Sordid Truths About the Practice
This is a work of fiction. People and events in this story have no relation to actual people and events. Any similarities are coincidental.
“You have a funny story, don’t you?” This question came from Jack Quinn, the hiring partner for the Chicago office of a New York law firm that I might have given one of my kidneys to work for.
“Do I?” I asked rhetorically. I understood instantly that the price for getting this interview was the shredding of some of my pride.
He was in his fifties, dressed in a suit that had been tailored for him but could not make him look like what he most wanted to be—a mover and a shaker. He managed to look short, lumpy, and a little bit desperate about how bald he was getting. The ring of still black hair around his head was a little puffy, like sunglasses worn around the back of his head—Guy Fieri style.
I stared directly into his eyes and refused to flinch no matter how embarrassing this got. I had not applied to this firm for a job. Someone from the firm called me to invite me to apply for a job. This meant that someone else called Jack Quinn and told him that there was a recent law grad in Chicago who was near the top of her class, unemployed, and something else—something “funny.” I could not be sure who it might have been, but that was hardly the point. That person had shared a story about me that Jack Quinn found “funny.”
I had been hoping I got the interview because someone found me talented, promising, or, possibly, relevant.
“That’s right. We got your name and phone number from your husband at The King’s Round Table.” His smile did not reach his eyes. They were a beautiful blue. I wondered how it felt to have once been beautiful and then become unattractive. He must wish the mirror revealed what it once had and that it hid the bitterness that now vibrated around him like a tarnished rainbow. Despite the meanness that he exuded, I also saw a huge intellect. I wondered whether that intellect enjoyed telling people that it knew what they wanted to hide, too.
The King’s Round Table was a strip club located amidst office buildings and stylish restaurants on South Wells Street in the heart of the business district. The dancers were reportedly bright young women putting themselves through higher education in their underwear. I did not have to visit the establishment to understand why some men appreciated the opportunity to see intelligent women reduced to playing with their G-strings to get ahead.
My husband was on the verge of becoming my ex-husband. We had been separated for two years. He had been waiting for me to finish law school to divorce me because I would not be entitled to alimony once I had my law degree. I had financed part of his legal education. He had financed part of mine. I had just finished law school and Kent was eager to get “our business” done.
I was a little surprised to hear that Kent had been a patron at the king’s table. We were divorcing because he had been wenching with professional women—other lawyers, not strippers hoping to pass the bar. Perhaps the marginalization of smart women was medicine for what ailed him. I was more disappointed that this coup of an interview was someone’s fodder for humor at my expense. The job market was terrible, and I still did not have a job a week after I graduated from law school. In his own way, Jack Quinn was inviting me to shake my moneymaker to get ahead.
I could have let Jack Quinn laugh at me, but I was tired of pretending nothing hurt me.
I smiled. It was not a cheerful smile. I had not smiled with good humor for sometime. This was more of a grin. One side of my mouth turned up a bit. I narrowed my gaze a bit. I said without much expression, “I’m glad you find it funny, too, because I plan to talk about it next week when the Big Law Journal interviews me about the challenges of interviewing during a recession. I think the Journal’s readers will be amused by your firm’s recruitment strategy.”
Jack Quinn went on smiling, but he raised one index finger and pressed the tip of it to the outer corner of his eye, as if he might be stalling a tiny bead of moisture from popping up there.
We understood each other in that moment. My story was no longer as funny for him as it was for me. I do not imagine that he saw that coming. Job candidates are seldom anything but supplicating. Jack Quinn and his firm might represent a fantastic opportunity for me to pursue, but I would not spend the rest of my career having coworkers retell the funny story of how I came to interview with their firm.
He did not ask me to refrain from making such a statement to the Big Law Journal. I already had made my point. Moreover, both of us knew that the firm would offer me one of its few, coveted invitations to join it no matter how uncomfortable Jack Quinn felt at that moment. It would be better for the firm to ensure that I was feeling welcome than to risk my retaliation. It did not take long for any large law firm’s embarrassment to go viral.
By the time I returned home to the apartment that I shared with three other women, there was an offer from the firm on my answering machine. I listened to Jack Quinn’s words of welcome and saved the message for a moment when victory would taste better than regret. Kent, my erstwhile partner in life, had found another way to spoil my pleasure in an accomplishment. Somehow, he would have to pay.
I have no sympathy for people who get even by murdering an ex. Life is still sacred to me. My freedom is still important to me. My future is still mine to enjoy. Nevertheless, that evening I sat in my ten-year-old Ford sedan with its one working windshield wiper, parked outside of my husband’s condo building, fuming because my options for revenge were unsatisfactory. Kent’s secretary, Sherry had leaked to me that morning that Kent had a new girlfriend and that she would be moving in with him this week. I hoped to see them together.
Kent already had pollinated several women of my acquaintance. According to Sherry, Kent had told Jim, his mentor at the firm where they worked, that he was making up for lost time by trying to wake up in a different bed every morning.
I had better uses for my time than spying on my husband, but who could begrudge me my petty moments after Kent left me on a city street after we had been to see a movie? We actually separated at Elston Avenue and Webster Place on a Friday night at ten o’clock after we had an argument about whether the stars of the movie The Hangover were better than the Three Stooges. I said that all six got on my nerves. He told me that I would never understand the meaning of life if I refused to appreciate the royalty of comedy. I argued for subtlety instead of farce. He told me that our marriage was over.
My heart clutched itself for a long painful moment that hurt the way it hurt to swallow something too big and too hot. The pain ran from my jaw down my esophagus to the middle of my chest, where all nerves seemed to seize up in protest. The last thing I said before he strode off in a direction that would take him far from our apartment was, “Is this supposed to be funny, too?”
Kent never answered me. He immediately ran up twenty thousand dollars of debt on our joint credit cards starting his new life without me. I received the bills and observed that many of the purchases were clothing for another woman. The other woman had more expensive tastes than I ever had. She liked stores I could not afford and now was on the hook to pay.
Kent paid me a miserly sum at a time when my own income opportunities were affected by the fact that I attended law school on a full-time basis during a recession and had just become insufficiently self-supporting.
Kent told our marriage counselor that I was so fierce a woman that he feared me. He told his mother that he had been prepared to chew off his own arm to escape my unrelenting drive to be a ball-busting bitch of a lawyer. He told me that he wanted to reconcile, then had me served with divorce papers on our sixth wedding anniversary. He told our friends that I never saw the humor in life. I was no fun anymore. The man’s bitterness made no sense to me. I was the one bleeding after a stab to the chest. He seemed to be doing fine as he recovered from marriage to a woman whose worst characteristic seemed to be that she preferred satire to farce.
I did not want him back. I did not want to kill him, but his accidental death would not be an unhappy event. After he canceled my credit card at Macy’s, I signed him up for newsletters, coupons, and offerings relating to various high-risk activities that he enjoyed before we married. If he was going to spend his, my, and our money on a new “high” life, then I had plans for the insurance money. I wanted him to try bungee jumping, rock climbing, and go-carting for as long as it took him to change his life insurance beneficiary.
The rented truck approached the building’s loading dock at about eight thirty in the evening. Kent jumped out of the cab and walked around to help his passenger from the vehicle. Kent had told me that he had to take in a roommate to cover costs. He implied that his roommate was another male. The woman who slid from the truck was not male. I recognized her. She was my former divorce attorney. I say “former” only because I decided to terminate the relationship when I saw her get out of that truck. Up until that moment I had been moderately satisfied with her services.
It was, of course, a conflict of interest for her to have any type of relationship with my husband while representing me in my divorce from him. I could not stop thinking of Jack Quinn’s delight when the worst thing he could say about me was that my husband had “pimped” me for legal jobs at a strip club to reduce his alimony tab. Everyone would laugh once this story made it to the page of some blog about the soulless behavior of lawyers.
I felt my pulse pounding in my wrists and my temples. There was a band of steel running across my shoulders. I could have carried buckets of water from it, not that I was feeling strong. There was such a hum of anxiety in my ears that I had to look down at the ignition to be sure that the car’s engine was not running.
I closed my eyes and prayed for self-restraint. Then I turned on my car’s engine and drove away from the scene before Kent or Judith could notice me or I could put my foot on the gas pedal and crash the car into them.
Our divorce was scheduled for two weeks from that date. I decided not to fire my attorney. After all, no one knew that I had identified her. Only Sherry knew that I knew that Kent had a female roommate. Sherry was unlikely to jeopardize her job by letting anyone with an interest in the matter know that she had shared his confidences with me.
I decided to hire a private investigator to follow my husband and take photographs of him if the investigator found anything that suggested Kent was currently unfaithful to me. The investigator’s name was Stanley Mann. That’s right. I hired “Stan the Mann P.I.” of Yellow Pages fame. He wore a black pork pie hat with a silver and white gingham band atop a head that might have been a pumpkin left in the field all winter. There were spaces between each of his teeth that his tongue had never tired of exploring. His stretched out, grey t-shirt had stains where his gut stretched it a little further. He had the lowest per diem and no references, but he opened a battered briefcase and showed me his camera. It was a Nikon d 7100, and he handled it like it was a newborn baby. When I told him what I wanted, Stan tilted his head to one side and let his eyelids droop low over eyes so brown that the whites were beige. I could smell his brain cells burning as he pondered my request. Then he started to rock a little.
I mentioned the incident at The King’s Round Table and provided home and work addresses. I offered a list of places Kent frequented. Stan ran his hand down his neck and then opened his eyes and nodded. I stopped breathing because I knew this was a turning point.
“Let me see if I got this straight, counselor.”
“I’m not admitted to practice yet,” I said softly.
He smiled and made a little huffing sound of amusement. “Me neither. That means we can do everything a lawyer can except get up in court and represent someone else or opine.”
I nodded. The man knew his intro to professional ethics rules.
He continued. “Sometimes I think I should’ve gone to law school. I know how to go all Perry Mason on a dude. You know that guy was just an actor. He didn’t go to law school either.”
“That’s the truth,” I said.
Stan sighed. “You want me to show up in court and break the news that this jerk is getting some action on the side. We both know that divorce is no-fault in this state, so . . . the timing has to be the thing here. And I can see from the fact that you ain’t breathin’ that you wish I wouldn’t say another word.”
It was my turn to nod, but I did not move a muscle.
“You don’t have a lawyer of your own?” He said “lawyer” like “liar.” I guessed that everyone had a “thing” for lawyers, even P.I.s.
“I do,” I said.
“Why ain’t he hiring me to do this?” he asked.
“I have to decide whether to have you take pictures or pay my lawyer to do more legal research.” It was true. I was spending the last of my money to do this.
That got a big smile from Stan, plainly no fan of the bar. “I like the idea I’m taking money some lawyer would spend on something stupid like some fancy pinot whatever.”
“I’ll be a lawyer myself one day. You’ll be taking my money, too,” I said.
Stan was grinning like a jack o’ lantern at the very idea. “This just keeps getting better ‘n better. So why do I think this might still be a bad idea?”
“My husband is also a lawyer,” I offered.
Stan nodded. “I deliver the photographs to you at the courthouse on Washington Street at 9:30 in the morning on Wednesday, June 12th?” he asked.
“I’ll be out of town for the preceding week. So . . . you can’t deliver them before that time.” I shrugged, as if I was sorry about this, but both of us knew that I was not sorry at all.
He leaned his considerable weight forward and kept up his gentle rocking as he worked the angles like this was a photo shoot instead of a consultation. A couple of times he cocked his head and flicked a look over his shoulder, as if he could somehow get the light behind his back and my face into the light. I hoped my face gave away nothing more, but I was reluctant to shut down. I needed an ally who could remain a stranger. Stan had to believe this was not a scam on him.
“I think I can do this,” he spoke slowly. “I think this is what lawyers call ‘quid pro quo.’”
It cost me fifty dollars per hour plus expenses to have this matter investigated. I used the money my parents gave me at my law school graduation to pay for the work. I paid him in advance before I left his office.
I left town for the following week, missing six bar review classes just so that I could feign surprise when I learned in court that my husband and my divorce attorney were having an affair.
I spoke with Judith before I left town to reassure her that I would be in court for our hearing. She was impatient to get this over with because she had quoted me a flat price for this matter. Every delay cost her money. When I reminded her that it would be better for me if we could delay the divorce until after I took the July bar exam, she tapped her wristwatch with her forefinger. “Tick tock,” she said, reminding me yet again that she would be doing better if I paid her by the hour.
“Has there been any progress on the property settlement?” I asked. Judith and Larry, Kent’s attorney had been arguing over our limited assets for as long as we had been separated. So far I had gotten enough money to share an apartment with three other women. I had no winter coat and lived in Chicago. Someone stole my coat from my school locker during the first winter of my discontent. I had a cell phone that could only take voice messages, it was so old. My laptop had come with a floppy disk reader instead of a DVD player. I expected to end this marriage with less than I brought into it, thanks to my share of Kent’s early mid-life crisis spending with our “maxed-out” credit cards.
After I embarrassed Kent and Judith in court I might end up with a settlement from Judith’s insurance carrier. I checked the website of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission on a friend’s laptop to make sure that Judith had malpractice insurance. It would not take that much money to keep me going until I found a job. Once word got out that I had been betrayed by my husband and my attorney, Jack Quinn and his partners would not be the only firm calling to get a good look at the Cuckold Attorney.
Wait, I checked my dictionary and learned that this term would more appropriately describe a deceived male. Perhaps I could induce someone to call me the Avenging Attorney. That had the advantage of sounding less of a fool. I really did feel foolish. If my husband and my attorney thought I was so dumb that I would stand for this, then others would, too. It ate at me that I was going to remain fodder for others’ jokes. The Backlash Barrister had a better ring to it, as did the Comeuppance Counselor. But I would not be the person writing the headlines and tweets.
I was already working on a way to pitch the story to a website like uplaw-yours.com so that the story would get enough traction to make the legal news; but I sensed that no good would come from my efforts to exact revenge. Practical advice indicated that living well was the best revenge, but I was poor, unemployed, about to lose spousal support (meager as it was), scorned, underestimated, . . . . I had this need for relief. Moreover, the public embarrassment of Kent and Judith would, at least, spread the misery around more equitably.
I had a few misgivings about my plan. I was going to open an envelope and dump out in front of a judge a series of photos of my husband and my attorney and do what? I could hardly faint. I already knew what I would find in the envelope. I was angry, but not that practiced an actress. Moreover, the person worst hurt by this public expose’ was Judith, when the person who had hurt me most was Kent.
I understood from classes in trial advocacy and civil procedure that it was appropriate to name every possible defendant and let them point to each other in their efforts at self-defense. It was hoped that the co-defendants would then uncover the greatest wrong for the plaintiff. Judith’s conflict of interest would likely expose her to discipline and financial responsibility. But Kent’s perfidy was legal.
Infidelity between married people was “victimless.” As a result, there was no civil liability for breach of exchanged promises to love and honor another. Maybe that was the way it ought to be. While my hurt feelings might want to put the man in the stocks so that I and the rest of the town folk could pelt him with tomatoes, we weren’t Kardashians. The rest of society could not care less about my feelings of futile rage. I would still stand alone in the public square expressing impotent anger against a man who had loved me until he stopped.
I spent the week sleeping on the sofa in my sister’s apartment in suburban Peoria, Illinois because I had no money left for a vacation after I paid for Stan’s photos. The sofa cushions tended to separate. By the start of the first morning my hipbone had become connected to a spring and I wanted to go home and take my bar prep classes and forget the whole thing.
On the morning of June 12th, I was prepared to leave the envelope unopened, get my divorce, and take the job with Jack Quinn. Maybe there was no justice that could appease some wrongs. Maybe it was better to lick my own wounds in private and avoid drawing further attention to the fact that I was someone others felt they could safely disrespect. Perhaps pride was something that had to endure challenge to prove its own worthiness.
I put on my “interview suit” even though I had bought it in the fall and the wool was hot on a warm day. I stuck a yellow notepad in my briefcase and left for the hearing. In another couple of hours this would end, and I would be free to put behind me the marriage that had once made me feel special and now made me sad.
Judith waited for me at one of the tables. She looked attractive in a close-fitting pantsuit that helped to explain Kent’s attraction. Larry, Kent’s attorney was already at the other table with Kent. Both of them looked comfortable. I felt sweaty and out of sorts.
“I was beginning to think that you were going to blow this off,” Judith said. She brushed imaginary lint from the breast pocket of her jacket and tossed back shoulder length brown hair. I ignored the peevish tone. Of course she was eager to have this matter resolved. We were closer than ever to minimizing the threat that she would be found to be engaged in an ill-timed affair with her client’s husband.
She set several copies of a settlement agreement before me. Post-it® notes indicated that mine was the only signature missing. “Your husband and his lawyer have insisted that this is their best offer. After this hearing you will have no leverage to obtain more and, if you hold off getting this divorce, you are likely to find your settlement shrinking.”
I opened the first copy and picked up a pen. “Remind me of how inexpensive it is for Kent to rid himself of a spouse who helped him through several years of college and law school.” I smiled at her, which cost me a little because the irony had a little too much metal in it yet for me to taste its humor.
Judith did not make eye contact with me. “Your household effects have already been divided. Spousal support ends effective on the date the divorce becomes final. Kent will pay off ten thousand dollars of the joint credit card debt and any balances on his personal accounts. You will have to pay the remaining twenty thousand dollars of debt on the cards that were taken out in your name. Each of you agrees to indemnify the other for any liability for the other’s education debts. Neither of you is entitled to any interest in the retirement benefits of the other. You pay your own legal fees. You will have to return the engagement ring. It was a family heirloom.” She pointed to the signature line.
I set the pen on the line and signed my name. This was divorce after all. We were splitting the only things that still connected us, obligations to third parties undertaken when we shared the hope that the price paid for our future happiness would bring us rewards that would make every sacrifice worthwhile.
As soon as I signed the papers, Judith turned to smile and nod at Kent. I handed her my engagement ring. She slipped it into her pants’ pocket. I felt a dull ache turn to a more insistent tattoo on the inside of my head at the idea that she might wear that ring next.
The bailiff rose, “All rise. This honorable court is in session. Judge Ardis Daley presiding.”
All of us rose as the judge and her clerk entered the room. There were perhaps ten other people in the courtroom. According to the docket that was taped to the table at which we sat, ours was the first case to be called.
“Case number 1 on the docket is Jones v. Jones,” the bailiff said.
I heard the door to the courtroom open and close several times as the four of us approached the bench. I wondered whether Stan was waiting to deliver his photos. Larry started, “Larry Sommers for the petitioner, Kent Jones. Judge, we are here for an uncontested divorce of two people who have today signed a property settlement that resolves all open issues between them. The couple has no children. I understand that the respondent, Mrs. Jones has completed law school and is able to support herself.”
I interrupted briefly to say, “I haven’t taken the bar and am not admitted yet.” Everyone looked at me like I should shut my mouth so I stopped talking.
Larry continued, “Mrs. Jones wishes to resume use of her maiden name, and the petitioner, Mr. Jones does not object to this.”
Kent leaned forward and smiled in my direction. I did not have time to decide whether I was more annoyed because he was acting magnanimously or because he was expressing gratefulness that I had signed his inequitable property settlement. Someone came up behind me, and I knew who it had to be. I could hear the man huffing a bit to get the court’s attention.
Judith proceeded, “Judith Phalen for the respondent, Mrs. Jones. Judge, we agree with Mr. Sommers’ statement.”
Judge Ardis Daley peered over the tops of frameless bifocal glasses and said, “Sir. Do you have some business with the court?”
All of us turned to look at Stan. He had not bothered to clean up for his day in court. There was a great deal for everyone else to take in at once. I had the advantage of focusing first on what he carried in his hands. He had not put the photos in an envelope. He held them face up and the top photograph was of Kent and Judith locked in a passionate embrace in a parking lot. Judith’s behind managed to perch on the ledge formed by the rolled down window of someone’s car. Her skirt had ridden up high enough that you could tell this was intercourse and not foreplay.
I looked at Kent and wondered what had gotten into him. We had been together either dating or married for almost eight years and had never had sex in a public place. I was reluctantly impressed with the extent of his early mid-life crisis.
Judith suddenly lunged toward Stan, her hands outstretched to grab those photographs before others saw them. Stan made an effort to swivel to the side and let the photos slide toward the floor in a careless but effective array. I allowed myself a shocked exclamation as I realized that Judith and Kent were not the only ones locked in passionate embrace. Stan had managed to catch Kent with his pants down in the company of several women I recognized and two I did not.
I turned back to the judge, who had stood up to see the photographs. She waved to her bailiff. “Ronnie, can you collect those pictures for me?”
I backed up and sat my behind down on the edge of one of the attorneys’ tables. Stan bent down to help the bailiff. In doing so, he exposed his waist and a few inches of the crack beneath it for anyone enjoying the show. Someone in the courtroom sniggered. It was a show, and I had become one of the three stooges playing in it. Kent had finally figured out that he was no longer the one doing the screwing in this scenario. He appeared to be sweating. Larry Sommers was physically disavowing all knowledge of any attempt to take advantage of me, the respondent. Judith was looking like someone had just punched her. The judge was white-lipped and stern as she held up a photo of Kent and Judith so that everyone in the public seats could finally see it. Judith then seemed to grasp the fact that she had sacrificed her career for a man who already was screwing other females while she helped him screw me over.
“What is your name, sir?” Judge Daley asked.
“Stan Mann, Judge. I am a private investigator licensed in this state.” He removed his hat, which made his casual garb appear even less appropriate for court.
“And who asked you to come to court this morning?” The judge’s tone was icy cold.
“I was hired by Mrs. Jones, but she’s been out of town this week, and I thought she should see these before she signed anything today in court.”
I got up onto my feet after I heard my name and walked back toward the bench.
The judge looked at me then. But her expression was more kind than cold as she studied me. “Mrs. Jones, were you aware that your husband and your attorney were engaged in an affair when you retained her services?”
“No, Judge.” That was entirely truthful.
“Did your attorney negotiate on your behalf the property settlement agreement that you signed today?” she asked.
The judge turned to look at Judith. “Ms. Phalen, would you care to make any comment about these photographs of yourself with the petitioner?”
Judith drew herself up tall and managed to look calm. “No, Judge, I have no comment.”
Judge Daley folded her arms across her chest and looked at all four of our faces. Then she turned back to Stan the Mann. “Did Mrs. Jones instruct you to come to court today and spill those photographs on the floor as you did?”
Stan did not waver. “No judge. She asked me to deliver whatever I found by envelope before this hearing. But I got those two pictures you’re holding just last night. And I didn’t know it was her lawyer until I got here late this morning. And then I just thought she ought to know. I’m no lawyer, but . . . .” His voice trailed off.
I bent my head so that no one could see how hard it was to hold back a smile. I was not the only non-lawyer getting his day in court.
The judge asked her clerk for the file and then for the petition for divorce filed by Larry on Kent’s behalf. She read from the file, then flipped through it and read some more.
All of us stood there feeling a little sick.
Judge Daley read aloud from that portion of the petition in which Kent asked the Court for relief. “I see that both parties have asked me ‘for such other and further relief the Court deems just and proper.’ I appreciate the liberty that permits me to exercise in this very embarrassing and disappointing situation.”
She bent her head and seemed to come to a conclusion that satisfied her, even though it could not have pleased her.
“Mr. Sommers, I want you to write up an agreed order continuing this matter for one hundred and twenty days to give Mrs. Jones an opportunity to sit for the bar exam and hire new counsel. I am ordering that the property settlement signed this day by Mr. and Mrs. Jones is void for having been obtained without Mrs. Jones’ genuine consent. This Court orders Mr. Jones to continue to pay Mrs. Jones support on the same terms as the parties agreed to when they separated. He also is to reimburse and pay for Mrs. Jones’ attorneys’ and court costs.”
Larry nodded, “Yes, Judge.”
Kent tugged on Larry’s sleeve, but no one paid him any attention until the judge looked down at the pictures again. Then Larry turned to Kent. I could not see either of their faces or hear what was said, but Larry’s body language was impatient, furious.
“Ms. Phalen, I express this Court’s disappointment with you for such behavior. I would not have thought that you needed me to instruct you on the rules of professional responsibility that may be broken when an attorney engages in a sexual relationship with the party from whom her client requires defense and protection. I shall bring this matter to the attention of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and request that they investigate this matter and take appropriate action.”
The story did make the local news. It made the national news. I ended up getting several interviews with firms that read a blog posting that referred to Kent as the “He-Done-Her-Wrong-and-Rued-the-Day” attorney. It was not the way I wanted to get my first job as an attorney, but one of the many sordid truths I learned about the practice of law on my first case was that justice is rarely about fairness and more frequently about process. I was responsible that day for a little service of process. And, depending on which of the stooges you were, the story did turn out to be a little bit funny.
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.