What does it mean to be an attorneyNovember 9, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Posted in tax law is sexy, the firm | 4 Comments
Tags: New Jersey bar exam, pro bono work, Suffolk Probate Court
I passed the bar just over one year ago, and today was the first day I entered a courtroom on real, lawyerly business. I realize some lawyers never go before a judge. My father, an M&A lawyer, was one such attorney. Everyone else in my family who is a lawyer, however (and most of them are*), has spent a a lot of time in court as a criminal or civil attorney. My aunt shepherded major women’s civil rights litigation through the appellate courts, my uncle has argued in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and my mother and stepdad were career prosecutors.
I was nervous and clueless. I wore my black maternity suit. I got to the courthouse way too early. My clients and I were the first ones in the courtroom at the appointed time of 9 a.m. I knew that I was supposed to check in with the judge’s clerk up at the bar, and I did that promptly. But then it was another 45 minutes until the judge even took the bench. Case after case was called. At 11 a.m. my clients were restless — they had to get back to work. I asked the clerk if my clients needed to be in the courtroom for the hearing of our petition. Not only did they not need to be there, but our case file was lost. “Don’t worry,” said the clerk. “It’s on someone’s desk somewhere. We’re recreating it.” (I later learned that this is not atypical…) My clients left. I stayed. The bailiff woke up a snorer in the back row (I’m not making this up) and shooed out people who were talking, standing, or trying to drink coffee in the courtroom. As I grimaced at every cough and sneeze (the H1N1 vaccine supposedly needs two weeks to become fully effective), I texted my assistant-district-attorney mother with my questions and observations. “So the judge just takes the bench whenever she feels like it?” “She is reading each file just before she hears the case?” “Why do all the attorneys know each other?” “Why do they keep coming and going out of the courtroom?” Was I supposed to be coming and going?
I spend my days so so isolated and sheltered up in my glimmering office building, surrounded by the tax code. Once again, the contrast between my relatively easy position (yes, we work long hours, but we’re not exposed daily to murders, drugs, and abuse, not to mention decaying courthouses…) and the “real” justice system inbues in me a deep admiration for my mother and for Henry, both of whom commuted daily from our tony suburb into an entirely different world at the county courthouse in Elizabeth, N.J. I felt kind of like a fraud sitting in that courtroom in my expensive maternity jacket and Kate Spade heels: I’m not really an attorney, I just go into work with over-educated, over-paid people and pretend to be.
Finally, my docket number was called. I had met my client through one of our firm’s pro bono initiatives. She was seeking legal guardianship of her 18-year-old daughter, who is severely mentally disabled and unable to make decisions for herself. Not only are the guardianship rules new and tediously complicated, but the process of getting a petition filed in Probate Court is equally so. I explained the daughter’s condition to the judge. My guardianship petition was granted.
Maybe a small burden was lifted from the shoulders of a Dorchester family. But does my paltry 60 seconds in front of a judge legitimize my role as a lawyer? Perhaps in the context of my litigation-experienced family, but perhaps not so much in the grand scheme of things.
*Only one, however (I believe), has the distinction of having passed two state bar exams! Congrats to my aunt, namesake (no, wait, I am her namesake?), and godmother, who, after practicing law in New York state for 30+ years, moved to one of only four states into whose bar you cannot ever waive, and today received her victorious NJ bar results! Not that she was ever not going to — but that great feeling of relief is still fresh in my memory. It just cannot be underestimated.