply and hide like chameleons when you need one?

There I stood, a young attorney, in front of the courtroom facing this angry judge with the courtroom full of other attorneys behind me waiting their turn. In my most respectful voice I uttered: I apologize your honor; our office was out of the preprinted forms. He glared down at me and barked: Don’t apologize to me counsellor. You should apologize to all of the other attorneys in the courtroom whose time you are wasting. I was tempted to say, You are the one wasting time Your Honor. But, I could see he was dead serious. So I turned faced my colleagues, many older, and stuttered a quick, my apologies. What I saw was a room full of sympathetic, stunned faces.

Judge Nameless, sensing that his control over all things in his courtroom, if not the universe, had been restored, granted my motion and called for the next case. As I walked out of the courtroom I recall seeing many of the attorneys removing paper clips from their documents.

The vast majority of my experiences with judges have been much less eventful. They are well-trained professionals who take their jobs seriously and work hard to be fair and follow the law. But they are people like the rest of us, subject to the same emotions and personal issues we all face. So they have bad moments too. Judge Nameless didn’t hurt my reputation or feelings that day. He gave me a new war story to tell and I understand he still holds the record in the courthouse for paperclip launching distance.