Friday, April 8, 2011

Hello 40. What took you so long?

I turn 40 next week. I remember being in high school and having friends whose parents turned 40. It seemed so damn old. My life hasn't exactly been text book in terms of a typical life progression. But then I don't think I am too typical.

I was still in undergrad when I turned 30. I was living in Austin, TX. I didn't mind turning 30. I was in a band playing original music. I was in good physical shape. I was surrounded by good people. I was able to do things I enjoyed. At 30, I hadn't even decided to go to law school yet.

It's 10 years later. I am 10 years older. But fundamentally not much has changed. I am again in a band playing original music. And it's the first such band since that band in Austin. I am still in good physical shape. Arguably better than 10 years ago. Again, I am surrounded by good people. I am still fortunate to do things I enjoy. I am pretty basic though.

At 30 I had stress. At 40 I have stress. It's a different stress but it affects me the same way. And I handle it the same way. It would appear that if your life is 100% tranquil, you might not be doing much. If you worry about nothing, you care about nothing.

In the last 20 or so years, 40 year olds have changed. My high school friend's parents seemed to be pretty boring. About the only thing any of them seemed to do for recreation was play cards. How many of them ran marathons? None. How many of them wrote music or played an instrument? None. How many went to rock concerts? Maybe one or two but it would have been to see Cat Stevens or someone like him.

I am not trying to convey that I am some super cool dude that deserves a magazine cover. I doubt my daughter thinks I am cool. Some of her friends do, however. The point I am making is that the times have changed. It's now ok to do cool things at 40, 50, 60, 70, or hell even 80.

There could be something in my blood, however. A few years back, my 83 year old Grandpa Lou went golfing one morning. He had been a golfer since way before I was born. All of my life I identified my Grandpa Lou with two things: gin martinis and golf. It was a warm early September morning. He had recently become unable to walk 18 holes at a pace the game demands. He had reluctantly started riding golf carts in his late 70's.

Grandpa Lou was never a great golfer. He was average. A good day on the course found his score somewhere in the mid 80's. But, he loved the game. It was his passion. He read golf magazines. Golf books. He wore golf clothes. And he watched it on TV. He was a golfer. As he aged, his scores kept getting higher and higher. He could no longer hit the ball as far or as accurately as he once did. By the time he was in his 80's, his scores gradually rose to the upper 90's.

But on that September morning, he shot extremely well and landed back in the mid 80's. It was an awesome round. Afterwards he went to the clubhouse and drank a couple of beers with his golfing buddies. This was as much a part of a round of golf as hitting of the golfball. Sometime in the early afternoon he grabbed his clubs and headed to the parking lot. He changed out of his golf shoes and headed home.

Upon arriving at home he poured himself a gin martini. He turned on his computer to check his email. Yes, he was 83 and had an email account. I remember his username clearly. It was: As his computer was booting up he sat down in the chair right in front of it. Then he lit a cigar.

And then he died. Just like that. He was gone.

The next morning when I got the call from my father I was stunned. Grandpa Lou was healthy. I never knew the man to be sick. He had rotator cuff surgery back in the early 80's but that was it. It wasn't until his wake that we learned of his round of golf the day he died. The other 3 men from his foursome showed up. And each one of them, separately, told us about it.

This side of my family is extremely small. My father has one brother who has two sons. I am an only child. I have one child. So there were only 6 of us for whom to give condolences. I don't know how many people showed up. It had to have been close to 200. My cousin put together a picture collage that included pictures from Grandpa's childhood, though high school, through the Navy in WWII, into early adulthood, then as a father, then as a grandfather, and finally as a great-grandfather.

The next morning was his Catholic funeral. The attendance was much, much smaller. I gave a speech that I cried through much as I am crying right now writing this. Though we were once quite close, we had grown apart the last 5 years of his life. Now he had died before I could tell him how much he meant to me.

The point of this very personal story is that age is nothing more than a measure of time. Grandpa Lou never seemed like an old man to me. He just didn't. He took care of himself. He did things he enjoyed. And he had a passion he carried with him until the second his heart stopped and the last breath left his body.

He was also into younger women...but I'll leave that one alone. Oh...maybe just one little nugget...he had a 20 something girlfriend when he was in his early 70's. And don't think he was some sugar daddy or something. He wasn't wealthy. He could just keep up. And had the maturity and class of a man who had lived a few years. He didn't dress like an old man. He didn't smell like an old man, either. It was my grandfather of all people that turned me onto the cologne Eternity.

My Grandpa was an extremely handsome man that aged well. There is also no way on Earth he ever felt he was old. Impossible. I doubt he feared much. Even getting older. And why? Not much had changed. He never once said "oh I am too old to do that". That wasn't him.

When I sat down to write this, I had no plans to include a story about my late grandfather. I am serious. I am just as surprised that I just wrote this as you might be to have just read it. But I find myself incredibly similar to the man. And when I go, when it's my time, I want to check out in the same manner.

I want to do something I've loved doing most of my life one last time and then BAM, lights out. I sure as hell don't want to rot somewhere being slowly consumed by illness and disease. To me, that's breathing, not living.

So whether it's going for an hour run or maybe playing loud rock music on a guitar or watching a sunset on a beach or seeing my daughter smile, I'll be ready to go.

All I ask is that Dark Side of the Moon be played in its entirety at my wake. And a guitar pick be placed in my right hand. Oh, I also want to be buried in running shoes. I would also like my ashes throw into a brisk mountain wind. Then I'll rest. Then my circle of life will be complete.

But until then, I have so much more to do. I am barely getting started. So hello 40. Bring on 40 more.

Monday, April 4, 2011

When The Client Becomes Co-Counsel

Every now and then, I will get a client that finds his way to the law library inside the Cook County Jail. I've never been inside this library. I don't even know where it is. But I will assume it's like most law libraries. There's books of case law. Statutes. Treatises. Digests.

I have had a couple of clients that found case law that helped me prior to a motion hearing. I am not afraid to admit I don't know everything or have read every case on any given topic. Thus, in a few instances, the extra help was appreciated.

On the other hand, more often than not, the client begins to think he is also a lawyer. This causes a lot of problems. It forces me to spend huge amounts of time explaining why they are wrong about issues pertaining to their case. I sometimes get letters from clients laying out some legal theory that has no basis in the law. And then I have to spend an hour writing a reply letter correcting them. I suppose it's part of the job.

Clients do not know the rules of evidence. They don't seem to understand why an affidavit from a third person explaining that the client is innocent, cannot pry the jail doors open. They don't understand that lying is one thing, but proving the lie is something all together different. They assume people will testify truthfully. Only we in the business know perjury is as common in the courtroom as snow is in Alaska. You can't seem to have one without the other.

I can only imagine how frustrating it must be sitting in the county jail for months on end fighting a case. Is it unreasonable for a client to think they might be able to help their plight by a few trips to the law library? I guess not, though it's incredibly naive. If all it took was going to a law library to become a lawyer, most lawyers would be terrible in practice.

Of course, when the client creates a litigation plan, it's typically shared with the family too. Mothers and wives call me to find out when I will be putting this new plan in to action. Now not only do I have to correct the client, I have to correct the family as well. In some of my cases, I have spent more time teaching the law than actually practicing it. And it's very frustrating. No one seems to understand that credible testimony alone can be enough to prove up an entire case.

But no gun was found on my husband when arrested, so how can he be charged with armed robbery with a firearm? If there's no gun, there's no case. You can beat this, right? This one comes up a lot. Very few armed robbers are caught in the act or immediately afterwards. Most are taken into custody weeks or months later. It's hard for some to understand that if the jury or judge finds there was a gun, there was a gun. End of story.

I once had a client who wasn't being allowed to access the library. When he and I were before the judge, I mentioned the problem. I asked the judge to sign an order that I would draft mandating my client's access to the library. The judge looked up at me, smiled and said "Is Mr. Defendant now your co-counsel?" I smiled back, "no, judge. He is not."

The client clearly had other ideas. By the next court date he had assembled an impressive collection of legal nonsense and had crafted a defense that wasn't a defense. It was suicide. His well-crafted plan for trying his case was sure to end him with a 12-15 year prison sentence. The case was a dog. Absolute dog.

In the end I was able to convince him to take a negotiated plea deal and a 3 year prison sentence, of which he would serve about 13 months. Apparently, this client must have also studied for the Bar exam too because was able to craft a civil complaint and sue me for malpractice while in prison. This man had the worst criminal background of anyone I have represented. That is saying a lot. On this 13th felony, he got 13 months in prison and still sued me for malpractice. No good deed goes unpunished.

Fortunately, unlike most criminal defense lawyers, I carry malpractice insurance. My carrier hired a civil attorney to represent me and the case has been dismissed. This whole ordeal left a really foul taste in my mouth. It cost time and money. I am sure my insurance premium will go up next year. And for what?

Because a non-lawyer thought he knew the law better than his lawyer. From here on out, I am going to cringe when a client informs me he's been to the law library. Rarely does anything good come from it. Please let the lawyers be the lawyers.

When we need co-counsel, we'll ask.