How influencers helped shape my legal career
Who were the influencers in your legal career? I am talking about people whose attitude, ideas or conduct shaped some of the major paths you took in practice.
As I am sipping a green tea and looking out my study window, I see a gentleman walking his beagle. He looks just like Ted—the gentleman does, not the beagle. And who is Ted?
Ted was a top-notch Toronto-area prosecutor (aka district attorney south of the border) around the time I got called to the bar in the mid-1970s. I would sometimes sneak off from my internship job and sit in his Superior Court courtroom, mesmerized while watching him prosecute high profile murder cases against the country’s greatest criminal lawyers. Ted was brilliant and relentless, regularly securing convictions. My goal was to practice criminal law. I admired the man but dreaded ever coming up against him.
About a month after opening my practice, a client retained me on a minor hit-and-run charge. He apparently backed his car into another car in a parking lot, causing about $200 in damage. Somebody witnessed his flight from the scene of the crime and reported the incident. The client received a summons to appear in the then Provincial Court where minor offenses were generally heard. The client insisted he did not know he hit anything as he did not hear a bang. As this was my first trial, I believed him implicitly.
I spent hours on preparation, including spending ages in the courthouse library researching the law. There was no Google then to query something like, “Client hits car, hears no bang, innocent? Please?”
We prepared intensely for the big trial day, going over my expected questions and the anticipated cross examination from the prosecution.
Trial day arrived, and I was a bundle of nerves. As I entered the courtroom, my jaw dropped. Who was the prosecutor? Ted, of course. What was he doing in this minor league forum, I thought? Were there no serial killers to bring to justice today? I did not think he was here to watch me in action, returning the compliment.
Ted was vetting his docket list, and he called me aside to ask how we intended to plead. With zero thinking but 100% passion, I blurted out, “Not guilty. This is about justice.”
Ted smiled. I imagined Gen. Santa Anna had a similar smile after Lt. Col. William Travis notified him that he was not surrendering the Alamo.
The trial started. To my complete surprise when the judge asked the prosecution, “Cross examination?” Ted replied, “No questions.” Nor did Ted offer any summation following my fervent argument, readily equaling Clarence Darrow’s closing address in Leopold and Loeb.
The judge found a reasonable doubt and acquitted my client. Ted came over to me and shook my hand, saying, “Great job, Marcel.”
I never figured out what Ted was doing that day on a Mickey Mouse case, nor did I know why he did not unload on me. I knew Ted’s comment was sincere. (After all, I must have done something right.)
But this case inspired me throughout my 40-plus years of practice. Recalling this event charged me with moxie in precarious litigation situations.
Ted was an influencer. Thanks, Ted.
Then there was Hank, a seasoned trial lawyer, and one of my principals during my student intern days. Hank was a supermentor to me. One night after a downtown reception, I was going to take the bus home—the bus stop being a few blocks away—and Hank offered me a lift to the bus stop. When we got there, he drove by and took me all the way home, even though my destination was well out of his way. I asked why he did that, and he said, “When you start practicing, remember this: Always give your clients more than you promise. And if you do a job, go all the distance.”
These words resonated with me, and they became part of my mission statement. I will admit now that when I would sneak off to court to watch Ted, it was somewhat while working for Hank. I soon developed guilt pangs, reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s iconic Crime and Punishment character Rodion Raskolnikov. It bugged me—do I confess or not?
I did come clean with Hank. He laughed and said, “You’ll learn a lot observing these trials. I used to do it, too. That is what being a law student is all about.”
His kind and unexpected reaction reminded me of that scene in Les Misérables, when the police showed up after nabbing Jean Valjean with one of the bishop’s silver candlesticks. The bishop tells them it was a gift and that he neglected to give Jean Valjean the second matching one.
Hank was an influencer. Thanks, Hank.
Then there was Eugene, a still-practicing guru in persuasive legal writing. His wisdom included tidbits such as keeping it simple, clear and focused. In a factum or affidavit, he advised, say up front what relief you are seeking. Don’t write it like a mystery novel. Avoid fancy verbose fillers. Instead of “at that point of time” say “then.” Instead of “until such time as,” say “until.” My favorite is, “Bottom line, good legal writing looks as if someone other than a lawyer has written it.”
He generously shares this wisdom with the profession. I found it insightful and rewarding to remember judges are really human, inundated with legal briefs and that they actually appreciate reading lawyer stuff where they can say to themselves, “For a change, this looks like it was drafted by someone standing in line with me at Starbucks.”
Eugene was an influencer. Thanks, Eugene.
I must add I also was influenced by a fictional lawyer. I am speaking of Atticus Finch, the iconic lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird. I am thinking about that movie’s lynch mob scene, where Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands between the angry mob and his client, talking them out of storming the jailhouse. Throughout my practice, I endeavored to emulate his commitment to his client, standing with him in thick and thin—I don’t think I would go that far though. Then again, these days with COVID-19, that scene would likely play out differently. Perhaps a Zoom lynch mob?
Mob: Atticus Finch, hand over your client.
Atticus: Go home now, or I’ll mute you all.
Thanks to you, too, Atticus.
I fondly reminisce about my influencers. I’m sure we all have a couple. Take a moment to think about them and thank them. It goes well with that green tea.
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. Read more of Strigberger’s work at marcelshumour.com, and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.