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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Snow and Blaise, LLP

From Washington Lawyer, January 2005

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

C. P. Snow (1905–1980) had three careers. He was a distinguished physicist specializing in crystallography. He was a full-time writer with many novels and essays to his credit. He held high-level positions in the British Labor Party.

In C. P. Snow’s novel George Passant, we learn that Passant clerks for a small-time solicitor in a small English town in the late 1920s. A born leader, Passant wants to change the world. He attracts a group of young men and women who look to him for guidance and inspiration.

Lewis Eliot, a young barrister, was a member of Passant’s group before Eliot commenced his law practice. Passant involves the group and himself in a business venture that fails. The investors lose their money. Passant is prosecuted. Herbert Getliffe is a senior barrister with whom Eliot is connected. Getliffe defends George Passant.

Why am I telling you all this? It is because C. P. Snow had a gift for describing with astonishing (and embarrassing) accuracy the way a lawyer’s mind works.

Here is Lewis Eliot’s description of Getliffe preparing the defense of the case:

The preparation of the case gave me a chance to be more thorough than if I had been left alone. For there was the need to sit with Getliffe, to bully him, to ignore his complaints that he would get it up in time, to make him aggrieved and patronizing. At any cost, he must not go into court in the way I had seen him so often, flustered, with no more than a skipped reading, a half-memory behind him, relying in a badgered and uncomfortable way on his inventive wits, completely determined to work thoroughly in his next case, fidgeting and yet getting sympathy with the court—somehow, despite the mistakes, harassment, carelessness, sweating forehead and nervous eyes, keeping his spirits and miraculously coming through.
     I kept the case before him. He was harder-working than most, but he could not bear any kind of continuity. An afternoon’s work after his own pattern meant going restlessly through several briefs, picking up a recognition-symbol here and there, so that, when a solicitor came in and mentioned a name, Getliffe’s eyes would be bright and intelligent—“You mean the man who—”

Getliffe’s closing argument is spasmodic, with an appearance of nervousness, interjected with personal asides in a familiar tone. “He was showing also the fresh enjoyment which seldom left him when he was on his feet in court.” He spoke not only as an advocate, but for himself, revealing things about himself as needed to put Passant’s case in a better light.

The closing argument had to deal with the hard facts of the case, the dates, the places, and whatever numerical computations were required. Getliffe knew that would appeal to the bookkeeper minds on the jury.

Getliffe was more comfortable with the poetic, the emotional, with detours into his own weaknesses in explaining George Passant’s character flaws. Passant does not like this, but Getliffe knew it had to be done.

Getliffe gets the acquittal. He and Passant no longer have anything more to say to each other. They now know each other too well.

I have known quite a few Getliffes. If you want to see a Herbert Getliffe in action, spend a day in any county courtroom. You will see an underpaid and underprepared lawyer defeating an overpaid, overprepared lawyer.

Getliffe was one of those who had reached the point where he had no patience to read a document longer than three pages. A few paragraphs and immediately his mind brings up on his mental computer screen his years of experience that tell him what is at play. He has heard it all before. Only the names and dates are changed. It is greed, or fear, or sex, or lying, or lust for power. If it is a big case, it has three out of five.

Getliffe exploits any distraction that gives him an excuse to put things off to another time, as Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) puts it:

When I consider the various distractions of men [and women] and the toils and dangers to which they expose themselves, I discover that all our misfortunes arise from one thing only—that men [and women] are unable to stay quietly in their own chamber. We fancy that were we to gain such and such an office we should then rest with pleasure, and are quite unaware of the insatiable nature of our desires. We honestly believe that we are seeking repose, but actually we are only seeking agitation. We have a secret instinct prompting us to look for distraction; and we have another which tells us that happiness consists in rest and not in turmoil.

Pascal was a philosopher and mathematician, not a lawyer. So please explain to me how he, like C. P. Snow, knew so much about the way lawyers live and die by distraction. A lawyer must be busy or appear to be busy. He must be involved. He must be doing things: cell phones, faxes, e-mail, conference calls, meetings, status conferences. Sound and fury signifying time sheets.

I know a lawyer who at eight in the evening calls five people who will be out of the office. No matter. What he wants is for his phone to ring the following morning so he can start off his day with a multiplicity of distractions. It gets him going.

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