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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Matter of Style

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2003

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorAn actor who plays the part of a lawyer on TV or in the movies has few stock character parts to select from. There is Clarence Darrow, the suspenders, the tousled hair, the necktie askew, the country slyness. See Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind.

There is the big-time well-dressed litigator with juniors trailing behind him prepared with documents to corroborate whatever he says. See James Mason in The Verdict. See Paul Newman in the same movie playing the desperate loner, underfinanced, aligned with a good cause representing the underdog.

There is the dead-earnest cross-examiner who sees into the soul of the lying witness. See Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. See Charles Laughton doing the same thing in Witness for the Prosecution.

There is Gregory Peck as the virtuous, honorable Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. And see Peck again in The Paradine Case. This fellow Gregory Peck seems to have had quite a law practice.

John Mortimer came up with a new style, the resourceful, ironic, puncturer-of-the-pompous Rumpole of the Bailey.

The stock characters for women lawyers include the woman who is efficient, witty, professional, intelligent, and most of the time all business. See Rosalind Russell. There is the woman who says little, but when she speaks she identifies the point everyone missed.

Most practicing lawyers fit into one of the stock types. There are, however, one-of-a-kind exceptions. I would like to sketch in two whom I have known.

First, Mr. B. When I worked with him, his client was the head of a large profitable business with all kinds of problems. The client would make no serious business decision without consulting Mr. B. These consultations commenced with Mr. B giving a summary of the problem in which he mixed up the dates, mispronounced names, and forgot who said what to whom. He finished few sentences. Any legal opinion was instantly qualified by subjective views of judges, lawyers, witnesses, and sometimes weather conditions. Floating on this Nile of talk were headnotes of cases, eulogies, government regulations, confidential disclosures from undisclosed sources, and speculations about what the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, or the Euro might do. Add to that a dash of mysticism and you have it. When Mr. B finished off his Barber of Seville recitation, he lit up a cigar. The client took from it what he wanted and usually it turned out well.

Is there an explanation for Mr. B’s success? I think there is. Mr. B had freed himself from the iron grip of rationality, cause and effect, logical deduction, the syllogism (all men are mortal, Socrates is a man . . .). He connected with the wisdom of the irrational that places its faith in hunches, instinct, signs, astonishing coincidences, telepathy (mind communicating with mind), and déjà vu.

The client had found the best legal minds helpful in the day-to-day legal matters but unsatisfactory when it came to the big decisions. Too logical, too cold, too legal.

He liked Mr. B because Mr. B was not in the business of stepping back and logically analyzing the facts and law. Mr. B got inside the facts themselves. His seemingly incoherent discourse was a narration of what he felt as he cruised around inside the overlapping and contradicting variables of his client’s problem.

Neurologists tell us the brain is not the only part of the body that makes decisions. The spinal cord, the stomach, and even the lower intestine have a right to speak. One might say that Mr. B spoke up for the client’s stomach.

Mr. B was the lawyer for most of the people in the particular industry in which he practiced. He was treated as a living archive of the anecdotal history of the business. The subject of conflicts never came up. This left him free to settle disputes and thwart litigation by a diplomatic use of confidential gossip.

Next up is Herman Miller, the sage of the landlord and tenant court. He was five feet four and weighed in at a good 200 pounds. His clients were real estate companies that managed properties, mostly apartments. Herman spent every morning in L&T commencing at 9:30. The clerk read off the names of those whom Herman had sued for possession, sometimes a list of 50 names. If no tenant responded, Herman said one word—“Judgment.”

When he was not announcing “Judgment” he was reading a novel.

There was one landlord and tenant judge who played a game with Herman. It went like this:

Judge to tenant in default on the rent: You say you have lived in that apartment 10 years and you paid rent all that time?
Tenant: Yes.
Judge to Miller: Mr. Miller, this tenant has bought that apartment 10 times over. I instruct you to give her a deed.
Miller: Your Honor, I have no authority to do that. However, we will certainly take it under advisement, and in the meantime we give the tenant 45 days extra to make up the rent.

Herman took few vacations. When he did he went to pre-Castro Havana when Havana was called the Paris of the Caribbean. Herman returned with stories as remarkable as those Marco Polo reported to his friends in Venice.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].