I wanted to write a column about my next door neighbors. Sensing that I was not going to be kind (and I wasn’t) my wife put her foot down and wouldn’t let me do it. I understand, I suppose. It’s best to keep up a facade and give a forced wave once in a while, difficult though it may be. Unfortunately, I don’t always do what’s best.
Now I want to make it clear, before I move on, that I have no issue with my neighbors in the community in general. I have always made it known that I like it here very much and part of liking it here includes a like for the people who live here as well. There’s Rick and Sandy who are just amazing people. The two of them have done so much for me and my family while I’ve been sick that there’s no way I could ever possibly repay them. Rick was with me while I was unconscious in the emergency room and he came to visit on numerous occasions during my nearly two month hospital stay. And Sandy, his wife, watched our son for us in their home when my wife was spending most of her time at the hospital with me making sure that the doctors were paying attention. And there are lots of other things that the two of them have done for us as well that, had they not, we probably could not have survived through this past winter. They are not related to us by blood and I’ve only known them since living here in Rensselaer County which is maybe three or four years. They’re our neighbors and I’m very happy for it.
Then there’s the G-Man and Rocky. Both of these guys are musicians who came to me first as clients and ended up being great friends. Both of them took time from their extremely busy lives to visit at the hospital and at home and have been keeping tabs on me now for months. And Michelle and Susan, who I know from one of the boards I am affiliated with, both of them showed some very neighborly kindness while I was ill. And Mr. P and Marian, neither of whom I have met personally , but both of whom took the time to contact me to simply wish me well after reading about my health issues in this column. (Marian sent a question that will be answered here shortly.) And Bill who contacted me with his advice about using an etch-a-sketch to talk with people. I’m glad my neighbors have a good sense of humor.
I only wish that these neighbors could live next door to me. Oh well.
So, since I can’t write about my next door neighbors, I have a very different subject to write about indeed. Clarence Clemons. That’s right – the “Big Man”. The amazing saxophone player from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band who passed away just a few weeks ago. Now I have to make myself clear here as well – I do not follow the comings and goings of celebrities. I’m as interested in being entertained as the next guy (or gal) but I’ve never been enamored by stardom. I have met a few celebrities in my day (that comes with working in the entertainment industry) but, quite honestly, I was never really impressed with any of them enough to ask for an autograph. (I take that back – I asked Julius “Dr. J” Erving for his when I made a commercial with him years ago in Philadelphia. He’s the only one I ever asked.) To me, drooling over someone who acts or sings is kind of distasteful and, quite honestly, I never got the feeling that any of these celebrities were better than me which is why I could never put them on a pedestal. (This month’s column was too long to be printed here in its entirety. To see the complete article, please visit my website at www.paulczechlaw.com.)
Nevertheless, there are certain celebrities who have had an impact on me, sometimes for truly unknown reasons, and when they die, I am somehow affected. Luciano Pavarotti’s death was like that for me. Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means a big opera fan. Yeah – I can tell Puccini from Verdi (barely). And I have listened to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” all the way through on more than one occasion. I’ve even seen live Opera maybe a dozen or so times - even once at the Met. It has never really played a huge role in my life. Yet when I heard Pavarotti had died, it reminded me somehow that I was getting old. Pavarotti had been around for so much of my life and had dominated opera for so long, that when I heard about his death it simply startled me. But there was more to it than that. I never really gave any thought to the great tenor getting sick himself or, like the rest of us, aging. I just thought he would always be there.
Paul Newman caught me by surprise as well. When I was a kid, Mr. Newman was a sex symbol. I remember reading an article in some magazine that went on about whether or not he was too good looking for his own good. What they meant was, did his looks overshadow his incredible talent as an actor. I never gave it much thought, really. Paul Newman’s films were one of the reasons that I started to love movies. I remember seeing “Butch Cassidy” at a drive-in theater when I was a kid and being just absorbed in the story and the two main characters. And then “The Sting” came along. I remember seeing that in a theater in Queens with a few of my schoolmates. Once again, I was totally sucked in to the story and, I remember, when it ended, I just wanted more. Later, in college when I became “serious” about films, I rented a few of Mr. Newman’s older films (”The Hustler”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” to name a few) on VHS. He truly was a great actor. And I remember thinking that he had this youth and swagger about him that he carried with him in all of his films, the later ones as well as the early ones. Somehow I believed he would never grow old. But he did.
And now Clarence Clemons. I first began listening to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in the mid-seventies when I was going from grade school to high school. First there was “Greetings From Asbury Park” followed by “The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle”. The music was good - I liked it well enough. The lyrics reminded me so much of Bob Dylan but the music certainly didn’t sound like anything Dylan had done. I think it was because of that saxophone sound that was woven in and out of the songs to give such a sweet contrast to Bruce’s raspy, street poet vocals. When “Born to Run” was released, I remember looking at that now famous cover photo of Bruce leaning on Clarence while the music flowed out of my record player (and I do mean a record player. I didn’t know from stereo yet) and thinking that it represented Springsteen’s music so well with the guitar leaning on the saxophone and both of them front and center. Just give a listen to “Jungleland” from that album and you’ll see what I mean.
At the beginning of the eighties, I moved to Philadelphia where it seemed like everyone was obsessed with “The Boss” and his band. I fell right in step. I had only heard incredible things about Springsteen and his band mates and their live performance prowess. Sometimes the stories were so incredible that I had to believe they were embellished by those rabid Philly fans. They’d tell stories about these endless performances that went on for hours. People would go to multiple shows claiming that not one of them was ever the same as the one that came before it. I finally got my chance to see the E Street Band live when they were touring behind “The River”. And I was not disappointed. The show lasted about 4 hours. There was no opening act. Springsteen was a wild man on stage. Even the old Spectrum in Philadelphia couldn’t contain his energy. He had huge fans set up on either side of the stage and every once in a while, dripping with sweat, he would go and stand in front of them to cool off. Stage hands would pour buckets of water over him and he would shake off the excess water, put his guitar back on, and, re-energized, he would start all over again. The “Big Man” got his turn when they played “Jungleland”. When it came to the part where the song slows down and the saxophone solo begins, the stage got dark except for a lone spotlight on Clarence at center stage. You understood how he got his nickname then. It wasn’t just because of his size (even from my seats in the middle of the arena he looked huge), it was because of his sound. The song was his and, at that moment, so was every fan in the house.
Clarence had a band called “The Red Bank Rockers”. When I saw he was going to perform on South Street in Philly at a place called Ripley’s (which, a few years later, was closed and was turned into the home of Philadelphia’s “Tower Records”), I bought tickets immediately. On the night of the show, for some reason, I was running behind and I got to the club a few minutes after Clarence and his band hit the stage. The place was packed, standing room only, and I was stuck in the back near the door unable to move anywhere else. About five minutes after I got there, while Clarence and the band were performing, I suddenly noticed that someone, who arrived even later than I had, was standing next to me. He was a short, dark haired guy wearing a very old, comfortable looking brown leather bomber jacket and some old worn jeans. He just looked at me, smiled pleasantly and nodded, and turned his attention back to the stage. It was Bruce. I could hardly believe it. I’d read in Rolling Stone that he had a habit of just showing up at clubs, particularly clubs in Philadelphia, but I never thought that I would be lucky enough to be at one of those shows. And to be standing right next him just seemed so surreal.
I didn’t give him away. We smiled at each other a few more times, both nodded our appreciation for the “Big Man” and his band, and otherwise just enjoyed the show. After about an hour or so, he took a big drink from the glass he was holding, and finished what was in it before he set the glass down on the table that was to our left. Then he turned to me and smiled, this time adding a wink, and he made his way to the front of the club and got up on stage. He was no longer anonymous. He picked up a guitar and he started with a rousing cover of a fast rock song, the title of which I’ve since forgotten. I used to know but, through the years, the excitement of what happened that night has somehow made me forget. When he finished it, he reached up and touched the ceiling above him, then did an abbreviated jump in the air, being careful not to smack his head against the stucco above. Everyone could see he was way too big for a club that size. For his second song, he did a version of his own “Because The Night” , the song he and Patti Smith wrote that she had a hit with. When it was over, he waved to the audience as he took off his guitar and exited stage right.
And despite all of that, Clarence was the star that night. There was no denying it. He commanded the stage without “The Boss”, so much so that no one even noticed that Springsteen was there until he went on stage. That’s a pretty strong presence. He stood back and let his special guest have the spotlight, but, when Bruce was finished, Clarence just picked up where he left off and continued with the show. What a gentleman. What a star. And, for me, one incredibly memorable night.
And now Clarence is gone. His death brought the memory of that night back to me as if it had just happened yesterday. It’s hard for me to believe that all that took place over 25 years ago. And so, once again, I am reminded that death comes to all of us, even those that make our lives seem more special than they really are. None of this makes me sad at all. This is not some kind of morbid obsession that I have. It’s just a reality check brought on unexpectedly by people who impacted my life without ever even knowing it and I’m grateful for it. And because of that, when they passed, I was reminded to not take life for granted which I don’t. It comes and goes far too quickly to ignore and there are way too many things to experience and enjoy. So I just want to give one last thanks to the “Big Man” for giving me such great memories and, in the end, for reminding me to keep on living life to the fullest. Here’s to you, Clarence.
I don’t think it’s possible to understand what it’s like to be disabled until you actually are disabled. I’m not saying that you can’t be sympathetic. I’m sure all of us are that in one way or another, even if it is simply based on the premise of being thankful that you are not the one who is afflicted. But unless you lose the ability to use one or more of your senses or until you become physically incapable of moving the way most people in the world can, you can’t know how difficult it is to live with a handicap.
I am getting this experience first hand. Since I became ill in January of this year, I have been unable to hear and I have been diagnosed as having a “profound hearing loss”. That seems to be the politically correct way of saying I am deaf although I am uncertain as to why the term deaf is inappropriate and offensive. Perhaps it is not and it is simply too narrow a term to be applied to the number of different types of hearing losses that can occur. For instance, my particular loss resulted from an infection and, because of the way the loss came about, there are certain hearing loss remedies that cannot be applied to me. Hearing aids will not work for me because the infection actually damaged a part of my ears that sends the sound signal to my auditory nerve and onto my brain. Since the signal can no longer be sent, simple amplification of sound will not correct my hearing problem. The only potential solution for me, so I am told, is to have implants surgically placed in my ears that will bypass the affected area and send a signal directly to my auditory nerve potentially allowing me to regain all or some of my hearing. If my audiotory nerve had been damaged, the implant solution would not work for me either. I have a very good friend who was born without one of her ears and with a profound hearing loss in the one she has as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome. She manages to get by very well with a hearing aid supplemented by an amazing ability to read peoples lips as they speak. Like I said, or sort of said, there are many different types of hearing losses and all of them are very different.
I have no such ability to read lips or sign language which is why I am all too aware of how isolated you can be when you are disabled. My friends and colleagues, who have all been very supportive and completely understanding, are often, innocently, and unintentionally the worst offenders. Everything starts out okay – everything is written down (yes…I’ve been killing lots of trees these days) or typed into a laptop and we manage to communicate quite nicely with each other. And then they get tired of writing or typing and they start talking amongst themselves and, before you know it, twenty minutes has gone by and the only communication I’ve had are with the private thoughts rattling around in my own head and I get lost in my own world. While my visitors are conversing about who knows what, I’m usually listening to music or figuring out what the next topic will be for this column. It’s music mostly. That great jukebox in my mind is always cycling through some music catalogue or another. I’ve found this to be the only way to get through long, tedious, claustrophobic bone scans and MRIs. I pick a song and begin playing from beginning to end and, if I slip up on the lyrics or play some notes in the wrong order, I start from the beginning again. It’s a great way to kill time during medical procedures but it proves to be rather antisocial when I’m sitting with a group of friends, family or colleagues. Unfortunately, I am left no other choice when, instead of communicating with me, they talk amongst themselves and I am left completely in the dark. And what if this hearing loss had been something I was born with instead of something that came upon me after I had already had a chance to develop a mental catalogue of memories, images, sounds and ideas? I can not even begin to imagine the loneliness or the feeling of isolation that someone afflicted in that way has to live with. Perhaps it’s not lonely at all but, instead, simply different. If you’ve never heard sound then you don’t rely on it.
And then there’s the frustration. I’m not talking about mine – I think I’ve already explained mine. I’m talking about the frustration that I see in those around me. I believe it comes from the fact that we, as non-disabled people, never really have to think about communicating with each other when all of our senses are intact. However, when one of those senses is broken or missing, we have no idea as to how to adapt ourselves so that we can communicate with a disabled person appropriately. For instance, I cannot tell you how many times someone finds out that I can not hear and, for some reason, I can see them opening their mouths wider, speaking louder, in an attempt to speak to make me hear them. It’s a nervous reaction, really, that stems from not knowing what to do or how to communicate appropriately. And hand gestures – I never know what they are supposed to mean because they have no context for me and I find myself simply guessing as to which of the many meanings the communicator is relying on. Of course, after my third or fourth incorrect guess, I can see the frustration on the communicators face as they begrudgingly find a pen and some paper to write down what they want me to know. Which is probably what they should have done in the first place.
My ears may not work but my other senses still do. And believe me, I’m very grateful for that.
If you looked for my column in last month’s Our Towne you saw that I was sick. So, you will not find it unusual for me to be wishing you a very happy New Year. Mine has not started out very well at all. Just after New Years, during the first week of January, I was taken to the hospital, put on life support, and treated for a case of spinal meningitis. I remained in the hospital for about a month and I’m expecting to be recuperating at home for at least that much longer. I will also have to have surgery to have implants put in place so I can perhaps regain the hearing (or at least some of it) that I have permanently lost as a result of my bought with this ailment. Someone reminded me that this was the same ailment that Helen Keller suffered from.
But I’m not writing this to tell you about my personal woes. Rather, I’m writing this to sing the praises of the medical profession. That’s right – a lawyer talking up doctors and nurses. After all, I would not be here writing this today if not for the care given to me by these dedicated professionals. And no, they didn’t seem to be giving me any kind of special treatment because of my profession. In fact, it didn’t seem to matter to them at all. I suspect most of them didn’t even know nor did they care. They showed nothing but concern for me and an extreme desire to get me better and back on my feet. And they did things to keep up my spirits and morale. One night, two student nurses, completely of their own accord, came to my room with a wheelchair and took me on a whirlwind tour of the hospital that ended up with them treating me to a soda to try to help me forget the tedium of my recovery. When was the last time your lawyer or their law clerk did anything for you remotely like that? And, if they did, how quickly did you get the bill for the services rendered?
It needs to stop, quite honestly, this constant legal attack on the medical profession. The results of this war are seen everywhere in the medical world from that simple office check-up visit to in-patient hospitalizations like I just went through. The lawyers have everyone scared and that’s wrong. Medical practitioners hands are tied because everything they do has to be checked and double checked simply to cover their backsides and to pay their due to the insurance companies who are truly the culprits here. Procedures need to be performed simply to eliminate the most remote possibility of them actually being the cause of the problem even when doctors and nurses alike can tell from experience and training that the testing is not necessary. That’s the reason your health care costs so, so much.
Now don’t get me wrong – there has to be some kind of watchdog group to make sure that the medical profession, or for that matter, any professional group, do not abuse their position within our society. We professionals play a significant role in your lives and are usually involved in matters that are life changing for you. That’s a lot of responsibility and things should not be left to simple whims of the person you are dealing with. We all know that standards must be maintained because that’s how we ensure that everyone gets treated fairly. Standards are also what allow us as clients, patients, consumers – whatever it is we are at the time – to be confident that each professional we go to has the same basic level of knowledge so we can feel comfortable that our concerns will be handled in a competent manner similarly by anyone we choose to go to.
We’re really talking about the differing capabilities of the professionals out there. For instance, I first became aware of medical malpractice as a young lawyer in Philadelphia almost 20 years ago. The lawyers I worked with were brilliant and they were sought after by clients from all over the country. They were concerned about their own reputations in the community and only took cases that were challenging and worthy of their attention. I was the initial person a potential client would see so I know how many cases they would turn down as compared to the amount they would actually take and I remember the ratio being approximately 1 case taken for every 25 to 30 that was looked at. So it’s not the great lawyers you have to worry about, it’s the followers. It’s those mediocre lawyers who are in it for the money who see great lawyers making big money on truly horrible cases and want to jump on the bandwagon. That’s doing none of us any good, mostly because if you’re just dabbling to make some change, chances are you’re only going to get access to the marginal cases that the big guys have turned down. And if a case has been turned down there’s a reason. Do you really need to make a living trying to eat off of someone else’s scraps? Find an area where you can apply all that fine knowledge you gained by going to law school and develop a practice for yourself in an area that you like. There’s a reason why the true medical cases go to firms that have trial lawyers who are also trained as doctors or they have doctors on their staffs so they can have cases reviewed and get consults the instant they need them. These are the reasons why raising medical claims and bringing them to trial is so expensive: you can’t dabble at it and you have to be ready for a long, tough and costly battle that only the big dogs can afford to take on.
There are plenty of potential clients out there that need our attention. Why not do a service for the community instead of preying on it? If we take this approach, perhaps the image of lawyers will brighten and we will not be looked at as the villains that, in a lot of ways, the members of the legal profession have become.
And let’s give the medical profession the room they need to do what they do best which is keep us alive.
Becoming a lawyer is not the easiest thing in the world to do. There is a tremendous amount of schooling involved – you must have earned a degree from a four year college before even applying to law school which requires three more years of intensive study. And these days, given the incredibly competitive world in which we live, it is quite likely that simply earning your Juris Doctor ( or JD – the degree awarded to those who successfully complete the three year program) will not be enough which means you have more schooling ahead of you to earn an L.L.M. or a legal masters degree. For those super ambitious types, law schools offer a program that allows a student to work toward getting their J.D. while also studying to get their MBA (or Master of Business Arts) turning the usual three year course of study into a four year curriculum. So if you have a kid that wants to someday practice law, I hope you are encouraging them right now to develop the skills and discipline necessary to make it through. It usually adds some perspective when I remind folks that if they did all the schooling straight through without any detours (no years off to backpack through Europe with a rail pass, etc.) they will not be able to begin the actual practice of law until they are at least 24 or 25 years old. And, since most students do get detoured in one way or another, it’s likely you will not begin your anticipated new career until you’re about thirty.
Which is why I try to persuade those who ask me to find a different path. Not everyone needs to be a lawyer (thank God!). There are lots of other great career paths out there that can be followed, all of which can lead to satisfying, engaging jobs. High school students ask me for input about this all the time and they always seem quite surprised when I tell them to focus on a different profession. I always ask them why they want law school and, after a little prodding and questioning by me, it usually comes out that they want to practice law because lawyers make a lot of money. That is, of course, a very bad reason for taking up the law. Yes, some lawyers do indeed make lots of money but there are many more of them out there that do not. And if it’s money you’re looking for, there are many other professions that, if properly pursued, will likely make you far richer than practicing law ever could. Medicine is one. Technology is another. And how about professional sports? Entertainment? I don’t even want to think about comparing Eminem’s bank account with mine.
The one thing that always leads to success in whatever you choose to do is hard work. So if you’re going to have to work hard regardless of what you choose to do in life, why not make that work go toward something you’d really like to do? What if you do all the work necessary to get to law school, you graduate, you pass the Bar Exam and then you realize you absolutely hate practicing law. Now you’re somewhere near thirty years old and you have to start all over again. Or, even worse, you spend the rest of your days doing something you hate because you mistakenly believed it was going to lead you to easy wealth and riches. I’ve come across many lawyers in my day who were just clocking it in or popping fees and every single time I’ve felt bad for their unfortunate clients. You hire your attorney to be your champion, your voice, your advocate. Can they really work successfully on your behalf if they don’t like what they’re doing?
I have a friend who always wanted to be a doctor. And yes, he wanted to be a doctor because he could make a lot of money. Fortunately for him, he was brilliant which made it easier for him to get what he wanted. He graduated first in his class from one of the best high schools in his region. He attended Princeton and graduated first in his class there which got him an immediate acceptance to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated first in his class from there as well and managed to secure a plum residency at one of Manhattan’s finest hospitals. And then he started his residency which is when things all fell apart. He realized that he hated dealing with patients – couldn’t take it at all. He was getting too close to his patients and their problems which was getting him so stressed out that it was keeping him from focusing on the practice of medicine. He made it through the residency successfully but the experience made him realize that he couldn’t practice medicine and he left the profession for good. When I hear someone say “be careful what you wish for” I always think of my friend.
Of course, being brilliant, he managed to pick up the pieces and move on. He decided to go to law school.
Let’s talk about custody. If you’re going through a divorce and you have no children things usually go pretty easily. The hardest part is telling your soon to be ex- spouse that it’s time to move on. You can talk to your analyst about the emotional fallout – I just give guidance on the legal side which, under these circumstances, is a pretty easy ride. Once the tempers settle down and everyone comes to terms with what’s happening, you simply have to divide up the marital property and say goodbye. (Of course, you have to determine if alimony or spousal support is called for, but that’s the stuff that another column is made of.) With no children, there’s nothing that will keep the two of you in contact with each other once the divorce decree is signed by the Judge.
But children change the equation considerably. It’s not so easy to just walk away with kids involved. In fact, I would say it’s pretty much impossible unless you decide you want to sever ties to them as well. When I have clients that fall into this category, the first thing I do is remind them that there will be birthdays and holidays and graduations and weddings that will force you to come face to face with that ex-spouse you never wanted to see again. Oh…and your ex-spouse’s family will be there too. I can’t think of a more uncomfortable situation to be put in, however, that is indeed your future. So I like to warn people up front so they can get prepared for what is to come. Your analyst can help with this issue as well since they can help you develop coping methods that will enable you to make it through those tense moments with as much of your sanity in tact as possible. In my opinion, a good psychologist is as important to you during a divorce as a good family law attorney since they’re the ones that help you make it through the fire of divorce unscathed.
Custody of your children can be handled in many different ways depending upon what you and your ex agree upon. There are, however, some basics that you need to know and understand. In general, family court judges are very much in favor of having both Mom and Dad involved in the children’s lives so both parents are usually granted legal custody. This gives you the legal right to make decisions on your child’s behalf related to school and health care and any other issues that usually involve a parent or guardian. Since this custody is usually granted as “joint legal custody” it means that you and your spouse have to make such decisions together. In other words, Mom can’t decide independently that she wants her daughter to go to the most expensive private elementary school around. Dad would have to be consulted about this and a decision would have to be made jointly. Of course, if you can’t agree, then you’ll have to file a motion and bring the issue before a Judge who gets to decide on your behalf.
Physical custody is a whole different matter. One parent is usually given primary physical custody of the children which means that the children will reside with that parent. And that parent is usually Mom. Generally, the judicial system believes that Mom is the best one to raise the kids and care for them on a daily basis. Although there are some circumstances in which Dad will get physical custody, it is absolutely not the norm. In my experience, Mom will only loose primary physical custody of her children when there is significant evidence to prove that she is incapable of caring for them appropriately. If you are a Dad and you believe you have enough evidence to shift the scales in your favor, consult with a good family lawyer before wasting valuable time and money by simply filing a custody petition.
I would suggest that you start thinking about visitation. Be prepared to talk about when and where you will pick your kids up and when and where you will return them. Typically, the non-custodial parent will get the kids every other weekend. You get every other weekend because the court likes to give the custodial parent time with the kids that is purely fun and recreational. If the non-custodial parent lives in the same school district where the kids attend school, that parent will likely also be able to secure an overnight during the week which comes with the added responsibility of making sure the kids get to school. The non-custodial parent is the one responsible for paying child support to the custodial parent. This makes sense, right? If the kids live with Mom, then Mom is paying all of their living expenses. Since Dad is responsible for half of all those expenses, Dad will have to pay Mom child support. Child support, like alimony, is a whole separate beast which requires a legal analysis all of its own. What I’ve written here is the most general approach top child support issues.
If you have questions regarding divorce and child custody, get yourself a good family lawyer and consult with them. The money you spend will save you a lot of money and grief in the long run. Then maybe you’ll have enough to pay for that shrink too.
So if last month’s column didn’t turn you off from paying to join a networking group, perhaps nothing will. But, unfortunately, I don’t give up so easily. So, this time I want to point out some of the popular sales pitches these organizations will throw your way to try to get you to join their ranks.
The group that I was a member of (BNI or Business Networking International) took pride in telling you that each of their chapters only allows one member to join in any given profession. In other words, there will only ever be one residential real estate agent in a chapter or one insurance agent, etc. The BNI rep or member that is trying to sign you up will tell you that once you are accepted in a chapter, because of this rule, all other members of the chapter must refer all business related to your profession to you.
This, of course, sounds great but, as you might have already guessed, is pretty much impossible to police or enforce. For example, a lawyer I knew in a different BNI chapter than mine, was concerned that she had received no referrals at all from her fellow chapter members. She was particularly concerned that she was not getting any work from the real estate agent in her group when she had made it clear that real estate was her specialty. My lawyer friend confronted the real estate agent who told her, without hesitation, that he wouldn’t be sending anything to her because he had an existing relationship with another attorney (not a BNI member, of course) that he was not willing to upset. He added that he would “keep her in mind” and that if anything came up that he could utilize her services for that he would “throw her a bone.” When she reported this incredibly offensive behavior to the powers that be at the regional BNI offices, she was told, amongst other things, that there was nothing they could do about it, that she could not get a refund, and her remedy was to find herself another chapter in the Capital Region that doesn’t have a lawyer that she could join. (Just an FYI – there are approximately 10 to 12 BNI chapters in the Albany area. In Philadelphia, the country’s 5th largest city, there is one.)
This rule causes problems when it comes to giving referrals as well. There was a gentleman in my chapter who filled the computer services category within that group. So, theoretically, when someone told me they were having trouble with their computers, I was supposed to direct them to this chapter member for the service they needed. Except there was one problem : no one, and I mean no one, believed this member or his company was in any way competent. I was talking with a writer friend of mine who had recently gone through some bad times with a laptop. He explained that his computer crashed and, not having the proper backup system in place, needed a computer maintenance company to retrieve the data from his laptop’s hard drive. He told me that he had taken his computer to a local service and, $600 or so later, he still had no laptop and he had been told that his data, which included all of his past articles, had been lost for good. I was getting ready to send him to my chapter mate and his company until it became quite clear that it was my chapter mate’s service that had taken his $600 and left him high and dry.
Equally troublesome was the associations interest in letting people change their categories. For example, there was a mortgage broker in my chapter who decided that being a mortgage broker wasn’t paying the bills anymore. Instead, she decided that selling disability insurance was the way to go. Huh? How do I know if she can sell disability insurance? And why should I endorse her? And there was a real estate agent who suddenly found he wanted out of that business and, abracadabra – suddenly he was a property manager. But prior to this magical change, this member would stand up at every meeting and tell all of his chapter mates that he was the best real estate agent in the world and that we should send all of our hard earned clients his way . Or the guy who worked for a local cable distributor who would stand up each week to tell us how great his company was. Until they fired him and he started working for a telecommunications company which suddenly became the greatest company in the world. I started wondering what would happen to me if I decided to go from being a lawyer to, say, fixing lawn mowers. My clients would abandon me and my credibility would be destroyed.
I have tons of stories like this to tell you but, quite honestly, I have better things to think about. So this is the last bit of ink I’ll expend on this subject. And I’ll finish by reminding you that there is no easy way and there is no way to avoid the hard work necessary to make yourself a success in whatever field you’re in. So take a page out of Nancy Reagan’s book and when someone asks you to pay up and join a networking group, just say no.
It’s easy to blame lawyers for the glut of frivolous lawsuits that clog the calendars and dockets of judges in courtrooms across the nation. That blame, however, would be misplaced. My practice experience has taught me that the public is far more responsible for this crisis than the legal profession ever could be. Think about it – lawyers act on what they are told by their clients. And let’s not imagine that clients don’t lie to their lawyers because they do. All the time. If you want to fault lawyers (and I know you do) you can criticize them for not removing the cases from the Courts quickly after they find out that their lawsuit has no merits. And, honestly, that’s not entirely their fault either. Once we attorneys take on a client’s representation and file a complaint on their behalf, removing yourself from the case can only be done with the Court’s permission. That means that a petition has to be drafted and filed with the Court and a hearing must be called so the Judge can hear evidence before granting the lawyer’s request to withdraw from the action. And, of course, the lawyer is bound by attorney-client privilege or confidentiality which prevents the lawyer from disclosing anything that he or she learned during the course of the representation he or she is looking to get out of. The process can be a slow and tricky one to say the least.
All lawyers have been duped at one time or another, by a client who was particularly good at misrepresenting the truth. I had a client a few years back who was involved in a car accident while travelling between two of her employers work locations. The client, who was driving a co-worker from one place to the other, claimed that she was hit in the rear while waiting for a light to change. She claimed that immediately after the accident took place the car that hit her fled the scene. She also claimed she was pushed into the car in front of her by the rear-end impact but the person in the car she hit advised that they had no auto insurance and they left the scene before the police could arrive to write up a report.
None of this is unusual, particularly for an inner-city auto accident. But what was unusual is that my clients passenger wasn’t corroborating her story. She described everything in the same way except that she described my client as responsible for the entire collision. According to her passenger, my client was on her cell phone with an appointment calendar opened in front of her while she was driving at the time that she hit the rear of the vehicle in front of her. The passenger did confirm that they were hit in the rear by a vehicle that later fled the scene.
So why did I take the case? I had represented the client before so she got points from me as far as credibility was concerned. And she told a very convincing story as to why the passenger was making her side of things up citing a long rivalry at work with the passenger looking to get her hands on my clients higher paying job. It’s true, things were starting to smell a bit funny, but there wasn’t enough to flat out call my client a liar just yet so we proceeded with the case. Which all seemed to be going well. Depositions were taken, statements were given, papers had been filed and we got to the point where settlement should be discussed.
And it wasn’t. The Defense Attorney just kept avoiding the issue. So I got impatient after months of delay and I pushed him on the issue. That’s when he disclosed to me that he had concerns about my clients educational background. This was old news to me – the issue came up early on in the case and I had my client get a letter from the Dean of the school at the university she attended who verified that my client had graduated and earned a Masters Degree. Now I was hearing that the Defense Attorney was not satisfied with the written proof I had supplied. We exchanged words, I got off the phone and immediately pulled the Dean’s letter from my file. And then I called the Dean. The Dean was familiar with my client but not because she had graduated with a Masters Degree, but, rather, because she had worked in her office as an administrative assistant some years ago. After checking my client’s academic record, I was advised by the Dean that she had never graduated from that university with any kind of a degree let alone a Masters Degree. Her only academic involvement with the university was through one solitary class she had taken and dropped out of mid-semester. Clearly, as an admin, she had access to the dean’s stationery which she had stolen and had been using to fabricate an educational background she simply never had.
Needless to say, that case was settled for a nominal fee (nuisance value as they refer to it in insurance circles) and I parted ways with that client for good. Why did anyone pay out anything on this claim? That’s easy – even liars are injured in car accidents. The client’s problems with truthfulness didn’t change that there was an auto accident. What it did do was make it hard to believe that a Judge or a Jury would ever believe her, making her chances of getting a suitable recovery for her damages virtually impossible. And that is how it should be.
So remember – it’s not a good thing to lie to your lawyer. And if you are and you haven’t been discovered yet, rest assured, you will be. My experiences have proven that to be the case every time. Next month, more interesting tales about the practice of law.
Paul Czech recently sat as a panelist for a Symposium discussion on Intellectual Property hosted by the Albany Law School Intellectual Propery Society. The topic for discussion was the Music Industry, Now and Into the Future.
Paul Czech was recently a guest lecturer at Albany Law School. He was invited by Professor A. Kahler to speak to her Intellectual Property class. Paul educated the class on copyright and copyright infringment cases from a practitioner’s perspective utilizing the Harrisongs cases and its progeny to highlight the discussions.
I went to Temple University in Philadelphia to study law. I’m pretty proud of that – it’s a very good law school and it’s as well known for its incredible professors as it is for its aggressive approach to training lawyers the fine art of trying a case. That is, they train litigators. Their Mock Trial competition team is always winning national championships and has done so for the last twenty or so years consecutively, maybe longer. That’s a pretty good record. Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that I was a part of my law school trial team because I was not. I had enough on my plate just keeping up with the reading and focusing on the curriculum that would eventually bring me my law degree. But those are the roots of my training. I spent my entire second year of law school not only taking a full load of 2L classes but going through mock trial after mock trial with my fellow classmates as we figured out how to integrate the strange and cumbersome laws of evidence and the burdensome and tricky rules of professional responsibility with the reality of simply knowing when to stand up or sit down in the court room. Yes, that’s right, we actually practice that.
Yet no matter how much you practice, moving around a court room as the lawyer who is in charge of a case is a very tricky thing indeed. For one thing, the pressure on a lawyer is immense. A good reason for that, particularly with newbie lawyers, is the fact that there are so many things that you are not taught in law school. Another reason is the responsibility you have to your client. If you are handling a criminal matter then you have the responsibility of keeping your client out of jail. If you’re the prosecutor, your job is to keep the streets safe. Either way, that’s quite a lot to take on. I can assure you it is not a good feeling to watch your client get taken away in handcuffs when just moments before, because of what you did for them (or didn’t do), their civil liberties were stripped away and they are now going to be bars. If you’re the prosecutor and a criminal is set free when you loose your case, you feel the responsibility of not having made the streets safer that day. Civil cases are no better. You don’t have someone’s liberty in your hands. That’s the good news. But you can never underestimate the pressure put on you when someone is expecting you to make them money. I make no bones about it – never have, never will – in general, the reason you go to an attorney to pursue a civil case on your behalf is to get money. So imagine what it’s like when you can’t get money for the person who hired you. I like to remind people that that at trial, one side always wins and one side always looses. Even the best lawyers end up on the loosing side a fair amount of the time. And no matter how many times you loose, it never feels better.
Another thing that makes trial work tricky for lots of lawyers is the fact that some of them, most of them, progress through their schooling from beginning to end without stopping. In other words, they go from grade school to high school to college to law school without taking a breath in between. The only work experience they get, if they get any at all, would be from summer jobs which, for the most part, do not give them the necessary life experiences that they need to be successful litigators and trial attorneys. We are supposed to be “counselors” after all – how can you counsel someone if you can’t relate to them or the problems they are facing?
Given all of the above, it’s no wonder that lawyers frequently seem grumpy or curt. It’s called being under the gun. But still, despite all this pressure to succeed on behalf of our clients, we never let it show when we are standing before the Judge. Never. I deliberately dress very casually when I’m in my office and when I meet with clients. Most lawyers wear a suit and a tie all the time, which is just fine, because that’s how people expect lawyers to dress. I dress casually in my office because I don’t want the clients I work with to be intimidated by me – I think it’s important to dress more like they do so they feel more comfortable working with me. But I’d never do that in Court. I always wear a suit. On the occasions when I’ve worn a sport jacket and tie, believe it or not, I’ve felt underdressed for the court room. I’m always as polite as I can possibly be, particularly when I’m trying a case in front of a jury. I personally believe that the juries I go before are judging me as much as they are the case that I’m presenting to them so I’m always on my best behavior in court. That not only means dressing appropriately, it means addressing people correctly. I don’t refer to the person wearing the black robe as “Judge”. Rather, they are “Your Honor” or, at the very least, “M’am” or “Sir”. I believe that by sticking to the formalities and the protocols of the courtroom I am showing my respect for that environment which is something that we should always, always do. I’ve even made it a habit to ask to be excused when I’m finished with my business before the Court and then, as I’m leaving, I wish the judge a good night or day or a good holiday or a safe trip home. Whatever. It’s just polite and friendly. It brings a human element to something that is very often officious and bureaucratic. I think following these rules makes it so people are more interested in listening to me which means I have a better chance of winning my case.
After all, as my mother always said, “you catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar.”
-Paul Czech, Esq.
March Edition of Rensselaer ‘Our Towne’ magazine