“Loying:” Common Misperceptions About The Practice of Law.

atticus-finchSo, you want to know what I do for a living?

To those of you who have read my posts and feel I should keep my day job, remember that you’ve probably never seen me at my day job.  If you had, possibly you’d encourage me to keep writing. I am a lawyer: I spend my days loying.  Specifically, I’m a trial defense attorney handling personal injury cases. It’s typically auto accidents, but in my past, I’ve handled elevator-related injuries, construction site injuries, and sidewalk or business slip and fall injuries. Fed by a diet of television lawyers, many lawyers dream about practicing all their lives—not me.  Not to knock the profession, but I kind of fell into it. I didn’t have the work ethic (or possibly the intelligence) to be a doctor, and I wanted a decent salary with no 24 hour shifts.

Friends have told me they have no idea what someone in my field does over the course of a day, and even with 24 hour latest trial of the century coverage, there are still misconceptions about my work. Some believe the following:

1. Trials Are Tense and Exciting.

John Grisham, Scott Turow…two masters of the subgenre known as the courtroom drama, and both, like many writers, are lawyers themselves. You’d think they’d know better. Here’s something I tell my clients when it looks like we’re going to trial: “It’s about 3-5 days long if it’s short, it’s 9-5 usually, and it’s the most boring thing you’ll ever experience.

the verdict

Trials can be scary for the newcomer.  You’re a defendant in an alien environment. Everything’s hyper-formal, everyone around you knows the esoteric rules. Where do you even sit?

Say you’re being sued in a car accident case. You probably rear-ended someone–very often liability is clear and undisputed–which means you may not have to testify at all. If it was more of a tap than a collision, and the Plaintiff claims it was a solid hit, maybe you’ll testify about the force of impact. There’s no reason for a defense lawyer to put you on the stand if you don’t have necessary testimony, unless you happen to be a total charmer. So, assuming you do testify, it’ll take about a half hour to an hour. Remember that short trials last 3-5 days. So, you testify for 30 minutes over an average 4 days, and then, you watch…and watch…and watch. Lawyers argue points of law, doctors giving medical testimony, Judges reading aloud the applicable law, and you’re stuck there through all of it.

Parenthetically, you are stuck there through all of it.  If you’re covered by insurance, and you want the insurance to pay the verdict against you, remember there is a “cooperation” clause in your insurance policy that requires you to cooperate with the defense of any litigation. That means, you go to trial every day, and if you miss it, you face the possibility your insurer will deny coverage, and leave you with a bill that could be in the tens of thousands…maybe more.

2.  Witnesses Break Down on the Stand.

Sorry, Perry Mason, but in my 12 years of trial practice, no witness has ever broken down and admitted fault or injury-exaggeration under my withering cross-examination.

Witnesses do trip up, though. At trial, the lawyer questioning you probably took your multiple hour deposition months ago. He had a transcript of it prepared, and he read it and read it.  Many of his questions will come right out of that transcript, so if you deviate, he’ll pounce.  Also, since he questions people several times a week, he’s learned a little bit how people lie, exaggerate and evade. For example:

Q.     Please let me know how bad your pain is on a scale of 1-10.  1 means its no big deal, 10 means it’s so excruciating, you can’t get out of bed.  Right now, on a scale of 1-10, how’s your neck feel.

A.     10.

Q.     Do you need me to call an ambulance right now?

Sometimes, people answer that question “12” or “15,” and I fight the impulse to say, “Do you know that 12 isn’t between 1 and 10?

We also know how to frame questions for maximum effect.  (War story alert) I took the deposition of the Plaintiff once who claimed he tripped over a misleveling elevator and messed up his knee. I had previously received copies of his medical records via subpoena, including records from the hospital he went to. I learned that the day before the accident–literally the day before–he injured the same knee playing basketball and went to the same ER. So, the relevant part of the deposition went something like this:

Q.     Ever been to that hospital before the elevator accident.
A.     No, never have.
Q.     Ever hurt your knee before the accident?
A.     Nope. Never did.
Q.     Do you play basketball?
A.     No. When I was younger, but not since high school.
Q.     So, you haven’t played since high school?
A.     Nope.
Q.     Never? No pick up games.
A.     Nope.
Q.     Is your address blah blah blah?
A.     Yes.
Q.     (Producing the record) So, is this your name and address on this ER record saying you were hurt playing basketball the day before the accident.

   (crickets chirping.)

3. Lawyers twist words.

This one is a pet peeve of mine. Some lawyers do twist words. But usually a lawyer simply listens to words. (By the way, my wife is sick of hearing me say that. Especially since, as she claims, I don’t listen to her words.) He knows what words mean and uses them to an advantage. For example, if you ask someone, “Do you ever glide through a red light?” and they respond, “I don’t think so.” To most ears, that sounds like “no.”  To me, it’s “I’m not sure.” A lady once told me she had a green light going through an intersection…

Q.     Was your light green when you last saw it?
A.     Yes.
Q.     And when you saw the light last, where was your car?
A.     About a half a block away.
Q.     And after you saw the green light, half a block away, did you look back to the road to make sure you were driving safely?
A.     Of course.
Q.     So, you saw the green light half a block away, lowered your head, drove that half a block, and assumed the light was still green as you crossed the intersection?
A.     Yes.

And justiceYou’re out of order!  The whole system is out of order!

4. Lawyers are sharks.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  The applicable legal standard is that we are to zealously defend the interests of our clients. Some take that to mean “vigorously,” some “voraciously,” some “carnivorously.” Of course, you can defend zealously without lying, without sleight of hand, but some attorneys often resort to those tricks anyway. “Zealous” is not a word to describe The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.”  More like Ari on “Entourage,” minus the obvious self-interest.

Those of you who know me may have trouble picturing me pulling a kid off his raft off the shore of Amity. I’ve been accused of being too mellow (have too!) and not being aggressive. Remember what I said above about people who have seen me in my day job? But the Dude abides.

jawsNo sign of Bob Phillips yet.

Please accept my apology for the multiple movie references in the last paragraph.

About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)
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