Wooster Street Pizza
One of the advantages of practicing in this area is that we all pretty much know each other. This familiarity creates an etiquette that makes outrageous conduct unacceptable. Seeing and dealing with each other so often breeds a code of conduct that leavens our behavior. We know, as a judge friend once told me, “You have to remember, one day you’re the hammer, the next day you’re the nail.” Our awareness of that fact shapes the environment in which we practice.
Not everyone practices law this way. There are those for whom a scorched earth approach is the only way to practice, exuding rudeness and discourtesy, making sure never to give the slightest concession or extend even the most minor courtesy. It’s a tough way to live but, for some, it’s the only way. We see it in lawyers not from here and who don’t expect to return.
I ran into someone with this approach a couple of years ago in Federal Court. I was representing a genuinely decent man who had been indicted for perjury. He was accused of lying to a grand jury that had been investigating political corruption by an elected official with whom my client was friendly. The public official was indicted on corruption charges. My client was an add-on, indicted for “principle,” and would be tried separately.
The official would be prosecuted by an attorney from the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice. That same attorney would prosecute my client as well. The official’s case was a big deal. My client’s was not.
The official’s case would be tried first and in order to prepare for mine, I wandered over to the Federal Court to learn what I could. When there was a recess I approached the DOJ prosecutor, introduced myself, and broke the ice by asking where she was staying, how she liked trying a case on the road and other insignificant small talk. Ever the gracious New Haven host, I asked my adversary-to-be if she had a chance to try our famous pizza restaurants on Wooster Street. I went on about how this stuff was the real deal, not that homogenized dough and canned tomato sauce that dishonors the good name of the originator of pizza, New Haven’s Frank Pepe. I attempted to describe the indescribable taste. I gave detailed directions on how to get to Pepe’s and what to order, specifically warning not to go on Mondays when they were closed.
The recess ended. I wished my adversary a pleasant stay. I continued my watch. Mr. Big was convicted and I went off to prepare for my case which would be tried the following month.
I had misgauged my adversary. Apparently she interpreted my goodwill gesture as the blathering of a local bumpkin whose lot in life was to represent the unworthy whom this high priestess had selected for removal from society. I learned this in the courtroom right before my trial was to begin.
I welcomed my adversary back to the Elm City, opined that our trial probably wouldn’t take too long, and inquired whether she had a chance to try the pizza I had recommended when we last met.
She was distant and arrogant. “No, I haven’t. I’m going to do that when I come back for your client’s sentencing.” Nice.
I was right. The trial didn’t take that long, only two days. Although it was short, it was difficult, at least for me. This was a client of whom I’d become extremely fond, someone naive in the criminal process who had been backdoored by a surprise subpoena, appeared before the grand jury without a lawyer and testified there in a stupor while an experienced prosecutor dazzled him with a game of verbal three card monte which he couldn’t understand.
My client realized far too late–well after indictment–that he was swimming in very deep waters. With that realization came a nervous paralysis which left him incapable of assisting me in preparing his case. He occupied his time by sweating and indulging his indigestion. His nervousness was contagious. The more he worried the tighter I got. And I sure didn’t like dealing with Ms. Scorched Earth, either.
When the marshals told us the jury had reached a verdict my client was apoplectic. When they announced a verdict of not guilty his apoplexy turned to euphoria. No one, no one, was happier than he was. No one except for me.
There are certain times in life when you know you have handled a situation in exactly the right way. I can’t say much about how I handled the trial work, but, I did real good handling the verdict. As my client sobbed with relief, hugged his wife, hugged me and then went on to hug everyone but the courthouse custodian, I closed my trial notebook. Then I deliberately gathered up the assorted papers from counsel table, assembled them neatly, placed them in my litigation bag and closed it. I then took a slow drink of water, discarded the cup, and extended my hand to my adversary. “Gee,” I said softly, “I’m sorry you won’t be joining us for pizza.” Then I turned around and walked out of the courtroom.
That, as my kids would say, was “The Best.”