Thursday, April 17, 2008

On Dad and the Law--Part I

My father was a lawyer. You are probably wondering why he became a lawyer. Of course, we all know why most lawyers become such. They have finished college and they have a spouse, or someone in mind they hope to convince to be their spouse, whose father is a doctor or a dentist, and, therefore, used to the finer things in life, so when our hero goes home and announces (or to the spouse's house and annouces, in case he is still trying to convince) that he has finally finished college and now plans to go out and be a school teacher, the fire hits the fan. Well at that point the hero realizes that if he wants to keep (or get) the spouse (this is all very awkward, because, of course, we could be talking about a man or a woman here, but I haven't quite got the whole thing down about how to make that clear, but just keep in mind that when I say "his" or "hero", I am using the terms in their generic sense), he is going to have to do something different. After checking and finding out that the local, state, and federal bureaucracies all have hiring freezes posted (again), our hero, after checking his math and science grades again and realizing that doctor or dentist is not an option, yells (like Archimedes), "Eureka, I've found it" and he (or she--increasingly, she) heads off to law school. Well, in my dad's case, this didn't happen--or at least, he claimed it didn't. He told me (and I questioned him very closely on the subject) that he, like Sir Walter Scott's father, had always loved the law and always wanted to be a lawyer. So off he went to law school. But the truth of the matter is, that at heart Dad was really a bureaucrat. So after walking down the aisle at George Washington University to pick up his law diploma, he kept on walking across the street and accepted a job with the Social Security Administration as the regional manager for the Pocatello area. This was a great relief to my Grandpa and Grandma. My Granddad, working for years in the County Assessors office, had absolutely nothing against bureaucrats, and was mightily pleased that Dad had such a good, secure, government job fresh out of college. But, like most young bureaucrats, expecially those with law degrees, Dad was ambitious, so when he got the chance to be Assistant Federal Marshall for the state of Idaho, he jumped at it, even though that meant having to move to Boise and consequently, having to associate with Republicans and other low lifes that hang around Capitol Buildings. A year or so later, he jumped at the chance to be involved as a prosecutor and judge at the Nazi War Crime Trials in Germany. That was a wonderful experience for my sister, Loni and me, and, I think, for my parents, but like so many wonderful experiences in life, it had its down side, in this case, the downside being that the higher up in the bureaucracies saw that Dad was being ambitious and decided to nip that in the bud, and his having been involved in something as politically incorrect as the Nazi thing gave them a reason, so when he came back from Germany they told him that if he wanted to continue to be a bureaucrat, he would have to be like almost all the other bureaucrats and just sit around Washington D.C. and shuffle papers. Well, Dad decided that he wouldn't be much better at shuffling papers than he was at shuffling cards, what with him hating gambling and all, and besides, he didn't much care for Washington D. C. either. So he launched out on his own and became a lawyer in private practice.

Poor Dad. As I said above, he was really a bureaucrat at heart, and he never really adjusted to arguing, the in-fighting and back stabbing carefully balanced by back slapping, that characterized the life of a small town lawyer, but he certainly gave it a valiant try. I think he decided early on that he had to develop some sort of strategy in order to really make a go of it. It was discouraging to him, I think, to notice how successful other lawyers were, expecially his uncle, Wesley Merrill, with seemingly no effort other than a careful balance of slyness and, as I said backslapping and stabbing. He told me that it really bothered him that his fellow lawyers would call each other (and him) all kinds of names (like "you rattlesnake, you slimy toad" and that sort of thing only even worse) and then go out to lunch together. I suspect that part of the reason, he was so unhappy with the whole thing is that, especially, at first, he couldn't even afford to go out to lunch. But anyway, he developed several stategies, which, I now understand, but I didn't at the time.

Now you may be asking yourself, "why do you understand these strategies now and didn't then?" This is a very good question, but the reason is that my boss always watches the news on TV at noon, and I sometimes join him, although he generally looks at me with a glaring eye and sometimes even says, "Don't you have something you need to do?" But when he does this I simply point at my sandwich or my apple, which is my sort of subtle way of reminding him that it is my lunch time, and he just grunts and we go on watching the news. Well, anyway, in Salt Lake the news at noon is more or less sponsored by lawyers and I have pretty much figured out their strategies and, I realize now the similarity between what they are doing and what my dad tried to do (unsuccessfully, as you will see) way back then in Pocatello. Of course, my dad could not advertize. This, according to him was a strict no-no. There was a group of people called "The Bar" that very strictly regulated lawyers, and if you tried to advertise, or even tried to specialize, you were promptly kicked out of (or maybe it was kicked by) "The Bar". At any rate, you were kicked, and if you advertise, which was considered especially bad, you were kicked very hard.

But, anyway, nowdays The Bar goes in for advertising in a big way so if you are very observant (which I am), you can really catch on to what lawyers are up these days. In Utah there are two very successful lawyers named Craig Swapp and Keith Barton. These two lawyers have never had a case that they have not won for at least a million dollars. I think that whenever the judge sees that the plaintiff is represented by either one of them, he has had so much experience with them that he simply turns to the jury and says, "I see that plaintiff is represented by Mr. Swapp (or Mr. Barton). I think that in view of this fact (judges always like to say "In view of this fact", it is one of the things that they work really hard on in law school) gentlemen and ladies of the jury, we may as well dispense with the usual rigamarole of listening to evidence and calling witnesses and simply grant plaintiff the million dollars (sometimes, of course, it is two or three million, but whatever it is he is asking), which we know he will get anyway. That way we can all go home early and I can pick up a few tips from Judge Judy (which, by the way, my boss also watches on occasions, but if I so much as pause in front of the TV during that show, he really gives me the evil eye, lunch being over and all, so I move quickly on. I mention this, because, having only seen short sniptets of the show, I am really not in the position to tell that judge whether or not he could pick up some good tips from Judge Judy), so Mr. Foreman, what do you say?" Well, of course, the foreman, by way of making the whole thing look on the up and up asks around to get opinions of the other jury members, but, of course, he being the Foreman and all, he pretty much ignores their opinion and goes along with the judge.

But I must say, and I think it important to make this clear, that neither Swapp or Barton ever really guarantee that they will win at least a million dollars, of course, from the way they smile, and act so assured and all, you're pretty certain that the million is in the bag (provided, of course, that you, the client, were injured due to absolutely no fault of your own). But to make it clear why they can't absolutely guarantee that you will get at least a million dollars, I will do what lawyers almost always do and use a clarifying example. Suppose you are walking along on the sidewalk and smack dab in front of you, right in the middle of the sidewalk is your neighbors three year old's tricycle, but you do not see it because right at the instant when you might have seen it a hummingbird hovers in front of you, which is such a rare sight that you look at it exclusively and, as a result, you smash into the tricycle, stubbing your toe. Well, you have obviously been injured through absolutely no fault of your own so you call Mr. Swapp. He, of course, is pained, horrified, incredibly indigent, mortified, and several other things, when he realizes how terribly irresponible and inexcusibly negligent your sneighbor's three year old has been in leaving his (you notice, I said "his", in these examples you have to be terribly careful or you could be sued yourself) tricycle in the middle of the sidewalk, and, of course, given the circumstance of the hummingbird and all, it is clear that you are absolutely not in the slightest at fault. So he takes the case. But when it goes to trial, the judge, not having seen a hummingbird hover in exactly that manner, especially over a sidewalk, decides to go ahead with hearing testimony and witnesses and whatnot, and the result is that you only win $900,000. Well, naturally, you are incensed, especially when you find out that Mr. Swapp plans on taking part of the $900,000 for himself, which more or less adds insult to injury. So you decide to sue him (Mr. Swapp), using Mr. Barton, who you now realize, you should have used in the first place. Well, he (Mr. Barton) delivers the goods by suing him (Mr. Swapp) for one million dollars and, as usual, winning. Well, anyway, I hope that that makes it all clear, actually, I'm not clear on the whole thing myself, but I think, if you read over this example carefully three or four times you will understand why both he (Mr. Barton) and him (Mr. Swapp) cannot guarantee that they will always win one million dollars.

Now this is getting a bit long, but you will certainly understand all about the law when I am finished. There is another lawyer--well actually two lawyers who work together, named Siegfried and Jensen. They have had over 20,000 people come to them for help who have been injured through no fault of their own. You may wonder why so many people have gone to Siegfried and Jensen, especially, as these two lawyers are much too humble to tell you exactly how much they always win when they take a case, but you can tell from their manner that it is probably even more than Mr. Swapp or Mr. Barton. The key to their great success is that they have a bit of a gimmick. They always bring a tiger into the court. I've never actually seen the tiger, of course, but they are famous for their tigers. I'm sure they have carefully trained them to growl at the judge if he overrules one of their objections and occasionly to growl at the jury so they know which way they better vote. I'm not too sure how successful this gimmick is lately because a few years back one of their tigers badly mauled a guy named Roy--I'm not sure whether he was the judge or on the jury, but I did read about it in the paper, it being big news. So anyway, I suspect that whenever they bring a tiger into the court now, that the bailiff checks to make sure that it is secured by a pretty strong leash, probably actually pulling on the leash.

But the most humble, and most successful, is a lawyer named Robert J. Debry. He is so successful that his real name is now Robert J. Debry and Associates. He has offices all over Utah and so he is always jetting around to his various offices to help people who have been injured through absolutely no fault of their own. When I say he is the most humble, it is because he not only never mentions how much he will win but he also never mentions how many thousands of people, but what with him jetting around so much and all, you can be pretty sure that he beats the others on both counts. His big gimmick is that he will tell you right on the phone whether you have a case or not. And it is a pretty good thing that someone invented cell phones because if you called him from Salt Lake and he happened to be in St. George, or even on the jet, you might call someone else, and then where would he be? Anyway, if you call him I suspect, he immediately asks you, "Were you injured due to absolutely no fault of your own?" and if you say, "Oh, absolutely." Then he takes the case and you are have a million dollars more or less guaranteed, although he never says that--not on TV at least, maybe, he does on the phone. At any rate, it was the Robert J. Debry strategy that my father first decided to try as I will explain in the next installment, if I get to it. I think that it is pretty impressive that Dad would think of this strategy so long ago, probably long before he (Robert J. Debry) had thought of it, probably while he was still struggling to get into The Bar. But, as you will see when I tell the whole sad story, this stategy did not work for Dad at all, but, it was definitley due to absolutely no fault of his own, as you will also see, and probably also because in using this strategy he was so far ahead of his time.

1 comment:

rks said...

I have read with fascination this entire series. I moved to Pocatello four years ago to take a new job and have been somewhat befuddled by the town. Thanks to you, I am beginning to understand some of the schizophrenia here in this delightful place. Please keep writing!