Photo credit: csessums
Near the end of my sixth and last semester of law school, after the big fake courtroom drama that three of my friends and I (along with assorted fake witnesses, random undergrads recruited to serve as a fake jury, and a real judge who had come in from a nearby central Illinois town to be the judge) had put on for our Trial Advocacy course, we four fake lawyers were treated to lunch at TGI Friday’s by the real judge. Over beers and burgers, the judge asked each of us where we saw ourselves in five years. I told him I saw myself as an ex-lawyer.
He didn’t think it was funny, which was fair enough, because I wasn’t joking.
I didn’t last five years; I didn’t even last one. But I did give it a shot, which means that I missed the biggest lesson law school was trying to teach me – the legal profession is highly unpleasant and not healthy for children and other living things.
People often ask me why I went to law school if I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Well, first of all, I didn’t know how much I didn’t want to be a lawyer when I signed up. I figured I had to make a living somehow, a job’s a job – if work was fun they wouldn’t have to pay you – and I stood a better chance of finding gainful employment of some kind after three years of law school than n years of grad school in Poli Sci.
Also, it was supposed to be difficult, and I wanted to test myself with something difficult. Actually, it turned out to be easy. So that’s one thing I learned in law school – law school is really pretty easy. I picked up a few other things that weren’t specifically in the curriculum, and here are some of them.
No, not “barratry.” That’s only three syllables. And not “chase ambulance,” either – that’s two words.
One of the very first realizations I had in law school – just a couple of weeks into the first semester – was that every statute and every court decision came down to the word “reasonable.” Reasonable doubt, reasonable basis, reasonable minds, and so forth.
At first it bugged me that after all the tons and tons of windy palaver, so much ultimately rested on the word “reasonable.” It seemed like such a fudge. After all the multi-factor analyses and intricate rhetoric, somebody ended up just eyeballing the case and making a call. But then I realized that “reasonable” was the only way The Law was brought down out of the rarefied air and back to the ground.
No matter how pseudo-scientifically precise legislatures and professors tried to get with their codes and tests, everything always depended on the application of rational judgment by someone. Judges are called judges for a good reason – their purpose is to exercise judgment.
No matter how complicated and carefully crafted your prescriptive system is, the real world will throw an infinite and unforeseeable variety of circumstances at it. If you draft a statute that’s designed to allow a multiplicity of shapes of peg to be fitted into a corresponding hole, you could set it up for round pegs, square pegs, triangular pegs, etc., but in practical application, the system is going to have to deal with a weird and endless procession of pegs in new shapes that nobody ever even imagined. What to do with them? That’s where the judge comes in, and what judges do, essentially, is apply “reason.”
Judges often abuse their discretion, they often act irrationally and make big mistakes – sometimes on purpose – but when you take away the word “reasonable,” and the ability of judges to apply judgment – such as with certain criminal sentencing laws – you end up with far worse results. It’s like trying to render the world in 8 bit graphics, except instead of graphics you’re using real-life consequences, up to and including the life-or-death level.
So I learned to stop worrying and love the word “reasonable.” It’s the best solution anyone has come up with yet.
Not all of my legal education took place in the classroom or the fake courtroom – a large portion, maybe the most important portion, came from my part-time job as a law clerk at a local personal injury firm. The first thing I learned there was that personal injury lawyers are nuts. Even more nuts than you think. I was hired by a guy who kept a huge wooden cigar store Indian in the corner of his office and invited guests to “Say hi to Big Chief Uggamugga!” He also kept a .38 revolver in his desk. In another drawer he kept a cache of black condoms. He’d occasionally grab one and throw it at me and holler, “Tonight you can put this on and pretend you’re a big black stud!” That sort of nuts.
Once I was asked by another partner to do some work on a major case, a fatal industrial accident case. He handed me the file – a bulging brown accordion folder – and warned me, “There are some pictures of the accident in an envelope in the file – you don’t have to look at them. In fact, don’t look at them.”
You can guess what happened.
I’d seen lots of pictures of gore and death – crime scene photos, autopsy photos – but that day I learned that a huge concrete block, when dropped from a height, does things to a human body that the sight of which will bring back bad visual memories the next time you watch a Roadrunner cartoon.
That’s all I’ll say about that. Except to reiterate: If an injury lawyer tells you not to look at the photos, don’t look at the photos.
One summer Friday, everyone at the firm, the secretaries, everyone, took the afternoon off and went to the big rich people’s country club for the firm’s annual golf outing. Except me. I was handed a camcorder by my boss and sent on a mission to some tiny village about half an hour’s drive away to visit a few clients at their house trailer.
The clients – a family of three: mom, dad, and toddler daughter – had been out driving on a fogbound rural road one morning when their car attempted to occupy the same space at the same time as a tractor-trailer rig. Everyone in the car had their day ruined, but the little girl got the worst of it. She was in the back seat, or else she probably wouldn’t have survived, but she wasn’t in a child safety seat, and she was too small for a seat belt. So she sustained what injury lawyers refer to as “good injuries.” Which of course means very, very bad injuries.
My mission that Friday afternoon was to document on video the real-life consequences of this little girl’s parents’ failure to be reasonable.
(Incidentally, in the course of my legal research on that case, I learned that the fact of whether a person was or was not wearing a seat belt is inadmissible in Illinois as evidence of contributory negligence, lack of negligence, or anything else. I believe this evidentiary rule was a concession to the anti-seat-belt crowd that was needed to get the seat belt law passed in Springfield. The rule extends to parents who fail to put their kids in car seats. The parent/driver is, however, subject to a fine under the Vehicle Code, which, at that time, was $25. I don’t know if that’s changed since then. At any rate, this was good news for us, because it meant the other side couldn’t argue that the little girl’s injuries were caused in part by her parents’ negligence – even though common sense will tell you that of course they were. Sometimes the law is deliberately unreasonable, even anti-reasonable.)
So I spent an hour or so with this family – the parents were nice people, about my age, maybe even a little younger – although it was hard not to be a little exasperated with them while I was making a videotape of their child’s surgery scars, bandages, bruises, and colostomy.
Of course, I didn’t feel so great about myself, either, playing Hitchcock – or more like Jess Franco.
“OK, let’s get some footage of her walking. Can she walk from here to there and back? Oh, she can run a little, but it hurts? Let’s get some of that. It’s time to change the bag? Well, we’d better get that, too.”
Then I learned that in a situation like this one – not that I’ve ever been in a situation like that one since – it’s important to choose one’s words very carefully. In fact, maybe it’d be best to improvise a set of hand signals for communication between the adults, and shut up entirely.
“OK, I just need to get a few shots—”
“No! Noooo!!! No shots! No shots!!!”
I had really stepped into it. Up to this point, the poor kid had been a real trouper, but she’d had so many needles stuck into her over the past few weeks that just hearing the word “shot” sent her into a screaming tantrum.
That was the end of that video shoot. I put the camera away and apologized to the parents, who told me not to worry about it, no big deal. Sure.
As I recall the boss was pleased with the video; I never watched any of it. When I got back to the firm, the place was empty, everyone was still out golfing at the golf outing. I padded my time sheet for the day with a few extra hours and went home and got myself drunk for about the next 20 years.