Friday, December 30, 2005

On a serious note

It's been a tough week to be the parent of teenagers. Perhaps I should say a tougher week than usual. First came news of the death of Tony Dungy's son -- chilling to any parent, whatever the circumstances of the young man's death turn out to be. Yesterday, closer to home, came the death of two teenagers out joy-riding in Lincolnwood at 3:30 a.m. Two others in the car were critically injured. All were supposed to be at one house, at a sleepover. None were supposed to be riding about in a car.

I didn't know the families. My younger daughter knew one of the victims. My heart aches for all of them, the living and the dead and all their families.

But I can't tell you how many times we have seen our kids -- good kids, generally -- go off in one direction... and return from another. Plans changed, they tell you. Everyone decided to go to so-and-so's house instead. We decided to go out for a snack. No, we didn't bother to call; we didn't think you'd mind. (Or: "We figured you'd already be asleep." Snoring away in front of the TV, probably, physically unable to stay awake until you came home safely.)

You think you are keeping track of your kids' whereabouts -- and find you are mistaken. Thank God that we have not found out about a "change in plans" by means of a phone call, or visit, from the police. Can you imagine the anguish of the parents who were awakened to find that their son -- whom they thought safely asleep at a friend's home -- was severely injured... or dead?

Our kids wonder why we get so upset about these things. They see our hand-wringing as unwarranted and unwelcome interference in their own little adolescent world. We embarrass them before their peers when we 'ground' them upon learning that they went to Friend X's home when we were told they were visiting Friend Y. I know we can't protect them from everything, though we'd like to -- but, if something goes wrong, we'd at least like to start running to help in the right direction.

It's not interference for no good reason. It's our job. It's, well, love that makes us ask all those nagging little questions -- and we will just keep on asking.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

My subtle signals to David Letterman did not work

No need to post a link on this: It's common knowledge now that Mr. Letterman's lawyers prevailed on the New Mexico court to lift the restraining order against him. He is now free to send his "thoughts of love" to the woman who was so distracted by these subliminal signals that she sought judicial relief.

Oh, wait, that's not the stated reason why he sought to dissolve the restraining order. Something about a complete lack of evidence or something....

Obviously my post earlier this week (and the subtle mental signals I broadcast to the blogosphere -- using, I think, the fillings in my teeth) did not persuade Mr. Letterman to think about the possible benefit he might obtain by acquiescing in the restraining order.

Ah, well, must concentrate harder....

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Inflated expectations

It occurs to me that much of the public's love-hate relationship with the legal profession stems from the difference between perception and reality.

Non-lawyers (and even some lawyers, in my experience) have exaggerated opinions of what the law can do -- and diminished regard for lawyers who try and rein in these runaway expectations.

Every personal injury lawyer has a story of a settlement ruined, or at least jeopardized, because the client had a last-minute conversation with a barstool barrister or new acquaintance at the block party (ethanol consumption is almost always a feature of these conversations) who assures the client that the lawyer is selling the client out, or at least short. Somebody else, who had the very same injury (and did you review the medical records in both cases, Doctor?) got twice as much in their case. (Did you see the settlement papers? How do you know? And what were the facts of that case, Mr. Barfly? This case involves an open intersection accident with conflicts among the witnesses. Was your case a rear-ender?)

Of course the client never asks those kinds of questions. Every statement made by the lawyer is viewed with skepticism, but the slurred pronouncements of the drunk guy at the end of the bar who will say anything that will make you buy his next drink are taken as if they were carved in stone.

My oldest daughter (she's 21) has had a series of foot operations over the past year, not all of them successful (which is one reason why additional surgeries have become necessary). In particular, in one of the first operations, a nerve was severed that should not have been. It has caused my daughter pain and discomfort since. A subsequent operation, by a different doctor, in which the nerve was 'tucked into' the muscle, has failed to resolve the problem. Now the second doctor has sent her to a third doctor, who proposes still other surgery.

But was the first doctor guilty of malpractice? My daughter has no doubt: The first doctor was a butcher and must be called to account. I've suggested to her that this unhappy outcome may have been among those possible and that, despite the unhappy outcome, the doctor may have fully complied with the standard of care. I've also told her that malpractice cases are fabulously expensive to handle (in part because they are the least likely to settle without trial). Finally, I've pointed out that, although she continues to have pain, especially if she's too long on her feet, she may not have been injured badly enough to make it economically worthwhile to pursue a case for malpractice, given the costs and uncertainties of such a claim, even if a lawyer specializing in malpractice cases agrees with her unkind assessment of her first doctor.

Well, you can imagine what my daughter thinks of this: I'm obviously a bad lawyer.

My wife is beginning to agree. The mortgage company continues to call my house, at least twice a day, because my December payment has yet to be made. (The $100,000 check continues to reside in my drawer.) On Christmas Day, Sunday, the bank did not call at all -- but on the Christmas holiday, Monday, the Feast of St. Stephen, the bank (or, rather, the bank's computer) called four times. This is excessive and offensive and aggravating in the extreme. But is it actionable?

My wife, a non-lawyer, has no doubt: We should sue. I haven't researched the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act on this issue, I told my wife, but my guess would be that this very large bank has. The bank probably knows where the line is, and stays very carefully on the legal side of it.

Well, my wife thinks I have a bad attitude on this, and she's told me so in no uncertain terms.

I know lawyers are not the only professionals to be second-guessed: Pick up the Sports page in any newspaper. And my late mother doubted the credentials of any doctor who did not prescribe something on every visit. But I think lawyers may be particularly open to second guessing of this sort. Most people realize, when push comes to shove, that they can't hit a curve ball or perform surgery. But everyone can negotiate or argue -- and most of them think they can negotiate or argue better than their lawyer.

In the meantime, speaking of the Feast of St. Stephen, I recall how the good man died. I would like to arrange an historical reenactment, with the bank's computer playing the role of the saint.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

David Letterman and the Pro Se Court

The story last week about the "restraining order" against David Letterman got all the usual suspects upset. It seems a judge in New Mexico has ordered Mr. Letterman to stop sending subtle signals to a New Mexico viewer (e.g. every time he mentioned "Oprah" he was speaking in code to her). This is a current link to the story at freenewmexican.com. Letterman's lawyers are moving to quash the order, of course.

That's because they never heard of Judge Manny Rissman. I don't know when Judge Rissman went to his reward, but he was an older man 30 years ago or so when he was presiding in the Pro Se Court of Cook County when I heard this story.

Before Judge Judy, before Judge Mathis, before People's Court, there was the Cook County Pro Se Court. Lawyers were not allowed. If a lawyer sought to file an appearance on behalf of a defendant, the case would be transferred from that room to a regular Municipal Court docket. And a lawyer obviously could not file a case in the Pro Se Court. Not unless the lawyer was appearing pro se -- as sometimes happened, according to Judge Rissman.

But the case that reminds me of Letterman's concerned a dentist. He had put a filling in the tooth of some woman and then began broadcasting signals through the filling, scaring the woman half to death, and ruining her health. He was constantly threatening her. At least that's what she said.

So the dentist appeared in court -- these cases were never allowed more than one continuance -- you showed up on the return day specified in the summons, brought your witnesses or your evidence, and argued the case -- and did a slow burn as the plaintiff recited her various complaints about the dentist's secret broadcasts to her filling. Then he really got mad when the judge turned to the dentist, brushed aside his protestations of innocence, and told him how ashamed he should be of this conduct. The dentist had a relatively small amount of money on him -- $50, maybe, no more than $100 -- and Judge Rissman pronounced that he must pay this entire amount over to the woman in satisfaction of the judgment the court then entered against him. As part of the judgment, the judge told the furious dentist, he would be enjoined from ever contacting the plaintiff again, through her fillings or otherwise.

Sputtering, fuming, but still wary of being hit for contempt of court, the dentist turned the money over to the woman as the judge leaned forward over the bench and watched.

Then he turned his attention to the plaintiff. He said to her, "You've seen how we've punished this man for what he did to you, right?" She nodded. "He's paid his fine to you and I've told him he must never, ever contact you again. And I believe he will follow my order, because he never wants to be in trouble like this again." She nodded agreement. "But, " said Judge Rissman, "fair is fair. He can not contact you. Now you must never contact him again. You can't call him, you can't go to his office, you can't go anywhere near him. Do you understand?" She nodded again and left the courtroom happily.

The dentist left, too, looking like a fish who'd been stunned by a mallet.

But the dentist came back to court again a week later, with his checkbook out and ready. "Judge," he asked, "what's your favorite charity? I'd like to make a donation on your behalf for what you did for me in that case."

It seems this woman had been constantly calling the dentist for weeks before she took him to court. Day and night. Night and day. She came to his office. She was scaring his patients. But after her victory in court, the calling stopped. She obeyed the court's order. It took a couple of days for the dentist to calm down after the court date, he admitted, but he began to take note of the blissful silence -- and he realized what Judge Rissman had done for him.

And what the New Mexico judge may have done for David Letterman. If his well-paid lawyers don't screw it up....

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Re-gifting?

This morning on the radio I heard an interview with an advice columnist who suggested that the practice of "re-gifting" can never be eliminated, but there are rules of etiquette that should be followed. Chief among these: Never, ever re-give a gift to the original giver. That was probably a Seinfeld plot.

It occurs to me, however, that "re-gifting" is essential to human survival. I don't mean the world will end if you fail to pass along that 20-year old fruitcake to the next unsuspecting victim. (I don't think the world would end -- but don't take chances!)

But consider what "re-gifting" is. "Re-gifting" occurs when you taken something you've received from someone else and pass it along to someone new. This may be a questionable practice when done with a hideous sweater or with the aforementioned fruitcake -- but when it's done with information, isn't that what we call teaching?

It would be nice, perhaps, if children came into this world knowing what we know already, and building from there. Instead, most children seem destined to repeat all of their parents' mistakes -- and make new ones all their own besides. While all children are hardwired differently -- some seem to absorb information and others require constant drill and repitition to master each new skill -- all are like empty hard-drives. We have to install all the information, or almost all of it.

And all the manuals meant to help us in this task are totally inadequate. Trial and all too frequent error is the only way to do it. And it requires lots of "re-gifting."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A colleague's question -- and an immediate answer

"Why," my colleague asked in exasperation, "do people wait until the last possible minute" -- a more colorful modifier may have been inserted -- "to ask impossibly complex tax questions?"

I know nothing about taxes except that I must (and do) pay them. (That's for Uncle Sam, if the Feds are monitoring.) But I know about last minute demands for immediate answers to complex questions.

It is the age in which we live: We don't have to wait for the tubes to warm up anymore. We are in a solid-state, instant-on age and this expectation has permeated all levels of our daily activities.

I noticed it when fax machines first came in: The request could be made quicker, so a response was expected with equal celerity. But the complexity of the issue prompting the fax hadn't changed -- so the expectation was foolish. This was not an argument to have with clients, however.

E-mail is even faster than faxing. Instant messaging faster still. We can present our issues immediately, and fully grown, like Athena from the side of Zeus. And we demand answers now while the question is still burning, white hot in our minds.

Technology has, as this illustration shows, made life far more difficult for those in contemplative professions.

As have anti-smoking regulations also: Before, we could pause, re-light our pipe, puff awhile as if considering the compiled wisdom of the Ancients, before pronouncing, with grave certainty, "It depends." A promise to research the issue would follow. "It depends" just doesn't look the same when you click Reply on the e-mail. Maybe if I tried a different font?

Chicken and egg stuff

I'm moving my office next month, a source of stress so great that this alone would be enough to account for my present overwhelmed state, without even taking into account the still-undeposited $100,000 check in my desk drawer.

Today I and the other solos with whom I'm moving will meet with a salesperson about leasing office equipment. We'll meet with the technical person about how we're going to hook up to the Internet in our new digs. And maybe we'll even make progress on getting new phone numbers.

We're moving only a few blocks, from one corner of the Chicago Loop to another, but we've all been told we must get new phone numbers. This came as a surprise to my colleagues; it was not as a big surprise for me. When I moved to my present office, four years ago, I moved about a block -- too far, however, for me to keep my phone number then. You see, in crossing the street, I had moved from the Wabash District to the Franklin District, prompting the change. At least, that's what the Texans in charge of our phone company told me.

My new office will be very near Franklin, but East of it, so I did allow myself a brief flicker of hope (recalling the Wabash vs. Franklin distinction of four years hence) that a new number might not be necessary. But it will be. And I'm sure the Texans will have an explanation for it. Undoubtedly the boundaries have been redrawn. At least I'll be able to keep my area code. (I think.)

But the absence of a phone number holds up all sorts of other things: I can't prepare change of address forms for my cases. I'd like to send Holiday cards (in a business setting "Holiday" will do just fine) to present, former and prospective clients -- but I'd like to include an announcement of my pending move -- and give out my new phone number in case, maybe, possibly, somebody might want to hire me for something....

It's the old chicken and egg problem: What comes first? Holiday cards mailed now will not reach their destination before Christmas -- but there's that phone number problem. My future officemates would like me to designate which items of furniture will be moved, and I have entered into discussions with my landlord which give me reason to assume that I can purchase the stuff I've been using lo these several years at a very good price. But I can't purchase anything now, given the cash flow situation. So I do nothing. And Christmas (I can call it that) looms ever larger.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Translation service, free of charge

In the December 19 Chicago Daily Law Bulletin there is a special insert section welcoming all the new admittees to the Illinois bar. All their names are printed in the section (pages and pages of them, all now positioned to take the few meager crumbs I have off my plate....)

Well, the headline on the special section was taken from one of the speeches at the admission ceremony: "Incoming lawyers urged to seek meaning, joy in their work."

What that means is this:
Get out! Get out now while you still can!

From the archives, a cautionary tale:

Yesterday’s rant about collections reminded me of the time I defended a client in a collection case brought by his former attorney.

The client had a loan with the old Cosmopolitan Bank. He didn’t pay according to the terms of the loan. The bank took exception to this, and sued.

Note to aspiring attorneys: There are all sorts of cases like this one available for you. Don’t take any of them. No matter how hungry you are, or how late the rent is. Read on to find out why.

The client had failed to pay the loan in a timely fashion because he was broke. This happens. (See previous posts.) But the client felt he had to respond to the bank’s suit, so he engaged Mr. Greedy (not his real name) to handle the case. The client gave his attorney written instructions: Settle the case. He told Mr. Greedy, "negotiate for me the best posture." He still didn’t have the money to pay the loan installments as they fell due, much less catch up on the arrearage. He wanted Mr. Greedy to get him smaller payments, or perhaps an agreement from the bank to take less than they were owed.

Another note to aspiring attorneys: Clients always want you to negotiate when their backs are up against the wall and they have nothing to offer. That’s just about the only time they want you to negotiate. Otherwise, any suggestions you might make regarding compromise or being reasonable will be viewed as treasonous or worse. This makes negotiation difficult in most cases.

And settlement would have undoubtedly been difficult in this case, not unless you define ‘settlement’ as ‘unconditional surrender.’

But Mr. Greedy apparently had no intention of negotiating. He told the client that "the bank would never settle without a trial." Well, usually, we think of a trial as something that happens when people don’t settle.

So Mr. Greedy launched an all-out assault on the bank’s case. He filed motions, he filed discovery. He must have taken depositions, too, because he ran up a bill of over $17,000. One of the problems with the case, when I got it, was trying to figure out what Mr. Greedy had billed. But it was more than the bank billed, I knew that for certain. The client’s original note with the bank was for about $28,000. By the June 1995 date when summary judgment was entered against the client the principal balance of the note was down to around $23,000, but unpaid interest was over $13,000. The bank was awarded another $13,000 in attorneys’ fees, bringing the judgment against the client to around $50,000.

But the best part was that, somewhere along the way, Mr. Greedy told the client that, if a judgment was entered against the client, the client would lose his credentials to work in the futures industry (another of those businesses where income fluctuates, which is how people get into trouble in the first place). But Mr. Greedy was becoming increasingly distressed with the client’s payment of Mr. Greedy’s bills. I think the client paid about $7,000 for the services described above. But Mr. Greedy wanted a lot more. To satisfy the bill, Mr. Greedy suggested that the client sign over his house to Mr. Greedy "as trustee." If the client failed to do this, Mr. Greedy would withdraw from the case. And client would lose his credentials.

Note to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission: Yes, Mr. Greedy was reported.

Well, Mr. Greedy withdrew his representation. Summary judgment was entered against the client. And the client did not lose his credentials. He still was permitted to make money in his chosen field.

But Mr. Greedy wasn’t done. He sued for $12,000 in what he said were unpaid fees (including interest calculated according to some sort of method I never did quite figure out).

And that’s when I undertook the client’s representation. I responded to Mr. Greedy’s summary judgment motion with one of my own – and I won. The legal arguments may be not be as interesting to you as I thought they were at the time. The bottom line is that I got Mr. Greedy’s case knocked out of court.

For my services I billed the sum of $3,769.00.

I’m still waiting for this bill to be paid, too.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The mortgage company is calling again

They call, like clockwork, twice a day when the monthly payment is more than two weeks late.

It is something I'd heard about, but never (thankfully) experienced in person until this year. But it only had to happen once for me to figure out the pattern. Now it's happening a second time.

What frosts me is the twice a day part: Do they think I get money in the morning and am debating, when the second call comes, whether to keep a roof over my family or go to the boats and play the slots? And why call on Sunday at all? It's not as if my bank is open (yes, I know some are experimenting with the idea, but mine is not); if I'd received money there would be no way to deposit it. Maybe the mortgage company is afraid that I'll drop their money in the collection basket at church.

I didn't come downtown this weekend to check the mail -- and it was just as well. Nothing came in. But that $100,000 check -- that I can't cash -- is still sitting in my desk.

It costs a lot to be broke in this country: The mortgage company will get an extra $45 from me as a late payment when the financial log jam finally breaks up. Late fees on credit cards are up to $39 a pop. And then there's interest -- the "finance charge." My finance charges this year could finance the family Christmas.

And there's nothing I am allowed to do about it except whine. You civilians out there, you may be wondering why I don't sue for overdue fees. My wife has asked, pointedly I think, though I may be oversensitive on the point, about this possibility. It's certainly not illegal: Abraham Lincoln did it.

But somewhere between Lincoln's time and the present defendants in fee cases figured out how to frustrate collections almost entirely: File a counterclaim for legal malpractice.

It does not matter that the claim for malpractice is not well-founded. It really may be a transparent litigation tactic. It may be entirely groundless. But it must be defended -- and that costs money. The lawyers suing for fees and hit with a malpractice counterclaim can either defend it personally -- and assume the (hopefully entirely theoretical) risk of a bad outcome and the very real costs of defense -- or tender it to the malpractice carrier. I pay thousands of dollars to obtain protection against malpractice claims, both for the benefit of clients -- for whom insurance provides a fund in the event I screw up -- and for the benefit of my family, who may as a result not be bankrupted by the costs of defense and indemnity.

But here's a secret about insurance companies you may not have picked up on while watching their commercials during the weekend football games: Insurance companies want to keep their premium dollars; they do not wish to pay them out to defend claims, even groundless ones. So legal malpractice carriers extract promises from lawyers that we will not sue for our fees. It's nothing quite as crude as that, of course, the questionnaire merely asks whether we do or do not sue for fees. There are two possible answers, but only one if you want the policy to actually issue.

Judging from the docket in the Chancery Court, the mortgage companies are not similarly restrained. Neither are the credit card companies. Isn't that a surprise? So, for now, the mortgage company will keep calling.... What a miserable business this is!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Walking along the borders of political incorrectness

I had a phone call the other day from a former colleague. She's retired now, she says, at home with her two young children and very, very happy about it. I told her how jealous I am of her. They say youth is wasted on the young; well, I say retirement is wasted on the old. If she can retire now, more power to her.

"Julie" (not her real name) was not just calling to gloat, however. She had a legal question, one prompted by a tragedy involving a family friend. Oddly enough, I was able to answer the question with someting other than, "It depends" (which is, of course, the lawyer's usual one-size-fits-all response to almost anything. It is not, by the way, an acceptable answer to "Do I look OK in this?" It is a response to almost any legal question. For personal questions, you're on your own.)

After answering Julie's question we made small talk for a few minutes. I told her how lucky her kids are to have her at home with them.

And Julie bristled. I think I felt a distinct chill in my ear -- the ear pressed to the telephone receiver.

Julie is young enough that stay-at-home moms were rare when she was young. I don't think her mom stayed home with Julie. And it is an article of feminist faith that children are not harmed in any way by their mothers working outside the home, just as it is an article of faith among the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world that the children of working mothers will be juvenile delinquents or worse.

But I didn't say either one of those things. I said Julie's kids were lucky to have Julie home with them, and that's all I meant. Julie is a very bright, capable individual. And a good lawyer. Before she "retired" she tried a medical malpractice case to verdict and won a $2 million judgment. In fact, the jury in her case, like the movie jury in Paul Newman's The Verdict, gave her more than she asked for. (And her case was much better prepared than Paul Newman's.) Children benefit from being around bright, capable people. That's one reason why working couples often hire foreign exchange students as nannies. (Some fathers may harbor additional, ulterior fantasy reasons, but they act on these fantasies at their extreme peril.) The college students are usually bright, capable people and the children often flourish in their care. And the students love the kids and the kids love their nannies.

Nor did I say that all kids benefit when their moms stay home. Moms who eat bon bons and watch the soaps (there must still be some of these since the soaps are still on the air) presumably provide little intellectual stimulation for their children. ("Go put a tape in, my soap's on!")

But -- and I don't think I'm crossing the line here -- no one should love a kid more than its parents. So if a bright, capable person is available to take care of the kids and that person is also the kid's parent, I think the kids will benefit. So I still think Julie's kids are lucky, even if she misunderstood what I was trying to say.

Illinois Supreme Court reverses $10.1 billion judgment

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed a $10.1 billion class action judgment against Philip Morris in a 4-2 opinion released yesterday.

The Marlboro man can breathe easier today!

Or is that too obscure? Should it be -- well, Philip Morris can breathe easier today?

Anyone remember the old commercial tagline -- Call for Philip Mor-ris? (In the olden days, kiddies, a page would go through the lobby or the restaurant to alert someone that he or she was wanted on the phone. The phone wasn't in your pocket. And it was connected to the wall, by a wire. Which was never quite long enough. Anyway, the idea was a play on words: Call for Philip Mor-ris (the syllables were extended in the tagline) was to remind you to call for (ask for) Philip Morris products when you next bought cigarettes. So: "Call for Philip Mor-ris! ... It's safe to come out now...."

P.S. -- If the above link does not take you to the opinion (and it didn't work for me either intially, although I think it may be fixed now) use this link to the Recent Opinions page instead and scroll down to the Price v. Philip Morris opinion. This link should work for 30 days after the posting of the opinion, through mid-January 2006.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

MCLE comes to Illinois

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, MCLE stands for Mandatory Continuing Legal Education -- or, in the quaint parlance of the new Illinois Supreme Court Rules (scroll down to Rule 790 et seq.) "Minimum" Continuing Legal Education.

However the initials are translated, MCLE is a boondoggle, a well-intended, but entirely useless gesture designed to increase public confidence in the Illinois bar.

This is not a rant about whether people should have confidence in lawyers generally. Lawyers do things, either for people or to people. If you're someone that a lawyer is doing something to chances are that this lawyer, and maybe all lawyers, will not be popular. So far as you're concerned. Conversely, if you're someone that a lawyer is doing something for, you may have a high opinion of that lawyer -- at least until you get the bill -- but you'll probably hate the lawyer on the other side. So lawyers shouldn't worry about being popular. When we're needed, we're popular enough.

Nor is this a claim that continuing legal education is unnecessary. It's necessary alright. We all continue to learn, all the time -- unless we starve to death (and sometimes we're learning all the way downhill) -- or unless we become very senior partners in very big firms and can pay others to learn for us. Why do you think it's called the practice of law? There are a million and one opportunities for a lawyer to keep up to date. I have long bookmarked the recent uploads page on the Illinois Courts web site; this has all Illinois Appellate and Supreme Court cases decided in the last 30 days, some of them so recent that they're not even yet in Westlaw. To which I also subscribe. I read the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and publications from the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois State Bar Association, and the Appellate Lawyers Association, and the American Bar Association. It's a wonder, sometimes, I find time to do any work at all.

Sometimes the best learning opportunities come while you're waiting in court for your case to be called. When I had dark hair -- heck, when I had hair -- I'd often get ideas on six other cases just waiting for my case to be called in the Law Division Motion Court. Just by listening to the judge and the arguments of counsel. So I'm not against continuing to learn.

No, what upsets me is that this PR gesture -- which, as noted, won't actually improve our actual public relations -- will cost me time and money I don't have, to take courses that have no immediate, practical application. It will provide a tax break for the wealthiest among us, who will do their learning in exotic locales or on cruise ships. Bob Clifford, one of the most successful personal injury lawyers in Chicago (or anywhere), and certainly a wealthy man, recently became our Illinois delegate to the American Bar Association; I received a form letter from him this week touting the wonderful CLE opportunities at the upcoming Annual Meeting -- in Hawaii.

Doctors have been running this scam for years. And 'scam' really is the wrong word. Under the tax code, it is perfectly legal to deduct at least some of the cost of taking a trip to attend a continuing education seminar. Some -- probably not all.

Anyway, I'll not be able to take Mr. Clifford up on his kind invitation. The ABA doesn't offer the CLE I need anyway.

I need a course in getting clients to pay their bills. Today I won a splendid victory for a client in court; the court's order today will save my client thousands of dollars in fees and avoid significant lost time and inconvenience for his staff. But will the client care? Not likely: It's already figured out the best way to save money on fees -- it doesn't pay them. Indeed, this particular client is 0 for 2005.

Ah, you say, you could take a course in learning how to say 'no' to deadbeat clients. And there are courses that promise help in this area. But the deadbeat client in this case is a company sent to me by another attorney who has been very good about sending paying clients in the past. Dumping this deadbeat client might jeopardize a very beneficial referral relationship -- and give the referring attorney a problem with an in-law. So that's not an option.

And, this morning, when I came into the office, before I went to court -- in fact every morning when I come into the office for the past month -- I gaze longingly into my desk drawer at a check for $100,000. The check has my name on it. But I can't cash it. It's not all mine. It has the client's name on it too. And the client is -- so far -- unwilling to sign off on it.

Right now the "problem" is expert costs; the client has so far cited one bill for about $112. I said, fine, I think the expert provided you with very helpful opinions that materially advanced the chances of settling the case -- but if you think this particular charge -- about 1.5% of the total expert's bill -- is a problem, I'll take it off my bill. Reduce my fee by that amount. Just sign the check authorization so I can deposit the check.

But, no, the client says. The client has always been suspicious of this expert. The client now feels compelled to scrutinize all of the various bills submitted by the expert -- but right now the client is very busy and can't be bothered. So the check sits in my desk. Uncashed. And the finance charges on my credit cards long since passed the $112 mark.

This is a case that settled in April. April. That's eight months ago so far. And the amount of the settlement? That $100,000 check represents the limit of the Defendant's insurance coverage. In fact, the final settlement amount is for 100% of the potentially available insurance coverage -- including the full amount of my client's underinsured motorist's coverage. With no lien. And the Defendant is paying something out of his own pocket on top of all this. But the client hoped for more. (Not that the client would be bothered attending a pre-trial conference in futherance of those hopes of getting more -- but that's another story too.)

But the client eventually agreed to settle -- when you're getting more than 100% of the insurance money available, why shouldn't you agree? -- and then refused to sign any Release of Claim until October. I won't bore you with any additional details. Suffice it to say that I scanned the check into an Adobe file. I'm thinking of sending the .pdf to my mortgage company, and to Messrs. Master Card and Visa. I've already told my kids they're getting copies of the check for Christmas.

You got a CLE course that will get that check cashed? In such a course I'd be interested. But I couldn't pay for it. Not at the moment.

These aforementioned cash flow fiascos notwithstanding, I make a decent living. But I blow any dollar I make on foolish things like... tuition... or groceries. I have three kids in college, another in a Catholic high school, and a fifth in a Catholic grammar school. Hawaii with the ABA? We haven't had a family vacation in eight years (just a few weekend trips to one son's baseball tournaments). I'm afraid to be away from my phone for more than a day or two at a time. A real client might call; a paying client.

You got a CLE course that will guarantee me 10 paying clients? Five? Even one? No? Then I don't need or want your CLE.

But I sure hope you -- the public -- are happy now that MCLE has come to Illinois.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Why does nothing work like its supposed to?

No, not a pseudo-Andy Rooney rant.

Just some observations: Last night, attempting to leave the office, only one of four elevators was working. (I believe that's the proper verb tense in that usage.) I waited in the elevator lobby for several minutes (and this was well past the rush hour) before a car finally arrived.

Then to the subway -- where I waited and waited some more. An elderly oriental man was playing the violin, accompanied by taped Christmas music. Sometimes he had the melody; sometimes the melody had him. This made the wait longer. When the train finally arrived, it ran express to Logan Square -- which made up some of the time, but it was still a very lengthy trip home.

And this morning: It's our turn this week to drive my younger daughter and her classmate to school (their daily orchestra practice is before school -- and the bus would arrive too late). Younger Daughter was ready on time; her classmate was on time; and even I was ready to go. We left at the normal time, just after 6:30 a.m. But the trip that has taken 45 minutes as recently as two weeks ago -- leaving at the same time, understand -- today took 70. It was nothing in particular; it was just everything: Heavy traffic, stops for three trains, a clueless guy driving 50 in the passing lane on the Edens even though traffic had opened up in front of him.

And now: I sign in to see if yesterday's post was up on the blog. It wasn't. I had trouble signing in. But I did, eventually. I find that the post must be up somewhere; it received a comment. But it's not here on my machine. At least not on the "front page" of the blog -- although I found it in the archive.

So I don't rant, I lament: Why does nothing work like it's supposed to? (The rant, of course, will follow. If this posts. If indeed I can get back on.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

I saw a new Target commercial last night

I guess the right-wing religious zealots can relax now: I saw a Target commercial on TV last night that closed with "Merry Christmas."

I can remember when the religious decried the fact that Christmas had been hijacked by retailers -- Commercialism, it was called. It was bad. But now the right-wingers are concerned that Christmas is being ignored entirely and replaced by some sort of bland, generic (and secular) Holiday. (This link to a story in World Net Daily provides background, should any be required.)

I'm not one of those who tries to banish Christmas from the public vocabulary. Just the opposite: I decry the suffocating political correctness that leads people in the vestibule of my church, after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, to wish one another a "Happy Holiday" -- fearful that any other greeting may give offense. In church! (And don't tell me this doesn't happen; I've seen it.) But why is it so wrong for President and Mrs. Bush to send out a greeting card that quotes a Psalm and wishes the recipient a Happy Holiday? The Washington Post reported that some religious conservatives were deeply offended, charging that the Bushes had somehow caved to secularists in the culture wars. It might have been better for the White House to send actual Christmas cards to those on its mailing list that are likely to celebrate Christmas -- and this more generic Holiday card to non-Christians and anyone else whose beliefs were not known with certainty. But surely there's no "sin" (religious term used advisedly here) in the President's attempt at being inclusive.

No, what offends me on the White House card are the dogs: Apparently the current Bush family dogs are included frolicking in front of the evergreen tree that has been painted in front of the White House for the occasion. On the basis of the picture I saw, I couldn't tell whether these were just generic mutts or intended portraits of the actual D.C. dogs -- but assuming that they really are the Bush family dogs, the Bushes have caved, not to secularism, but to the execrable practice of sending pictures of one's pets as if they were children. Pets may be loyal companions and faithful friends -- pets can be a great comfort, especially to the elderly and homebound. But pets are not children.

Children aren't as easily housebroken.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Blogging controversy in Chicago

Today's Chicago Sun-Times features a story about bloggers at Taft High School -- kids who went way over the line on their 'personal' blogs -- threatening teachers, by name no less, making disgusting allegations.

The teachers probably want the kids' heads severed from their bodies and displayed on bloody pikes. Some of the students claim that the bloggers' First Amendment rights have been violated (the CPS legal department apparently had to consider this issue). Still other students claim disappointment that school authorities would monitor their 'personal' blogs.

Personal? On the Internet? Some remedial instruction is clearly in order here.

The teachers in question have every right to be offended -- and angry and violated. But should they feel threatened? As in let's call the police and give these kids a criminal record? That's pretty much what you might expect to happen in this intolerant day and age.

But there should be due consideration of context. If these threats were on a street gang's website (do street gangs have websites?) the teachers would have every reason to be scared. But these were apparently the ravings of seventh and eighth grade students in an advanced program housed at the school. These are probably not the scary kids.

I am not suggesting that these postings should be ignored or overlooked. In light of Columbine and other school tragedies, that would be entirely irresponsible.

But that does not mean all teacher threats should be prosecuted. The kids should be disciplined -- one has already apologized online according to the story in the paper -- and counseled, perhaps, on more appropriate ways to express themselves. (Such counseling should also be made available to members of Congress and talking heads on cable news networks.) And maybe these kids should be watched more closely. Here's a radical thought: Perhaps their parents could be enlisted in this effort.

On the other hand, I seem to recall singing on the playground, about a hundred years ago, this song (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic):

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the burning of the school
We have tortured every teacher
And have broken every rule
I stood behind the door
With a loaded .44
And Sister don't teach no more....

No, it's not nice. It was foolish and childish and stupid. But I and the other playground songbirds were no threat to anyone except music lovers. And poets.

In today's climate we'd probably be expelled. For starters. So it is with some relief that I note that the Sun-Times story reports that the bloggers in question were merely suspended. That sounds like the right level of punishment -- especially if all the bloggers are made to post mea culpas.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I've been reading again. George Burns. Bob Hope. Jack Benny.

Chances are, if you can access a blog, these names are foreign to you. This is your misfortune.

But each wrote about how they developed their characters -- or, rather, how their audiences developed their characters for them. The audience laughed harder at Benny's cheap jokes. So Benny became, well, the tight-fisted Benny we knew. George Burns said he started off making the jokes -- but the audience laughed at anything Gracie said. So he stopped making jokes.

They did their development in vaudeville and in radio, while it was still a new medium. They had the luxury to experiment.

No such experimentation is permitted in the modern media. Not as near as I can tell. You hit -- or you miss -- mostly you miss -- and I can't afford to miss. I can barely afford the fare home.

So I can't hear you laugh. Or boo. Or heckle (this last seems to me a great advantage, now that I think about it). But I can see if there's traffic. I can read comments, should any be made. I can develop a "style" here, in obscurity, and maybe, over time, develop a following, too.

Who knows? I could be that next Internet hundred-aire....

I choose to remain anonymous. This way I can say what I want, how I want to, without having to worry about what others may think of me. Without embarrassing my family. Without worrying about telling the abosolute, unvarnished truth at all times because, you know, comedy is about exaggeration, not about careful reporting.

Anyway, I shall begin this Second Effort at blogging with this little manifesto and see what develops from here. I reserve the right to comment on affairs local and otherwise. I will not always be funny (like, so far, for instance) -- but I will not always try to be funny either.

And we'll see what develops together. So far "we" is me and the mouse next to my keyboard. (How's that for updating an old chestnut?)