How a kindergarten squabble, Perry Mason and a ruined dress lured this lawyer to the law
Now that you’re a lawyer, why did you choose to become a lawyer?
Some of us can answer definitively, and others scratch their heads and hesitate with a blank stare. Let me offer my thoughts on the subject: They go back to an indelible incident back in kindergarten.
Yes, it did have something to do with justice. I witnessed a cluster of kids swarming a classmate and snatching away his lunchbox. That did not seem right to me, and almost instinctively, I acted like a lawyer and demanded that they return the lunchbox to the victim, who stood there crying helplessly. In effect, I sought intervenor status. After listening to my eloquent plea, the rogue kids indeed granted me intervenor status. They grabbed my lunchbox away, too—in addition to knocking me to the ground.
In retrospect, I can almost say that classmate/victim was my first client—more specifically, pro bono client.
While both of us were bawling, I thought to myself, “This is not right.” I wanted so much to right the wrongs. How? I cannot say that at age 5, I thought to myself, “That does it; when I grow up, I’m becoming a lawyer.”
I did not even know what a lawyer was for years to come. Unlike our contact with doctors, most kids have little need for lawyers. I even had a toy doctor’s kit: stethoscope, popsicle sticks and all. To this day, I have yet to see a toy lawyer’s kit. I doubt it would have been a bestseller at Toys R Us.
My first exposure to a lawyer was in my later grade school years. And he was not even a real lawyer. I am talking about Perry Mason.
The character fascinated me. Every week, someone would be accused of murder, the prosecution would have an unassailable case, and yet, Perry Mason would get the guy off. I virtually cheered—almost as much as when my heroes, the Montreal Canadiens scored a goal. (FYI: The Perry Mason role, by the way, was played by Raymond Burr, a good Canadian expat.) I thought to myself, hmmm, could this profession be for me?
But my first actual visit to a real lawyer’s office was not until I was about 13 years old, when I accompanied my mother for a meeting as a result of a new fancy dress some dry cleaner had ruined. The lawyer, sporting a three-piece royal blue suit, listened attentively and told my mom we were going to fix that cleaner. I recall he asked her to leave the dress with him (exhibit 1, no doubt).
I was impressed by his confidence and demeanor and wished he would have been with me during that lunchbox heist. The lawyer sent a fiery letter to that cleaning outfit, demanding compensation or else. The result? They ignored the admonition, and the case died on the vine.
The lawyer’s bill to my mother, incidentally was $10. That looked like a princely sum to me, given that my allowance was a nickel a day.
However, the financial rewards of the law were not the prime ingredient in me pursuing a legal career. Ditto most lawyers. I never heard a colleague say, “Yep, the law is a goldmine.” We all have loftier reasons, no doubt.
I noted even Perry Mason never talked about money with his clients. Nor was he flashy. He always wore that same black suit. Then again, given that my television was black and white, maybe his suit was not black but royal blue.
I will add my mother never paid the lawyer his $10. She reasoned she never recovered damages, and so she did not have to pay. I guess this was also my first exposure to a de facto contingency arrangement.
Fast-forward to my university years at McGill.
I knew I wanted to pursue a career where I could provide a valuable service to people, fixing what was not right in their lives. It came down to law or medicine. The two professions ran neck and neck until that fateful day at Montreal’s Expo 67 (aka the World’s Fair).
I attended the Man and His Health Pavilion where visitors would stand in a room watching a series of films of medical procedures. There were actually warnings at the pavilion that some of these scenes were not for the faint of heart. They even employed students who hovered around catching and reviving overly adventurous guests.
During the viewing, I was quite fine, rather smug, until the open-heart surgery clip. I recall a sudden odd sensation, like my ears being sucked into my head. As a student darted over to make the catch, I dropped, mumbling something eloquently like, “Ugggh.”
The path was now clear for a career in law.
I did, however, rationalize. After all, the legal profession is humbler than the medical one. For example, lawyers give the clients credit for the landmark cases, referring to their actual names, not the lawyers’. These include the iconic law school cases like Donoghue v. Stevenson (negligence), Hadley v. Baxendale (damages) or the “Rule in Shelley’s Case” (property). I have yet to see something like “F. Lee Bailey’s Case.”
The medical profession, in contrast, calls many diseases after the name of some physician who was involved. I am talking about conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s and even the undercooked chicken disease, salmonellosis. (Actually, the latter physician was a vet, Dr. Daniel Elmer Salmon.) At least, we lawyers, don’t hog all the limelight.
However, the real world of lawyering did not always correspond to my visions of the practice of law. I spent my first few months of my internship at a law firm that did primarily commercial and real estate work. Accompanying a senior lawyer to the land registry office to watch him convey a house did not make me jump and say, “Justice has been done. Yippee!”
This gets us to prestige: Is this a factor in choosing law? I doubt it. The public’s view of lawyers is often ambivalent.
I once represented a person whose former lawyer defrauded many clients. At the creditor’s meeting with the lawyer’s trustee in bankruptcy, one creditor asked the trustee whether he himself was a lawyer. The trustee responded, “No, I’m an accountant. “The creditor said, “Phew! That’s good.”
Not to take anything away from the noble profession of accountancy, this exchange should cut any lawyer to the quick.
Let me share the case that validated my choice of the legal profession. During my first few months in practice, an elderly gentleman came to my office. His wife of many years, each being widowed before, had just passed away. The matrimonial home was registered in her name prior to the marriage. My client, throughout the solid marriage, paid most of the house expenses, including the mortgage, which he paid off, property taxes, maintenance, etc. The husband/client now had special needs and limited funds.
Unfortunately, the wife, by will signed shortly into the marriage, left her entire estate to her son by former marriage, living in Connecticut. The stepson/executor quickly demanded that my client vacate the matrimonial home, saying nice knowing you.
I devoted most of my work and nonwork hours that year to this case, trying to figure out how to make justice happen, given the aggressive approach of the stepson, whom we referred to as, “The Connecticut Yankee.”
We were successful in freezing the estate.
Ultimately after a trial, the judge ordered the stepson to pay a substantial sum from the estate to my client.
The boost of morale in this freshman year of practice was indescribable, and it rarely left me. The case was also my first reported case. My client said to me, “Your greatness will start with this case.” I’d like to say this prognostication too was validated. However, I can’t say that it evolved exactly as he predicted. But I will say there were other cases throughout that gave me that similar shot of confidence and satisfaction, leaving no doubt that I had chosen the right career.
What I took away from it was that my presence on this earth mattered.
And I really didn’t’ care that that case was not reported as “Strigberger’s Case.”
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his writing and speaking passions. Read more of Strigberger’s work at marcelshumour.com.
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