RELATED BY DIVORCE
“You can’t do that,” said my boss, angry, looking up from his desk upon my return to the office.
I was shocked, so excited I was with my first, improbable triumph in my two-week-old career as a divorce lawyer. Somehow, he viewed my victory as a failure. Here’s what happened:
I’d commenced working for Ralph DiPierro when he rescued me, solely on the basis of one telephone conversation, from a tedious position as a junior attorney at a classy, old money law firm. The fundamental problem was the firm’s disinclination to transfer a livable amount of that money to me in exchange for my time-consuming efforts. Also, the opportunity for client contact, which young lawyers crave, until they actually experience it, was non-existent from my permanent position in the firm’s law library.
Ralph, in contrast, offered client contact in abundance. He foisted my totally inexperienced self upon an unsuspecting client the first morning on the job, the likelihood of malpractice be damned.
“Here, take this file,” he said, in his direct, unadorned way. “Nina Brown’s husband left her. They don’t have any money, so you can handle it.”
“Well, um,” I stammered, accepting a thin, manila folder from gaunt, salt-and-pepper-haired Ralph, a possible winner of any Abraham Lincoln lookalike contest.
“Just show up at calendar call next Monday. They may not start the trial; it depends if there’s a judge available.” He added. “If they do, just settle it. Frankie Terranova’s the husband’s lawyer. He’ll go easy on you. I’ve known him a long time.”
“But what should I do to prepare?” I asked.
Ralph appeared stumped, as though the concept of preparation were totally foreign to him.
“Well, you know,” he finally said, “read through the file, give Nina a call so she knows you’re handling her case, and guide her through the process. She’s very young. I talked to her a couple months ago; I got stuck with her ‘cause she’s a waitress at MacMurphy’s.”
I must have looked surprised at Ralph’s explanation, since I knew clients to be almost sacred at my former firm; no one spoke disparagingly of them. Ralph continued, in a tone suggesting wisdom gleaned from thirty years as a suburban divorce attorney: “You never want to represent a wife. Generally, the money is with the husband. But, sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Anyway, in this case, the husband’s broke, too.”
Ralph told me MacMurphy’s was the bar in town where he usually ate lunch and played in weekend poker games. The owner was his best buddy. Still, I felt uneasy as I sat down with the file in my office, formerly the storage closet, adjacent to Ralph’s office. I’d spent much of the morning fussing over hanging my diplomas on the wall. Now, I actually had a client to worry about. What if the case did come to trial? What if Frankie wasn’t “easy on me” as Ralph had promised? What did I actually know about divorce law or trials or clients or anything? Law school had prepared me to read voluminous amounts of material relevant only to someone intent upon being a Federal Appellate judge. For readers who are unfamiliar, law school is largely an exercise in reading judge’s opinions. These dry writings are selected in order to illustrate important concepts, I assume, but they rarely resonated with me. And my year at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman had prepared me to hide in the corner of the law library and appear intensely busy, no matter what.
I took a deep breath and opened Nina’s thin file. Notes on her intake sheet indicated she was twenty-seven, a year older than I, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment her husband had “deserted,” and she had a three-year-old son who may or may not have been the child of her husband, if I was properly interpreting the question mark Ralph had scribbled.
There was no other information except for the 3” X 5” trial notice stapled to the folder, subject to a judge being available the following Monday morning. I wasn’t sure what I would say to Nina when I called, but I decided to “take the plunge” and punched in the number on the telephone. A tiny voice picked up, childlike and vulnerable. My stomach flipped as I realized this person’s future was somehow tied to my minimal professional abilities.
“Hello, I’m Stuart at Ralph DiPierro’s office,” I said.
“Who?” she said.
“Your lawyer’s office. Ralph is your lawyer and I’m his associate,” I said, trying to deepen my voice a level of experience or two. I felt “associate” conveyed gravity beyond that of a mere “assistant.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” said Nina. “I was wondering when I might hear something.”
“The trial is scheduled for next Monday,” I said. “There may be a delay, but we have to be ready, just in case.”
I wasn’t sure what constituted “ready,” but I felt it was a mature thing to say and I hoped Ralph would fill me in as the date approached. I didn’t know what else to say, and an awkward silence ensued, until Nina said:
“Should we get together and talk or something? Maybe I can tell you what I’m hoping to get?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said, relieved. Her suggestion totally made sense.
“Can you meet me this evening at the Empire Diner?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to meet a client for the first time at a restaurant. “Can’t you come to the office?” I asked.
“No, I have to work at MacMurphy’s ‘til four and then take care of my son. But I can leave him with a friend from seven to eight this evening. So, is 7:15 okay?”
“Um, sure, I guess,” I said. “See you there.”
Now what? Ralph had already left for court, so I called an acquaintance who I knew had “put through” several uncontested divorces at another firm. I explained my predicament.
“It won’t be hard,” said Joe. “Complete the CIS with your client. Then, when you get to court, review the husband’s CIS, see where they disagree, and try to narrow the disagreements. “
“What’s a CIS?” I asked.
Joe laughed. “I forgot you’ve spent an entire year in the library. A CIS is the ‘case information statement.’ You fill in your client’s budget, and how much she is asking for in support. The husband will have filled in how much he’s prepared to pay. When you get to the courtroom, either the judge or his clerk will bring you and the opposing lawyer into the judge’s office, adjust a couple of the numbers, and make you settle without a trial.
“What if we can’t settle?” I asked.
“Settle,” said Joe. “Don’t rock the boat. Judges hate to waste time on trials.”
“Thanks,” I said, relieved to be able to picture the likely order of events. It all sounded manageable. “I’m meeting my client tonight at a diner.”
“You’re meeting her outside the office?” said Joe, surprised.
“It’s the only time she’s available,” I said.
“Whoa, be careful,” said Joe. “There’s nothing more ‘available’ than a young divorce client.”
“Very funny,” I said, though the ramifications of Joe’s remark refilled my slightly diminished well of anxiety.
I arrived at the diner several minutes early and took a seat in a booth near the entrance. Right at the appointed moment, a woman who looked no older than a college student, but who could only be Nina, strode in wearing jeans and a notably tight tee shirt. She was thin, with big brown eyes, freckles and curly, permed hair in the style of the mid-1980’s. She virtually flounced into the booth across from me and offered a smile. I noticed she chewed gum with the avidity of a lion consuming a zebra.
“Nina?” I said, feeling self-conscious in my three-piece suit.
“Yes,” she said, taking me in with a smile that made me feel like I was an eight-year-old dressed up as a lawyer.
We ordered coffee and Nina explained her situation: “Robert left me almost a year ago. It really hurt. He doesn’t even bother to see our son, Charley. He’s living with a receptionist from the factory where he works. I hate him.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“Can we really nail him?” she asked. “He left us alone. I can hardly pay the bills.”
I felt a tug of sympathy for this lithe young woman across from me. Who could leave her like that? After she explained what Robert earned, however, I was certain I could do little for her besides put through her paperwork. Robert earned less than she did.
We filled out a blank CIS I’d found in the office. Nina’s rent and car payments consumed nearly all her income. Charley’s baby-sitting and nursery school used up the rest, and Robert could not be counted upon for alimony. The only hope was to obtain reasonable child support.
“He offered fifty bucks a week,” said Nina. “I’ve gotta get at least a hundred. If I got that, I could get by.”
I nodded sympathetically, as though I were familiar with the costs of child rearing. The numbers did sound small, even to my uninformed mind.
“There’s one awkward question I have to ask,” I said. “Robert is Charley’s father, right?”
“Of course he is,” she replied, then added: “I’m nearly certain.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s good enough.” I actually had no idea if it would be. When we finished our coffees and reached the bottom of the form, Nina stood and flashed me a luminous smile.
“Can I have your home number,” she asked, “just in case something comes up?”
I didn’t know if this was appropriate or not, but how could I refuse? I scribbled my number on a napkin and stood to say “good-bye.”
Nina put the napkin into her large, leather bag and shocked me by leaning forward to kiss my cheek.
“You’re sweet,” she said, as though she were twice my age. “I know you’re gonna take care of me and Charley.” I was enveloped by cheap perfume as she turned and strode out. The shape of her rear left an impression I knew was inappropriate. “This is your first client,” I reminded myself, and shuttered.
The week flew by as my first, possible trial approached. At his suggestion, I studied some of Ralph’s complex files, and he offered occasional tidbits of advice, though they rarely concerned our clients or law. From Ralph, I learned which casinos in Atlantic City had the best buffets, which local bars had happy hours on which days, and which health club had the best racquetball courts. I felt totally unprepared.
I went to bed early on Friday evening, and drifted into an unsettled sleep. I dreamed numerous scenarios at court, all disastrous. What if Nina were ordered to pay alimony to Robert? What if the judge declared I was incompetent in front of “everyone?” What if Nina shouted: “He promised to help me and he didn’t!”
My dreams were so dire I was almost relieved to be awakened at two a.m. by the telephone.
“Hello,” I said, groggily. I heard crying on the other end of the line.
“It’s Nina,” said a high-pitched voice, sniffling. “The bastard. He’s ruined my life.”
“What?” I said, coming to attention. I immediately thought the worst, wondering if Charley had been kidnapped or the apartment set on fire. “What happened?”
“He, he,” she started, almost unable to speak. “He took the pots and pans.”
“Hunh?” I said. “What else?”
“They were really nice,” said Nina, distressed. “I bought them with my birthday money last year.”
“You’ve called me in the middle of the night because he took your pots and pans?” I said, angry to have been called for something that struck me as so trivial, but also relieved the situation was not worse. I began to laugh. “I was afraid it was something really bad.”
Silence from the other end of the line was deafening. I knew I’d made a mistake. What is considered important to a client, I realized, especially a divorce client, is not something for the lawyer to judge. That was the first self-learned nugget of knowledge I would remember for the rest of my career.
“I’m sorry,” I added. “I just thought… it might be something worse.”
Gradually, Nina composed herself. and we agreed I would bring up the matter with Robert’s attorney on Monday. I assured her I would call from the courthouse if we were able to settle, or if she had to appear, in the unlikely event we were actually going to trial. Nina finally hung up after saying somewhat half-heartedly: “Sorry I called so late. I just didn’t have anyone else to call. I’m so lonely.”
It took me several hours to fall asleep again. I tried not to obsess about it, but anxiety over my courthouse debut ruined the entire weekend.
Calendar call in northern New Jersey was a social phenomenon. About fifty men and a handful of women sat in a cavernous courtroom in Hackensack. Every other lawyer seemed to be named Ralph or Frankie or Dominic and the few women all seemed to be Teresa or Annemarie; it was not unlike a barbershop. The assignment judge, a triple-chinned mountain of a man named Anthony Polito, stood at a lectern on a raised platform in front of the room and called pending cases in a mysterious order that I never came to understand, and then “assigned” them to particular judges and courtrooms. As he worked his way down his list, the room gradually emptied, and I found myself one of the few stragglers.
“Hey, Frankie,” said the judge, peering down from his perch and addressing a short, bald man in a plaid, three-piece suit that resembled curtain material. “Where’s DiPierro?”
My heart fluttered as I realized Frankie Terranova, my “adversary,” was speaking: “Ralphie said he was sending his associate.”
“Wow,” said Judge Polito. “Ralphie’s got an associate now. Impressive.”
I slowly raised my arm. “I’m, I’m Ralph DiPierro’s associate, um, Sanders is my name, um Stuart.”
Judge Polito gazed down at me. I felt even younger than I’d felt the first time I’d met Nina. Frankie Terranova took me in with a barely-concealed smirk.
“So, counselor,” he said, “you ready to rock-and-roll?”
“Easy, Frankie,” said Judge Polito. “What have you guys got?”
“Just a simple uncontested,” said Frankie.
“Alright, I’ve got some time to put that through myself,” said the judge, glancing at his watch. “Come into my chambers.”
Frankie and I followed the judge through a doorway at the front of the courtroom and into his office, a dark-paneled cave of a room decorated with photographs showing Judge Polito with various local politicians.
“Were you at Knights of Columbus Sunday?” the judge asked Frankie.
“Couldn’t make it. Had Angie’s christening,” said Frankie.
“Congratulations,” said the judge.
“Thanks, Tony,” said Frankie.
For just a second, my mind drifted to the specter of being known around the courthouse as “Stuie.” The two bantered like brothers while I stood awkwardly to the side. Judge Polito hung his black robe on a rack behind his desk, sat down in a massive leather chair, and indicated that Frankie and I should sit down on two wooden chairs facing him.
“So,” the judge said. “All settled?”
“Sure thing,” said Frankie.
“Um, I need to see his CIS, don’t I?” I asked, my voice rising involuntarily from my intended assertion into a question.
“Sure, George,” said Frankie, reaching for his briefcase.
“Stuart,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Frankie. “Here’s the CIS. My client’s got no money. Plus, he thinks the kid might not be his, so we gotta go easy on the support.”
Judge Polito said to Frankie: “Does he wanna do a paternity test?”
“No, Judge,” said Frankie. “He doesn’t think it that much.” Both men laughed.
Judge Polito awaited my response as I skimmed the CIS. As Nina had indicated, Robert proposed to pay $50 a week in child support. Much of the rest of his income went towards his rent and car. But one item jumped out at me; Robert budgeted $100 a week for “alcohol and tobacco.”
Trying my best to sound like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I declared: “Your honor, this man is suggesting that he pay $100 a week for drinking and smoking, and only $50 for his child.”
Both men looked at me as if to say: “So, what’s the point?”
I added, with indignation: “That doesn’t seem right.”
Judge Polito turned to Frankie. “What do you say to that?” he asked.
“It’s, it’s,” Frankie sputtered. “You know, a guy’s gotta live.”
“I don’t know,” said the judge, a smile seeping slowly through his substantial jowls. “But that’s a hard thing to justify, you know, a hundred for booze and fifty for the kid.”
I felt a burning look of hatred directed at me by Frankie, but I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the judge. “I think,” continued Judge Polito, “you should modify the CIS and then we can call this ‘settled.’”
Frankie crossed out $50 at “child support” and wrote in $100. “You’re breakin’ my balls,” he said to me.
Judge Polito laughed. He took the modified CIS and signed it. “Here, kid,” he said to me, like I was his employee. “Take this out to the court clerk and enter it as settled. Me and Frankie are gonna chat a little longer.”
After almost floating with elation to the bank of telephones in the hallway, I called Nina with the news. I’d won her what she wanted. I’d rescued a damsel in distress. I allowed myself to picture a celebratory hug, perhaps another kiss. Perhaps, we would be friends. After all, she was lonely and I was new in town.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, when I reached her. “Me and my boyfriend can go away for the weekend to celebrate.”
“Boyfriend?” I thought, disappointed. “What happened to “I’m so lonely?” But then I thought about it a few minutes longer. I was naïve. Upon reflection, at least, I realized someone like Nina could not be expected to live like a nun for a year after her husband left. Back at the office, at least, I would receive some acclaim. When I arrived, however, that’s when Ralph glared up from his desk and declared: “You can’t do that. Frankie called and he was really pissed.”
When I appeared totally crestfallen, he explained: “A satisfied client is good for one divorce, maybe two over a thirty year career. A friendly adversary like Frankie is good for easy settlements in five or ten cases every year. You gotta just go along. This is real life, not a television show.”
My career as a divorce lawyer only lasted two more months. As soon as an experienced former judge’s clerk became available, Ralph suggested I work for his brother, Alan, who did real estate closings.
“Excellent,” I thought to myself, “a relatively non-emotional area of the law, without judges, lying clients, flirtations or moral compromises. It’s all black-and-white; we’re only dealing with money, and I can try to do the best for my clients. My priorities will be clear.”
Not only did I eventually prove to be wrong about whether emotions and lying were part of real estate transactions, but Alan had apparently been tipped off about my weakness for justice.
“Listen,” he said on my first day, “in real estate law, a happy client is worth a deal every five or ten years. A happy real estate agent is good for five or ten deals a year. And a happy mortgage broker is even more important. Don’t ever forget that.”