Friday, March 23, 2012

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.


Anonymous said...

More, more, more, please!

Frayed Knot said...

Thank you! Tune in Friday for the next installment.

Miranda said...

So glad you're back! And so far, loving the story. Looking forward to Friday!

Oh, and is it too much to expect some more PDR goods on Etsy? I really want that bleeding heart necklace.

Frayed Knot said...

Thank you, Miranda! I'll list some stuff at the store this week. Let me know if you don't see the bleeding heart you want.

Anonymous said...

Enjoying your blog, which I just discovered. Been at being a PD for 7 years. Can't wait to read more.

Frayed Knot said...

Thank you, Anon! I love it that real public defenders connect with what I write.

Miss Conduct PDX said...

So glad you're back!

I'm totally reliving my first day as a PD almost 10 years ago. Ain't no job like it!

I'm laughing and tearing up at the same time.

carol d said...

Thank you, Miss Conduct. You are, of course, the exact audience I had in mind when I wrote this--your response is most gratifying. Stay strong, sister!

lylejones said...

Kicking the gift horse right in the teeth, have you looked into having this [self] published for kindle or other ebook format?

carol d said...

Hi Lyle!

I am considering e-publishing, but I thought I'd give you guys the chance to read for free. :)

Anonymous said...

This is freaking awesome and hilarious writing. I really want to be a public defender.

carol d said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I love it that you want to be a PD, but should probably warn you that it is not all fun and spit balls ...