When I reflect on my thirteen years as a solo, what comes to mind first aren’t my major victories, but instead, my small moments. I actually have at least three small moments that have influenced the course of my practice, but today, I’ll discuss just one: the day I changed a judge’s mind.
Back in the early days of my law firm, I handled court appointed criminal work, about ten to fifteen cases a year, primarily to get hands on experience in court. After a year, when I had some experience under my belt (but still remained awfully naive) I was assigned to represent a sixty something, petty offender who’d just been released from jail (for some drug or petty theft) and had been arrested in a drug buy, found with a syringe in his sock. In an effort to secure his release on bail (he’d only been out of jail for a few months and did not want to go back), I concocted some story about how he had the syringe as part of a needle exchange program, and also argued that with his many ties to the area, he wasn’t likely to flee. I secured my client’s release pending trial.
Now, my client had more experience with the “system” at that point (his
“rap” sheet, i.e., his list of priors dated back to the 1970s and was 4
pages long). He told me that he’d be off parole in 6 months and that
we needed to postpone any trial until after that, because, otherwise,
he’d face a more severe penalty. I agreed to follow this strategy
(besides, from what I had already learned, it often took more than 6
months to get to trial anyway).
A few weeks later, I showed up in court with my client for a routine
status hearing. My client kept falling asleep and snoring loudly and
though I’d nudge him and tell him to wake up, his behavior persisted.
Eventually, the judge took notice and ordered my client to the back of
the court to take a drug test. When status call concluded, the judge
called me to the bench. “Your client’s a walking pharmacy,” he said.
I’m going to lock him up pending trial.” “Your honor,” I exclaimed,
“My client is entitled to a hearing.” “Well,” said the judge, “You can
have a hearing if you want, but my mind is made up!” The judge set a
hearing for after lunch.
Now, I knew if my client was locked up, our delay strategy wasn’t going
to work any more. Plus, I thought that the judge was unfair. My
client’s release was not contingent on passing a drug test and my
client was undergoing treatment, trying to break a decades old habit.
During lunch, I called my client’s drug treatment counselor and
gathered statistics on the success of older addicts in breaking their
habit. I called the client’s daughter and gather information on how
difficult it would for her father if he were sent back to jail.
When we returned from lunch, I put on a rousing argument for my
client. I quoted the statistics and the daughter, I shared my personal
experience about the client and his intelligence and effort to get
himself back on track. I must have spoken for fifteen minutes because
when I finished, the prosecutor whispered to me “wow – that was great”
and he didn’t oppose my request. The judge said “I was prepared to
lock your client up, but you changed my mind.” And he told the client
he was lucky to have me as his attorney.
The hearing was entirely inconsequential – just a hearing on whether my client would remain in jail pending trial. Just a silly, small thing. But that hearing made me realize that I have the power to move people, to change a judge’s mind. And whenever I go to the line for my clients before a judge or a jury, I remember that day and try to summon that power.
As solos, what we do is small by biglaw standards. No multimillion deals, no mega corporations as clients. We represent individuals, small companies, often helping them with day to day matters that aren’t earth shattering the greater scheme of things. And yet in our small way, we make a big difference.
What’s your small moment? Please share it below or in a cross post at your blog.