Valor and Chivalry On Trial

Scott Farrell comments:

The author, Robert DeRechter, has nearly 30 years of experience as both a trial lawyer and a judge. His background adds an interesting perspective to this story of “knights in the courtroom.”

The small still voice is more often ignored than unheard. Brazen, loud, bravado-laden demands frequently monopolize advocacy. Lawyers become caricatures, two-dimensional figures. Subtlety and full-dimensioned truth are sublimated to a “show time” mentality. And trials become over-simplified Brothers Grimm tales of “good versus evil,” a marketing tool of words to get a fee.

I heard the modification action: both counsels claiming their client was the only one wrapped in the robe of decency, that the heavens bathed them in the streaming light of righteousness.

Yet the respondent was anything but a damsel in distress. She was a battered mother of three children — working at minimum wage, broken of cash, broken of will and dragging a chain of lost opportunities. She was a ghost of “good life” and “good intentions” past. Now she wanted the original custody order reversed.

Her lawyer was anything but a knight in shining armor. He walked on three legs: two that God gave him and one that his doctor gave him. He was so old that his frail frame, even supported by his cane, would have collapsed under a real suit of chain mail.

The opposing counsel was a young double-breasted dandy, a “scorched earth, new-age attorney.” His client, the Petitioner, wanted to keep the kids. It would save him money, and besides, he claimed he wasn’t a drunk anymore and he’d removed the female-sleep-over revolving door from his house. And the recent drug arrest? That was a mistake. It was someone else’s dope. This is not going to be pretty, I thought to myself. This fairy tale was going to be grim indeed.

Perhaps old lawyers, like old soldiers, just fade away. If so, Herb, the respondent’s lawyer, was well into the “fade mode.” What was he doing here? Didn’t he know he could get hurt? Not falling down stairs, but from the brutality of legal combat. I felt the need to tell the bar association that someone should have a “well done good-and-faithful servant” talk with Herb.

Behind the coke bottle glasses, Herb’s slightly slurred speech, his prattling manner — between the lines of his brief (typed himself on the Smith Corona he bought right after World War II) — was fire. Not smoke. Not a glow. Not an ember. Not a flame — fire. And when it burned, nothing could withstand the heat, certainly not his slick adversary or the father of the children, paragon of irresponsibility. Quietly Herb maneuvered the petitioner into showing himself for what he really was. Herb scored an octogenarian body slam. The children were returned to their mother’s care.

A month later, when the case was over, the woman was still no sleeping beauty recently awakened. And Herb was still the diminutive old barrister fading like a super nova. He won the day. The children were with the correct parent.

Herb sat in my chambers and we visited. He raised the visor of his helmet. He showed me what was burning. Injustice burned. He spoke to me as an older sailor would speak to a midshipman. The woman had no money to pay a fee. At the time of the divorce she was without work, money to hire a lawyer or a place to live. She gave up custody believing the children’s father, the “bread winner,” could best provide for their children. Then she learned he was using drugs. She tried to correct her mistake but no lawyer would take her case — except Herb. Without a fee, and paid only with a “thank you,” he did for free what others would not: seek to right a wrong. I was humbled as he left my chambers, one small step at a time.

Herb calls me now and then — when his wife, Dee, lets him get to the phone. She knows how he loves to chat (and chat and chat). He still plays golf on his 80-some-year-old legs but he no longer practices law. And when I put down the receiver I never fail to hear the small still voice. It asks, “Where is the fire now? Who will do for those who cannot do for themselves?” I hope there are still lawyers in the world like Herb, and in situations when those in need find their way into my courtroom, I do my best to live up to Herb’s knightly example.

Maybe it was easy for him because “he’d already made his money,” or because “he was from the old school,” or some other excuse. Or maybe Herb just always had the fire inside him. Maybe he was one of those lawyers who always practiced that way: fairness first and let the fee take care of itself.

Robert DeRechter, esq., Iowa

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