Saturday, August 11, 2007

Look, ma! I’m a real lawyer!

Years of intense studying and grueling tests paid off today, as I represented my first client in court! Well, almost. Let me rephrase: Years of intense studying and grueling tests paid off today, as I went down to the local clerk’s office with one task in mind: try to get my mom out of a traffic ticket! Here’s how it all went down.

Apparently, back in June, my mom got a traffic ticket for turning in the wrong direction at the wrong time. My first knowledge of this occurred yesterday morning, when my dad told me I would be representing my mom. My reaction? SHOCK AND PANIC. I know I graduated from a Big Ticket law school, and I know I passed the bar, and I know I took a little oath and was sworn in, but I’m not a real lawyer… I mean, I know there’s a bar card in my pocket with an official P-number and everything, but, come on, me? Defending a traffic ticket? They never taught us how to do that at Georgetown! I learned about due process and equal protection and theories of punishment and the legal frontier that is Cyberspace! I never learned how to drive down to the courthouse and file an appearance – I don’t even know what an “appearance” is, let alone how to file one, or what filing one actually signifies! I don’t know how to argue a traffic ticket!

But my dad told me I had to file an appearance – and not knowing anything about a subject has never stopped me before. I was worried that the clerks would be surly and gruff like the ones at the D.C. court, but these two clerks were actually quite pleasant. They looked to be in their 50s and 60s, and had a very motherly air about them. So I did what I always do when I don’t know how to do something: I played the Naiveté Card.

“Can I help you?” a clerk asked when she saw me wandering around aimlessly.
“Uh, yes. I am here to” – I paused to recall the exact words my father told me – “file an appearance for my client.” I smiled, pleased with myself for remembering all those words.
“Oh, okay.”
At this point, I realized that I had no idea what came next. I decided it was time to come clean.
“Listen,” I said, “I’m not really sure what to do. This is my first case ever since I passed the bar.”
The two women smiled. The bailiff, hanging around near the filing cabinets, applauded. “Congratulations!” they all said.
“Yes, yes, thank you,” I said. I decided to come even more clean. “And, actually, the client… is my mother.”
They laughed, and the bailiff said, “I hope you got paid up front!”
“Actually, she’s taking me to Panera.” I am in love with Panera iced chai teas. It’s a good deal.
So the clerks, seeing that I was new, led me through the whole process. They gave me the right forms and walked me through everything and that was that. I didn’t even need to show them my license or bar card. And there’s more:
“Are you interested in doing some criminal defense work?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“Would you like to be added to the court-appointed attorneys list?”
She handed me a notepad. “Just write a love letter to the judge, and I’ll make sure he puts you on the list.”
Wow! Visions of me arguing forcefully before a jury danced in my head. For the first time, it sunk in that maybe I really am a real lawyer – or at least, I could be if I wanted to. (I decided to hold off on the “love letter” because I’m not sure when I’ll be in Michigan again, and I would hate to get a letter telling me to appear in court two weeks from now on Tuesday, when two weeks from now on Tuesday I’ll be rehearsing with the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the church by my apartment in DC!)
I finished filling out the form letting me “file” the “appearance,” thanked them for their help, and walked out the door to my mommy’s waiting car. I still didn’t know what an appearance was, but I had just filed one! I am a real attorney! Time to buy a new suit.

Epilogue: According to my dad, “filing an appearance” means just what it sounds like. If someone wants to hire a lawyer to contest a traffic ticket, the lawyer goes down to the court and signs a form stating that he is representing his client in the matter. As I understand it, this simple act of showing up at the clerk’s office is the appearance, and filling out the form is “filing” part. Thus, “filing an appearance.” Now, the clerk gives me whatever paperwork there is on the ticket, and a pre-hearing date will be scheduled for sometime next month where I can meet with a city attorney to discuss this little matter of turning left during rush hour. Come on, 3 points? Really? For my mom, who is so nice and sweet and has a perfectly clean driving record? Surely we can work out a deal. Maybe instead of “improper turn” for 3 points, we can knock it down to “impeding traffic” for 1 point. Eh? Eh? Sound good? Whaddya say?

(Oh, also according to my dad, if you tell the clerks you are representing a family member, they always say they hope you got paid up front!)

This lawyering stuff ain’t so hard once you get the hang of it. But I still don’t see why they didn’t teach me any of this in school. Sure, studying constitutional history is fun and all, but it doesn't actually lead to many practical skills.....


Di said...

You know, you raise a good point! Do they teach you how to bill a client, or anything like that? I would think that a class (maybe not a whole semester... maybe two weekends? Or two Saturdays?) should be spent teaching you guys about the 'business-process' side of practicing law!

Also, you should write that 'love letter' to a judge in DC and become a court-appointed lawyer here! If it really did sound interesting, that is.

Heather said...

You should have interned as a legal secretary, that's actually what I do and I love it. I could have drawn up an Entry of Appearance for you! But I don't envy you at all. I would hate having to go to court even though now that I've worked for attorneys for a while I realize it's not nearly as scary as it looks on TV. I like jobs with less responsibility! It would be cool to be able to add Esquire at the end of your name though.

Elizabeth said...

i'm proud of you, bobo. :-) i wish you could've stayed at home for a little bit longer. i know we fight over stupid stuff like computers and thai food, but know that i will always love you forever and ever and you are my favorite bobo in the world. ;) xoxo liz

Matt said...

Di: No, they don't teach us how to do any practical skills. At least, not at a Tier 1 law school. It is common knowledge among the legal community that top tier schools teach you mostly theory, while lower tier schools (or "Other Schools to Consider," as US News patronizingly puts it) teach you the PRACTICAL stuff. I think there may have been a 1-credit Saturday morning course at G'town about the Business of Law, but I sure didn't take it.

Heather: Jobs with less responsibility definitely sound appealing at times. I'm just hoping that I get through the growing pain stage to become a proficient attorney one of these years. As for adding "Esquire" to the end of my name, I was really looking forward to it, but all my lawyer friends now tell me that adding "Esquire" to the end of one's own name is universally considered a sign of bad breeding. Among lawyers, anyway. (I guess I can address OTHERS with Esquire, but not refer to myself that way. It's like if a judge signed his letters, "Sincerely, The Honorable Matthew S. [Last Name Removed for Google Reasons]")

Elizabeth: Thank you, I agree. :)

Bernie: Thanks for the e-mail! It was good to hear from you -- let's be sure to keep in touch.