There are times in the practice of law when we get lazy. We end up doing the same things, again and again, performing our tasks like we’re on a GM assembly line. We mindlessly perform ministerial tasks, assuming a satisfactory result and, more often than not, getting one. We essentially go on automatic pilot.
There’s a danger in this, of course. At times when we least expect it-mostly when we’re not paying attention-the fit hits the shan and we have to play catch-up, scrambling to put back together pieces that never should have been disassembled in the first place. Shame on you, counselor. You got lazy and got caught.
There’s a more significant harm, though. When we do that-and all of us, even the very best of us, do—we are disrespecting our clients, the people for whom that ministerial act is really a big deal. For most it’s the most important case of their lives. And we’ve treated it like it’s a haircut or a shoeshine. It really is shame on us.
Well, all this was brought to mind one day in March in the nether reaches of the Constitution State, way up in the Judicial District of Litchfield. I was not in that jurisdiction to buy perennials at the White Flower Farm. Rather I was attending to the legal needs of a client who required the criminal law equivalent of a septuple bypass but who had only provided me a butter knife, a jar of Vicks Vapo Rub and three Sign Here post it notes. I wanted out of town. And quick.
While waiting in the courtroom for the judge, I overheard a conversation between State’s Attorney Dave Shepak and one of the locals, Al Mencuccini, a friendly face from years ago. What I overheard was that Al’s client was applying for Accelerated Rehabilitation and the State wasn’t opposing. A good result, certainly, and one that should take about a minute-and-a-half. Terrific. I’d get my continuance and be on my way, unscathed, in the blink of an eye. With itchy feet, I sit in the jury box and return my attention to the rigor’s of Tuesday’s crossword puzzle.
The case is called. I hear Prosecutor Shepak say he has no objection to AR. I look up at Al. He’s standing next to a woebegone, bewildered woman who appears to have difficulty following what’s going on. I’m reassured. This will be quick.
Al begins. And it’s quickly apparent that he cares. He’s using notes because he doesn’t want to miss anything his client would want the judge to know. He tells Judge Ginnochio that his client really got in over her head. She fell in with the wrong crowd. She didn’t know what they were going to do. And she didn’t know how to react when they did it. And, says Al, she has struggled. She has had a limited education. But she holds down two jobs. She was recently laid off from one but she found another. And she’s really a good person, Judge. She cares for her family. And she’ll never be back. And he goes on to offer even more on her behalf.
The AR is granted, of course, as it should be. Just as it would have been if Al had finessed it. But he didn’t.
Well, says I, there’s a lesson I’ve often been taught but one I frequently forget. Al has given me a refresher course on the right way to practice law. Thanks, Al, I needed that. This was one of those cases I probably would have passed through on cruise control once I heard the prosecutor wasn’t objecting. I would have gone through the motions with this client, thinking about my next case, my pick in NCAA pool or the location of speed traps of Route 8 South. Not Al. He had a done deal he could have completed with he eyes closed. But he didn’t. He played it through like a pro even though he didn’t have to. And whether the client truly appreciated it or not, Al had represented her like a lawyer should.
Sometimes you can learn a lot when you forget about 23 across and pay attention to what’s going on in front of you.