We are deep in the summer doldrums. It is hot here, and by here, I mean Planet Earth. It would be unfair to blame Al Gore, but he is the easy foil. When someone asks how I am doing, I usually answer that I am happy to be working indoors.
I said that to an attorney recently, and his response was spot on: “People don’t understand how good that is unless they have had an outdoor job.” When asked how I like the practice of law, my new response is, “It beats hauling hay in Oklahoma for a nickel a bale.” This week though, it was a close call, heat or no.
A client asked me if I do pro bono work. Because most of my cases involve representing injury victims on a contingent fee basis, working pro bono usually means I lost. I told her that I try not to work pro bono, but asked what she needed nonetheless. She wanted me to try to collect a few thousand dollars on a contract she had with a friend. In my best Ben Kenobi voice, I told her that I am not the lawyer she seeks.
Nonetheless, I did do a bit of pro bono work last week. On purpose, although I didn’t intend to when I left the house.
Our state Supreme Court put forms online to make certain routine legal matters “easy” to handle without a lawyer. I don’t know who is more upset by these forms- the lawyers who are losing business when potential clients don’t hire them or the defense lawyers who deal with pro se plaintiffs. The award for most patience goes to the trial judges who must shepherd the unrepresented parties through the legal system.
Even with the forms, few legal matters are “one size fits all.” A trending bumper sticker proclaims that “Your google search is not the same as my law degree.” I get calls from clients who tell me what the internet says about the value of a case like theirs, and what my strategy should be. Until Yahoo (or a Nigerian Prince) writes settlement checks, internet research won’t replace me.
My unplanned pro bono adventure started with a snotty email from a keyboard cowboy. It was truly the kind of intemperate missive that would have ended with someone throwing hands if the words had been said in a bar, face to face. Instead, I was doing a slow burn while I drove to court. The outside temperature didn’t help my disposition.
Once I got to the courthouse, a young woman was trying to get an old conviction expunged. Our state legislature decided that a record for certain non-violent crimes should not follow a person forever. The likely goal of this legislation was to restore the right to gun ownership and to a lesser extent, the right to vote, to these citizens. Whatever their motivation, it is a good idea.
What should be a simple administrative process requires court approval, and litigants without experience in court don’t often know what they need to prove their case to the judge. Emboldened by the online form, the young woman in court on this day stood alone without a lawyer. To her credit, she was better prepared than some attorneys.
The hearing went off the rails quickly, and her request was about to get denied even though everyone in the room felt she deserved to have this old conviction expunged. She even threw herself on the mercy of the court to press her cause. The judge rightly said that there is no provision in this law for a grant of mercy. The litigant must have seen this on television, but Google and television are poor substitutes for legal counsel.
My bad mood got the better of me, and without considering the possible consequences of irritating a judge, I stepped behind the client and asked if I could represent her for free. She accepted and the judge graciously granted me a continuance to get involved in her case.
A conversation with the prosecutor convinced him that this client deserved an expungement. Like the judge, he wanted to do the right thing and just needed to see the evidence which the client didn’t have with her. She got her expungement and I didn’t wind up in contempt of court- a good result all the way around.
The old saying that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client is doubly true for a lay person who tries to navigate the court system alone. But for a snotty email raising my temperature (and my blood pressure,) I might have been able to hold my tongue that day and things would have ended differently. My anger was replaced with a good feeling when I left the courthouse. Sometimes the best days don’t start out that way.
©2018 under analysis llc. under analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri. His blood pressure is being monitored by a professional. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent c/o this newspaper or directly to Under Analysis via email at email@example.com.