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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Forensic Fable

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2006

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorLet us call him Jack Davis. Jack’s main client was a collection agency that sent him hundreds of cases each month. Jack sent out strong dunning letters to the debtors and, if necessary, filed lawsuits.

Jack’s office was chaos. His desk was covered with files, papers, letters, pleadings, books, coffee cups, clocks, giveaway calendars, and notebooks. The office floor was a duplicate of the desk, with the additional clutter of unopened pocket parts of Corpus Juris Secundum.

Jack worked in intermittent spasms of activity followed by paralysis. In his manic phase he screamed at debtors on the phone, signed nasty letters, drafted pleadings, and looked through the new files as he tossed around the clutter on his desk.

He never let clients or visiting lawyers see him in his office. Jack had an adjacent office for such meetings. It had a clean desk, two leather chairs, and books well placed in an impressive bookcase. The radio was tuned to the classical music station. It was the office of the well-organized man in full control.

Jack said that when he went to see a lawyer and the lawyer had a clean desk, it intimidated him. It was the office of a man who had everything in order. He concentrated on just one thing at a time. He was not a man to be trifled with. A desk covered with papers signals procrastination, distraction, confusion, unfiled papers, statutes running, appointments missed.

There is much to be said for the person who works with a clean desk. When he leaves his office at 5:30, his desk is clean; he has completed his billing records and has made his diary entries.

Nevertheless there is a case to be made for disorder. Justice Felix Frankfurter was once quoted as saying, “I don’t like a man to be too efficient. He’s likely to be not human enough.”

Two people who thrived on disorder were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Those who met with FDR saw a desk covered with papers, notes, opened and unopened letters, souvenirs, ship models, small statues, straight pens and fountain pens. Raymond Moley, an FDR New Dealer, said, “To look upon [Roosevelt’s] policies as the result of a unified plan was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator.”

FDR delighted in his contradictions. In 1945, when he was preparing for his fourth term as president, he convinced James Byrnes, William Douglas, Robert Jackson, and others that each was to be his choice, Roosevelt’s choice, as vice president. He mentioned to none of them the name of Harry Truman, the person who turned out to be his selection.

FDR’s companion in arms, Winston Churchill, did not get out of bed until noon. When he awoke in the morning, he went through the morning newspapers with a big scissors cutting out what he wanted to use. Then he had breakfast. Then he was given the confidential-cable box containing the things that needed immediate attention. As he took them out, he scribbled side comments. When he wished to write a letter or a memorandum, he dictated it to the nearby secretary, who typed as he spoke. No shorthand. He liked dictating directly to the typist. Churchill did not work from a clean desk. There was no desk. Add to that arrangement a cigar and some sipping whiskey.

When Jack seated himself in his executive chair in the adjacent office with the clean desk in front of him, he knew he was meant for better things than a hectic collection practice. One of these days, when he had enough money, he would go to a small town in the West, Arizona or Colorado. He would establish himself there and run for office. He would do something worthwhile. He would redeem himself for all those threatening letters he sent out and those threatening telephone conversations. He would expose those credit card companies that drive poor people into bankruptcy. He would run on the reform ticket. With this daydream in mind, he took in an associate and gradually turned over the practice to him.

Morton, for that was the associate’s first name, was different from Jack. Morton saw something in the collection practice that Jack did not see. Morton put an end to threatening letters. Morton worked out reasonable settlements. Few cases ever went to trial.

Morton did not take a default judgment against a debtor who didn’t appear. He got in touch with the debtor and offered a compromise of the claim. Lawyers representing debtors who did not know Morton were surprised at how accommodating he was.

The judges who presided over the small claims court relied on Morton to settle his own cases and most of the other cases where debtors were unrepresented by counsel. One judge called Morton the Saint of the Small Claims Court. Morton, at the end of his working day, had the satisfaction of knowing that he had helped people.

Word came back that Jack had settled in a small Colorado town and had run for some municipal office. His opponent spread the word that Jack was a nasty collection lawyer. Jack lost and was not heard from again.

Morton placed a rocking chair in the adjacent, clean-desk office. When he felt he needed to collect his thoughts, he rocked away and reflected on his good fortune.

The moral:

The bird with feathers of blue
Is waiting for you
Back in your own backyard.

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