Page 71 of The Street Lawyer

If any law office in America could absorb five hundred thousand dollars in fees without showing it, it was the 14th Street Legal Clinic. Mordecai wanted new computers and phones, and probably a new heating system. The bulk of the money would be buried in the bank, drawing interest and waiting for the lean times. It was a nice cushion, one that would guarantee our meager salaries for a few years.

If he was frustrated by the reality of sending the other five hundred thousand to the Cohen Trust, he concealed it well. Mordecai was not one to worry about the things he couldn't change. His desk was covered with the battles he could win.

It would take at least nine months of hard labor to sort out the Burton settlement, and that was where I would spend much of my time. Heirs had to be determined, then found, then dealt with when they realized there was money to be had. It would get complicated. For example, the bodies of Kito Spires and those of Temeko, Alonzo, and Dante might have to be exhumed for DNA tests, to establish paternity. If he was in fact the father, then he would inherit from the children, who died first. Since he was now dead, his estate would be opened, and his heirs located.

Lontae's mother and brothers posed intimidating problems. They still had contacts on the streets. They would be paroled in a few years, and they would come after their share of the money with a vengeance.

There were two other projects of particular interest to Mordecai. The first was a pro bono program the clinic had once organized, then allowed to slip away as federal monies evaporated. At its peak, the program had a hundred lawyers volunteering a few hours a week to help the homeless. He asked me to consider reviving it. I liked the idea; we could reach more people, make more contacts within the established bar, and broaden our base for raising funds.

That was the second project. Sofia and Abraham were incapable of effectively asking people for money. Mordecai could talk people out of their shirts, but he hated to beg. I was the bright young Waspy star who could mix and mingle with all the right professionals and convince them to give annually.

"With a good plan, you could raise two hundred thousand bucks a year," he said.

"And what would we do with it?"

"Hire a couple of secretaries, a couple of paralegals, maybe another lawyer." As we sat in the front after Sofia left, watching it grow dark outside, Mordecai began dreaming. He longed for the days when there were seven lawyers bumping into each other at the clinic. Every day was chaos, but the little street firm was a force. It helped thousands of homeless people. Politicians and bureaucrats listened to the clinic. It was a loud voice that was usually heard.

"We've been declining for five years," he said. "And our people are suffering. This is our golden moment to turn it around."

And the challenge belonged to me. I was the new blood, the new talent who would reinvigorate the clinic and take it to the next level. I would brighten up the place with dozens of new volunteers. I would build a fund-raising machine so that we could lawyer on the same field as anyone. We would expand, even knock the boards off the windows upstairs and fill the place with talented advocates.

The rights of the homeless would be protected, as long as they could find us. And their voices would be heard through ours.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Early Friday I was sitting at my desk, happily going about my business as a lawyer/social worker, when Drake & Sweeney, in the person of Arthur Jacobs, suddenly appeared at my door. I greeted him pleasantly, and cautiously, and he sat in one of the maroon chairs. He didn't want coffee. He just wanted to talk.

Arthur was troubled. I was mesmerized as I listened to the old man.

The last few weeks had been the most difficult of his professional career--all fifty-six years of it. The settlement had given him little comfort. The firm was back on track after the slight bump in the road, but Arthur was finding sleep difficult. One of his partners had committed a terrible wrong, and as a result innocent people had died. Drake & Sweeney would be forever at fault for the deaths of Lontae and her four children, regardless of how much money it paid into the settlement. And Arthur doubted if he would ever get over it.

I was too surprised to say much, so I just listened. I wished Mordecai could hear him.

Arthur was suffering, and before long I felt sorry for him. He was eighty, had been contemplating retirement for a couple of years, but wasn't sure what to do now. He was tired of chasing money.

"I don't have a lot of years left," he admitted. I suspected Arthur would attend my funeral.

He was fascinated by our legal clinic, and I told him the story of how I'd stumbled into it. How long had it been there? he asked. How many people worked there? What was the source of funding? How did we operate it?

He gave me the opening, and I slipped in. Because I couldn't practice law for the next nine months, the clinic had decided that I should implement a new pro bono volunteer program using attorneys from the big firms in town. Since his firm happened to be the largest, I was thinking of starting there. The volunteers would work only a few hours a week, under my supervision, and we could reach thousands of homeless people.

Arthur was aware of such programs; vaguely aware. He hadn't performed free work in twenty years, he admitted sadly. It was normally for the younger associates. How well I remembered.

But he liked the idea. In fact, the longer we discussed it, the larger the program grew. After a few minutes, he was talking openly of requiring all four hundred of his D.C. lawyers to spend a few hours a week helping the poor. It seemed only fitting. "Can you handle four hundred lawyers?" he asked. "Of course," I said, without any idea as to how to even begin such a task. But my mind was racing. "I'll need some help, though," I said.

"What kind of help?" he asked.

"What if Drake & Sweeney had a full-time pro bono coordinator within the firm? This person would work closely with me on all aspects of homeless law. Frankly, with four hundred volunteers, we'll need someone on your end."

He pondered this. Everything was new, and everything was sounding good. I plowed ahead.

"And I know just the right person," I said. "He doesn't have to be a lawyer. A good paralegal can do it."

"Who?" he asked.

"Does the name Hector Palma ring a bell?"


"He's in the Chicago office, but he's from D.C. He worked under Braden Chance, and got pinched."

Arthur's eyes narrowed as he struggled to remember. I wasn't sure how much he knew, but I doubted if he would be dishonest. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his soul-cleansing.

"Pinched?" he asked.

"Yeah, pinched. He lived in Bethesda until three weeks ago when he suddenly moved in the middle of the night. A quickie transfer to Chicago. He knew everything about the evictions, and I suspect Chance wanted to hide him." I was careful. I was not about to break my confidential agreement with Hector.

I didn't have to. Arthur, as usual, was reading between lines.

"He's from D.C.?"

"Yes, and so is his wife. They have four kids. I'm sure he'd love to return."

"Does he have an interest in helping the homeless?" he asked.

"Why don't you ask him?" I said.

"I'll do that. It's an excellent idea."

If Arthur wanted Hector Palma back in D.C. to harness the firm's newly acquired passion for homeless law, it would be done within a week.

The program took shape before our eyes. Every Drake & Sweeney lawyer would be required to handle one case each week. The younger associates would do the intake, under my supervision, and once the cases arrived at the firm they would be assigned by Hector to the other lawyers. Some cases would take fifteen minutes, I explained to Arthur, others would take several hours a month. No problem, he said.