When it comes to the law, is justice always just?
What hath the law to do with justice? And if it does, to what extent does this connection influence our decision to become lawyers? Is the motivation instinctual?
My mind goes back a few decades to when I was in grade one of my native Montreal. While out in the schoolyard, two boys came over to a female classmate and snatched away her ball. This unkind action did not sit well with me, and I immediately intervened, grabbing the ball away from those bullies. This act of justice did not sit well with them, and they both descended upon me, and a scuffle ensued. The yard-duty teacher, who did not witness the entire event, rushed over and broke us up. She then notified the principal, a Monsieur Lafontaine, who proceeded to punish both the bullies and me, making us stand in the corners of an office.
I protested vigorously, but Monsieur Lafontaine never gave me a chance to explain what happened. I suppose in his view, he meted out justice on both sides along the lines of the legal maxim, “equality is equity.” He actually came down heavier on me, calling my mother to tell her my behavior was not acceptable, in the that in addition to being combative, I was also argumentative.
I recall thinking about the unfairness of the situation. I cannot say I said to myself something like, “That’s it. I want to see justice done. When I grow up, I’m going to become a lawyer.” But I likely would have—had I known what a lawyer was. Virtually all of us at that age would have experienced some interaction with a doctor, a dentist and even a firefighter. (I lived around the corner from a fire station.) But most kids had no concept of a lawyer. I will add that my fantasy calling at that age was actually to become a firefighter. These noble first responders always achieved a just result. They extinguished a fire, removed a victim from a mangled car and even extricated a cat from a tree. I recall that securing one of those cool firefighter hats was high on my wish list.
My intro to lawyers came later while still in grade school when I avidly watched the Perry Mason television series. I was impressed while viewing Perry Mason, week after week, cogently argue and successfully win acquittals or dismissals for his clients, usually charged with murder. Most of the time, he even got the real culprit to admit to the crime. This rogue was usually present in the courtroom, and after vigorous cross-examination of one of the witnesses, the knave would stand up and confess. My decision was cemented. I’m becoming a lawyer.
In passing, I will say that I felt sorry for District Attorney Hamilton Burger who kept on getting beat week after week. I dismissed this string of losses by presuming that Burger was not actually a lawyer. After all, Perry Mason attained justice; the D.A. tried hard to scuttle it. All he could do was interrupt Mason with senseless “objections.” No doubt he was probably just some civil servant.
I did not waiver in my goal, and soon enough, there I was, attending my first day of law school. At the dean’s assembly, he welcomed the freshies. In his address, he quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who said, “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors but by lavish homage.”
The point was, as lawyers we would have to spend many hours working. I did not recall how many hours Perry Mason spent before achieving his just results. After all, in a 52-minute episode there is only so much room to show him burning the midnight oil.
No problem. I was in.
I was newly married at the time, and I told my wife about the dean’s quote. Shoshana thought it was amusing. We joked about it, and she said she did not mind our newly formed threesome.
The problems of trying to achieve justice, however, unfolded after entering practice. It was not a breeze like it was for Perry Mason. I initially worked for a general practice firm. During my first week, my boss sent me to the Land Registry Office to conduct a house closing with the vendor’s lawyer, on behalf of our client the purchaser. While I did not expect to immediately be handed a murder trial to run with on my own, starting with a house closing was a downer. I just could not visualize Perry Mason meeting up with Hamilton Burger at the registry office. Without ado, he hands Burger a check, and Burger responds by giving him the house deed. Wow!
Where was the justice buzz? I thought to myself, is this why I went to law school? I would very much have welcomed an “objection” from the vendor’s lawyer. Even something like, “You’re not getting the house keys” would do.
That evening, when my good wife asked how my day went, I meekly confessed to the day’s legal career highlight. She laughed and said, “I see you had some disenchantment with your mistress.”
But the setbacks did not end there. As time moved on, I developed a busy criminal and civil litigation practice. Did justice always happen? One case involved a forgery charge. With the help of a handwriting expert, we were confident we could win. The crown attorney (prosecutor) offered us a deal on a guilty plea. My client refused, and I told the prosecutor he wanted justice. The case did not go as planned, and the client ended up getting convicted. There were some extenuating circumstances, and I asked for some compassion in sentencing.
The crown attorney said to me, “Too bad. Next time, plead guilty if you want compassion. Plead not guilty if you want justice.”
I guess we got justice. They never prepared us for these moments in law school. And I certainly spent many hours working hard on the case. I did not think I cheated on my mistress.
The motto of the Law Society of Ontario is “Let right prevail.” But does it always prevail? I would say in more than 40 years of practice, in my respectful view, most of my clients were in the right. Naturally. And yet my success rate was nowhere near 100%. Then again, if my opposition proved successful, I suppose they would say justice was done.
But is it not our job to uphold the principles of justice and to do our best in the time we have to try to get it right? I would like to think most of us entered this noble profession because we possess a preponderance of justice molecules in our DNA. And quite likely these molecules were stimulated for many of us early on by one experience or another, such as the likes of a Monsieur Lafontaine.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.