Dear Spike and Pinky:
You are both in Stage Four (depression) of the grief process associated with divorce. Spike is luxury cruising while Pinky is at (yet another) Club Med, so you suffer — but you are doing it with a degree of style. In the meantime, I’m going to use this platform to continue with what I think is an instructive story.
. . .
As soon as George Bensen realized that he was not talking to a Big Case, Ralph was swiftly handed off to a junior associate. Ralph disengaged from the associate as fast as he could, and then he skipped down the stairs, dropped his green identification tag at the front desk, and nearly ran through the front door to “escape.” He didn’t feel safe until he was three blocks away, and then he thought, “What’s wrong with me?”
As he ate lunch, he thought about it and concluded:
» It was about money. He was handed off because he wasn’t a Big Case. If he hired the firm, Ralph doubted that he’d see Bensen again. (This was not necessarily a bad thing.)
» The associates work on salary. Partners keep the difference between what the associate can collect from clients less the associate’s salary and overhead. Therefore, the associate’s career depends on doing as much work (viz. spending as much time) as he can on each case. He gets no credit for bringing a case to an elegant conclusion with minimal intervention.
» Overhead dictates the style of practice. Clients are given the green identification tags because green is the color of money.
» Ralph liked the beehive activity he observed from the second floor, but what good is all that support if his lawyer hasn’t heard of the “Williams case.”
Ralph’s next appointment was with James “Jimmy” Morgan, whose office was in a small strip mall and flanked by a Laundromat and a gun shop. To one side of the parking lot was a carport used by mall employees. Their names were posted above assigned places; in the place assigned to Morgan was a Panamera S Hybrid four-door Porsche.
Ralph wasn’t interested in cars, but he was curious — and early for his appointment. He used his iPhone to go online, where he learned this hybrid Porsche costs $80,000 to $95,000, and its gas mileage is between “18 mpg (city)” and “30 mpg (hwy).”
. . .
Once inside the office, Ralph knew he wasn’t going to pay for overhead. The place looked like it hadn’t been renovated since it was built in the 1950s, when it was built on the cheap. In what passed for a reception room, there were two or three dozen stacks of papers, bankers’ boxes and files, and he could tell from the dust that they hadn’t been moved (or dusted) since Elvis Presley was in his prime. The receptionist looked like she could have been the one who took care of the office’s filing system, yet she knew who Ralph was and why he was there. He didn’t have to say a word.
“Wait here. I’ll try to get Jimmy’s attention.”
She walked down a hall and opened a door without knocking. She stood in the doorway for a few seconds and then made the “cut” sign by drawing a finger across her neck. She came back to Ralph, “Go down the hall and through the open door. He should be ready for you.”
Jimmy’s office was unlike anything Ralph had ever seen. By comparison, the reception area was tidy. There were files, books and court exhibits piled on every available surface, including the floor and on both of the two visitors chairs in front of Jimmy’s desk, which was bigger than Bensen’s. It had to be bigger to give Jimmy the space he needed to “work,” which meant laying out hundreds of documents in varying patterns. Again, dust on some of the papers indicated work in progress was progressing slowly. On top of the papers Ralph noted five journals open and face-down; one copy each of Newsweek, Wired, People and a Stanford alumnae magazine; and three books, probably novels.
Jimmy told Ralph to “take the crap off that chair, put it on the floor and have a seat.” Ralph did, and Jimmy said, “First thing you need to know is that you are going to pay me for the time we spend together this afternoon. For me, it’s like going through other people’s dirty underwear. I happen to be good at it, but I don’t particularly like it, so I do it for the money. Remember that; lawyers do it for the money. Now tell me your sad story.”
Ralph liked Jimmy for saying he “did it for the money.” Ralph took the cue to keep his sad story brief. When he was done, he received Jimmy’s analysis.
“Listen. You and your child bride can divide by two. Do it. For support, she’ll never get more than 40 percent of your income for half the duration of the marriage; give it to her. That’s it. The only reason, and I mean the only reason, you need a lawyer is because you married a person who would hire Eunice Heep. Eunice thinks she can ‘win’ a divorce, and to do so she is likely to make you so miserable that you’ll be willing to give your wife whatever Eunice asks for.
“Not long ago, I had a sizable case where I represented the wife. The other lawyer and I worked out a very nice settlement for her. But, before signing on the dotted line, my client fired me and hired Eunice — who demanded a ‘signing bonus’ of another $400,000. The husband and his lawyer took less than 24 hours to decide that if the cost of not dealing with Eunice Heep was $400,000, the husband would pay it — and it was a significant amount of money to the guy. I hate to say it, but it might have been the right thing to do.”
Ralph pushed back, “But if our case is about dividing by two and giving Rebecca 40 percent of my income, what else is there to do?”
“Sir, right now you don’t need to hear details about what mean, angry and avaricious divorce lawyers will do to the person on the other side of her case. In general she’ll do two things. She’ll use overwhelming legal procedures, designed for a case like Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs, to blot you out. She’ll also hook you personally so you start believing that it is you against her and that you must confront evil with principle. It will be your principle, of course, because her only principle is to generate fees that are as high as possible and then make you pay them. On the positive side, your wife will pay if she can’t squeeze her fees out of you.
“I think they are going to make me pay Rebecca back for the money I sent to my first wife for support. Rebecca says there’s a ‘Williams case’ that makes this the law in California. Is she right?”
“The ‘Williams case’? Even though I’ve never heard of it, I’m confident that the case doesn’t say what your wife thinks. When you married her, she knew that you were required by a court to pay child support, didn’t she?”
“Yes, of course. It didn’t go well, but she met my boys.”
“You made the payments pursuant to a court judgment or order?”
“Irene and I agreed to an amount and her lawyer wrote it up.”
“You said that you earned about $18,000 a month while Rebecca earned $2,000.”
“OK, in effect you were paying your first wife out of your earnings, and Rebecca knew that this is what you were required to do.”
“I was willing to do it.”
“I don’t give a damn about how willing you were. You were obeying the order of the court. That’s that. It was part of the package she married. End of story. There’s no law that says anything different. If there were, I’d know it.”
Ralph was relieved but not entirely, “Is there some way you could look it up?”
“Ha, me look it up? How would I do that? I just told you there is no such law, so how could I look up a law that doesn’t exist?”
“Well, I just thought ... the Williams case and so forth.”
“I just told you what the law is. There is no ‘and so forth.’”
Before their time was up, Ralph remembered the Porsche and said, “That’s quite a car you’ve got out there.”
Jimmy explained, “I’ve always had a Porsche, and with this one I can do my bit for the environment.”
Ralph paid $400 at the front desk for his hour with Jimmy. He didn’t know if he could work with him, but hiring Jimmy as his lawyer wasn’t out of the question. Although he liked Jimmy’s cowboy attitude, he was also troubled by it. And he didn’t know what to make of someone who did his “bit for the environment” by paying more than $80,000 for a car with gas mileage between “18 mpg (city)” and “30 mpg (hwy).”
It was turning out to be a hard day, but he had one appointment left and then he would make a choice. The last lawyer to see was Sunny Wallace. She came highly recommended by a colleague at work, but he had been warned that she was young and that “Sunny” was a diminutive form of her real name, which was “Sunshine.”