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March 10, 2002


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




Family Court, Part 3

I called the Bar referral number. To receive free legal aid, you cannot earn more per month then roughly half the cost of an average apartment. Nearly everyone is excluded. I certainly was.

“But who on earth can qualify?” I asked.

“Anyone who earns less then the maximum allowed.”

“Yes but who are those people?”

I didn’t qualify for free or reduced fees. I was given an ordinary referral. It was a lawyer with a high-powered address directly across from a famous local landmark in the heart of the financial district. I arrived at my appointed hour. The attorney’s office looked worn, cheap, and filthy. The lawyer looked like an aged used-car salesman. He had rows and rows of blue law books behind his thriftstore-looking desk.

I took a seat.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

I explained I had been the victim of a fraudulent domestic violence set-up and wanted to prove in court that indeed the entire marriage had also been fraudulent.

In a polite legal way he told me he wouldn’t touch it. I started complaining and he basically said, thanks for coming in is there anything else he might be able to help me with?

No, I think not. But I asked him what kind of fees I’d be looking at if he had taken my case.

“Between $210 to $240 an hour,” he said.

I was trying to figure out what might be the higher figure and what would merit the lower. I wouldn’t have hired him regardless.

I called the Bar referral number back and they insisted I pay the $25 consultation fee for the first appointment, but they were pleasant and made arrangements for a consultation with a second attorney.

The second attorney had an office in a gleaming modern high-rise. He had a sterling address just like the first attorney. A high-powered address. I felt important just going in and going up the elevator.

The receptionist wasn’t sure whom I was to meet. She looked at a long list of people who shared space in the offices. I sat watching as others came and went. It was odd. It wasn’t like anyone’s office; it was like a Kinko’s for office space. An as-needed sort of thing. I saw a video-taped deposition going on in the office beside the reception area. Must be big bucks. Big bucks build gleaming offices like this. No money? Well, Chuck, you are only a little ant on the sidewalk with me.

The attorney finally arrived. He had reserved a little office. He got the details straight with the receptionist and we went on down there. Out the window was a beautiful view of other gleaming offices like the one we were in. He was a young guy and seemed alert. He seemed focused. He dressed well. I could see him in court fighting for me. I felt a gust of confidence. Maybe this thing could be won. Maybe justice could be retrieved and some of my self-esteem with it. Maybe I could climb out of the tarpit and restore my life to something like it was before I’d even met my wife.

He sat down and got out a pad of yellow paper. He wanted to know the facts of the case. I went over them again. He remained respectful and listened attentively. Then he said, “This is going to be a hard case to win. Several factors are working against you. I cannot promise we will win. I can’t make any guarantees.”

“How much will it cost?”

“It could be expensive. I think it’s only fair to warn you. And I can’t make any guarantees.”

“How expensive?”

“On this case I would require a $10,000 retainer. I would need $10,000 before I could start.”

“Could cost more than $10,000?”

“Yes. There is no way to determine a total cost because I have no way to know how long the action may take and what the other side might do.”

“So, $10,000 might be just the beginning? Really what you need is a blank check?”

“I told you, Mr. Harrison, I have no way to know how long your case will take so I can not tell you what it will cost.”

“Can you estimate?”

“No. I don’t think it is possible to do that at this time.”

“Can you tell me what you would be charging me per hour?”

“My fee is $280 an hour.”

He was polite so I didn’t belabor the matter. I told him there was no way I could pay money like that. I didn’t tell him but the whole thing seemed so unfair. Why was I having to pay this! Why was I having to pay for my punishment? Why did I have to pay such big sums of money for something I didn’t deserve in the first place?

He might have anticipated what I was thinking because he said, “Contested marriages can be very expensive, Mr. Harrison. I had one client who kept fighting his ex-wife. He kept fighting her for over a year. He spent $100,000. He finally decided to accept a settlement. It’s up to you. You can spend as much as you want.”

With that cheerful thought I departed and headed down the elevator. Outside some kind of picket line was gathering. A labor action of some sort. I saw a big “Unfair!” on a sign.


They have the right address.

I called the referral number for another attorney. I got another appointment arranged. His offices were near the Japan Center. He seemed to be a worn man in a worn office. He was a tired workhorse who was hardened by years of practice. I say this because he listened to my story with total indifference. He had heard them all and frankly he didn’t give a damn and he didn’t give a damn if I knew he didn’t give a damn. The point was, was it a real case and would I pay him? I could easily imagine him in an earlier career being a back-street amateur abortionist. He was there to do the ugly job, did you want it or not?

There was no way in the world I would hire a guy like him even if I had the money in grocery bags. If he represented me in court, his merely standing and talking would do my case irreparable harm. The nice thing about him was he gave me some advice. In the past, I’ve found that attorneys are masters of sealed lips. I stayed the right amount of time so he wouldn’t guess how much he revolted me (he was in the $200-and-up range as well) and made my departure. He told me to give him a ring if I wanted to retain him. I said, “Yes, thank you. Sure. Bye now. Thanks again. I will. If I do.”

When the sun freezes over.

It was hopeless. It seemed justice was a cash-and-carry thing. I’m sort of poor, but what do really poor people do? What do the totally poor do?

I learned that my wife had much better luck than I. As a “victim” of domestic violence, she got a successful lawyer to work for her pro bono (for free). Her attorney’s name is Nancy Pinkler. From what I’ve seen in the months since this whole thing got started, I think she must have made a million dollars in her law practice doing what she does. She’s probably working on her second or third million. I admired Ms. Pinkler because she was defending someone guilty as hell. That takes some additional talent. As much as I needed a lawyer, I knew my wife needed one even more.

The horror is this: many lawyers don’t appear to have any feeling for right or wrong. They are hired guns. They only care about who is paying them. With my wife, not only is her attorney on the wrong side regarding who is guilty and who is innocent. She’s not getting paid anything by my wife. So I have respect and sympathy for Nancy Pinkler: she has indeed been trapped. As I was trapped. By the same woman. I suspect after some time, she will know what I was feeling. The beauty is: my wife is no longer doing it to me.