Page 67 of The Street Lawyer

"The press would eat us alive."

"So? We're immune. You think our clients worry about what the Post says about us?"

He was playing the devil's advocate--arguing points he didn't really believe in. Mordecai wanted to protect me, but he also wanted to nail Drake & Sweeney. Some people cannot be protected from themselves. "All right, we walk away," I said. "And what have we accomplished? They get away with murder. They threw those people in the street. They're solely responsible for the wrongful evictions, and ultimately responsible for the deaths of our clients, yet we let them off the hook? Is that what we're talking about?"

"It's the only way to protect your license to practice law."

"Nothing like a little pressure, Mordecai," I said, a bit too harshly.

But he was right. It was my mess, and only fitting that I make the crucial decisions. I took the file, a stupid act that was legally and ethically wrong.

Mordecai Green would be devastated if I suddenly got cold feet. His entire world was helping poor folks pick themselves up. His people were the hopeless and homeless, those given little and seeking only the basics of life--the next meal, a dry bed, a job with a dignified wage, a small apartment with affordable rent. Rarely could the cause of his clients' problems be so directly traced to large, private enterprises.

Since money meant nothing to Mordecai, and since a large recovery would have little or no impact on his life, and since the clients were, as he said, either dead, unknown, or in jail, he would never consider a pretrial settlement, absent my involvement. Mordecai wanted a trial, an enormous, noisy production with lights and cameras and printed words focused not on him, but on the declining plight of his people. Trials are not always about individual wrongs; they are sometimes used as pulpits.

My presence complicated matters. My soft, pale face could be the one behind bars. My license to practice law, and thus make a living, was at risk.

"I'm not jumping ship, Mordecai," I said.

"I didn't expect you to."

"Let me give you a scenario. What if we convince them to pay a sum of money we can live with; the criminal charges are dropped; and there's nothing left on the table but me and my license? And what if I agree to surrender it for a period of time? What happens to me?"

"First, you suffer the indignity of a disciplinary suspension."

"Which, unpleasant as it sounds, will not be the end of the world," I said, trying to sound strong. I was horrified about the embarrassment. Wamer, my parents, my friends, my law school buddies, Claire, all those fine folks at Drake & Sweeney. Their faces rushed before my eyes as I saw them receive the news.

"Second, you simply can't practice law during the suspension."

"Will I lose my job?"

"Of course not."

"Then what will I do?"

"Well, you'll keep this office. You'll do intake at CCNV, Samaritan House, Redeemer Mission, and the other places you've already been to. You will remain a full partner with the clinic. We'll call you a social worker, not a lawyer."

"So nothing changes?"

"Not much. Look at Sofia. She sees more clients than the rest of us combined, and half the city thinks she's a lawyer. If a court appearance is necessary, I handle it. It'll be the same for you."

The rules governing street law were written by those who practiced it.

"What if I get caught?"

"No one cares. The line between social work and social law is not always clear."

"Two years is a long time."

"It is, and it isn't. We don't have to agree on a two-year suspension."

"I thought it was not negotiable."

"Tomorrow, everything will be negotiable. But you need to do some research. Find similar cases, if they're out there. See what other jurisdictions have done with similar complaints."

"You think it's happened before?"

"Maybe. There are a million of us now. Lawyers have been ingenious in finding ways to screw up."

He was late for a meeting. I thanked him, and we locked up together.

I drove to the Georgetown Law School near Capitol Hill. The library was open until midnight. It was the perfect place to hide and ponder the life of a wayward lawyer.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

DeOrio's courtroom was on the second floor of the Carl Moultrie Building, and getting there took us close to Judge Kisner's, where my grand larceny case was awaiting the next step in a cumbersome process. The halls were busy with criminal lawyers and low-end ham-and-eggers, the ones who advertise on cable TV and bus stop benches. They huddled with their clients, almost all of whom looked guilty of something, and I refused to believe that my name was on the same docket with those thugs.

The timing of our entry was important to me--silly to Mordecai. We didn't dare flirt with tardiness. DeOrio was a fanatic for punctuality. But I couldn't stomach the thought of arriving ten minutes early and being subjected to the stares and whispers and perhaps even the banal pregame chitchat of Donald Rafter and Arthur and hell only knew who else they would bring. I had no desire to be in the room with Tillman Gantry unless His Honor was present.

I wanted to take my seat in the jury box, listen to it all, and not be bothered by anyone. We entered at two minutes before one.

DeOrio's law clerk was passing out copies of the agenda. She directed us to our seats--me to the jury box, where I sat alone and content, and Mordecai to the plaintiff's table next to the jury box. Wilma Phelan, the trustee, was already there, and already bored because she had no input into anything about to be discussed.

The defense table was a study in strategic positioning. Drake & Sweeney was clustered at one end; Tillman Gantry and his two lawyers at the other. Holding the center, and acting as a buffer, were two corporate types from RiverOaks, and three lawyers. The agenda also listed the names of all present. I counted thirteen for the defense.

I expected Gantry, being an ex-pimp, to be adorned with rings on his fingers and ears and bright, gaudy clothing. Not so. He wore a handsome navy suit and was dressed better than his lawyers. He was reading documents and ignoring everyone.

I saw Arthur and Rafter and Nathan Malamud. And Barry Nuzzo. I was determined that nothing would surprise me, but I had not expected to see Barry. By sending three of my fellow ex-hostages, the firm was delivering a subtle message--every other lawyer terrorized by Mister survived without cracking up--what happened to me? Why was I the weak sister?

The fifth person in their pack was identified as L. James Suber, an attorney for an insurance company. Drake & Sweeney was heavily insured against malpractice, but I doubted if the coverage would apply. The policy excluded intentional acts, such as stealing by an associate or partner, or deliberately violating a standard of conduct. Negligence by a firm lawyer would be covered. Willful wrongdoing would not. Braden Chance had not simply overlooked a statute or code provision or established method of practice. He had made the conscious decision to proceed with the eviction, in spite of being fully informed that the squatters were in fact tenants.

There would be a nasty fight on the side, out of our flew, between Drake & Sweeney and its malpractice carrier. Let 'em fight.

At precisely one, Judge DeOrio appeared from behind the bench and took his seat. "Good afternoon," he said gruffly as he settled into place. He was wearing a robe, and that struck me as odd. It was not a formal court proceeding, but an unofficial settlement conference.

He adjusted his microphone, and said, "Mr. Burdick, please keep the door locked." Mr. Burdick was a uniformed courtroom deputy guarding the door from the inside. The pews were completely empty. It was a very private conference.