I represented the wife, Kim, in a divorce involving 2 young children. Her husband, Calvin, was without a lawyer. His first lawyer was through a prepaid legal service. Once Calvin decided he wanted to fight for custody of the kids, the legal plan lawyer withdrew–that level of service was not included in Calvin’s legal plan.
Take two: Is there a new attorney or not?
Calvin’s first attorney was a decent attorney. I was a “mediator” and he was a “negotiator.” We were both very clear and on the same page that trial would be wasteful for this family. However, Calvin persisted contesting custody. The former attorney referred Calvin to another attorney named Rich. To my knowledge, Calvin planned on hiring Rich to represent him at a contested custody trial.
More than a month passed by. I called Rich and left voice messages. I emailed Rich. Rich never responded. The day before trial, I prepared 13 hours to present my client’s case. I was ready.
Your Honor, I’m Drunk Attorney, Appearing for the Plaintiff
The morning of trial, Rich stumbled into the court room. He was slurring his speech and barely able to stand. He asked for a continuance. I was LIVID and made a motion for my fees due to Rich’s unprofessionalism. Rich was so wasted, so absolutely tore up from whatever spirit-of-the day he was on, the judge had to continue the case.
Rich approached me afterward and apologized. H e offered how we might be able to get the case on track. He wreaked of alcohol, and I could just spit at him I was so infuriated at his embarrassing performance in open court.
Another two months passed. I called Rich, no answer. I emailed Rich. Nothing. We were scheduled for trial again. There were some discussions we needed to have in preparation. Silence.
Two days before trial, not wanting a repeat of the last court appearance, I called Rich. I attempted to fax a letter to his office. The phone was disconnected. Not knowing whether or not the number I had for him was a mobile number, I sent a text message.
Rich was in hospice. I took the necessary steps to inform the judge that Rich was not well and that we would need to continue trial again. Two weeks later, Rich was dead. My heart broke. How long had he been in this condition? He had taken Calvin’s money and did absolutely nothing on the case. Who else knew how bad things had gotten for Rich?
When lawyers harm the profession
I am embarrassed to call attorneys like Rich, the Drunk Attorney, my professional colleagues. Although people respect and value our profession, many people hate lawyers for reasons like what I experienced with Rich. I don’t know what his choices were, whether there was someone who could have intervened before he became a risk to the public trust. But I can assure you that having an opponent like him did even more to frustrate my outlook on the traditional system. It drove me to find ways I and others like me could make a difference in the way we practice law for families.
Before I learned Rich was dying, I was very close to reporting his behavior to the Bar. I was also frustrated because the judge, who I had grown to respect, let Rich off the hook without granting my motion for sanctions against Rich. At the end, I would not have ever collected any money. But the whole thing was frustrating. The “system” was allowing this, and now I was being made an accessory to Rich’s foolishness. Ultimately, I’m at peace with the fact I didn’t jump the gun and report him shortly before he died. But his behavior hurt me. It hurt other lawyers like me who shoot straight and play by the rules. I hurt our profession.
Ultimately, I negotiated with Calvin for terms he and Kim were both satisfied with.
Your Friendly Divorce Attorney,
Sherlyn “Char” Selassie