Thursday, October 17, 2013

Curmudgeon on the road to bankruptcy -- a continuing spiral

If anyone were sufficiently motivated to sift through the ashes of my legal career, they'd find far too many mornings like this one: I was prepared to go to work on time, but Younger Daughter woke up feeling poorly and needed to see a doctor. The local Doc-in-the-Box Immediate Care Center opens at 7:30, so Long Suffering Spouse asked if I had anything up in court this morning. No, I told her. Thus it was settled. I would stay home with the granddaughter while Younger Daughter went to the Doc-in-the-Box and Long Suffering Spouse went to work. She's a Catholic school teacher, a position that, with seniority, pays around 70% of what a starting teacher, fresh from college, makes in the Chicago Public Schools. It ranks, in other words, above 'volunteer' on the pay scale, but only slightly.

Still, it's more than I'm bringing in most days. I couldn't argue with the logic.

There are also too many days like yesterday.

I went to work yesterday, on time and everything. Here is how I spent my day:
  • I looked over a pleading and papers filed on a motion to dismiss for an ex-partner. He wanted my opinion about the viability of an appeal. If I took the appeal, he told me, he thought he could get me as much as $4,000 -- or roughly about one third of the minimum amount I should be charging for such a service in order to start turning a profit around here. Still, beggars can't be choosers: I promised to call after I read the materials

    After reading the materials, I realized that taking $4,000 from the client would be tantamount to robbery. He had no more chance of prevailing in this appeal than I do of becoming Pope. I called my ex-partner to explain why. That's what I thought you'd say, he told me. That's what I hoped you'd say. Could you put that in a letter to me so I can use it to show my client that I talked to an appellate lawyer, so he can see that I've turned over every leaf and there just is no point in continuing this?

    I wrote the letter.
  • Along the way, I fielded a call from a colleague with whom I'm working on a personal injury case. Our client may have a serious injury. She may also be trying to fake something. Or, possibly, there is another process going on here -- she is a lady of a certain age -- that is unrelated to her accident. We're waiting -- we've been waiting -- for a neuropsychologist's report that will (hopefully) tell us what we're dealing with. But it's been a year already since the accident. And the insurance company for the at-fault driver might not simply write us a check because of our report, should it be favorable to us, and should it ever get here. If all the tumblers align, we could be looking at a nice payday -- but they aren't aligned yet and may never be.

    Besides, that's not why my colleague really called. She has another case -- a littler one -- a passenger injured in a taxicab-pedestrian collision. The cab driver is a former client who thought my colleague did good work for him. He recommended my colleague, in fact, to his passenger; he gave her the phone number. My colleague wanted to know if she was conflicted out of the representation. I worked through the ethics rules with her and told her I thought she was free to undertake the passenger's case -- but she'd be wise to let the cab company's insurer know about her prior representation of the driver. First of all, they'd find out anyway....
  • The next telephone conversation was with another colleague for whom I'd done a different appeal. Anonymously. And that was at my request. The appeal is fundamentally flawed and the attorneys who are pursuing it -- the ones who retained my colleague -- are foolish to take the case up. I'm pretty well convinced that they not only failed to properly preserve the substantive points of error, they actually failed to preserve appellate jurisdiction. That's the kind of thing that can force you to have to call your malpractice carrier.

    Still, I marshaled all my skills and wrote the best darn brief I could. It seems to have struck a nerve with the other side: They haven't figured out the jurisdictional flaw yet -- which doesn't mean the court won't do it on its own -- but opposing counsel were apparently so concerned about my brief that they brought a motion to strike my statement of facts as 'argumentative.'

    One does not argue a case in a statement of facts -- not overtly. On the other hand, the purpose of the statement of facts is to tell the story in a way that, by itself, gets the court thinking about ruling in your favor. You can't do that (not properly, at least) by omitting pertinent facts, or glossing over inconvenient facts, but by arranging all of the relevant facts in the case, good and bad alike, in the most persuasive order possible. In other words, if you've done your job properly, and if the other side is not represented by experienced appellate counsel, you may draw a motion to strike because they perceive that your statement was so darned persuasive it must be argumentative. It's almost a compliment, albeit of the decidedly left-handed variety. I needed to see if my colleague liked the Objections to the motion I'd prepared on Tuesday. She did.

    Coincidentally, if you noted my comment on what I should be charging for briefs, in this case I made the princely sum of $1,250, about one-tenth of what I need to charge. That includes my fee for writing the Reply Brief (probably this coming weekend). I might make more on this case -- eventually -- even though it should be a loser, but only because my colleague has agreed to share more of her contingent fee in another appeal, for these same trial attorneys, that should fare much better on appellate review. Should. Maybe. Someday.
  • I also had a telephone conversation with a young attorney about a case where I'm representing a lady who works at my parish. She has no money to pay a $122 ticket that the City has resurrected some 11 years after it was (allegedly) written. It is over a decade too late to challenge the ticket on its merits, but not too late for the City to try and collect. (No, seriously.) The problem is that the City's records, such as they are, are decidedly at odds with my client's recollection. Now, I grant you that it is possible to forget a parking ticket with the passage of time. But my client recollects that the City towed her car away in the middle of the night, then made her hand over her car title lest it bankrupt her with storage fees. (The car was supposedly abandoned. It was old, yes, but drivable, and licensed, and insured. But a neighbor -- a neighbor with some serious juice apparently -- decided she didn't like the old car parked on her block and agitated to get it towed away.)

    The "problem" is that the City has no record of this. Well, yes, midnight thefts are probably not well documented, even by the City of Chicago. But what this lady says happened to her car is sadly plausible. In other words, yes, I believe her. (She gave up her car title because she was thinking of selling the car anyway and she realized she'd not get that much for a 15-year old car in the best of circumstances.) The lawyer who is running the local office of the private collection firm on behalf of the City is a former Deputy Commissioner of Revenue. She was an honest, hard-working, straight-as-an-arrow public servant -- but she knew darn good and well that there were those in her department who were decidedly otherwise.

    My problem is that I'm not dealing with this lawyer. I'm dealing with her green-as-grass associate. To him the City's records are Holy Writ. What is not there never happened. He will not be moved by my pleas. I've asked him to talk it over with his boss -- the former Deputy -- and he has promised to do so. But she may not have the discretion to act in my lady's favor and my lady may yet be saddled with paying the ticket. I've warned my client of this, of course, and told her to start putting aside the money while I make my last Don Quixote effort. But, gosh, I'd like to win this one. Even though I can't -- and won't -- charge the poor woman a dime.
I did some billable work in the afternoon, for a client that doesn't pay its bills until I scream to the company's general counsel. That's no way to endear me to my client, or my client to me. And the work I did was insufficient, even if timely paid, to defray my 'nut' for the day.

But here I am again, back at the Teeny Tiny Law Office, ready in case work -- or a check -- decides to find me.

My auto insurance payment is overdue. It's raining. And, I've discovered, my shoes are no longer water-tight.

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