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My Day in Court

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

A rookie lawyer's disaster in court teaches him a lesson in personal responsibility.

I started working at a law firm in Toronto shortly after graduating from law school. One evening, about a month into my stint at the firm, one of the partners came into my office to inform me that he was sending me into court the following morning. By myself!

He told me not to worry. The materials had all been prepared and according to him, I would be in and out. Despite his instructions, I was worrying. A lot.

I went to the courthouse the next morning for my first time. I didn't even know where I was going and I got lost, mistakenly walking into the cafeteria yelling, "Your Honor, I object," in my best Johnnie Cochran voice. Needless to say, the patrons at the food court were not impressed, although I think the people at Taco Bell got a little nervous because they thought I was from the Government Health Inspection Office.

I walked into the courtroom barely on time and the judge's clerk called me up. I stood at the podium in front of the judge, waiting silently for a few minutes while he read over the materials. The longer the silence continued, the more I wanted to pull the fire alarm and run for the nearest exit. But I tried to remain calm, reciting to myself, "Come on, you are Perry Mason! You are Arnie Becker! You are Dylan McDermott! You are the man!"

Suddenly, the judge interrupted my personal motivation seminar and barked, "Where is the evidence?!"

I had no idea what he was talking about, but tried to recover quickly. "Well, your Honor, if I can refer you to the Notice of Claim it says that..."

Forget Perry Mason, at this point I would have settled for the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

"That's not evidence! Where is the evidence!?"

The beads of sweat were beginning to appear. Forget Perry Mason, at this point I would have settled for the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.

"I need an affidavit," the judge demanded.

I heard a voice in my head asking, "Affidavit? What the hell is that?"

"Your Honor, if I can refer you to the affidavit of counsel for the plaintiff, it says that..."

"That's not evidence! I need an affidavit from the plaintiff stating that the information in the Notice of Claim is true. Right now, you have nothing! All you have are allegations! Counsel, you have come into my courtroom with NOTHING!"

In response, I wanted to say, "Your Honor, if it pleases the court, could I call a short recess to confer with my mommy on this matter," but I didn't.

I thought it couldn't get much worse, but it certainly did, as the courtroom appeared to transform into something more closely resembling Showtime at the Apollo/ the Def Comedy Jam than a court of the law.
The judge took off his glasses, licked his lips and said, "You know what you are trying to do? You are trying to do a Rule 39!"

(Note to reader: I too have no idea what a Rule 39 is.)

"You can't do a Rule 39 in here!"

Almost immediately, as though it was choreographed, his clerk rocked back in his chair and said, "Mmm hmm, can't do a rule 39 in here." I wasn't aware that the judge was taking comments from the audience, but apparently he was now.

The judge paused and said in a more conciliatory voice, "Well, maybe you are trying to do a Jones vs. Smith. Is that what you are trying to do counsel?"

(Note to reader, I have no idea what a Jones and Smith is either, but at the time, it sounded a heck of a lot better than Rule 39, so I decided to go for it.)

"That is exactly what I am trying to do Your Honor. To be honest, I have always been a big fan of Jones vs. Smith," I said trying to inject a little humor into the proceedings. (Note to reader: bad move.)

"Well you can't do that either," he said sadistically. Then his clerk chimed in again and said "Mmm hmm, can't do Jones vs. Smith either."

I heard some of the lawyers in the back of the courtroom laughing, and I almost expected the judge to break into "Your Momma's So Fat" jokes on me.

After my humiliating defeat I was dejected to say the least. I was angry that I had been given such an assignment in the first place. I tried to complain to the partner who sent me in on this kamikaze mission, but he was too busy to listen. I tried to complain to the partner who was in charge of us "new recruits" at the firm, arguing that there should be a procedure in place to prevent such occurrences. I tried to plead my case to almost any lawyer in the firm who would listen, but after a few days I just gave up.

After getting over the shock of realizing that I may not be the subject of John Grisham's new book, "Rainmaker II: Courtroom SuperJew," I decided to take a step back and ask myself if I could learn anything from my courtroom fiasco.

Like the good Jewish boy that I am, I opened up my nearest Bible to see if I could glean any wisdom from any of my ancestral mishaps. I only had to flip a few pages before I recalled a lesson from the story of the Garden of Eden.

did everything but own up to the fact that I should have been better prepared.

Many people think that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden for eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil while God had specifically instructed them not to. While this was surely not the smartest move in the world, many Biblical commentators suggest that this is not what got them voted off the island. Adam and Eve's true error was placing the blame on someone else rather than admitting that they had made a mistake.

I realized that I was doing the same thing that Adam and Eve did. I blamed the partner for "setting me up;" I blamed the training program at my law for not preparing me better; I blamed the judge for being "an agent of the devil." I did everything but own up to the fact that I should have been better prepared.

When things go wrong, we often dive for cover, and look for someone to blame--anyone as long as it's not us. We transfer a call to someone in another department simply so we won't have to deal with the problem, or we take great pains to redirect assignments which have landed on our desks and make sure that they find their way onto someone else's. We sometimes avoid living up to our responsibilities.

My "Showtime at the Courthouse" experience taught me that when something goes wrong, the first question I ask should not be: "Who can I blame for this?" Instead, I should take responsibility and ask, "What can I learn from this?" And that's a rule I have decided to live by. Kind of like my own personal Rule 39.

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