Archives for category: Law career

DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN

 

My personal experience with anonymous correspondence is limited to one unhappy event.   Around 1990, several years after I opened my law office, the New Jersey Bar Association alleged that the sign posted on the street in front of my office was improper. In the sign I described myself as “Stuart Sanders, Real Estate Specialist.” To me, this represented the truth, since my practice consisted almost entirely of real estate closings.

The Ethics Committee of the Association viewed the matter differently. They wrote that they had received a letter from a fellow attorney who stated correctly, in their view, the word “Specialist” belongs only to those who earn certificates as “Civil” or “Criminal” trial attorneys. Their letter told me to remove or correct the sign within fifteen days. Outraged, I wrote back, asking rhetorically: “What is more unethical: to represent the true focus of my law practice to the public, or to file an anonymous complaint behind a colleague’s back?”Unknown.jpeg

During the next several days, while I awaited a response that never came, I hardly lived five minutes without wallowing in righteous indignation. I tortured my poor office staff and family with a barrage of braying, along the lines of: “I’ll sue them; I’ll assert my constitutional right to freedom of speech; how can they own a word?”

At night, I experienced more than a few sleepless hours with another question: “Who filed the complaint? How do I get revenge? Do I wish for a painful disease or mere bankruptcy to be visited upon my so-called colleague?”

Gradually, after a week or so, the sting of the situation subsided. I paid a sign company to replace the word “Specialist” with “Closings.” I decided that to argue with the Bar’s Ethics Committee would not be a brilliant career move. And I ceased evaluating every local attorney I dealt with to see if they were “the one.” “Don’t give whoever it is the satisfaction,” I instructed myself.

 

*****

 

Two years later, I’d nearly forgotten the incident when an elderly attorney from a neighboring town arrived for a closing. Although I’d met him years before, he wasn’t someone I saw often. He’d certainly never crossed my mind as a suspect when I’d laid awake imagining retribution. His colleagues knew him for two things, namely: alcoholism; and, related to that, having run over and killed a youngster with his town’s fire engine while driving to a July 4th celebration. As town attorney and its fire chief, he’d managed to squelch any personal responsibility for the tragedy, but the legal community knew the inside story.

After offering a wet-fish handshake, he said: “I see you’re not in violation anymore.”

“Hunh?” I said, not certain what he meant.

“Your sign,” he said, his rheumy eyes twinkling with mischief and triumph.

“You fixed it. My letter worked.”                                        images.png

I glared at him. Several verbal responses arose in my mind, all barbed with poison. But, as I considered his entire presence, from his tattered and stained sports jacket, to his erratically shaved jowls, to the vast belly that almost prevented him from reaching the closing table, I found myself unable to deliver one. Apparently, the awful things I’d wished for had occurred to him already. In fact, even worse than I could have dreamed.

“Yes,” I finally said. “And business has never been better.”

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*****

 

Fast forward twenty years: I’m nearly at the four-year anniversary of starting this blog and have posted 160 stories and essays. Most weeks, I have between 100 and 200 “views” and am often surprised by which posts are popular. Sometimes, the stories I think are best fall like stones in water. And posts I’ve belabored end up being relative successes.  Readers or “followers” need not be concerned that I monitor their individual reading habits. That level of detail is unavailable. But my hosting site does tell me in what country my readers access the blog.

The overwhelming majority of my “reads” take place in the United States. But many also occur in Canada and Costa Rica where I have friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, a dedicated reader travels to Europe or Asia and checks my blog as they go, leaving me with a tantalizing string of countries. When a friend spent several months in and around Vietnam last year I had my first “views” from Cambodia and Laos; during her honeymoon last year, my daughter delivered my first hits from Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

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*****

 

Last year I posted a story about my father’s unlikely friendship with former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. It briefly went viral in a minor way when hundreds of readers accessed it over a two-day period. I never learned who they were. Presumably, one person happened upon the story and referred it to friends or co-workers. No one commented, however. How mysterious to not know with whom I’d struck a nerve, and why!

Other times I know exactly who has binged on my blog. There are several friends who do not read every post but, if they know I will be at a social event, might read eight or ten in the day or two before we meet. They discuss aspects of the posts with me in minute detail and often offer insights I hadn’t considered when I wrote. I appreciate their interest.

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In the past two months a tantalizing mystery has arisen with a reader I’ve come to think of as “The Brazilian.” “Reads” have occurred almost daily in Brazil. Usually, there is one, though several times, there have been two or three in a day. I cannot think of anyone I know who is living or traveling in Brazil. This person, whoever he or she is, has been remarkably dedicated. I’m flattered! Yet, they have never left a comment. Maybe they don’t realize they can comment or, perhaps, they prefer to remain anonymous.

Is my Brazil reader a student learning English? Is he or she somehow fascinated by the minutiae of my existence or by my views on current events? I can’t tell which stories they have read. They could be reading the most recent posts or they could be scrolling back several years to find stories of interest.

So now, like an actor breaking character and speaking directly to the audience, I’m herein communicating to my reader in Brazil. You know who you are! How did you become a reader? What are your favorite stories or story-types? How did you alight upon my blog in the first place? Are there subjects you particularly enjoy? Do you have any questions I could answer? My imagination runs wild! In my dreams, I wonder if you are a major movie producer who is just waiting for the right moment to offer me a “deal.”

If you’d rather not respond, that’s fine. One of the enjoyable aspects of writing stories (as opposed to editing and re-writing and occasionally abandoning stories that don’t work), is not knowing how they’ll be received after I push the ”publish” button. The mystery fascinates me. At least, having written this post, the “Brazil” questions are out there, I’m less likely to express puzzlement every day. Compared to some anonymous situations, this one is a pleasure.

 

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Is a “eureka moment” always a good thing? Is it always instantaneous? I had one that took several months to evolve and, when the light finally turned on, when the moment of clarity shown, when the flower finally bloomed, I felt like an idiot.

In 1983, only weeks into my career as a real estate lawyer in New Jersey, my boss (henceforth referred to as “F”) called me into his smoke-filled office and handed me a file.
“Go to the planning board hearing in Midland Park tonight,” he said, as though that meant anything to me.
“Ummmmm,” I said.
“Just be there at seven o’clock,” he continued, “and when they call the case, get up and introduce yourself, like, ‘I’m the Chen’s lawyer’ and y’know, take it from there.”
“Who are the Chens?” I asked.
“Our clients,” said F. “They bought a house a few months ago, and they applied to the planning board to open a restaurant there, that’s all. Should be a piece of cake. Just read the file.”
With that, F, who was always bustling, looked longingly at the lights blinking on his phone console and took a quick drag from his always-lit cigarette; I realized he wanted me to leave.

Working for F was an eye-opening experience. I’d spent my first year as a lawyer at a buttoned-down, conservative law firm in a neighboring town. There, I arrived early, researched banking regulations in the library, and stayed until the last partner went home in the evening. I was promised the opportunity to meet clients “within several years;” meanwhile, I worked exclusively with thick and tedious books, a pen and a pad of paper.
At the end of that year, I expressed an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and boredom to a friend who put me in touch with her uncle, who hired me without even an interview, to assist with his rough-and-tumble divorce practice. I immediately went from zero “client contact” to a soul-sucking abundance of client contact from which I began to believe the following: basically, everyone lies: the opposing party; the opposing lawyer; and, especially, your own client. Still single at the time, I couldn’t go on a date during my brief “family lawyer” phase, since I trusted no one.
Though my pay improved from my previous position, and boredom was no longer an issue, I perceived that being a “divorce lawyer” wouldn’t suit me. Excessive honesty on my part hurt several clients’ cases, and my boss also recognized my personality was unsuited to the task. He sought to hire a real SOB as his new associate, and offered my services to his brother, F, whose real estate closing practice was overwhelmingly busy. In our first meeting, F made clear his desire that I handle enough of his workload to free his afternoons for his true passion, golf.
My first few weeks as a “closing attorney” were delightful. I liked talking on the phone to generally happy clients, who were buying or selling their homes. Even cheerier were people refinancing their mortgages, since nothing makes a client happier than saving four or five hundred dollars a month. The work seemed clean, positive, and easy.
Several other aspects of real estate law were preferable, too. There were no court appearances, no crying clients and no need to keep a gun in the desk drawer, as F’s brother did. In addition, we didn’t keep track of time for billing purposes. Each transaction had a set fee and, as F often said: “If they don’t pay, they don’t close.”
Finally, real estate agents were overwhelmingly middle-aged women. They were usually pleasant to my mid-twenties self, even those who didn’t have a daughter at home they hoped to introduce to the “bright young lawyer in town.” F’s wisdom on real estate agents was, as follows: “Most lawyers treat them like dirt. Just return their calls and they’ll love you.” He was right.
Gifted at memorizing phone numbers of agents, mortgage lenders and the like, I also learned to negotiate on the fly. Most days, F went golfing by noon and I departed promptly at five. I felt HAPPY as a practicing lawyer for the first time, until….

Arriving thirty minutes early at the town hall “hearing room” to relax and read the Chen file, I sat in the front row of four wooden benches like pews in a church, except lacking bibles.
I learned F had represented Mr. and Mrs. Chen in the purchase of a small house several months earlier, for $120,000, which they intended to convert to a Chinese restaurant. F had charged them a legal fee of $3,500, 400% more than our usual residential closing fee at the time. A note on the file indicated, by way of explanation: “Commercial closing fee.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “F charges a ton extra when it’s not just a house.” Yet, I couldn’t figure out how this file differed from any other closing, at least up to where I found myself at that moment: at my first-ever planning board hearing. I felt a little queasy about my lack of preparation. Despite F’s assurance, how could it be that all I had to do was introduce myself, receive permission to open a restaurant on behalf of my clients, say “thank you,” and go home?
Right on time, seven individuals, six men and one woman, entered from a side door and sat behind a long table in front of the room. American and Midland Park flags stood on poles at both ends of their table. Cardboard nametags in front of each seat identified the board members. A stenographer followed them into the room and sat at a small desk between the table and a lectern. During the half hour I’d waited, several other lawyers or applicants had arrived and taken seats in the visitors’ benches, either silently, or whispering among themselves in hushed tones.
After intoning the pledge of allegiance and discussing several preliminary remarks about the previous month’s agenda, the chairman, sitting in the middle of the seven board members, scanned the room, and asked if anyone represented the Chen application.
“Yes, me,” I jumped up, dropping the file to the floor in my excitement.
“And you are?” said the chairman.
“Stuart Sanders, of the F law firm,” I said, as I retrieved the file and moved to the lectern in front of the board.
“Mr. F is not favoring us with his presence this evening?” he said.
Several of the board members and several people in the audience seemed to exchange knowing glances. I thought one man even snickered.
“Ummmm, no,” I said. “I’ve come to get approval to open the restaurant.”
More chuckles arose from around the room. I felt my face, already warm, become bright red.
“Well,” said the chairman. “Do you happen to have a magical explanation of where the parking spaces are supposed to go?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Mr. Chairman,” said the female member. “Clearly, Mr. F has chosen to dodge this meeting. He has not provided this board, or his associate, apparently, any basis to believe the property in question can support the eight parking spaces necessary for a restaurant under our ordinance.”
Another board member asked: “Should we allow the applicant one more month? Clearly, this young man is not prepared to address our concerns this evening.”
“I don’t think so,” said the chairman. “We were perfectly clear with Mr. F last month. I don’t understand how he let his clients buy this property with the expectation of opening a restaurant.
“Son,” he said, addressing me, “Do you think eight parking spaces can fit onto the footprint of this property?”
My mind was spinning. I didn’t know what sort of “footprint” he meant. All that came to mind was a footprint of a bear walking in snow. I had no idea how to respond. I shook my head.
“Motion to dismiss the application,” said one board member.
“Second,” said several simultaneously.
“All in favor of dismissal, raise your hand,” said the chairman.
Six board members raised their hands immediately. The one who had suggested a delay caught my eye, mouthed “sorry,” and raised his hand, too.

It ended so soon I hardly comprehended what had happened. With my file in one hand and my briefcase in another, I hurried out of the building and drove home.
I laid awake most of the night trying to figure out how I had failed. Should I have known from the file that there was an issue with parking? How could my first board hearing end in humiliation? Though I had no idea on what basis, I was certain F would be angry with me. Upon arrival at work, I gingerly approached his office .
As usual, he was hurriedly plowing through the previous afternoon’s phone messages so he could make his tee-time.
“How’d it go last night?” he asked, pausing with the phone in one hand and his cigarette in another.
“Terribly,” I said. “The application was dismissed. They said….” I started to explain, but he waved me off: “It’s not a problem,” he said.
“It’s not?” I said.
“I’ll talk to the Chen’s,” he said. “Don’t give it another worry.”

I went back to my own office relieved, but mystified. Why wasn’t F upset? Why didn’t he want to know what had happened? I dug into my own pile of phone messages, performed a closing and, gradually, managed to recover from the previous evening’s disaster.
The next day, when I went to lunch, I saw F in line at the sandwich shop across from our office, in an animated discussion with Alex Milano, a litigation attorney and golf buddy. When I entered to place my order, they glanced in my direction and I had the distinct impression they ceased talking because of me. I wondered if F had been telling him about the planning board. I nodded in greeting, and departed as soon as I received my food.
Several days later, I saw F usher an Asian couple into his office and shut the door. This was unusual, since he almost never shut his door.
“It’s probably the Chens,” I thought to myself. As soon as they left, I went down the hall and asked F: “Was that who I think?”
“Those were the Chens,” said F. “I told them how sorry I was.”
“What happens next?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” said F. “It’s not your problem.”
“It’s not?” I said.
He just shook his head and changed the subject: “You’ll do the Moran closing this afternoon. I’ll take care of the Worley’s tomorrow morning before golf.”
“Okay,” I said. But I was still anxious.

Approximately a month later, during a relatively quiet afternoon, while F was out, a middle-aged man appeared at our office and asked our receptionist, Cheryl, if I were available. Before she even finished gesturing in my direction, the man handed me a pile of papers and bounded back out the door. I looked down at a “Summons and Complaint.” On behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Chen, Alex Milano had filed a lawsuit against me for malpractice.
I trembled. I blanched. I felt a terrible combination of rage and humiliation.
“Are you okay,” asked Cheryl.
“Not really,” I said. I sat down glumly at my desk.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon and evening, I was miserable. I had never been sued before. I had no idea what lay ahead. I couldn’t imagine how I was responsible for what happened. And why had F told me “not to worry?”
The next morning, I showed the documents to F. Again, he said: “Don’t worry.” He added: “I’ll handle it.”
“It says I committed malpractice,” I said. “Was I supposed to know about the parking spaces?”
“There was a mistake, but you had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Don’t even think about it again. Here, do you have time to return these calls? I gotta go.”
He handed me a sheaf of messages. It wasn’t easy, but over the next several weeks, the lawsuit receded from my mind. Yet, my attitude had changed; I couldn’t identify it yet, but something was amiss.

The next time I saw F with Alex Milano at lunch, they seemed happy like two men who’d won a small lottery. Indeed, I’d learned from F’s secretary that our firm’s insurance company had settled with the Chens by paying them back their entire purchase price, plus damages. A third of that, nearly $50,000, would have gone to Alex and the balance to the Chens who still owned the house, even though they couldn’t operate a restaurant.
Gradually, I realized how “the law” had worked in this instance: Alex Milano would have paid a “referral fee” of one-third of his fee to whoever referred him the clients. Thus, in addition to the $3,500 closing fee, F received $16,000 from Alex. I never learned whether F had bungled the transaction intentionally, or merely hatched this solution to salvage the situation, after he realized the Chens’ purchase should have been conditioned on the existence of sufficient parking spaces.
Yet, the experience was not worthless. Besides humiliation, I received several valuable lessons for the remainder of my twenty-five year career, namely:

1. If you specialize in residential real estate, don’t take a commercial client;
2. If you are not familiar with a file, don’t accept someone else’s client without asking a lot of questions;
3. Be wary of dealing with anyone who says “Don’t worry about it,” particularly F, forevermore; and
4. If all else fails, be mindful of human nature, and be certain the malpractice insurance is paid up-to-date.


RELATED BY DIVORCE
“You can’t do that,” said my boss, angry, looking up from his desk upon my return to the office. I was shocked, so excited I was with my first, improbable triumph in my two-week-old career as a divorce lawyer. Somehow, he viewed my victory as a failure.
I’d commenced working for Ralph DiPierro when he rescued me, solely on the basis of one telephone conversation, from a tedious position as a junior attorney at a classy, old money law firm. The fundamental problem was the firm’s disinclination to transfer a livable amount of that money to me in exchange for my time-consuming efforts. Also, the opportunity for client contact, which young lawyers crave, until they actually experience it, was non-existent from my permanent position in the firm’s law library.
Ralph, in contrast, offered client contact in abundance. He foisted my totally inexperienced self upon an unsuspecting client the first morning on the job, the likelihood of malpractice be damned.
“Here, take this file,” he said, in his direct, unadorned way. “Nina Brown’s husband left her. They don’t have any money, so you can handle it.”
“Well, um,” I stammered, accepting a thin, manila folder from gaunt, salt-and-pepper-haired Ralph, a possible winner of an Abraham Lincoln lookalike contest.
“Just show up at calendar call next Monday. They may not start the trial; it depends if there’s a judge available.” He added. “If they do, just settle it. Frankie Terranova’s the husband’s lawyer. He’ll go easy on you. I’ve known him a long time.”
“But what should I do to prepare?” I asked.
Ralph appeared stumped, as though the concept of preparation were totally foreign to him.
“Well, you know,” he finally said, “read through the file, give Nina a call so she knows you’re handling her case, and guide her through the process. She’s very young. I talked to her a couple months ago; I got stuck with her ‘cause she’s a waitress at MacMurphy’s.”
I must have looked surprised at Ralph’s explanation, since I knew clients to be almost sacred at my former firm; no one spoke disparagingly of them.
Ralph continued, in a tone suggesting wisdom gleaned from thirty years as a suburban divorce attorney: “You never want to represent a wife. Generally, the money is with the husband. But, sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Anyway, in this case, the husband’s broke, too.”
Ralph told me MacMurphy’s was the bar where he usually ate lunch and played in weekend poker games. The owner was his best buddy. Still, I felt uneasy as I sat down with the file in my office, formerly the storage closet, adjacent to Ralph’s office. I’d spent much of the morning fussing over hanging my diplomas on the wall. Now, I actually had a client to worry about. What if the case did come to trial? What if Frankie wasn’t “easy on me” as Ralph had promised? What did I actually know about divorce law or trials or clients or anything?
Law school had prepared me to read voluminous amounts of material relevant only to someone intent upon being a Federal Appellate judge. For readers who are unfamiliar, law school is largely an exercise in reading judge’s opinions. These dry writings are selected in order to illustrate important concepts, I assume, but they rarely resonated with me. And my year at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman only taught me to hide in the corner of the law library and appear intensely busy, no matter what.
I took a deep breath and opened Nina’s thin file. Notes on her intake sheet indicated she was twenty-seven, a year older than I, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment her husband had “deserted,” and she had a three-year-old son who may or may not have been the child of her husband, if I was properly interpreting the question mark Ralph had scribbled. A 3” X 5” card stapled to the folder indicated the trial date.
I wasn’t sure what I would say to Nina when I called, but I decided to “take the plunge.” A tiny voice, childlike and vulnerable, said “Hello?”
My stomach fluttered as I realized this person’s future was somehow tied to my minimal professional abilities. “Hello, I’m Stuart at Ralph DiPierro’s office,” I said.
“Who?” she said.
“Your lawyer’s office. Ralph is your lawyer and I’m his associate,” I said, trying to deepen my voice a level of experience or two. I felt “associate” conveyed gravity beyond that of a mere “assistant.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” said Nina. “I was wondering when I might hear something.”
“The trial is scheduled for next Monday,” I said. “There may be a delay, but we have to be ready, just in case.”
I wasn’t sure what constituted “ready,” but I felt it was a mature thing to say and I hoped Ralph would fill me in as the date approached. I didn’t know what else to say, and an awkward silence ensued, until Nina said: “Should we get together and talk or something? Maybe I can tell you what I’m hoping to get?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said, relieved. Her suggestion totally made sense.
“Can you meet me this evening at the Empire Diner?” she asked. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to meet a client for the first time at a restaurant.
“Can’t you come to the office?” I asked.
“No, I have to work at MacMurphy’s ‘til four and then take care of my son. But I can leave him with a friend from seven to eight this evening. So, is 7:15 okay?”
“Um, sure, I guess,” I said. “See you there.”
Now what? Ralph had already left for court, so I called an acquaintance who I knew had “put through” several uncontested divorces at another firm. I explained my predicament.
“It won’t be hard,” said Joe. “Complete the CIS with your client. Then, when you get to court, review the husband’s CIS, see where they disagree, and try to narrow the disagreements.”
“What’s a CIS?” I asked.
Joe laughed. “I forgot you’ve spent an entire year in the library. A CIS is the ‘case information statement.’ You fill in your client’s budget, and how much she is asking for in support. The husband will have filled in how much he’s prepared to pay. When you get to the courtroom, either the judge or his clerk will bring you and the opposing lawyer into the judge’s office, adjust a couple of the numbers, and make you settle without a trial.
“What if we can’t settle?” I asked.
“Settle,” said Joe. “Don’t rock the boat. Judges hate to waste time on trials.”
“Thanks,” I said, relieved to understand the likely order of events. It all sounded manageable. “I’m meeting my client tonight at a diner.”
“You’re meeting her outside the office?” said Joe, surprised.
“It’s the only time she’s available,” I said.
“Whoa, be careful,” said Joe. “There’s nothing more ‘available’ than a young divorce client.”
“Very funny,” I said, though the ramifications of Joe’s remark refilled my slightly diminished well of anxiety.
I arrived at the diner several minutes early and took a seat in a booth near the entrance. Right at the appointed moment, a woman who looked no older than a college student, but who could only be Nina, strode in wearing jeans and a notably tight tee shirt. She was thin, with big brown eyes, freckles and curly, permed hair in the style of the mid-1980’s. She virtually flounced into the booth across from me and offered a smile. I noticed she chewed gum with the avidity of a lion consuming a zebra.
“Nina?” I said, feeling self-conscious in my three-piece suit.
“Yes,” she said, taking me in with a smile that made me feel like I was eight-years-old and playing lawyer.
We ordered coffee and Nina explained her situation: “Robert left me almost a year ago. It really hurt. He doesn’t even bother to see our son, Charley. He’s living with a receptionist from the factory where he works. I hate him.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“Can we really nail him?” she asked. “He left us alone. I can hardly pay the bills.”
I felt a tug of sympathy for this lithe young woman across from me. Who could leave her like that? After she explained what Robert earned, however, I was certain I could do little for her; Robert earned less than she did.
We filled out a blank CIS I’d found in the office. Nina’s rent and car payments consumed nearly all her income. Charley’s baby-sitting and nursery school used up the rest, and Robert could not be counted upon for alimony. The only hope was to obtain reasonable child support.
“He offered fifty bucks a week,” said Nina. “I’ve gotta get at least a hundred. If I got that, I could get by.”
I nodded sympathetically, as though I were familiar with the costs of child rearing. The numbers sounded small, even to my uninformed mind.
“There’s one awkward question I have to ask,” I said. “Robert is Charley’s father, right?”
“Of course he is,” she replied, then added: “I’m nearly certain.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s good enough.”
I actually had no idea if it would be. When we finished our coffees and reached the bottom of the form, Nina stood and flashed me a luminous smile.
“Can I have your home number?” she asked, “just in case something comes up?”
I didn’t know if this was appropriate or not, but how could I refuse? I scribbled my number on a napkin and stood to say “good-bye.” Nina put the napkin into her large, leather bag and shocked me by leaning forward to kiss my cheek.
“You’re sweet,” she said, as though she were twice my age. “I know you’re gonna take care of me and Charley.”
I was enveloped by perfume as she turned and strode out. The shape of her rear left an impression I knew was inappropriate. “This is your first client,” I reminded myself.
The week flew by as my first, possible trial approached. At his suggestion, I studied some of Ralph’s complex files, and he offered occasional tidbits of advice, though they rarely concerned our clients or law. From Ralph, I learned which casinos in Atlantic City had the best buffets, which local bars had happy hours on which days, and which health club had the best racquetball courts. I felt totally unprepared. I went to bed early on Friday evening, and drifted into an unsettled sleep. I dreamed numerous scenarios at court, all disastrous.
What if Nina were ordered to pay alimony to Robert? What if the judge declared I was incompetent?” What if Nina shouted: “He promised to help me and he didn’t!” My dreams were so dire I was almost relieved to be awakened at two a.m. by the telephone.
“Hello,” I said, groggily. I heard crying on the other end of the line.
“It’s Nina,” said a high-pitched voice, sniffling. “The bastard. He’s ruined my life.”
“What?” I said, coming to attention. I immediately thought the worst, wondering if Charley had been kidnapped or the apartment set on fire. “What happened?”
“He, he,” she started, almost unable to speak. “He took the pots and pans.”
“Hunh?” I said. “What else?”
“They were really nice,” said Nina, distressed. “I bought them with my birthday money last year.”
“You’ve called me in the middle of the night because he took your pots and pans?” I said, amazed to have been called for something that struck me as so trivial, but also relieved the situation was not worse. I began to laugh.
“I was afraid it was something really bad.”
Silence from the other end of the line was deafening. I knew I’d made a mistake. What is considered important to a client, I realized, especially a divorce client, is not something for the lawyer to judge. That was the first self-learned nugget of knowledge I would remember for the rest of my career.
“I’m sorry,” I added. “I just thought… it might be something worse.”
Gradually, Nina composed herself. and we agreed I would bring up the matter with Robert’s attorney on Monday. I assured her I would call from the courthouse if we were able to settle, or in the unlikely event we were actually going to trial. Nina finally hung up after saying somewhat half-heartedly: “Sorry I called so late. I just didn’t have anyone else to call. I’m so lonely.”
It took me several hours to fall asleep again. I tried not to obsess about it, but anxiety over my courthouse debut ruined the entire weekend. Calendar call in northern New Jersey was a social phenomenon. About fifty men and a handful of women sat in a cavernous courtroom in Hackensack. Every other lawyer seemed to be named Ralph or Frankie or Dominic and the few women all seemed to be Teresa or Annemarie; it was not unlike a barbershop.
The assignment judge, a triple-chinned mountain of a man named Anthony Polito, stood at a lectern on a raised platform in front of the room and called pending cases in a mysterious order that I didn’t understand, then “assigned” them to particular judges and courtrooms. As he worked his way down his list, the room gradually emptied, and I found myself one of the few stragglers.
“Hey, Frankie,” said the judge, peering down from his perch and addressing a short, bald man in a plaid, three-piece suit that resembled curtain material. “Where’s DiPierro?”
My heart fluttered as I realized Frankie Terranova, my “adversary,” was speaking: “Ralphie said he was sending his associate.”
“Wow,” said Judge Polito. “Ralphie’s got an associate now. Impressive.”
I slowly raised my arm. “I’m, I’m Ralph DiPierro’s associate, um, Sanders is my name, um Stuart.”
Judge Polito gazed down at me. I felt even younger than I’d felt when I’d met Nina. Frankie Terranova took me in with a barely-concealed smirk.
“So, counselor,” he said, “you ready to rock-and-roll?”
“Easy, Frankie,” said Judge Polito. “What have you guys got?”
“Just a simple uncontested,” said Frankie.
“Alright, I’ve got some time to settle that myself,” said the judge, glancing at his watch.
“Come into my chambers.” Frankie and I followed the judge through a doorway at the front of the courtroom and into his office, a dark-paneled cave decorated with photographs showing Judge Polito with various local politicians.
“Were you at Knights of Columbus Sunday?” the judge asked Frankie.
“Couldn’t make it. Had Angie’s christening,” said Frankie.
“Congratulations,” said the judge.
“Thanks, Tony,” said Frankie. For just a second, my mind drifted to the specter of being known around the courthouse as “Stuie.”
The two bantered like brothers while I stood awkwardly to the side. Judge Polito hung his black robe on a rack behind his desk, sat down in a massive leather chair, and indicated that Frankie and I should sit down on two wooden chairs facing him. “So,” the judge said. “All settled?”
“Sure thing,” said Frankie.
“Um, I need to see his CIS, don’t I?” I asked, my voice rising involuntarily from my intended assertion into a question.
“Sure, George,” said Frankie, reaching for his briefcase.
“Stuart,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Frankie. “Here’s the CIS. My client’s got no money. Plus, he thinks the kid might not be his, so we gotta go easy on the support.”
Judge Polito addressed Frankie: “Does he wanna do a paternity test?”
“No, Judge,” said Frankie. “He doesn’t think it that much.”
Both men laughed.
Judge Polito awaited my response as I skimmed the CIS. As Nina had indicated, Robert proposed to pay $50 a week in child support. Much of the rest of his income went towards his rent and car. But one item jumped out at me; Robert budgeted $100 a week for “alcohol and tobacco.”
Trying my best to sound like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I declared: “Your honor, this man is suggesting that he pay $100 a week for drinking and smoking, and only $50 for his child.”
Both men looked at me as if to say: “So, what’s the point?”
I added, with indignation: “That doesn’t seem right.”
Judge Polito turned to Frankie. “What do you say to that?” he asked.
“It’s, it’s,” Frankie sputtered. “You know, a guy’s gotta live.”
“I don’t know,” said the judge, a smile seeping slowly through his substantial jowls. “But that’s a hard thing to justify, you know, a hundred for booze and fifty for the kid.”
I felt a burning look of hatred directed at me by Frankie, but I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the judge.
“I think,” continued Judge Polito, “you should modify the CIS and then we can call this ‘settled.’”
Frankie crossed out $50 at “child support” and wrote in $100.
“You’re breakin’ my balls,” he said to me.
Judge Polito laughed. He took the modified CIS and signed it. “Here, kid,” he said to me, like I was his employee. “Take this out to the court clerk and enter it as settled. Me and Frankie are gonna chat a little longer.”

After almost floating with elation to the bank of telephones in the hallway, I called Nina with the news. I’d won her what she wanted. I’d rescued a damsel in distress. I allowed myself to picture a celebratory hug, perhaps another kiss. Perhaps, we would be friends. After all, she was lonely and I was new in town.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, when I reached her.
“Me and my boyfriend can go away for the weekend to celebrate.”
“Boyfriend?” I thought, disappointed, recalling her saying: “I’m so lonely.”
But then I thought about it a few minutes longer. I was naïve. Upon reflection, at least, I realized someone like Nina could not be expected to live like a nun for a year after her husband left. Back at the office, at least, I would receive acclaim.
When I arrived, however, that’s when Ralph glared up from his desk and declared: “You can’t do that. Frankie called and he was really pissed.”
When I appeared totally crestfallen, he explained: “A satisfied client is good for one divorce, maybe two over a thirty year career. A friendly adversary like Frankie is good for easy settlements in five or ten cases every year. You gotta just go along. This is real life, not a television show.”
My career as a divorce lawyer only lasted two more months. As soon as an experienced former judge’s clerk became available, Ralph suggested I work for his brother, Alan, who did real estate closings.
“Excellent,” I thought to myself, “a relatively non-emotional area of the law, without judges, lying clients, flirtations or moral compromises. It’s all black-and-white; we’re only dealing with money. My priorities will be clear.”
Not only did I eventually prove to be wrong about whether emotions and lying were part of real estate transactions, but Alan had apparently been tipped off about my zeal for representing clients’ interests.
“Listen,” he said on my first day, “in real estate law, a happy client is worth a deal every five or ten years. A happy real estate agent is good for five or ten deals a year. And a happy mortgage broker is even more important. Don’t ever forget that.”


KNOW WHEN TO FOLD THEM

It is not politically correct to say: “When at first you don’t succeed, quit,” and I certainly experienced approbation whenever I suggested such a thing to my children. However, I intend to tell a story illustrating how valuable, even enjoyable, such an act can be.
In March of 1982, my first job as a lawyer was everything I feared it would be. I was hired as an “associate” at a small, but exclusive law firm in a wealthy New Jersey town where the term “old money” might have been invented. All nine of the lawyers at the firm boasted Ivy League degrees. Notwithstanding the carefully crafted gloss I showed on my resume, it was clear to the discerning eye my law school career was undistinguished. The closest I came to the honored Law Review at George Washington University was when I played shortstop, as a ringer, on their softball team. But for reasons he never articulated –-perhaps he felt a kinship as the only other non-WASP — Josh Berman was a senior partner who championed me through the interview process and, after convincing his skeptical partners to hire me, served as my mentor.
Josh was a bushy-bearded former member of the counter-culture who, by 1982, was fully signed on to the life of the bourgeoisie – except for that beard, of course. He had a big house, a big mortgage, a wife who enjoyed expensive furnishings and the expertise to advise the firm’s largest client, Apex Bank. Though an institution of utmost conservatism in our prosperous town, the powers-that-be at Apex accepted Josh’s subversive appearance in exchange for his keen insights. It was unusual, apparently, for a “big-city” lawyer like Josh to have forsaken the bright lights and stunning salaries of Manhattan to labor in suburbia.
My job was to conduct legal research and write memos. My days passed in the library where I prospected for nuggets of legal gold from the veins of dusty tomes. From movies and a Broadway show I knew the low man on a nine-man totem pole had to arrive at the office first everyday and stay until everyone else departed. If nothing else, if it is true that nine-tenths of life is “being there,” I fulfilled the vast majority of my requirements.
Any of the five senior lawyers at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman could assign me a research topic, but only if I was available. Josh dominated my time to the exclusion of everyone else and, considering how unapproachable the other lawyers seemed to me, I considered this to be a good thing.
“What have you got for me?” Josh would ask on a typical morning, when I poked my head into his wood-paneled office.
“I’ve nearly finished the Glass-Steagall memo,” I might have said, referring to a prominent banking regulation that held near-sacred importance in the field.
“And?” Josh would persist.
“I think Apex can market the product,” I might have ventured.
“You think, or you know?” Josh would prod, peering through his horn-rimmed glasses.
Scrunching my face and with my voice rising involuntarily, I might have said: “I think I know?”
Josh would then patiently explain how I needed to nail down the definite answer. Essentially, he was rewarding my dogged, if uninspired, persistence with compassion. This sort of relationship had an unspoken quid-pro-quo; if I kept myself almost exclusively available for Josh’s research needs, he would save me from what he hinted were the merciless projects and mercurial critiques of the other partners.
The catch at a small-town firm was the starting salary, only $20,000. The senior secretaries made more than I did, and none of them had student loans to re-pay.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Josh said, on numerous occasions. “We’ll make it up to you with the year-end bonus.”
The “BONUS” sustained me throughout the spring and summer as I dressed dutifully in three-piece suits and spent eight to ten “billable hours” each day reading and writing on subjects with the intellectual nutritional value of sawdust.
“How does the bonus get calculated?” I asked once.
“It all depends on how valuable you make yourself,” said Josh. “We bill your time out at fifty dollars an hour and we pay you around ten, so it’s a good deal for us. At the end of the year, you will be rewarded.”
“More like eight dollars an hour, so far,” I thought to myself.
“Given your persistence, which I will make abundantly clear to the other partners,” continued Josh, “you stand to make a bundle.”
Work proceeded apace throughout the fall. I learned from Josh how to write a point-by-point letter with all creative impulses scrubbed. I learned to proofread the products of my secretary, Cyndi Buffuno, whose spelling creativity made her name seem appropriate. I learned to laugh at certain partners’ jokes and not to speak in front of others. Basically, Josh was my guide in a world I did not really choose, but agreed to inhabit, so long as the pot of bonus gold was waiting at the end of the year.
As the holiday party at the Beacon Ridge Club loomed, where the checks were distributed, bonus anticipation began to build. I pictured opening an envelope like a star at the Oscar’s: “And the winner is, Stuart, with a check in the amount of $3,000.” Once, when I calculated I’d worked over sixty hours in a particular week, I allowed myself to imagine a check for $5,000.
“Almost at the finish line,” said Josh, a week before the party. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
I smiled and hunkered down at my desk with even greater determination to parse the fine print for a new Apex checking account promotion. The work almost seemed meaningful to me. I was part of the world economy, soon to be a bigger part.
Finally, the day of the event arrived, the Friday before Christmas. Yes, it was nice to share holiday cheer with co-workers, and nice to be a guest at another wood-paneled establishment with deep green carpet and pictures of hunting scenes on the walls. One of the partners who rarely spoke to me offered a slap on the back and a handshake: “Excellent start, young man,” he said. Another, who never seemed certain of my name, interrupted a conversation to speak to me like a family member: “Son, Josh tells me you are invaluable. Good work.”
Could it be $7,000?” I asked myself. I was almost giddy amidst the mistletoe and holly wreaths, eggnog and punch, when Josh emerged from a crowd brandishing an envelope.
“Congratulations!” he said, handing it to me. Always my teacher, he added, in a whisper, before walking away: “Open it in private.”
The thin envelope was finally in hand. Nearly a year of mind-numbing labor was to be rewarded. After a few more minutes of meaningless banter with co-workers, I stole into a vestibule. Surrounded only by an over-laden coat rack and several wreaths, I carefully revealed the check. I could not believe my eyes: “$250.” I looked again. Perhaps, I thought, the written number was a typo and the written part of the check read “Two thousand five hundred.” No, it did not.
I was crestfallen; I was crushed. The holiday week was ruined. Too ashamed to tell my family, I confided only in a law school classmate who also happened to work in North Jersey.
“What should I do?” I asked Gina on the telephone.
“I know someone who might help,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“My uncle was just saying at Christmas dinner he’s overwhelmed and could use an associate in his divorce practice in Fort Lee. It’s not classy like Yardley, Grinnell & Berman, but it’s not boring, either,” she said.
“Divorce law?” I said, frowning.
“Well, he calls it ‘family law,’” she said.
“Oh, that’s MUCH better,” I said.
“The money’s still green,” she said.
“Good point,” I said. “I’ll call him.”

Ralph DiPierro answered the phone himself. When I explained who I was and why I was calling, he said: “Can you start next week?”
“Don’t you want to interview me?” I asked.
“Nah, if you’re a friend of Gina’s you’re probably okay. It’s not rocket science, you know,” said Ralph.
“Can I get back to you after I talk to my boss?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Oh, and I can pay you $30,000 to start. Is that enough?” Ralph asked.
I was stunned. Without even an interview, I had a job offer with a fifty percent raise. I thanked Ralph and prepared to talk to Josh.
On the first workday following the holiday, I hovered outside Josh’s office as though preparing an ambush. While he was still taking off his coat, I entered and asked: “Do you have a moment?”
“Sure,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Did you have a chance to speak to the other partners about me before the party last week?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, sitting down behind his desk. “They know you’ve been doing good work.”
“Is there any chance I will, maybe, be getting a raise?” I asked, trembling inside, but trying to sound composed.
“Absolutely,” said Josh. “I think that by the end of this coming year we should be able to move you up several thousand dollars.”
I paused for a moment while his words reverberated in my head: “at the END of this coming year… the END…SEVERAL…COMING…END.” I felt a surprising surge of relief, not anger. My way forward was clear. No doubt.
“Please consider this my two weeks notice,” I said, as measured as possible. “I have a more favorable job offer.”
Josh looked shocked. He stared at me, unspeaking, and appeared to shake his head involuntarily, like he was doing a double take. His beard appeared to twitch. “You’re quitting?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, feeling more control of my life than I’d felt in months.
I expected Josh to ask me about my new position and try to convince me family law was undignified. I thought he would, at least, ask me where I was going. Instead, he said: “Okay, then. Finish up whatever you were working on and then you can go. Two weeks won’t be necessary.” He looked down at his desk, indicating our discussion was over.
Walking out of Yardley, Grinnell & Berman several days later was a joyous event for me. Two secretaries took me out for lunch on the last day and one of the younger attorneys wished me well. Divorce law proved to be a short and bizarre detour in my career (probably worth a story or two in the future) but working for Ralph opened up other opportunities that proved even more valuable.
I called Josh several times over the next couple of years, thinking he might be interested in how I was doing. But he asked no questions and he never reciprocated. Finally, I quit doing that, too.