Sometimes it’s okay for a lawyer to fall in love with a client. I did.
Way before I started my own business law firm in 1990, I was fortunate to be hired as an associate by GW, who was head of a well-respected personal injury law firm. He didn’t like trying cases he was going to lose, so my job was to litigate all of his bad cases.
After I had brought several smaller bad cases to trial, GW came into my office one Friday afternoon and asked me, “Do you want to try your first federal case?”
Of course I did. (But if I had said no, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.)
“Good,” he replied. “You won’t have to wait. The trial starts on Monday.” He put a thin file on my desk.
The facts of the case were that our client, a schoolteacher who had taught in inner city schools for over 35 years, had sent a disruptive 6th grader to the principal’s office. The student had been told by the principal to call his mother to come pick him up.
The boy told his mother the teacher had hit him, and the mother, instead of picking him up, immediately called the police. A young female police officer who had just gotten out of the academy went to the school and arrested her, handcuffed the teacher in front of her students, and took her away in a paddy wagon to lockup.
Police procedures required only that a citation be issued and handed to the teacher. There was no reason for the arrest or for locking up the teacher.
The next day, it had made the papers. GW would be her lawyer. Big news. GW got big verdicts.
The first thing I always asked myself when I would get one of these cases was, what’s the problem with it? And the second thing was, how bad is it?
When I went through the file that Friday afternoon, for a case that would be tried in federal court on Monday, I discovered several problems.
I had to prove that the police officer had “used excessive force” during the interaction, and it was evident that GW had lost interest in the case some time ago because he could not prove excessive force. It was, of course, dramatically inappropriate, but there had been no beating or bruising.
The thin file also indicated that there had been no preparation for trial.
But, much worse, they had lost the client. There was no current address or phone number.
This was going to be a long weekend.
The first thing I had to do was find the client and let her know that the case was set for Monday.
I found out that she had retired the year after the incident, and left no forwarding address. I got lucky. I went through the Baltimore phonebook and found her early Friday evening.
She was, perhaps, in her mid 60s. She lived alone in a small house in West Baltimore. She had never married or had children and had become somewhat of a recluse. Teaching had been her life. She immediately took control and put me at ease as only a seasoned teacher can do. She was more than forgiving of the late notice of the trial and, as we worked together through Saturday and Sunday, we got to know each other. I bought and picked up the lunches and dinners.
We laughed together. We became an unlikely team.
I found out that she had been declared not guilty of the criminal charge that had been filed against her for hitting the student, and that she had been so overwhelmed by the arrest that she had retired shortly after she had been acquitted.
She had her employment file and it revealed an exemplary career. I explained how it was a difficult case, but I assured her we would put up one hell of a fight. I wanted a jury that would decide with its heart because the law was against us.
After a while, I asked her if she had been to the doctor or a psychiatrist so that I could establish damages. She said she had not. I gently asked her, was there was any evidence of what she had suffered?
She sat quietly for a moment, then reached up to touch the top of her head, grabbed a handful of hair and pulled a wig off. She was completely bald. She looked down, ashamed.
The next morning, the federal judge looked at me and asked, “how are you going to prove excessive force with these facts?” He asked if the case could be settled. The lawyers for the police department answered with a resounding “no.”
After we chose the jury, the judge chose a NASA engineer to be the foreman. The judge was making sure that an extremely precise engineer would be the person to lead the jury in the discussion of whether this case had established excessive force.
I put our client on to prove her case, and we went through her years of education, the awards she had gotten, and her commitment to middle school kids. We established that she had been found not guilty of hitting the child.
She was very sympathetic. She evoked compassion. I moved to the final question and asked, “and what impact, if anything, has this event had on your life?”
As we had agreed and practiced, she then took an inordinate dramatic pause, looked into the eyes of the jury, and then removed her wig. It was a command performance. There was an audible gasp from a shocked and empathetic jury.
The cross-examination by the officer’s attorney focused on the lack of “excessive force” during the arrest.
As the jury was dismissed to deliberate the morning of the second day, I felt I still had the momentum but, within an hour, a note was delivered to the judge from the foreman asking for a definition of “excessive force.”
The NASA engineer was being precise. He was making sure the jury decided with their heads not their heart. He was perfect for the job.
As we waited for a verdict, that same question was again and again brought to the judge for his instruction to the jury. In each case, excessive force was defined by the court in terms of “aggressive” and “abusive” force.
Finally, in the late afternoon of the second day, the jury came back with a verdict that exonerated the police officer and ruled against the teacher.
I was shocked to find myself almost in tears as the teacher hugged me. She patted me on the back and thanked me because I had tried so hard for her. After the jury had been dismissed and the lawyers were packing up, the judge called us into his chambers as he was preparing to go home and told me, “even if you had won, I was going to take the case away from the jury, because there was not sufficient evidence of excessive force.“
I sent Christmas cards to the teacher for several years until one January the card was returned with hand writing across the address, which merely said “Deceased.” I looked in the newspapers but could not find an obituary.
She taught me a lot about kindness even in the face of defeat, and the difference between how we make decisions with our hearts and with our heads.
I still think of her.