Friday, March 30, 2012

Chapters 6 and 7, wherein Kate finds herself conducting her first trial.

(Haven't read chapters 1 through 5?  Find them here.)
     I put my head down on my desk, willing the stress feeling to go away. I heard Janice come in. I didn't lift my head, but I could smell a combination of cigarette smoke and Opium perfume.
     “Kate?” Janice said as gently as she could in her rough voice, “Are you OK?”
     I sat up. “Janice,” I said in a pathetic tone, “I don’t know how to do a trial.”
     “Didn’t you take trial skills or work at the criminal law clinic in law school?” she asked, reasonably.
     “No, I wasn’t really going to be a lawyer, and so I moved up here, and then there were these priests, and I wasn’t Catholic, so I looked in the want ads …” I could hear the hysteria creeping into my voice.
     “You took Criminal Procedure, right?” Another rational inquiry.
     She was killing me. I could only bow my head and shake it back and forth.
     “Jesus Christ,” she said, sounding a little irritated. “What classes did you take?”
     “Women and the Law … Existentialism and the Constitution … Maritime Law,” I mumbled.
     “Maritime Law?”
     “Well, there wasn't a line at the sign-up sheet, and …”
     “Here,” she said in a more patient voice, “let’s start with the basics. Have you ever seen a trial?”
     “Does T.V. count?” She gave me a look. 

     “Then, no,” I said.
     “OK,” she said, pulling her chair up next to mine. “Here’s how a trial goes.” Her multiple bracelets jangled as she pulled out a yellow pad of paper. “First you have motions in limine.” She wrote “Motions in Limine” at the top of the page. “Do you know what motions …” she started to ask, before a look at me stopped her. “Motions in limine are motions you make to the court to exclude evidence that you do not think should be admissible at trial. Like, for example, you move to exclude any prior criminal convictions your client might have.
     “Next comes voir dire.” She wrote “Voir Dire” on the next line. “After voir dire, each side gives an opening statement. The prosecutor gives his first, because the state has the burden of proof. Then it’s your turn to give an opening. The opening statement is basically just a summary of what you think the evidence will show from your perspective.
     “Next, the prosecution calls its witnesses. After each witness testifies, you cross-examine the person, trying to point out things favorable to your client’s case. After the state has called all of its witnesses, you call any witnesses that you might have. Last, you call your client, if he wants to testify. The prosecutor can cross-examine all of your witnesses, just like you cross-examined his.
     “The last part of the trial is closing argument. Again, the prosecutor goes first, and then it’s your turn to make your argument about why your client is not guilty. Then, the prosecutor gets to make a rebuttal closing argument. And then you’re done.” She wrote “Done” at the bottom of the page.
     I looked at the yellow piece of paper, now clutched in my hand—my little roadmap to a trial. Maybe it’s not so hard, I thought, but I could feel the panic rising.
     I walked quickly to the bathroom, in case I was not going to be able to keep my stomach contents down, when the word “DUI” on the spine of a book on a metal shelf caught my eye. Despite my rumbling stomach, I stopped and looked at the book. “The Art and Science of DUI Defense,” read the title. Wondering if divine intervention were somehow involved, I took the book off the shelf. A rich burgundy leather-like cover with gold lettering held at least 500 pages of small type. I wouldn’t have been happier if I had discovered a treasure chest full of gold and tequila. I didn’t know who the book belonged to or if I was allowed to take it, but nothing was going to stop me from reading the book over the weekend. I stuck it in my briefcase and smuggled it out of the office.
     On Saturday, I read the entire treatise on DUI defense. Not only did I not know how to defend a DUI, I didn’t know how to defend anything. This book helped me have my first clue. There were whole chapters on each phase of the trial—what motions in limine to make, how to conduct voir dire, how to give a colorful and interesting opening statement, how to effectively cross-examine, etc. By the end of the day, I had learned more practical information from this book than I had learned in three years of law school. Now I had some idea of how to prepare for Mr. Roberts’ trial. It was about a week’s worth of work, I figured. I had one day.
     Sunday passed in a blur. To keep myself from panicking, I limited myself to two hours of preparation for each portion of the trial. If I wasn’t finished with the preparation of that portion by two hours, too bad, I had to move on. I tried not to think about the entire trial, or the uncomfortable possibility of Mr. Robert’s innocence, and to just focus on whatever part I was preparing. I only had to breathe into a paper bag three times.


     On Monday morning, I arrived at court an hour early. I felt uncomfortable wearing my interview suit, like I was dressing up in my mother’s clothes. I thought there had to be some way to stop this insane notion that I could conduct a trial. Suddenly, it occurred to me—what about a plea bargain? I had a vague recollection of hearing that term before. Didn’t people settle cases with plea bargains? I looked in Mr. Roberts’ file. José had written a note that said: “Try to get the prosecutor to offer neg driving.” Then the next note, “Phone call to pros—won’t do a neg driving due to admissions and accident.”
     I thought it might be worth another try. Of course, at that point I would have tried setting myself on fire if I thought it would make the trial go away.
     The prosecutor arrived early too. He was tall and regal looking, with dark hair and an extremely crisp, white shirt. I felt rumpled just looking at him. His shoulders were broad, but his head unnaturally small; the combination caused him to look like a tube of toothpaste. He carried a spiffy black-leather briefcase and had particularly good posture. I was tempted to check my lipstick in the shine on his shoes.
     “Bradley Boldham the Third,” he said, offering his hand.
     I tried to offer a firm handshake in greeting, as I had been taught, but found myself wincing under his crushing grip. “I’m Kate,” I squeaked, trying to ignore the pain in my hand.
Shaking out my hand behind my back, I attempted to appear both confident and cute—although I noticed that my voice was shaking a bit. “Hey,” I said, “you know I just got this case, so we never got to talk or anything. But I think we’ve got a pretty good case here—no breath test, a sympathetic client …” Then I thought, Do I tell him about the mangled leg and the missing fingers? My mind was racing: Do tell? … Don’t tell? … Do tell? … Don’t tell? Because if I told him about the leg and the fingers, maybe I’d get the deal. But then again, if told him this information, and then didn’t get the deal, he would be able to prepare and explain why missing fingers and mangled legs didn’t matter.
     I choked on that thought, but before I could say anything else, Bradley said, “Let’s see what the trooper says when he gets here.”
     The state trooper arrived a few minutes later, an attractive black man in his early 40s. He looked official and authoritative in his pressed blue uniform. I gave him a dimpled smile. He gazed back with an expressionless face.
     Bradley explained my offer for settlement to the trooper, saying that he felt confident in his case, but, on the other hand, noted that my client had no criminal history. I started to get the feeling that Bradley was a little nervous about the trial himself, trying to sell the deal a little. The trooper looked down at me again, same blank expression. I smiled back anyway. He sighed and said to Bradley, “Suit yourself; I get paid the same either way.”
     I felt immediate, palpable relief. Even though I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly “neg driving” was, I assumed it was a good settlement. José had seemed to think so from his note. I spent the next 10 minutes waiting for Mr. Roberts to arrive, smoking a cigarette I had bummed from a passerby, enjoying the light feeling of departing stress.

     While waiting, a lost-looking young woman walked over to me. I had the friendly sort of face that caused people to feel comfortable approaching me. Strangers were always coming up to me and asking for directions or help. “Do you work here?” the young woman asked.
     “Sort of,” I said. “I’m a public defender.”
     “Oh, I have a public defender.” She tilted her head inquisitively, like a puppy. “Do you have to go to college to become a public defender?”
     “I went to law school,” I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact, rather than defensive.
     “Like night school or something? Sort of, like, trade-school for lawyers?”
     “No, I just went to regular old law school.” I tried to answer patiently, but my tone was deteriorating.
     “So you didn’t pass?”
     “I passed.”
     “Then why aren’t you a real lawyer?”
     The young woman was saved by Mr. Roberts arriving in his beat-up work truck. I quickly pushed aside a thought about his driver’s license being suspended for refusing the breath test, and waved him over. “You’re not going to believe it,” I said. “They caved and offered you a neg driving. Isn’t that great!”
     “What the hell is that?”
     “It’s a plea bargain.” I said, using my new words. “If you take it, you won’t have to go to jail.”
     “I don’t want no danged plea bargain. I’m innocent.”
     As I stared at his stubbornly set jaw, the gradually lifting stress I had been experiencing slammed into my stomach at about 60 miles per hour. Oh my God, I was going to trial.
On the way to the courtroom, I shook my head at the trooper and prosecutor as I walked by, too freaked-out to talk. At least I hadn’t told them about the leg and the fingers.

     Mr. Robert’s case was assigned to Judge McIntosh’s courtroom. José had told me that this was a lucky draw, because Judge McIntosh was one of the few district court judges who didn’t, as he put it, “hold himself out as the petty dictator of his puny district court kingdom.” I had no idea what that meant. José also said that McIntosh wouldn’t give me a hard time just for being new, for which I was grateful.
     Mr. Roberts and I entered the courtroom and sat down at one of the counsel tables. Bradley and the trooper sat at the other table, a double vision of good grooming and posture. A man in a navy blazer with a gold and red crest on the pocket entered the courtroom from a door behind the judge’s bench. “All Rise!” he said in a deep voice. We all stood up, and the judge, a short, cherubic man wearing a black robe, came into the courtroom.
     Here we go, I thought.
     We all sat down when the judge sat down. He looked at us, and then read from the court file, “This is the time and place scheduled for the trial of State of Washington versus Roberts, case no. R2-9567-6. Are the parties ready to proceed?”
     “Yes!” Bradley announced confidently. 
     I wondered if I was allowed to say “no.” He did ask the question after all. Everyone was looking at me. “Yes,” I said, giving in to the pressure. “We’re ready, too.”
     “Very well,” said the judge. “Bailiff, bring in the jury venire panel for the voir dire process.”
     As I sat with my client at the counsel table and waited, I thought, Someone must prevent this from happening. I simply cannot conduct a trial. Surely the first real trial I watched should not be with my own self as the lawyer. I sat in stunned disbelief as the 30 potential jurors filed into the courtroom. I stared at their faces, impressed by the sheer inevitability of the situation.
     Voir dire was the time that lawyers and the judge questioned potential jurors to see if they were biased against one party or the other. That was the official line, anyway. According to my weekend reading, however, voir dire was the time for the lawyer to start selling the theory of the case, the time to communicate the lawyer’s personality to the jury, and the time to demonstrate command and control of the courtroom. I was feeling neither command nor control.
     Bradley stood up and placed a neatly-typed, previously-prepared list of questions on the lectern. I tried to cover up my scribbled and doodled yellow pad that contained my hastily scrawled ideas. According to my book, one of the topics to cover during voir dire was the concept of “reasonable doubt.” The defense lawyer was supposed to try to make the jurors think that reasonable doubt was this nearly impossible burden, a huge mountain of proof that the prosecutor must provide in order to obtain a conviction. The prosecutor, on the other hand, would try to make reasonable doubt much smaller than it actually was—a mere inconvenient bump on the slick road to conviction.
     Bradley cleared his throat majestically and asked, “Juror Number Four, what do you think about ‘reasonable doubt’?”
     “I guess I haven’t really given it that much thought,” the man answered. He looked like a retired farmer or laborer, and none to happy at being singled out for attention.
     “Now, sir,” Bradley said in a serious and important tone, “Do you understand that it’s not proof beyond any doubt that we’re talking about—rather, it’s proof beyond a reasonable doubt?”
     “Well, no, I don’t really understand that,” the man answered distrustfully; he would clearly rather be left alone.
     Not getting the hint, Bradley continued to question the uncomfortable man. “Why do you think the law requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt rather than proof beyond any doubt?” Bradley forcefully jabbed his pen in the air whenever he said reasonable.
     “I can’t really figure. Because I suppose if I had a doubt, there would be a reason for it.”
     “Let me give you an example, sir: Suppose you had a doubt that Mr. Roberts committed this crime, but your doubt was based on the possibility that extra-terrestrials had come down to earth and taken over Mr. Roberts’ body. Would that be a reasonable doubt?”
     The man crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, defiantly. “I don’t think we should discount the possibility of the existence of life-forms on planets other than earth.”
     I had to look down at my notepad and scribble fake notes in order to keep myself from giggling.
     Bradley looked taken aback, to say the least, but managed to soldier on. “Are you saying, sir, that you believe in extra-terrestrials?”
     “I certainly think there is a possibility.”
     I could see Bradley internally freaking out, totally off of his carefully-orchestrated script. Trying to hit the escape button, he punted to the rest of the jury, “Is there anyone who disagrees with juror number four?” A librarian-looking lady with a long braid and thick glasses shyly lifted her hand a little. “Yes, juror number twenty-four,” Bradley said gratefully.
     “I agree that we shouldn’t ignore the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.”
     At this point I thought Bradley would have gladly asked extra-terrestrials to snatch him then and there from the courtroom. In a desperate voice, Bradley asked the panel, “Is there anyone on this entire jury venire panel that does not believe in extra-terrestrial life?” Of course, by this time, the judge and I were both trying so hard not to laugh that our faces were red and our bodies were shaking.
     The laughter over the extra-terrestrials had broken the tension and relaxed both me and the jury. The jurors responded more openly to my voir dire questions, volunteering information and discussing their thoughts without much guidance from me. I didn’t do anything brilliant, I just talked to them, asking about their feelings on drinking and driving, the United States Constitution, and Liberty and Justice for All. I caught myself once, walking around the courtroom, asking a juror what she thought about the presumption of innocence, and thought, I am actually doing this—walking around a courtroom, asking questions. Someone peeking through the small glass window on the courtroom door might have mistaken me for a real lawyer.
     Once the jury was chosen, we began our opening statements. Bradley’s opening was straightforward, if boring, with a lot of “the state intends to introduce evidence” and “we will call Trooper Perkins to the stand and he will testify to evidence of the defendant’s intoxication.”
     In my opening statement, I tried to personalize Mr. Roberts. I told the jury how he had hitchhiked to Alaska when he was 20, that he had boarded a commercial fishing boat to earn money to pay for a bus ticket back to Kansas, but had instead fallen in love with the sea. I told them about Mr. Roberts’ friendship with Enrique Martinez, the man Mr. Roberts was having dinner with the night of the accident. I didn’t mention Mr. Roberts’ fingers or leg, hoping to capitalize on their drama during the testimony.
     Bradley called Trooper Perkins as his first witness. Perkins explained how Mr. Roberts smelled of the “odor of intoxicants” and that his eyes were “bloodshot and watery.” He also noticed that Mr. Roberts had an unsteady gait. These factors caused him to believe that Mr. Roberts was intoxicated, and he therefore administered the “field sobriety tests.” Perkins testified that based on his 20 years experience, his observations of Mr. Roberts, and the results of the field sobriety tests, he believed that Mr. Roberts was definitely intoxicated.
     Now it was my turn to cross-examine Trooper Perkins. While I had never formally cross-examined anyone before, I had numerous previous boyfriends who would attest to my ability to bust them with a series of logical questions. The DUI book had told me to prepare simple questions that would point out the weaknesses in the witness’s testimony. Of cross-examination’s golden rules: Ask leading questions; phrase the questions carefully, in a way the witness must admit the answer; and, most importantly, don’t ask a question you don’t know the answer to.
     Some lawyers command the courtroom, but I was a 25-year-old blonde, so I approached the podium and gave the jury a friendly smile. If I couldn’t command, at least I could look like everyone’s favorite college student.
     “Good morning, Trooper Perkins,” I began.
     “Good morning,” he answered stiffly.
     “You’re familiar with the field sobriety tests?”
     “Yes, I am.”
     “These are a set of agility tests used to determine whether someone is intoxicated?”
     “And that is their sole purpose—to determine whether someone is drunk?”
     “Intoxicated, yes.”
     “And 'intoxicated' is the same thing as 'drunk?'”
     “When you approached Mr. Roberts, you noticed a smell of alcohol?”
     “The odor of intoxicants.”
     “The odor of intoxicants is the same as the smell of alcohol?”
     “So when you approached Mr. Roberts you smelled alcohol?”
     “The smell of alcohol alone, will not tell you whether someone is intoxicated?”
     “It is a sign that I consider.”
     “Isn’t it true that the smell of alcohol indicates how recently someone has had a drink, rather than how drunk they are?”
     “So you can tell from the smell of alcohol, that someone has a drink, but you cannot tell if they are intoxicated or not?”
     “Bloodshot eyes can also be a sign of intoxication?”
     “But bloodshot eyes can also be caused by other factors?”
     “It is a factor that I consider.”
     “But bloodshot eyes could be caused by hay fever?”
     “Or being tired?”
     “Or a cold?”
     “You can’t tell from bloodshot eyes alone whether someone is intoxicated?”
     “An unsteady gait may also be a sign of intoxication?”
     “But may also be caused by other factors?”
     “I suppose.”
     “Such as a disability?”
     “I didn’t see any sign of a disability in this case.”
     “But you would agree that a disability could cause an unsteady gait?”
     “At the time you chose to administer field sobriety tests, you knew three things: one, that Mr. Roberts smelled like alcohol; two, that his eyes were bloodshot; and three, that he had an unsteady gait.”
     “You then used the field sobriety tests to find out whether he was intoxicated?”
     “The first agility test you used was the walk-and-turn test?”
     “Where you instructed Mr. Roberts to walk on a line 10 steps forward and 10 steps back?”
     “And you noted that Mr. Roberts had trouble staying on the line?”“Yes.”
     “You attributed this to alcohol consumption?”
     “Then you had him stand on one leg?”
     “I administered the one-leg stand test.”
     “Which involves him standing on one leg?”
     “Thus, you had him stand on one leg?”
     “You noted that after five seconds he lost his balance?”
     “Did you ask him whether he had any problems with his balance?”
     “He didn’t mention any.”
     “Did you ask?”
     “You also asked Mr. Roberts to perform a fingertip touch test?”
     “Yes, I did.”
     “You had him perform this test with his right hand.”
     “That is my usual practice.”
     “Yes, but did you have Mr. Roberts use his right hand?”
     “I said it was my usual practice.”
     “If you had done something differently that your usual practice, would you have made a note?”
     “Did you note anything different than your usual practice regarding Mr. Roberts’ fingertip touch test?”
     “Consequently, you had Mr. Roberts use his right hand on the finger-tip touch test.”
     “Thank you, Trooper Perkins,” I said, and sat down, feeling strangely flushed.

     After Trooper Perkins testified, the judge asked Bradley, “Your next witness?”
     “Your honor,” Bradley said confidently, “The state rests!”
     The judge turned to me: “Ms. Hamilton, your first witness.”
     I wasn’t sure whether my client was considered a witness or not, but since I didn’t have anyone else to call, I plunged in. “We will call Mr. Roberts to the stand,” I announced with more assurance than I felt.
     Mr. Roberts walked to the witness stand, limping slightly, but not overdoing it. I started asking him the questions I had prepared for direct examination. Unlike cross-examination, I could not ask leading questions, but rather only open-ended ones. For example, “Tell the jury what you were doing on May 3rd,” or “How much did you have to drink?” etc. When we were approaching the subject of the field sobriety tests, I said to Mr. Roberts, “You heard Trooper Perkins say that you were unable to walk a straight line?”
     “Yes ma’am, I did.”
     “Is there any reason that you would not have been able to walk a straight line?”
     “Yes ma’am, I got a bad leg.”
     “What do you mean, a bad leg?”
     “Well, it’d be easier to show than to tell.”
     I turned to the judge. “Your honor, I’d ask permission for Mr. Roberts to show his leg to the jurors. He can do this by pulling his pants down—he is wearing swim trunks beneath them.”
     “Objection!” Bradley shouted as he catapulted himself out of his chair.
     Judge McIntosh, with an amused look, asked quietly, “And the basis for your objection?”
Bradley started looking down a list of standard evidentiary objections. Unable to find a “No Pulling Pants Down in the Courtroom” rule, he finally said, “I just don’t think people should be pulling their pants down in court.”
     And the legal basis for this concept?” the judge asked, again quietly.
     “It’s just not dignified to pull down your pants,” Bradley whined.
     Clearly annoyed at Bradley’s lack of legal basis for his objection, the judge retorted, “That may be the case for you, Mr. Boldham, but we’ll let the jury judge Mr. Roberts.” Then, turning to me, “Ms. Hamilton, you may proceed, but tell Mr. Roberts to make sure that when his pants come down, his swim trunks stay up.”
Mr. Roberts got up from the witness stand and walked down in front of the jury. “Mr. Roberts, if you could—carefully—remove your pants and show the jury your leg.”
     Without a hint of embarrassment, Mr. Roberts unbuckled his pants and pulled them down. His swim trunks (purchased by me for this very purpose) were a discreet navy. Several of the jury members gasped when they saw his leg.
     “Would you please tell the jury, Mr. Roberts, what happened to your leg,” I asked.
     Standing in front of the jury, Mr. Roberts put his leg up on a chair. “My leg, you see, got caught in a conveyor belt on a fishing boat back in ’76. My foot went into the workings, but then the conveyor belt started to move. You can see here and here where the bone was sticking out.”
     “Were they able to repair your leg?” I asked.
     “The best they could, I suppose,” he said.
     “Has this accident affected your gait?”
     “My what?”
     “The way you walk.”
     “Oh yes, ma’am, I couldn’t walk a straight line to save my life.”
     “And your balance?”
     “Do you think you could stand on this thing?”
     I decided to just leave it at that, letting the leg speak for itself.
     “Mr. Roberts, if you could, please, pull up your pants and return to the witness stand.”
     When he was again seated in the witness chair, I moved to the fingertip-touch test. “You heard Trooper Perkins say that you also failed the fingertip-touch test by missing two of your fingertips.”
     “Yes, I did.”
     “Did you have another fishing accident that involved your right hand?”
     “Yes, ma’am,” he answered, keeping his hands in his lap, out of sight, as I had instructed him.
     I looked over at the jury. Every juror was looking at Mr. Roberts attentively. They couldn’t wait to see his hand. While I could have asked him to show his hand to the jury right then, I decided to draw it out a little.
     “When did you have this accident?”
     “That must have been 1980, a couple of years after my leg.”
     “Where were you at the time?”
     “Off the coast of Alaska.”
     “Please tell the jury what happened.”
     “I was feeding fish into the guillotine. My hand slipped and I sliced off two of my fingers.”
     “Please show your hand to the jury, Mr. Roberts.”
     Mr. Roberts held his hand up, clearly displaying the two missing digits. I looked over at Bradley. His neck burned bright red. I knew he wanted to object, but couldn’t think of any legitimate legal reason. The librarian-looking juror looked over at the trooper and shook her head disapprovingly.
     With that lovely little moment, I ended my direct examination. Bradley stood up to cross-examine, his neck still red. Bradley pointed out some important things for his case, but was too aggressive, I thought.
     “You drank wine,” Bradley accused in a strong voice.
     “Yes, sir, I did.”
     “And not just one glass.”
     “No, I had more than that.”
     “Not two.”
     “I said earlier that I had three or four.”
     “You had so much you can’t even remember, isn’t that right?”
     “That’s just the best I can recall, sir. They were these tiny little glasses, you see. Only held about a thimble-full. My friend and I poked fun at his wife about their size. She’s always liking dainty little things.”
     “You chose to drive after having an unknown amount of wine.”
     “Yes, I did. I had a big meal—pot roast and mashed potatoes—and a few tiny glasses of wine. I was completely sober.”
     “Yet you refused to take the breath test.”
     “That’s right.”
     Bradley leaned forward and pointed his pen at Mr. Roberts. “Because you were drunk!”
     “No, because I don’t trust police and I don’t trust machines. Put the two of them together, and you’ve got a test that I’m not going to take.”
     “You caused an accident.”
     “I was in an accident.”
     “You turned in front of an on-coming car.”
     “Yes, I did. But I think I misjudged the young man’s speed. I assumed he was going the speed limit, and thought I had time to make my left turn. I think the young man was actually going much faster.”
     Bradley sat down. The judge asked, “Any re-direct, Miss Hamilton?”
     I assumed this meant whether I wanted to ask Mr. Roberts any more questions. “No, your honor,” I said, hoping I wasn’t making a mistake. I felt that Mr. Roberts had handled himself well. I figured I could only screw things up by asking more questions.
     After Mr. Roberts stepped down from the stand, the judge looked at me.
     What did he want? Clearly, it was time for me to say something.
     “Ms. Hamilton?”
     Finally, he helped me out. “Do you rest?”
     “Oh, yes,” I said gratefully. “We rest.”
     I remained standing as the jurors left the courtroom. It was 4 o’clock, and I couldn’t wait to get home and go to bed so that I could get up early and prepare my closing argument. The judge stood up. “Thank you, counsel. Please return in 20 minutes for closing arguments.”
     I looked at my counsel table. On it were three books, my trial notebook, and five legal pads containing my disorganized notes from the trial. I desperately needed to organize my thoughts. I told Mr. Roberts to meet me back in the courtroom at 4:20, and left with a single yellow pad. I walked quickly around the first and second floors of the courthouse, searching for a quiet place where I could think. Finding nothing, I went into the ladies’ room, and noticed the silence. I went into a stall, closed the toilet seat, and sat down. For the next 15 minutes I composed my closing argument in complete concentration.
     I returned to the courtroom with my argument outlined on my legal pad. Bradley placed two laminated pages containing his typed closing argument on the lectern between the counsel tables. Despite its fine organization, Bradley’s closing argument was dull. He listed all of the elements of the crime and pronounced that he’d proven them. He emphasized the fact that Mr. Roberts admitted to drinking three to four glasses of wine, that he was involved in an accident, and exhibited classic signs of intoxication. He didn’t mention anything that actually happened at the trial, because he had prepared his argument the day before.
     In my closing argument, I reminded the jurors that before administering the field sobriety tests, the trooper admitted he didn’t know whether Mr. Roberts was intoxicated. He exhibited signs that he had consumed some alcohol, which Mr. Roberts admitted. The question, though, wasn’t whether Mr. Roberts had been drinking, but whether his ability to drive a car was affected by alcohol to a significant degree.
     “Trooper Perkins told us that the reason he gave Mr. Roberts those tests was to find out if Mr. Roberts was impaired. And that’s why you have to find Mr. Roberts not guilty,” I said. “You have to find him not guilty because those tests weren’t fair for Mr. Roberts. I can see Trooper Perkins missing the fact that Mr. Roberts can’t walk normally due to a disability. But someone needs to explain how Trooper Perkins failed to notice that Mr. Roberts was missing the same fingers that he allegedly couldn’t touch. If you feel that way too (and I knew they did), then you have a doubt, and you must find Mr. Roberts not guilty.” When I sat down, I realized that I hadn’t looked at my outline once during my argument.
     In his rebuttal closing argument, Bradley changed from his usual formal self into an angry maniac. “This man,” he said, pointing his finger at Mr. Roberts, “drove his vehicle like a drunken madman! This man didn’t think about the consequences of his actions!” I might have objected if I hadn’t been so surprised. “It is your job to hold Mr. Roberts accountable for his actions!”
     And we were done, just like Janice had said. I felt a combination of elation and dread, mixed with relief that the trial was over. What were we supposed to do now? The judge’s bailiff asked us for our phone numbers, and told us he would contact us when the jury had a verdict. A verdict? In my relief that the trial was over, I had forgotten all about the verdict. What if Mr. Roberts was found guilty? Would they take him to jail?
     I sat on a bench in the courtyard, unable to return to my office. I knew if I went back everyone would want to know how the trial had gone. I was too exhausted to talk about it.

     An hour later, the bailiff found me, still sitting on the bench in the courtyard. “Ms. Hamilton, the jury has a verdict.”
     My heart began to pound. “What is it?” I squeaked.
     “You have to go into the courtroom to find out.”
     I found Mr. Roberts sitting in his truck listening to a talk radio station. We went into the courtroom and resumed our places at the counsel table. I felt powerless, because whatever their verdict was, it was done. Nothing else to do about it now. In a few seconds the jurors would come in and tell us what their verdict was.
     “What do you think it is?” Mr. Roberts asked.
     “I have no idea,” I answered truthfully.
     As the jurors came into the courtroom, I scanned their faces for signs of their decision. Most of them kept their eyes straight ahead as they took their places in the jury box. The old farmer guy had a rolled-up piece of paper clutched in his hand.
     “Juror Number Four,” the judge asked the farmer, “are you the foreperson of the jury?”
     “Yes, your honor, I am.”
     “Has the jury reached a verdict?”
     My heart began pounding as I waited to hear “guilty” or “not guilty.” Instead, the juror said, “Yes, your honor, we have reached a verdict.”
     I expected the next sentence to be: “And what is your verdict?” But instead, the judge said, “Please pass the verdict form to the bailiff.”
     Just say the words, I willed the presiding juror. In slow-motion, the juror handed the form to the bailiff, who took about an hour to walk to the judge and hand it to him. I felt sweat beads forming at my hairline. I wondered if anyone had ever had a heart attack while getting a verdict. The judge unfolded the paper. Now he knew what it was, and we didn’t. I held my breath.
     The judge read. “We the jury …”
     And I expected to hear, “find the defendant ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’”
     Instead, he read, “in the matter of the State of Washington versus Jack M. Roberts …”
     Here it comes, I thought.
     “In case number R2-9567-6, find the defendant …”
     “In Count One …”
     “For the charge of Driving While Under the Influence …”
     My face was purple by now.
     “Not Guilty.”
     I released my held breath in a rush of air. Never had I heard two sweeter words. I turned and happily hugged Mr. Roberts, who was looking pretty relieved himself.

     I walked back to my office in a state of amazement. We had won! Despite the fact I had no idea what I was doing, the jurors had seen that there was doubt about Mr. Roberts’ guilt.    Maybe our justice system worked.

     I trudged up the office stairs to Wall Street, precariously carrying my trial materials under one arm and my overloaded briefcase on the other. I remembered my disappointment when I had opened the package containing the Coach briefcase my parents had given me for graduation. What would I ever do with a briefcase?
     I passed Matthew’s office, and as soon as he saw me, he asked, “Hey Kate, how’d it go?” As soon as he said this, Jose and Janice came out of their offices.
     I couldn’t contain my smile. “Not guilty!” I said. “Can you believe it?”
     “Awesome!” José shouted, high-fiving me. Everyone started chanting “Not Guilty! Not Guilty!” The feeling was amazingly exhilarating and the world was good.
Ed must have heard the ruckus, because he came up the stairs. “What’s all the noise about?”
“Kate got a ‘Not Guilty’ on her first trial!” José sounded as happy as if he had won the trial himself.
     “Wonderful, Kate. But don’t get used to it,” Ed said with a smile. I sure wanted to get used to it. This feeling was outstanding.
     “Let’s go out and have a drink,” José suggested.
     “Yeah, come on, Kate,” Janice said, “José owes you a drink since you did his trial.”
     “I don’t know. I’m awfully tired.”
     “Come on, just one drink,” Jose said.
     I looked at my new friends, each looking at me expectantly. I could always rest later. “OK,” I said. “One drink.”
     Jose and Janice dragged me down the stairs, with Matthew ensuring that I didn’t escape from behind.
     When we reached the street level, a ratty Celica parked in front of the office drew Jose’s attention. “Bastards!” he said, ripping a parking ticket off the windshield. He stuffed the ticket in his pocket. “A word of advice, Kate. Don’t park in the meters. You’ll get a bunch of tickets and then owe the county more than your salary.”
     “Don’t we get parking spaces at our office?”
     Jose shook his head. “You’re cute, Kate. This is a public defenders’ office. We don’t have parking spaces, we don’t have secretaries, we don’t even have walls. Things other lawyers take for granted are unaffordable luxuries at this office. But we’re scrappy, so we get by.”
Janice lit a cigarette. “You can park in the meters as long as you flirt with the meter maids. I haven’t gotten a ticket in two years.”
     “Janice can flirt her way out of anything,” Jose said. “I wouldn’t have believed anyone could get to those cranky old bastards. But Janice has a special talent.”
     “Even old guys need a little love,” she said. “Especially old guys.”
     “I just plug my meter on time,” Matthew said.
     We stopped in front of a heavy wooden door with a circular window. Above the window, the name “Moezy’s Inn” was written in cursive blue neon.
     Jose pushed open the door and the warm glow of light reflected off polished wood welcomed. Behind the bar, a large woman with long, dark permed hair drew beer into a pitcher and smiled when she saw us. “Hey, guys,” she said and grabbed an empty pitcher.
Jose led the way to a table in the front alcove of the bar. I looked around—it looked like a decent place. Not a live music place or anything, but a neighborhood bar. Most of the patrons wore work-a-day suits, probably lawyers from the courthouse. The air was a little smokey, but not too bad. Vintage beer posters decorated the walls, and there were no ferns in sight. A couple of small TVs were mounted above the bar, like if an important game were on, you could watch it here, but it wasn’t a sports bar.
     The bartender brought a pitcher of beer and four mugs without anyone ordering. “Who’s my new victim?”
     “Pam, this is Kate. She’s new in our office,” Janice said. “Kate, this is Pam. Pam thinks she is our mother.” Pam was tall and heavy-set, and wore an un-ironed Oxford cloth shirt and tight Wrangler jeans. Her manly clothing contrasted with her long hair and hairsprayed bangs.
     “With kids like you guys, I don’t need any of my own. Welcome to Moezy’s, Kate.”
     Jose poured a round. “Here’s to ‘Not Guilty,’ the two sweetest words on the planet.”
Our mugs bumped with dull clanks. “Not Guilty!” we all repeated.
     I took a long drink of the deliciously cold beer, draining half the pint. “I guess I was thirsty.”
     “Trial work will do that to you,” Jose said, having drained his own mug. “So what did you think of your first trial?”
     “It was great. Now that it’s over, that is. I don’t think I’d feel so happy if I had lost, though.”
     “No, losing sucks. But it’s always good to be done.”
     “Are trials always this stressful?”
     “Always. Maybe you should do all of my trials.”
     “I think I’d better learn how to do them better first. Maybe after I’m done with my training?”
     Janice laughed out loud, while Matthew looked down at his coaster.
     “I will have training, won’t I? I mean, my doing a trial with absolutely no clue was a fluke, right?”
     “Remember those unaffordable luxuries I was telling you about?” Jose said. “Training is one of them.”
     “I’ll help you all I can, Kate,” Matthew offered.
     I noticed that the bottom corner of Matthew’s shirt pocket was a block of black ink. “Matthew, I think your pen is leaking.”
     Janice exhaled smoke. “All of his shirts are like that.”
     “Why don’t you get a pocket protector already,” Jose said.
     “I thought those were just for engineers,” Matthew said.
     “The county supplies us with these totally cheap-ass pens,” Jose said. “They won’t even write most of the time.”
     “I shouldn’t have to buy my own pens,” Matthew said.
     “It costs a lot more to buy new shirts than pens,” Jose said.
     I noticed that Jose’s khakis were frayed at the cuffs, but he carried himself like an Ambercrobie and Fitch advertisement. His shirt was faded to a weather-worn light blue, his tie loose and jaunty, and his shirt half tucked in, giving a glimpse of tight abs. His dark skin had a golden undertone, as if he had been in the sun too long about a week ago. He seemed to have more than his share of teeth. Matthew, with his ink-stained shirt, scuffed shoes, and chubby cheeks, just looked rumpled. His bright blue eyes and blonde hair made him cute, and his scruffiness made me want to take care of him. Janice, on the other hand, looked like she was going to a Reba McIntyre concert. She was wearing a short, white skirt and a black suede jacket with blue shoulder inserts. Her long red fingernails had tiny diamonds pasted on them.
     “What are you thinking about, Kate?” Matthew asked. “You’re staring off into space.”
     “Nothing. I was just thinking that you guys are great.” I told myself to shut up. I hated it when a couple of beers made me sappy. “So, why do they give us pens that don’t write?”
     “Ah, the beauty of being a county agency,” Jose said.
     “County what?” I asked.
     “Our budget comes from the county. Same as the prosecutors’,” Jose explained. “The problem is, they’ll throw all kinds of money at the prosecutors’ office, but no one wants to pay for the public defenders. So they give us as little as possible, and that pretty grudgingly. Most of us buy our own pens, but Matthew, you see, is idealistic..”
     Matthew finished his beer and stood up. “I’ve got to go.”
     “Don’t go away mad, Matthew,” Janice said. “You know we love you.”
     “I know,” he said, blushing and looking down at his shoes. “It’s just getting late.”
I looked at my watch. It was nine o’clock.
     “Matthew lives with his parents,” Janice said. “They don’t like him to stay out late.”
     Nine didn’t seem that late to me, but I was feeling the effect of the trial and the beer. “I’ve got to drive back to Seattle—I’d better go too,” I said.“Where are you living?” Janice asked.
     “For now at the Y.”
     “Are you going to move down here?” Jose asked.
     “I don’t know. I keep feeling like I’m going to wake up back in Texas and find out this was all a crazy dream.”
     “It’s not a dream, Kate,” Jose said, “but it’s pretty crazy—and it’s just getting started. Go home and get some rest. You’re going to need it.”

Want to read more?  Find chapter 8, wherein Kate goes to docket call, and later finds a place to live, here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Here Goes Nothing!

Following this post will be a PD novel, published serially, I wrote several years ago. I won't bore you with the details, but it got bogged down in the not-getting-published process. There are parts I should rewrite--the first 30 or so pages should be trashed and it needs a more cohesive plot--but I am not the same lawyer or the same person who started this novel eight ago. The novel I would write now would be angrier and more bitter and not necessarily better. But! I nevertheless think it has value in its current form: it portrays a journey that many of us take, and will at least entertain you.

I will publish the novel serially, a couple of chapters every Friday, with a bigger chunk to start out. And now to disclaim: The following novel is a work of fiction. Any apparent similarity to real persons or situations is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination. In other words, this is all made-up stuff, and any stuff you think is real isn't, except in the way that totally made-up stuff can reveal a deeper truth.

And of course, the author retains the copyright to all materials written by her and published on this blog.

Chapters 1-5, wherein Kate finishes law school and an internship; moves to Washington; and finds a job at the public defenders' office.

I knew one thing after I graduated from law school: I would never be a lawyer.
I probably had one of the top ten worst reasons of all time for going to law school in the first place. I had just received an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. I had chosen English as my major because, although I had never been a particularly studious undergraduate, I loved to read. After receiving my English degree, however, I found that my career options were limited to becoming an English teacher and, well, nothing.
I figured that I could persuade my parents to continue to subsidize my existence if I obtained another degree, but I still couldn’t think of what I wanted to be. “Go with something you love,” the career counselor told me. I considered cooking school (I loved Southern food), professional poker school (I loved the idea of it), and law school (I loved to argue). According to my research, however, the best cooking schools were in California and New York, and the poker schools were all in Vegas. The thing was, though, after four years of meticulous undergraduate research, I had discovered all the best bars in Austin. I’m not talking about the famous places, but rather the hole-in-the-wall joints—the bars with live music, cheap beer, and free pool tables. Austin was also home to a large law school, to which I applied and was accepted. Thus, I decided to go to law school not because I wanted to become a lawyer. I decided to go to law school to stay in a town where I knew all the really good bars.
I treated my law-school classes more as a hobby than a serious endeavor. I arrived for class every morning with my hair in messy braids, wearing one of the T-shirts from my extensive pub T-shirt collection. I was frowned on by the student body establishment, which tended to be serious, aggressive, and boring. A few students actually wore suits to class every day.
Because I was often a little fuzzy-headed in the morning, I frequently forgot to bring a notebook or a pen for class. I could usually pull a flier off of the class bulletin board to take notes on. Pens, on the other hand, were harder to come by. Every day, the young man next to me carefully lined up three pens and four multicolored highlighters alongside his notebook. When he saw me coming, he moved the pens to the other side of his desk, as far away from me as possible. The shy Asian girl on my other side would usually slide me a pencil. Pen Boy eagerly raised his hand in response to every question the professor asked the class. His answers were always wrong.
My law-school organizational system was crude, but effective. After each class, I folded my lost-kitten or guitar-for-sale flier and stuck it in my back pocket. Back at my garage apartment, I would throw my jeans on the floor of my closet. The next time I wanted to wear the jeans (or shorts, overalls, or whatever), I would empty the pockets onto the closet floor. By using this method, all my notes stayed in the same place. At the end of the semester, I simply cleared a spot on the closet floor to sit, shut myself inside, and read through all the notes.
Surprisingly, I made pretty good grades. Because of my grades, I was offered a summer clerkship at Conatox, a large oil and gas corporation, at the rate of $1,500 a week. While I couldn’t imagine a career at an oil and gas company, having at least a few environmental good intentions, I could imagine it for $1,500 a week for one summer. I thought I should at least try working for a corporation to see what it was like. Who knew? Maybe I would like it.
I bought a couple of conservative suits, nylons, and pumps, determined to make the best of my summer job. I arrived at a tall office building on my first day of work with one minute to spare. In the lobby, I saw one elevator going up, with its doors just beginning to close. A young lawyer-type was inside, his head down, reading a newspaper.
“Could you press ‘Open Door’?” I asked through the closing doors. He kept looking down, his short, neat blonde haircut to my face. “Hey,” I said, loudly. He didn’t even flinch. As the elevator doors were about to touch, I stuck my hand in the inch-wide crack, breaking two nails. The doors sprang back open. The lawyer-type brushed my broken nail fragments off his suit, finally looking up at me. It was Pen Boy. I smiled, and joined him on the elevator. He refused to look at me as the elevator rose to the seventh floor.
The doors opened to a walnut-paneled reception area. The air was cold and stale, the product of excessive air conditioning and windows that could never be opened. Behind a polished reception desk was a beautiful receptionist in a tidy sweater set. She spoke rapidly into a telephone headset which was placed like a headband on her smooth brunette hair. The words “CONATOX INC” loomed behind her in impressive bronze capital letters.
A tall, officious woman in a gray, belted suit greeted us immediately, as if she had been waiting. “Kate Hamilton?” I nodded and shook her cold hand.
“Steve Rendenberg?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Judy Frothingford,” she said with a nod. “Deputy Assistant Legal Counsel for Conatox. Follow me, please.” She turned and walked down a corridor without checking to see if we were coming.
Everything in the hall was still, even the air, as if the molecules had been told they weren’t allowed to move. We passed offices containing men and women sitting at desks, staring at computer screens. They all seemed to be wearing the same dark suit.
“You two will share this office for the summer,” Judy said, opening the door to a bleak office with white walls, two desks, and no windows. “You will receive legal research projects in your in-boxes. Each one is to be completed the day it is assigned. At the end of the summer, your performance will be evaluated. One of you,” she paused for effect, “but only one, will be offered a permanent job at Conatox.”
As soon as she left I said, “Psst, Steve, you don’t need to worry about competition. I don’t want the permanent job. I’m just here for the summer.” I offered this generously; I wanted him to know that there would be no need for back-stabbing competition. The job was his. He raised his eyebrows and turned away from me to face his computer. He was too smart to fall for my trickery. He obviously believed I did want the permanent job—I was just trying to lull him into thinking he didn’t have to work hard.
Because Steve felt he had to out-perform and out-smart me in order to get the permanent job, he did all the work. Early on, I noticed that he was sneaking my assignments out of my in-box, so I started giving my projects to him directly. This puzzled him, but not enough to stave his paranoia. As much as I liked avoiding writing oil and gas legal memoranda, I grew incredibly bored. Steve, on the other hand, was paranoid to the point of panic. I read over his shoulder as he typed lengthy interrogatories for a lawsuit regarding methane gas emissions from cow manure:
“1) Please estimate the amount, in pounds, of manure that your cattle produce per year.
“2) When you artificially inseminate your cattle, do you purchase sperm, or use your own?
I twirled around in my office chair, while he typed and typed and typed. “Where are you going?” he demanded as I left the room.
“I don’t want the job, Steve.”
He smirked. “Oh right, I forgot.”
“I’m going shopping in the office supply closet. Want anything?”
“That’s stealing, you know.”
“I will endeavor to apply my spoils to the greater corporate good,” I said with a curtsey.
A half-hour later, I came back to our office with pens (roller ball and fine point), sticky notes (tiny, super-sized, and accordion style), and a box of finger cots—the beginnings of an art project.
“What are these things?” Steve asked, examining the rubbery, nubby finger cots.
“They look vaguely sexual, don’t they?”
“You’re disgusting.”
I put a finger cot on each of my fingers and waived them suggestively in his face.
“I should have you arrested,” he said, turning back to his computer.
I sat at my desk and contemplated how to fill the remaining five hours of the day. Steve’s fingers clicked endlessly on his computer keyboard. The air remained obediently motionless. I wondered if a finger cot would fit over my head.
After lunch, I waited for Steve to return. At exactly 1 o’clock he walked in our door, ignoring me, and went to his desk to check his telephone messages. Steve was very diligent about checking his messages even though, as summer interns, we received no calls. With the phone on speaker, he dialed the voice-mail system.
“Buenas Dias,” the voice-mail lady’s voice said.
Steve looked at the phone, puzzled.
Por favor marque el numero de extensión ahora.”
“Hey, I didn’t know she could speak Spanish,” I said, interested.
“Damn it,” he said, punching a few buttons on the phone’s key pad.
“La extensión que a marcado no es valida.”
“I wonder if she knows any other languages,” I mused.
Por favor marque de nuevo el numero de extensión ahora.”
Steve began angrily and randomly punching the phone’s keypad.
“She’s not going to like that,” I said.
“La extensión que a marcado …”
“Make it stop!” Steve shouted at the phone, wildly jamming at the numbers.
Suddenly her voice sped up, like a record on too-fast speed. The voice became high-pitched and chipmunky.
“La extensión que a marcado no es valida! Por favor marque de nuevo el numero de extensión ahora!”
He put his hands over his ears. “Make it stop!”
The voice strained the phone’s tinny speaker. “La extensión que a marcado no es valida! Por favor marque de nuevo el numero de extensión ahora!”
Ears covered, Steve ran out of the room.
“He is going to have to learn how to handle stress better,” I said to the air, and put the phone user’s manual back in my desk drawer.
Ten minutes later, Steve was still gone. I was beginning to worry about him. Just as I was getting up to go look for him, Judy came in.
“Where is Mr. Rendenberg?” she asked.
“I think he must have had some sort of emergency, based on his reaction to a voice-mail message,” I said, a little guiltily.
“I don’t believe we’ve worked together yet this summer,” she said, sitting down in my chair, apparently unconcerned by Steve’s emergency. “I don’t recall any of your work.”
I smiled.
“I need your immediate assistance on an issue that has arisen today,” she continued. “Months ago, a young woman filed a lawsuit against Conatox because a vending machine at one of our gas stations fell on her.”
“Really,” I said, hoping my expression appeared both professional and interested.
“The machine actually did fall on her. The woman claimed that the machine had taken her money, and she was tilting it to get her money back. We don’t believe her—she didn’t have any money in her wallet, and appeared to be homeless. We believe she was simply trying to steal money from the machine, carelessly tilted it, and the machine fell on her.”
“Certainly sounds plausible,” I agreed, trying to imagine how Steve would respond.
“Joel Branford, the lawyer assigned to this case, is currently on vacation. The lawyer for Vending Machines International, which has also been sued, called today to check on the status of the case. For some reason, he sounded concerned. Review the file and write me a summary of the activity on the case—the positions of the parties, our relative strengths and weaknesses. I have to leave early this afternoon, so feel free to work late on this project. Have the memo on my desk by eight tomorrow morning.”
I read through the file. Anne Lassiter, the plaintiff, had her foot crushed when a vending machine at a Conatox station fell on her. She wasn’t a very sympathetic person. In her mid-40s, she was unemployed and semi-homeless, staying with friends and relatives until she found a job. Jake, the lawyer handling the case for Conatox, had written sarcastic notes in the file about the strength of the woman’s case. I was surprised any plaintiff’s lawyer had agreed to represent her.
Out of curiosity, I typed the name of the vending machine company into an internet search engine. I loved to do research when I was supposed to be doing something else. I clicked and clicked until I opened a VMI newsletter. On the last page was a small blurb about rumors of machines being rigged to rip off consumers and allegations of the machines tipping over and injuring people. I did a few more searches and found a college student’s blog about a vending machine that short-changed her and almost fell on her when she rocked the machine. I found an Attorney General’s statement saying an investigation had been launched into the company, based on allegations that the machines were rigged to rip people off every 50th purchase. And then I saw it: the results of the investigation were going to be released tomorrow.
I called a lawyer at the vending machine company. “Kate Hamilton here. From Conatox.” I tried to sound authoritative. “I’m assigned to the Lassiter matter. I’ve done some research and found some disturbing allegations of coin-rigging and defective machines that tilt.”
“We deny those allegations,” the VMI lawyer said.
“Why didn’t you ever mention them to Conatox?”
“Those are totally malicious allegations.”
“There is an Attorney General’s report coming out tomorrow.”
“I am aware of that.”
“Is it going to be good or bad?”
“Bad,” he said with a sigh.
I saw that the woman’s medical bills were $15,000. Her lawyer had previously offered to settle the case for $10,000, probably recognizing the problems with his client’s case. Now the punitive damages alone were going to kill us. It was almost 5 o’clock when I realized that once the report came out tomorrow, we would be completely exposed, and lucky to settle for $50,000, maybe even more.
I couldn’t figure out why Judy had given me this case. It certainly seemed like something that needed the immediate attention of an experienced lawyer, not just some slacker law clerk with a limited license to practice law. I wondered if she realized what was in the file. She must not, I thought, that’s why she asked for analysis. But my analysis said that we needed, from Conatox’s standpoint, to settle this case today.
I called the plaintiff’s lawyer, who luckily was in his office. “Hi, this is Kate Hamilton from Conatox. I’ve been assigned to work on the Lassiter case.”
“Hadn’t expected to hear from any of you folks.” His voice was rough and folksy.
“I’m new, and I thought I would try to close out some of these old cases. A couple of thousand bucks just doesn’t seem worth fighting over.”
“You said you were from Conatox.”
“Yes, we’ve decided we need to cut some of our costs in the legal department, where we spend $50, 000 in legal work to fight over $5000 dollars.”
“That certainly makes sense, but it doesn’t sound like Conatox.”
“I’m part of a new regime.”
“All right,” he said, skeptically. “What’s your offer for settlement?”
“We’ll pay all of her medical bills.”
“Fifteen thousand? But that’s more than my last offer.”
“That’s why I thought you would take it. Your client should be able to pay those bills.”
“Well, I can’t say that I understand this, but I know she’ll accept. If you fax over a written settlement offer, I’ll sign off on it.”
I scrounged around the office until I found a form letter regarding settlements. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. For one thing, I personally would have been happy for the woman to get as much money as possible from the case. For another thing, no one had authorized me to do this. But, the settlement seemed to me the right thing to do. The settlement was in Conatox’s best interest, and Conatox was my client.
By 7 o’clock, I had the deal all wrapped up. I turned out my light and looked over at Steve’s desk. He hadn’t come back all day. Strangely, I hoped he was OK.
The next morning Judy stormed into my office. “Where’s the report? I told you to have it on my desk by eight a.m.”
“That’s sort of a long story.”
“I don’t like long stories.”
“That’s kinda what I figured.”
“Where is the memo?”
“Actually, I sort of settled the case.”
“You what?”
“Well, you see, after looking at the case, I realized that if the case was not settled yesterday …”
“You settled … a case … without authorization,” she said slowly, like she was trying to get a joke.
“I can explain.”
“You will be terminated,” she said with finality.
“I did some research, and my research indicated …”
“Your job, Ms. Hamilton, is not to think, but to obey. I asked for a memo, not an unauthorized settlement. You’re not expected to think on your own. People at Conatox do as they are told, without question.”
I handed her a printout of the research.
“What’s this?”
“Something you might want to read.”
Instead of firing me, Conatox offered me the permanent job.
“You rigged my phone that day,” Steve accused.
“Yes, I did.”
“Because you knew she was coming with that assignment.”
“How would I have known that, Steve?”
“And you knew that you could get the job that way.”
“Yes, I happen to be very well informed about the world of vending machine fraud. I knew I had to snatch up that plum assignment as soon as I heard about it.”
I eventually stopped protesting, realizing I could never dissuade Steve from his conspiracy theories.
The last day of the summer, I composed a polite letter to the head of Conatox’s legal department, thanking him for the job offer, but respectfully declining it. Maybe I was being irresponsible, but I just couldn’t bear the thought spending my career in Conatox’s stale offices. I put a copy of the letter on Steve’s desk.
He stared blankly at me, not knowing what to believe.
“You really didn’t want the job?” he asked.
“Like I told you from the beginning. The job is yours. I don’t want to be a corporate lawyer.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You will some day.”

The week before my last year of law school started, I sold all of my law books in a yard sale, promising myself that I would never become a lawyer. There were so many more interesting things to be. I composed a list: cowgirl (I had never ridden a horse), night club singer (I couldn’t sing), organic herb farmer (please) …
I called my parents, who still lived in Amarillo, the Texas Panhandle town where I had grown up. I told them that I had turned down the Conatox job.
“Kate, they had such good benefits,” my father said.
“They did?” Having never supported myself, I wasn’t sure what “benefits” were. I didn’t tell my parents that I had decided I would never be a lawyer. I still needed them to pay for the last year of law school while I figured out what to do with myself.
Back at school, I stopped taking practical legal classes altogether. I took “Women and the Law,” “Minorities and the Law,” “Existentialism and the Constitution,” and “Maritime Law.” I couldn’t seem to get serious.
A few weeks before graduation, I initiated an uncharacteristic fight with my boyfriend, Bud. Bud was a lanky guitar player I had been dating for about six months. We hung out together drinking beer and playing pool. He serenaded me with funny songs he wrote about his dog. One morning, he got out of bed, sunlight streaming through the sheer curtains of my bedroom window. As usual, he immediately went for his bong. “Wake and bake,” he liked to call it. Since he’d been doing this every morning I’d known him, I don’t know what made me say: “Don’t you think you should have some goal in life other than getting high every day?”
He looked at me, put his mouth on the bong, raised his lighter to the bowl, and breathed in slowly. After blowing out an enormous cloud of sweet smoke, he laughed, a little cruelly, I thought. “You may not get high every day, Kate, but you sure as hell don’t have any ambition.”
“Sure I have ambition. I’m in law school.”
He shook his head as he took another bong hit. After a brief bout of coughing, he said, “Everything comes easy to you, Kate, things that other people have to work hard for. But you don’t even appreciate your talent or luck or whatever it is, you don’t even care. You make fun of all the serious law students, but at least they’re trying to be something. What are you trying to be?”
I was mad at Bud, probably because he was right—we stopped seeing each other after a couple of weeks—but I kept thinking about what he had said. What was wrong with me? Did I lack ambition or passion? I had never cared about grades, top jobs, or money. This blithe attitude was nothing new, either. I remembered being kicked off the soccer team in the fourth grade. Whenever another girl wanted to get the ball from me, I would just let her have it, without a fight. What did I care about the ball? If she wanted it so badly, she could just have it. That’s the way I felt about grades, the job at Conatox, everything. Why couldn’t I find something I cared about enough to fight for?
After graduation, there I was: 25 years old, a lawyer, boyfriendless, ambitionless. I still had some money I had saved working for Conatox and one of my dad’s credit cards. Impulsively, I decided I would move out of Texas. The oppressive heat was getting to me, probably because my garage apartment didn’t have air conditioning. I had friends, but they were all graduating, moving on. I would miss the Mexican breakfasts, live music, my bars, and barbeque, of course, but I felt the pull of adventure. I decided to move to Washington State, which seemed as far away from Texas as possible. I think I hoped that by leaving everything I knew, I could find myself.
Despite my plans for a non-legal career, I signed up to take the Washington bar exam. I hated doing this last bit of legal work, but figured I owed it to my parents. It seemed only fair, since they’d supported me for the past 25 years.
On the first day of August, I took a red-eye flight to Seattle to take the exam. Riding on the bus from the airport to downtown Seattle, I saw tall evergreen trees, disturbing signs about apple quarantines (Do Not Transport Homegrown Fruit!), and a motley collection of skyscrapers in the distance. I refused to think about being scared.
I spent the first three days of my Washington adventure taking the bar exam. I had found a small, dank room at the downtown YMCA, and paid $150 for a month. The weather was overcast and drizzly during the test, although people insisted that it really didn’t always rain in Seattle. The rain didn’t bother me. After three months of 100 degree temperatures in Austin, I found the cool drizzle refreshing. As the exam ended at noon on the third day, though, the sun broke through the clouds revealing a crisp, blue sky. The water in the harbor glistened with a million sparkles.
Celebrating the end of the test, I rented a car, thinking I would explore a little. I spent an extra $20 to upgrade to a convertible, and turned on the nearest thoroughfare. The buildings were quaint and squished together in a big-city way. The people wore sportswear and socks with their sandals. I could hear the romantic long, low honks of the ferries from the waterfront.
The road forced me to turn right, and I tried to look down at my map to see where I was going. A car behind me honked, distracting me from my map, and I looked up.
I gasped in shock. There, directly in front of me, loomed, like an enormous upside-down ice cream cone, a monumental volcano. The mountain almost filled the southern horizon and felt close enough to touch. Traffic blared behind me. I pulled to the shoulder.
What was I doing here? I wiped away an unwelcome tear. In Texas, you didn’t just turn a corner and discover a mountain you hadn’t noticed before. What was I doing in a place so strange, so far away from home? I needed a good bar. But I didn’t know where to find one.
In the next couple of days I discovered that the waterway where the barges and ferries honked was called Puget Sound; that rain can fall so lightly it feels like it is floating; and that no one in this city would ever die of caffeine deprivation, there being at least one espresso shop on every corner. I heard a man order a “quad soy mocha” and felt like a stranger in a strange land. I started to wonder if anyone even drank beer here, or if caffeine was the only vice.
I also discovered parks with towering evergreen trees and rhododendron bushes, an unimaginable variety of ethnic restaurants, and a dozen specialty book stores. One day, I spent the entire afternoon in SeaAsia, an ethnic grocery super store, trying to figure out what one could possibly do with black duck eggs or a whole shark fin. I wondered if I could bread and fry them. Finally, I decided to purchase prawn crackers and pickled quail eggs, which I figured I could make into a gumbo on the hotplate in my room at the Y. Unexpectedly, my credit card was refused.
When I got back to my room, I called my dad. “Do you know why my credit card isn’t working?” I figured my move to Washington had confused Visa.
“Because I cancelled it.”
“But how am I going to go out to eat and buy things?”
“I guess you’ll have to get a job.”
“Really?” I knew he was kidding.
“Really,” he said. No kidding.
I began looking through the employment ads in the newspaper. I saw the “legal” section, but an image of sterile hallways and dark suits flashed through my brain and I quickly turned the page. Then I saw “Food Services.” Now that sounded better, I thought. Scanning down the ads for dishwashers and door greeters, I came across an intriguing item. “Cook dinner for Six Priests. Call Sylvia 447-2831.”
I called Sylvia. “I’m calling about the cooking job?”
“Yes, we have an opening.”
“What would the job entail?”
“You would have a budget. Every day you would do the grocery shopping and have dinner ready by 6 o’clock.”
My mind whirled. What a perfect job. Maybe cooking could become my passion. I loved to cook, and it seemed like six priests would probably be a pretty easy audience.
“Can you cook?” Sylvia asked.
“Oh yes. I was the oldest of nine children, I cooked dinner for them since I was 12,” I lied.
“Wonderful,” she said. “The requirements are: you know how to cook; you have a car; and you are Catholic.”
I hoped two out of the three requirements would be OK. I could cook, and I had bought a 10-year-old Honda Civic with my remaining Conatox money. I wasn’t Catholic, but I wasn’t anti-Catholic.
Sylvia asked me to create a sample menu and to call her back. What would priests like? I wondered. Everyone liked Southern food, I thought. Although the priests might be somewhat worldly, they probably did not expect fancy food, not to mention that I would have a budget. For my sample menu, I chose chicken with fluffy herb dumplings, sautéed green beans, and a sweet potato pie.
I faxed Sylvia the sample menu, along with a cost breakdown and preparation plan. She called back, thrilled. “These sound wonderful,” she said, “simple food, but not just spaghetti and meat balls, like our last cook. Oh, just one thing, if you could give us a reference, a former priest, or other clergy. You know, for the Catholic requirement.”
“Oh, well, that may be difficult,” I said, stalling. “I could say ‘Hail Mary,’” I offered, pulling a phrase from a movie I had seen. “Let’s see … Hail Mary, full of …” I started confidently, then paused. Hmmm … Full of Goodness? No … Greatness. That was it. “Hail Mary,” I started again. “Full of Greatness!”
Sylvia politely ended our conversation. She never called back.

After the priest disaster, I resignedly started looking in the legal section of the employment ads. I was going to run out of money in a week or so. There were a few listings from law firms, but, again, the memory of Conatox made me skip them. I saw a couple of advertisements for prosecutors and public defenders. I thought I’d give these a try, thinking that crime might be interesting.
Neither job listing was in Seattle. The prosecutor job was on Ranier Island, a 40-mile long island in Puget Sound, and the public defender job was in Athens, a commuter city 30 miles south of Seattle. Because I thought working on an island would be cool, I called the prosecutors’ first.
I arrived at the prosecutors’ office early for my two o’clock interview. The office was in the county courthouse, tucked in a wing in the back. Over glass doors, painted gold lettering announced, “OFFICE OF THE PROSECUTING ATTORNEY.” I opened the heavy door and walked to the reception desk. A basket filled with MADD buttons sat on the counter. The receptionist, a middle-aged woman wearing a mauve pantsuit with one of the MADD buttons pinned to her lapel, sat behind a glass barrier. A red plastic sign with raised white lettering sign directed: “Do not ask the receptionist for legal advice. By law, the receptionist may not dispense legal advice.” The receptionist was saying into the telephone, “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t answer that question. If you want legal advice, you’ll have to consult with a lawyer.” She looked up at me. “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I said lightly. “I was wondering if you could give me some legal advice?”
She tapped the back of the sign officiously. “I’m sorry. I am not allowed to give out legal advice.”
Abandoning my attempt at humor, I said, “I’m here for an interview. My name is Kate Hamilton.”
She opened a calendar and ran her finger down a column. “Yes. Here it is. A two o’clock interview with Mr. Bivins. You are late.”
I looked at the clock. It was 1:58. Maybe she was joking with me after all. “Yes,” I said, smiling. “I’ve heard that early is the new late.”
She grimaced as she answered an incoming call. With a wave of her hand she dismissed me to wait in the seating area.
While I waited, I read through a pamphlet about domestic violence. “Are you a victim?” it asked. “Recognize the signs of domestic violence: hitting, slapping, taunting, excessive tickling.” I was beginning to question all of my previous relationships when the receptionist said, “Mr. Bivins will see you now.” She led me past neat fluorescent-lit offices containing second-hand furniture.
She stopped at the last office. “Mr. Bivins?” He looked up from the yellow legal pad placed squarely in front of him. He appeared posed; I noticed that his pen was positioned at a blank portion of the paper. Except for the legal pad, his desk was absolutely clear—no papers, no files, not even a speck of dust. The only accessory was a soft-focus picture of his family. Behind his desk hung a framed poster featuring muscular young men rowing a skiff, with the caption “DETERMINATION.” I wondered if this thin, balding man thought he resembled those determined young men.
I sat nervously on the edge of my chair with my briefcase on my lap. Mr. Bivins steepled his fingers, then slowly brought his fingertips to his nose.
“What brings you here from Texas?” he asked through his fingers.
“I was just kind of tired of Texas, you know?” My mother hated it when I said “you know.” “Um, I just thought I’d try something new.”
“Your whole family is in Texas? You lived there your whole life?”
“You must have friends in the Northwest?”
“Don’t know a single soul.”
“Have you ever been to Washington before?”
“Um, well, no …”
“That sounds a little impulsive.”
“I prefer to think of myself as, you know, adventurous.”
“I see.” He frowned and tapped the end of his pen against the yellow pad. “What is your view of the death penalty?”
I took a deep breath. I had taken a death penalty seminar in law school, one of the few classes in which I had paid attention. I knew what I should say—“I recognize the grave nature of the ultimate punishment. I support its cautious implementation on those who commit heinous crimes against our citizens”—but I wasn’t willing to give it. I had moved across the county to try to find myself. I wasn’t going to start giving up little pieces of myself already.
“Oh, I am personally very much in favor of the death penalty,” I said. “If someone hurt my family or a friend, I would want to kill him with my bare hands.” This is where I should have stopped. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea for the government to take over my personal desire for vengeance, though. I don’t trust the government to do much of anything right, so I probably shouldn’t trust it to impose the death penalty fairly.”
“Are you saying that you do not support the death penalty? The death penalty is legal in this state. Lawyers who work in this office must be able to request the death penalty.”
“Let’s just say that I am uncomfortable with people like you and me deciding when someone deserves to die.”
“I assure you that we treat these decisions with the utmost caution.”
“I sometimes think that my reckless decisions are better than my cautious ones.”
He cleared his throat. “What is your biggest weakness?”
“That’s kind of a stupid question,” I said without thinking. He looked at me with waning patience. One of my biggest problems in life was speaking my mind when discretion would be the better course.
“Because we all have weaknesses we should never expose,” I tried to explain, wishing I had just answered, “I’m way too organized,” but now I was stuck.
“If a person actually tells you his greatest weakness,” I continued, “he is simply stupid, and shouldn’t be hired for that reason alone. So, instead of telling you my greatest weakness, I’m supposed to tell you a made-up weakness that looks more like an asset. Such as, ‘I don’t know when to stop working,’ or ‘I am compulsively early.’ But then I would be lying. So the question ‘What is your greatest weakness?’ forces you to choose between hiring a liar or someone stupid.” Another problem in my life was a tendency to babble when trying to explain myself.
“I see,” was his only response. He stood up and held out his hand. I stood and shook it. “Thank you for coming in, Ms., um, Hamilton. We’ll be in touch.”
Figuring that I had torpedoed the prosecutor interview, I dialed the number for the public defenders’ office in Athens.
“Hello, you’ve reached the public defenders’ office.” Hola usted a llamado la oficina de los defensores publicos …” I desperately pressed “0” about 20 times and miraculously got a person on the line.
“Who were you holding for?” a woman’s voice asked.
“No one, really. I was calling about a job opening?”
“Please hold.”
A few minutes later, the same woman’s voice came back on the line. “Mr. Lundgren, your lawyer says to tell you that you should not get married in violation of a no-contact order.”
“This is Kate Hamilton. I was calling about a job.”
“Please hold.”
I waited another five minutes. I was about to hang up when the woman’s voice returned. “Is this the guy who wants to know what to do with the gun or the lawyer who is looking for a job?”
“The lawyer,” I said.
“We have an opening, but the interviews are today. Can you be here in an hour?”
I drove down I-5 to Athens, and eventually found Lincoln Avenue, a quaint downtown street lined with old-fashioned brick buildings. I parked on the street and looked for public defender’s address. In one of the more run-down buildings, I saw a glass door with peeling plastic letters on the glass: “Counsel Representing Accused Persons.”
I checked in with the receptionist, a woman with frizzy blonde hair. She wore a peasant shirt, spandex bike shorts, and peace-sign earrings. A sign in front of her desk said her name was Janie Glazer. She had forgotten that she had talked to me an hour ago and told me to come in for an interview. “Wait here just a second,” she said. “I’ll find someone who can talk to you. What was your name again?”
“Kate,” I said, figuring that giving her my last name was probably pushing it. This public defender job was not looking promising.
On the counter at the reception desk, I noticed a basket filled with cellophane-wrapped needles, tiny bottles of bleach, and condoms. Not wanting to appear elitist, I slipped a few condoms into my briefcase.
The lobby held eight mismatched metal-frame chairs and six people, so my seating options were limited. I chose a seat between a man wearing sunglasses and a dirty white T-shirt that exposed a hairy, generous belly and a skinny lady with straggly dark hair who sniffed and dabbed her eyes with tissue. At least it’s not boring, I thought.
While leafing through a 3-year-old People magazine, I heard some commotion down the hallway. Apparently one of the clients was either dissatisfied or crazy, because I could hear the loud shouting of obscenities. Curious, but also a little concerned, I peeked around the corner into the hallway and saw a man around 65 years old in khaki pants, a white button-down shirt, and suspenders. He was pacing up and down the hallway shouting, “Fuck those Fucking Fucks!” He punched his right fist in the air, punctuating each “Fuck!” His wild but thinning gray hair bounced around his face with each gesture.
Why did no one stop the crazed man? I wondered. I looked at the receptionist, but she appeared not to notice, continuing to type and answer the telephone. I decided to pretend that nothing was happening as well, but moved to a chair farther from the hallway door.
The commotion ended abruptly, and I forced myself to focus my attention on the magazine. After another 15 minutes, the receptionist called out, “Karen?” She was looking directly at me. “The Director will see you now.” The receptionist led me down a dingy hallway to the last and largest office. There, at a large desk piled high with papers and surrounded by haphazardly stacked document boxes, was the crazy man. He had combed his hair, but his face was still flushed
“Ed Barnes,” he said, shaking my hand. Ed had a friendly smile and otherwise ordinary features, except the tip of his nose jutted out abruptly. I decided that his round, silver wire-frame glasses made him look more like a quirky professor than a dangerous maniac.
“Kate Hamilton.”
“Have a seat.”
I looked at the two chairs facing his desk. A briefcase sat on one of them and a pair of cycling shoes and dirty socks on the other. I moved the briefcase and sat down across from the director/crazy man. A bubbling Zen water fountain made me need to pee.
“When is the last time you helped another human being?” was his first unorthodox question.
I thought for a minute. “I wrote a column in my college newspaper rating local barbeque restaurants.”
“That could be helpful,” he agreed. “Anything more substantive?”
I thought for another minute. “I saved myself from corporate slavery?”
“Very good,” he nodded, as if he knew what I was talking about, and put a check mark next to the question. “How are you at thinking on your feet?”
“Um, sort of OK, I guess …”
“Let me ask you a hypothetical.”
“You represent a woman charged with drug possession. The evidence against her is overwhelming. If she went to trial, she would be found guilty. The prosecutor offers you a fabulous deal. Instead of five years in prison, which she would definitely get after trial, she can plead guilty to a misdemeanor and spend no time in jail. As part of the plea agreement, the state insists that she admit that the drugs were hers.”
“Got it,” I said, hoping I was keeping track of the details.
“When you meet with the woman, however, she insists she didn’t know anything about the drugs, even though they were in her pants pocket. She would be happy to take the plea bargain, but she is emphatic that the drugs weren’t hers. She asks you what she should do.”
I tried to think quickly. “I could just tell her to lie, and say the drugs were hers …”
“You think that’s a good idea? Telling your client to lie?”
“No. But f she tells the truth, she’ll get five years in prison.” I stopped, trying to think a way out of the situation. “Now I seem to be getting myself stuck.”
“You’re the lawyer now. You can’t get stuck. Are you going to tell her to lie or let her go to prison?”
“Well … if the evidence is overwhelming, with no possibility that she actually is innocent, then she must be in denial. She needs to admit the drugs were hers, but without me telling her to lie.”
“How are you going to make that happen? She’s already told you a hundred times that the drugs weren’t hers.”
“Well, I’d tell her, ‘Look—I don’t know if the drugs were yours or not. I don’t know you; I wasn’t there. But I know two things: First, unless you admit the drugs were yours, you will go to prison for five years. Second, I can’t tell you to lie to accept a plea bargain. So, now I want you to tell me the truth. Keeping in mind that if you deny possessing the drugs you will go to prison for five years—were the drugs yours?’”
“What if she says ‘No’ again?”
“Could I run screaming from the room?”
“We do sometimes feel compelled to shout in the hallways in this business.” The left corner of his mouth twitched slightly.
“I screwed that up, didn’t I?”
“Don’t worry, everyone does. It’s the people who don’t realize they have a problem that I worry about. The young lawyers who would happily send their client to prison because they feel squeamish about a lie.” He put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. His oxford shirt bore large sweat stains in the arm pits.
“Tell me, Ms. Hamilton, why do you think you want to work at the Public Defenders’ Office?”
I wanted to say: “Because I’ll work anywhere you can shout ‘Fuck!’ in the hallway.”
Instead, I said, “You know, I’ve only been here about 30 minutes, but I can already tell that I am going to fit right in.”
“Do you mind waiting in the lobby while I read your writing sample?” he asked.
I stood up, holding my briefcase semi-open, trying to fit my unused yellow legal pad into it. I gave the legal pad one last shove, and the condoms from the lobby fell right in the middle of the director’s desk.
I looked up at him, horrified.
“Always good to be prepared,” he said, nonchalantly. I snatched the condoms off his desk and walked as fast as I could away from his office.
I took a seat in the lobby and went back to the magazine. A new client in the waiting room was softly snoring, his head tipped back against the wall. The man with the hairy belly took off his sunglasses, licked the lenses, and then slowly wiped them with his dirty T-shirt. After a few moments, the director reappeared. “Congratulations, Ms. Hamilton! You’ve got a job if you want it.” He shook my hand energetically.
Without asking what the pay or benefits were, I blurted, “Great! When do I start?”
“Anytime, really. Do you have your temporary license?”
“I think so,” I said, remembering filling out some forms for a limited license to practice law when I took the bar exam.
“Wonderful,” Ed said. “Do you have some time right now?”
“Um, I guess,” I answered, not sure I was ready for this. I didn’t know what the job was, what I was supposed to do, what I would be paid, or anything, except that one could curse in the hallways.
“Let me introduce you to the misdemeanor department, which is where I think you’ll be working,” Ed said.
“Think” I’d be working? Didn’t he know?
Ed took me up a grungy stairway to the second-floor “misdemeanor department.” “Department” seemed an awfully formal word for this set-up, however. Two long rows of cubicles extended in an otherwise unstructured room. The cubicle dividers were ratty brown and about five feet tall. Wads of yellow paper flew over the dividers, in an apparent paper-ball war. There was a low hum of general conversation, the loud bang of a telephone being slammed down, and what sounded like someone sobbing. I heard laughter, chatter, and a loud shriek. Ed seemed upbeat, so I assumed this was normal.
He steered me to the doorway of the first cubicle. “Matthew, this is our new misdemeanor lawyer, Kate Hamilton.” Matthew was cute and fresh-faced, stocky, and seemed much too young to be a lawyer. He wore a wrinkled button-down shirt, khakis, and a bad knit tie. His shirt collar had little pills of fabric all over it. As Ed introduced me to Matthew, another lawyer stuck his head over the cubicle wall. Also young, he was strikingly handsome in a dangerous sort of way. He wore funky black plastic-framed glasses and his shoulder-length glossy black hair was held back from his face by sunglasses. He appeared tall, even over the top of the cubicle divider. The misshapen knot in his otherwise preppy striped tie seemed more like an act of defiance than a formality. I thought I could make out a Che Guevara T-shirt underneath his white work shirt. I felt out of place in my conservative interview suit. I cringed at what they must think of me—I was cute, rather than pretty; this combined with the blonde hair and a Texas accent probably made them think that Ed had hired some vacuous cheerleader. I waited for their rejection.
“A new chick lawyer. Fabulous!” the lawyer from over the wall said, reaching his hand down to shake mine, “I’m José. You’re coming to work in misdemeanors? Just in time! Is today your first day?” Before I could answer, he continued, “I’ve got three trials set for Monday, and I can get ready for two, but I need someone to take the third one? Can you do it?”
“Sure,” I said with a laugh. These guys were such kidders.
“I’ll let Matthew and José show you around, Kate,” Ed said. “Find her a desk, too.” He turned to me. “All right, Kate, these guys will get you settled in. You know where to find me if you need anything,” he said and disappeared down the stairwell.
“This,” José said, still standing on his chair, gesturing over the chaotic cubicles as if they were his kingdom, “is ‘Wall Street.’ We call it ‘Wall Street’ because it has no walls. You will have to pardon the smell. There have recently been a number of practical jokes involving rotting fruit, and no one can seem to figure out when enough is enough.”
Matthew and José introduced me to about 10 more lawyers in misdemeanors, whose faces and names merged in a young, friendly, and energetic blur.
“I guess you’ll be taking over Jacob Horwitz’s spot. Jacob went on a sabbatical to Chile, and never came back. All we got from him was a postcard.” Matthew handed me a postcard from Santiago with a picture of a llama smoking a cigar. On the back it said, “Think I’m going to stay a little longer.”
“Where are the secretaries?” I asked, hoping mine wouldn’t be too far away from my cubicle.
José and Matthew both looked at each other. “Their suite is on the sixth floor,” José said.
“Oh, great,” I said, thinking the building hadn’t looked that tall from the outside.
Matthew guided me to the door of another cubicle. “Sorry, but the newest lawyers have to share a cubicle. Kate, meet Janice Walters, your new cubicle-mate.”
Janice was older than the rest—maybe around 35. She had brunette hair with chunky red and blonde highlights and a full figure, She was on the phone, but reached out to shake my hand without pausing her conversation. “Fucking asshole cops,” she rasped in a voice that sounded like she had smoked a million cigarettes. “If they want to take me on, I’ll give them something to talk about.” I noticed a tattoo of the Statute of Liberty decorated her lower left leg, starting at her ankle and reaching its torch up her black leather mini skirt.
Matthew gave me a book to read titled Washington State Court Rules. I figured I’d probably spend the next week or so familiarizing myself with these rules and court procedures. I wondered if there was someone I could follow around for a while. I thought that it would probably be a good idea to watch José’s trials next week, if he really had two. I was just cracking open the court rules book when José appeared in the doorway of my new office. I smiled and was about to ask him if I could watch his trials, when he plopped a file on my desk.
“Here’s the case for trial on Monday.”
I looked at him, politely waiting for the punch line.
“Why don’t you just read through the police reports and then come back and talk to me. I have the client showing up tomorrow morning for a meeting. It’s a pretty good case—you’ll have fun.” I felt my smile becoming distorted. He patted me on the back, saying, “OK, catch you later.”
I sat at my desk staring at the file. What had I stumbled into this time? I had no idea how a trial worked. I tried to shake off the unfamiliar feeling of stress. The guy is probably guilty, I told myself. I’ll just get him to plead guilty. And if he wants a trial? It’s not my job to save guilty people, I reassured myself. I felt strangely uneasy, though.
I took a deep breath and opened the file José had given me. Jack Roberts was charged with Driving Under the Influence. According to the police report, Mr. Roberts was driving North on a two-lane highway. A teenager was driving South on the same road. Mr. Roberts intended to turn left, across the highway, but turned just in front of the teenager’s car, causing an accident. Police responded, and noticed an “odor of intoxicants” emanating from Mr. Roberts’ breath. When asked if he had been drinking, Mr. Roberts told police that he had had three to four glasses of wine while having dinner at a friend’s house.
I wondered why José had said that Mr. Roberts had a good case.
The police officer asked Mr. Roberts to perform “field sobriety tests” to determine if he was under the influence of alcohol. The first test the police officer asked Mr. Roberts to do was a “walk-and-turn test.” The trooper wrote that Mr. Roberts failed the test by stopping in the middle of the test, missing touching heel-to-toe, and by stepping off the line. On the “one-leg-stand test,” Mr. Roberts apparently swayed while trying to balance, and eventually put his foot down. On the “fingertip touch test,” the officer instructed Mr. Roberts to touch his thumb to each fingertip while counting. Mr. Roberts missed two fingertips. When asked if he would agree to take a breath test, Mr. Roberts refused.
All I could think was that it looked like Mr. Roberts had been pretty drunk. I put the file in my desk drawer and went home.

The next morning, Mr. Roberts was waiting in the lobby when I arrived at work. It surprised me to see that he was in his sixties, not having looked at his birth date in the file. I led him to my cubicle, where I put an old tie on the doorknob as Janice had instructed, to signify that I was meeting with a client.
Mr. Roberts was a commercial fisherman, he told me, and had spent most of his adult life on one fishing boat or another off the Alaskan coast. “Crusty” was probably the best word to describe him. His face was deeply lined from years of exposure to the sun, and his hands were yellow from cigarettes. Cantankerous and funny, I liked him immediately. I wondered how to break it to him that he was guilty.
“Why didn’t you take the breath test?” I asked him.
“Don’t like machines,” he grumbled. “Never have, never will. Don’t trust ’em. I knew I wasn’t under the influence of anything, and I didn’t need no damn-fool machine telling me otherwise.”
This was going to be harder than I had thought.
“OK,” I said, “the cop says that you completely failed the walk-and-turn test. It says you couldn’t walk a straight line, and that you stepped to the side of the line several times.”
“I ain’t walked a straight line since 1976,” he said.
“And why haven’t you been walking straight since 1976?” I asked skeptically.
“Because that’s when my leg got caught in a conveyor belt.”
“Caught in a conveyor belt,” I repeated.
He bent over and tried to work his jeans up over his work boot. As he did this, he explained, “On fishing boats, you’ve got to get the fish from the deck to the hold. Usually, a mechanized conveyor belt does this. But this one time, back in ‘76, the conveyor belt jammed, so I got up on it, and was trying to force it to go, when it started up again. The jolt of the belt starting made me lose my balance, and my leg went into the workings. By the time it stopped, my leg was all broke up. Bones were sticking out in two places. I had five surgeries to fix my leg, but it’s never been the same.”
As he said that, he had grown frustrated with trying to get his pant leg up over his boot. He stood up, unbuckled his belt, and dropped his pants. His right leg was a map of purple scars that spiraled up his leg; it was clearly deformed. I stared, transfixed, at his leg, looking at the maze of scars. I suddenly realized: I am sitting in my office with a man with his pants around his ankles. I wondered if there was a rule against this. I wondered if Mr. Roberts could pull down his pants in court. I made a mental note to ask Janice.
I had to admit the mangled leg was a nice excuse for his poor balance, but Mr. Roberts wasn’t going to be able to explain away everything. “The report mentions that you also failed the fingertip-touch test. You were instructed to touch your thumbs to your fingertips while counting each touch. The report says that you missed two fingertips.”
Ha! Explain that, I thought.
He held up his right hand. He was missing both his index and ring fingers. The police report failed to mention that he was missing the same damn fingertips that he supposedly failed to touch.
“Another fishing accident?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am,” he nodded.
After reviewing the remaining details of the case, Mr. Roberts left, promising to meet me outside the courtroom at 8:30 on Monday morning. I sat in my office and tried to ignore a niggling thought attempting to surface in my brain. After a few minutes looking through a pile of paperwork, unable to concentrate, I let the thought come: “What if this man is innocent?” The idea terrified me. How was I going to get around the fact that all of those tests said he was guilty? What about the police officer who said that Mr. Roberts appeared intoxicated? What about the fact that he caused an accident and refused to take the breath test? And yet … after talking to him, I thought it was possible that he hadn’t been drunk at all. What was I going to do about the fact that, other than on television, I had never even seen a trial? I tried to tell myself that Mr. Roberts’ trial was not a big deal, that it was like a law school exam, or a soccer game. It didn’t work. The funny old man’s freedom was in my hands. I felt like I was going to throw up.

If I just left the office today and never came back, maybe they would forget about me. If I promised to convert to Catholicism, maybe Sylvia would give me another chance. I could leave a note on Ed’s desk: “Sorry. Changed my mind about the job. Thanks for the offer.” But I liked this place. I
didn't know what it was, but I felt connected here, like I was with my people.

Want to keep reading?  Find Chapters 6 and 7, wherein Kate finds herself conducting her first trial, here.