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After my first terrifying experience as a “trial lawyer,” in October 1981, I devoutly prayed each night I wouldn’t be sent back to court any time soon to sit behind a counsel table. Of course, if you stop and think about it, sending a one-day old lawyer with no trial experience into the lion’s den of superior court to oppose an injunction was an especially rotten and unreasonable thing to do. I had, after all, taken a job with A BIG FIRM to learn from highly talented and experienced attorneys. Imagine what I would have learned that October afternoon by watching the Firm’s Tallest Partner in action, instead of being fed to the wolves myself.

But even in 1986, hiding out in San Diego, holding my crying infant night and day, a world away from the east coast and that first job, and with the vague feeling I was running away from something I could not name, I was still looking back on those baby lawyer days and blaming myself. Shouldn’t have.

After the year rolled over into 1982, (did I mention they made me and me alone, work on Thanksgiving Day?) my old nemesis Legal Aid reared its head. THE FIRM expected baby lawyers to take on Legal Aid clients pro bono, and I was happy to sign up for mine. I actually thought lawyers could change the world by helping poor people back then. Wrong again.

My client was a twenty-year-old highly attractive African American woman who wanted a divorce. She’d been married a year, no kids, no money. In theory a slam-dunk legal proceeding. Her major drawback was she liked to sit in my office for hours spinning obvious yarns about abuse at the hands of her soon-to-be ex. I wondered if the lawyer-client privilege allowed me to tell her I didn’t believe a word she said.

Legal Aid helpfully sent along THE FORMS that I was supposed to file to ask for her divorce. Now, by this time, I had begun to suspect that law was not about language so much as about filling in blanks. I spent a lot of my time drafting “Interrogatories” which are questions one side in litigation poses to the other to figure out what their evidence is going to be at trial. The art of drafting Interrogatories basically consisted of copying the forms from the book, inserting the correct gendered pronouns, and sending these linguistic wonders to the typing pool. (And yes, we had an overnight typing pool that took over when the secretaries went home.)

But as I worked on the Legal Aid forms, asking for my client’s divorce, I saw better ways to say what needed to be said. I had, after all, a Masters in English and had worked on my Ph.D. I had been a technical editor. I had taught writing. Wouldn’t I be the one to know if there was a better way to say it? Apparently not.

I crafted the divorce documents and had them filed with the court where they would percolate for six months until the State of Virginia decided to free my client of her improvident marriage decision. I never expected to get anything back other than a piece of paper saying my client was a free woman. So imagine my dismay and horror, when after three months, I was personally summoned to the judge’s chambers one afternoon.

His Honor, sans robes, sat at his desk, the court file for my client’s case in front of him. I sat on the other side, in my man-tailored lawyer suit, starched blouse, floppy bow, and one-inch heeled pumps. I could see red marks that looked like blood trails all over the top paper in the file on His Honor’s desk. It was the pleading I had filed.

After ten seconds, I surmised a couple of things. One, His Honor hated me. No clue why. But he did. Two, he hadn’t called me in to thank me for volunteering for Legal Aid.

For the next hour, His Honor spat out a monologue about how THE FORMS were sacrosanct and NOT A WORD COULD BE CHANGED. According to His Honor, the words I had substituted in place of the SACRED TEXT made my pleadings totally inadequate, and my client could not get a divorce. He made it clear he had nothing but contempt for BIG FIRM ASSOCIATES who were trying to be Legal Aid volunteers. In his view, we should stick to representing only BIG BUCK CLIENTS because that was all we were good for. I didn’t have to read His Honor’s bio to figure out he’d never darkened the door of a BIG FIRM before going on the bench.

My punishment was to have my pleadings declared null and void, and I was sentenced to the ignominy of slinking back to my office and drafting new ones, this time inserting only my client’s name, her gender pronoun, and the correct dates into the text. After having these prepared in overnight secretarial, a winged-foot firm messenger deposited these linguistic gems in the courthouse. And my client would now have to wait another six months for singlehood because of my incompetence.  The first three percolating months with the WRONG WORDS didn’t count.

So what had I learned so far about being a lawyer? A couple of things. First, being sent to court to oppose injunctions was like being Daniel cast into the Fiery Furnace. Except no angel came down to get between me and the judge who said my client was lying. Major slip up in heaven that day.

Two, lawyers, whom I had thought practiced law, were actually practioners of black magic, wearing black man-tailored suits instead of wizard robes, but pretty much doing the same thing that wizards do: casting spells for dissolution of marriage using spells set out WORD FOR WORD AND NOT TO BE CHANGED in THE SACRED BOOK OF FORMS. Yep, being a lawyer was not what I’d expected. And creative? Well, law school said lawyers were creative, but so far I wasn’t seeing it.

Next time: My Head on a Pike or THE MEMO WE CAN’T BILL THE CLIENT FOR!!!! 

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