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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Cold Cash Upfront

From Washington Lawyer, December 2002

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorWhen I ask law students what they would like to do when they graduate, most say that at some time in their career they would like to try a case in federal court. They will be disappointed. They are more likely to appear in federal court as a defendant rather than as a lawyer.

There is yet another disappointment in store for them. They will never get a cash fee upfront. The client who pays cold cash upfront demonstrates the sincerest form of flattery known to the legal profession.

An associate in a law firm these days who brought in cash upfront would be met with a series of pointed questions. Are you involving us in money-laundering statutes? Where did the client get the money? Why didn’t he pay by certified check? Don’t you know that the criminal code has 10 different reporting statutes concerning cash? The associate would be brought before a committee and grilled for three hours and then told to return the money and get a receipt and make a memorandum of the event and have the memorandum reviewed by a senior partner.

That was not always the case. Twenty-five years ago the criminal bar dearly loved to get cash in hand. The lawyer who got a good cash fee before noon walked with a spring to his step. He was open, friendly, optimistic, and generous. He lent money to his peers as needed. He invited those in his circle to lunch uptown. It might be to Hammel’s on 10th Street or it might be to Harvey’s on Connecticut Avenue, next to the Mayflower. Harvey’s was special. The seafood was excellent. In addition, J. Edgar Hoover was on display at his own table, with his back to the wall.
    Cash upfront is entirely different from payment by check. The promised check may not be in the mail. Even if sent, it may bounce or be returned marked PAYMENT STOPPED.

Robert I. Miller was a colorful member of the 5th Street criminal bar in the good old days. He had a quick turnover, cash-upfront criminal practice. He carried around a big bankroll and did all his business in big bills.

In a proceeding before Judge David A. Pine in the United States District Court (I place the time in the 1950s), Miller cited a case during argument. The judge had reason to believe Miller never read the case.

Judge Pine: “Mr. Miller, do you have the case handy? If so, please hand the book up.”

Miller, with a Toscanini-like gesture, handed the book up. He identified the page by placing a 100 dollar bill in the book as a marker. Judge Pine announced he was taking the matter under advisement. Judge Pine kept the book and the money for several months. He then had the clerk send it back with a note attached to the bill saying “Motion denied—order to follow.”

Miller’s career was interrupted when he was indicted and tried for first-degree murder. He shot and killed a leading psychiatrist who was having a love affair with his wife. The jury acquitted Miller. He immediately returned to his all-cash practice with more clients than he could handle. There were giants in the land in those days.

The upfront cash fee that I recall most vividly involved an impressive-looking gentleman who wished me to do a few things that at the time struck me as clerical. In looking back I see that what he involved me in was not that at all.

The cash part went like this. I was asked what my fee would be. I gave a number and then I was apprehensive that I had asked too much. The gentleman said that he would not only pay me the $300 fee, but he would add another $200 to demonstrate his faith in my competence. He put his hand in his pocket and drew out the wad. He removed the wide rubber band and counted out in 50 dollar bills the $500. I got more than I thought I should have plus a bonus. And all upfront.

I asked if he wanted a receipt. He said, “Receipt? What for?” I should have known better. Big butter-and-egg men who deal in cash don’t want to be bothered with receipts.

When he left the office I put the money on my desk and counted it again. I pocketed the money and took a walk to calm down.

I walked from my office at 7th and F to Pennsylvania Avenue and turned right. Within a few blocks I was in the Benjamin Franklin bookstore (long since gone) asking the price of the Merriam Webster Unabridged, India Paper, 1929 New International Dictionary of the English Language, With a Reference History of the World. I had seen it in the window and I hoped some day to buy it. Now was the day. Cash is not to be thrown away on necessities.

The proprietor said it was in mint condition and rare. I needed no sales talk. I knew all about it. I was there to buy and to pay cash. The price was announced, $35. I extracted a 50 dollar bill from the roll. The book was taken from the window and placed on the counter. It was mine. Although the book weighed 10 pounds, I walked out with it and resumed my stroll, with the Unabridged under my arm.

I still have the dictionary. It defines cash as “ready money, paid immediately.” This won’t do. The full flavor comes in the slang definitions: cold cash, hard cash, spot cash, big bucks, bread, do re mi, gravy, folding lettuce, moolah, mazuma, green bucks, and the beautiful green.

If you had happened to walk past me as I strolled the avenue, you would have heard me singing to myself:

As I walk along the Bois Boolong
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
He must be a millionaire.
You can hear them sigh and wish to die
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.