April 27, 2007
Learning to Walk
Going to court with clinic professor Bob Solomon is like learning to walk. The second week of our Community Lawyering Clinic of my second semester at law school, I met a client with a dire housing crisis. We discovered the following day that her court hearing (on a motion to re-open after a formal eviction) happened to be two days later. And I would be representing her under the supervision of Bob Solomon. Unfortunately, Bob Solomon was in court that entire day. He coached me through intermittent cell phone conversations, and he told me to call him at home. Frantic, I read a Trial Techniques book to figure out how to prepare a witness and how to do a direct examination. (I figured a real book might be better than watching episodes of Law and Order that night). The client came into our office, and we went through her testimony. I managed to appear confident and in control, but I was an anxious mess inside. I secretly thought that she would be better off on her own than with me, a 1L law student, helping her. I asked her to meet me at the bagel shop the following morning before the hearing, so that we would at least have some time to practice with my supervising attorney. At the end of the day, I called Bob. One of his kids answered the phone. “So sorry to call you at home!!” He, of course, said he was glad I did. We went over the direct examination thoroughly, and he talked me through the major elements of an eviction proceeding. As he was about to hang up the phone, I asked, “wait a second – can you just tell me what happens when we walk in the door of the court room?” It seemed like a silly question, but I was slightly terrified of the whole experience. What do we say? Where do we sit? Are we called? How do they know we’re there? Do we sign up for a hearing somewhere? Who do I say that I am?
We met the client at the bagel place and again practiced her testimony. We were ready for court. (Or at least we had to be ready). But when we got there, I discovered that often the most important matters occur in the hallway of the courthouse, rather than in the court room. Sometimes it matters less what happens ‘when we walk in the door of the courtroom’ than what happens as soon as we say hello to the opposing party. The landlord, a relatively sleazy-looking man, gave us an earful. He was surprised – and annoyed – that our client had come with an attorney. Bob explained, in not so many words, that the landlord was being a jerk, and that our client, for a host of reasons, was legally entitled to stay in the apartment for at least three months. I piped in a word or two, but Bob did the talking. In the end, the landlord asked for a continuance so that he could call his own attorney. The attorney then called us within the day to settle the case. “Victory for the people,” Bob said. I, meanwhile, was thrilled and relieved. We didn’t call any witnesses, or make any arguments to the judge, but we won the case anyway. I had learned a valuable legal lesson: be as prepared for the conversations in the hallway as you are for the formal court proceeding.
Over the last two years, I have begun to speak up in the hallway. I have been like a toddler slowly learning to stand, and then to walk. I have, over time, learned to negotiate with the opposing party (often sleazy men, by the way) and their counsel. I reason with them, speak up for my client and sometimes myself, and slightly raise my voice on occasion. We win our cases largely because we have prepared better – for both the courtroom and the hallway. We often know the facts better than they do, have dug deep for relevant and threatening evidence, and we are ready to fight the battle. With each new court appearance, I stand a little taller and walk a little faster. And Bob, the patient teacher, lets me walk a little farther.