Friday, July 10, 2009

Some things I am learning

I haven't posted much about what I've been learning lately, but I just finished an externship with a judge here in Columbus and I learned a lot (about writing and how the courts work and, most importantly, that I have no desire to ever be a judge, clerk for a judge or even to litigate at all - it's just not my cup of tea, as it were).

Anyway, I wrote a (long) essay about my experience and something I learned about attorneys. There are some interesting stories in the essay and some of my thoughts about my education. It is long, but I think it is a good read, so enjoy:

When I was a cub newspaper reporter, I was invited to have lunch with the detectives from the local sheriff’s office. I rode to the “restaurant” – a bar/dive called Andy’s which offered delicious Greek fare in a dingy, dark, wood-paneled old house on the edge of a Wal-Mart shopping center parking lot – with my paper’s veteran court reporter and then walked in to meet the group of cops. The detectives and their lieutenant were very nice and we had a good meal and got to know each other better. That led to a better working relationship during the rest of my stay at the paper, but above all else in that meeting, one exchange stands out.

We were talking about a recent murder case the sheriff’s office was investigating and about my reports on it. The lieutenant made a comment about the motive, which hadn’t been reported yet, and I perked up. I said, “Have they released that information yet?” The wise, experienced lieutenant looked back and me and raised his eyebrow. At that moment I realized that the “they” to which I was referring was the lieutenant and detectives sitting around the table with me. Everyone smiled at me, and the lieutenant laughed and said, “You can’t turn it off, can you?”

I share that story because one of the most interesting things I witnessed in my externship was how the attorneys in the court “turned it off” (and back on) so quickly. I found fascinating their ability to do so, even if it was at a moment’s notice. My first experience with this was just after a recess on the second-to-last day of a lengthy medical malpractice wrongful death trial. I and my fellow extern had been watching the riveting testimony by the defense’s witnesses all day and had been impressed with the cross-examination of the plaintiff’s attorney – he was a master at using yes or no questions to get witnesses to paint themselves into a corner and then say something they would regret. It was interesting to watch his gaze and questioning pin physicians to the witness’ seat as he picked apart their testimony. Several times during the trial I had actually felt like squirming on my pew in the back of the courtroom because his questions were so barbed.

After a particularly long period of questioning an expert witness, the Judge called for a 15-minute recess. When it was time to start again, we externs were sitting in the courtroom and talking about what we’d been learning in the case. One of the plaintiff’s attorneys (who I later found out is the father of the cross-examiner) came over to us and asked us why we were sitting in on the case. We explained that we were externs for the Judge and that we were observing the trial. He also asked us where we go to school and when he found out we attend Moritz, he said his co-counsel (and son) had also attended Moritz.

The father called over the son and his eyes lit up when we told him we were Moritz students. He talked about how much he enjoyed studying here and about some of his favorite teachers. He asked about a couple we hadn’t heard of (must have retired before we got here) and then talked for a couple minutes about Dean Michaels’ appointment as dean of the law school this year. “I was in Michaels’ first criminal law class when he started at the school,” he said. “He’s a good teacher and a good guy.” His tone revealed that he had a high regard for Dean Michaels and was excited to see him become dean. He wished us luck with our studies and then stepped back behind the plaintiff’s desk and sat back down.

My first reaction was that he was nothing at all like I had expected, because all I’d seen of this attorney was him raking the defense’s witnesses over the coals. He was pleasant, smiley and had a kind demeanor; I’d be willing to bet the witnesses wouldn’t describe him like that, though. Just as I was thinking what a nice guy he was, he got the chance to cross-examine another witness and he burrowed into the witness’ testimony and slammed him for expressing a different opinion in court than he did in a deposition three years earlier. The prickly mask was back up and he was in full attorney mode just minutes after he was having a pleasant conversation about his alma mater.

The second example of attorneys flipping the switch was as I wandered around the courthouse one day, popping into courtrooms to see if anything interesting was going on. A defense attorney, while waiting for his client to be brought out in shackles, was talking to the judge about something definitely not court-related (I think it was about the judge’s staff eating a lot of candy, actually). Their conversation was obviously one between friendly colleagues, and both parties were joking and laughing. When the court’s officers brought in the accused, the attorney returned to his seat and waited for his client to shuffle into place next him.

Both stood and the judge started reading the charges explaining the defendant’s legal predicament. The attorney explained that his client had apologized for his wayward behavior and blamed it on drug use. The judge pointed out that this was the man’s third time being hauled in for drug offenses, and that the earlier punishments obviously hadn’t worked. The defendant tried to say something, but the judge curtly told him that he would be wise to keep his mouth shut. The attorney then explained that his client wanted to enter a plea agreement with the state that would put in on probation for three years and on house arrest for six months in lieu of going to prison for 18 months. The state agreed with this, but the judge was quite stern and reluctantly went along with it – although he did sentence the man to spend Dec. 23-27 in jail this year so that he could realize how lucky he was to not be in prison full-time. “I want you in jail on Christmas so you can know what you’d be missing if you weren’t on probation,” the judge said, later adding that if there was any drug or alcohol use during the probation, the man would get the entire 18 months in prison.

I’m sure it would have been unprofessional for the judge and attorney to have been laughing and joking (about candy!) in the courtroom while the client was there, but it was impressive how the court a defendant sees and the court others see is so different. All this is because the attorneys and judge change their actions, words and demeanor so quickly.

The last impressive interchange took less than two minutes. I was sitting in Judge Reece’s conference room waiting to speak with the staff attorney one morning when a prosecutor and defense attorney walked in for a status conference. The conference room table is covered with magazines and Ohio Bar Association publications, and when the attorneys walked in, the defense picked up one of the magazines and started looking through it while the prosecutor opened her notebook. “Can you believe this picture?” asked the defense, pointing to an art magazine’s photo of six small Chinese girls laying next to each other in a bed, nestled on pillows under a quilt and each holding an assault rifle over the covers. They two attorneys chatted briefly about the art and then spent no more than 30 seconds doing business for the status conference.

They were talking about a vandalism and destruction of public property case. The defense said, “So, we’d like probation on this.” The prosecutor’s body language showed that probation alone wasn’t going to cut it, “OK, but I think community service would help this plea.” “Sounds fair, write it up and I’ll get it signed,” the defense replied. And that was it. They went back to small talk about such topics as lunch and Monday morning blahs.

Each of these situations was impressive to me because these attorneys obviously have the ability to “turn it off” when they can and re-engage when needed. I think it comes from a sense of comfort and experience in a court setting, but also from years of experience. It is almost like me being able to causally slip in and out of proper speech and goofy colloquialism, because I have mastered the proper speech already. At this point in my legal career, I don’t feel comfortable enough with my legal skills to turn my mind away from that focus when I am in a legal setting. I’m sure it will come with time, and hopefully someday I’ll impress some young law student with my ability to slide back and forth between business and leisure.


Michael said...

Neat essay! Very insightful, I think.

Kathryn said...

It's interesting to notice the ways that we change the way we act in different situations. Sometimes I can't decide which "me" is the "real me," but I guess all of the ways I act are part of who I am. But at the same time, I don't think that each of us is merely a composite of all the roles we play . . . although that may be part of it. I think I'm philosophizing in circles now.
Anyway, Jordan, you write so well! It's interesting to read, even though I don't really know about courts and judges, etc. Great!

Ali said...

Great article peices, Jordan :) Either attorneys and judges and detectives and what not have the ability to "turn it off or on" or they're all bipolar and lucky that their bipolar disorders display themselves at the appropriate times!