Saturday, November 18, 2006

Practicing Without a License

by Gina Sestak

When I was in law school, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court permitted third year students to represent indigent clients under the supervision of an attorney. I got a job working for Neighborhood Legal Services Association where, with very limited supervision, I practiced law for about a year before I took the bar exam.

"Practicing law" includes writing legal documents, providing legal advice, and -- most fun -- trying cases in court.

I worked in the Downtown Pittsburgh office of Legal Services, in the section known internally as the Divorce Mill. Poor people who couldn't afford the few hundred dollars that a divorce cost at that time would apply to the Allegheny County Bar Association for free representation by volunteer attorneys. So many poor people wanted divorces that there was always a backlog, so every summer Legal Services would step in and, using three law students, handle hundreds of divorces.

Back in the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania had not yet adopted no-fault divorce. Anyone wanting to get out of a bad marriage needed grounds -- a legally acceptable basis for terminating the relationship. There would be a hearing before a volunteer attorney, called a "Divorce Master," who was appointed by the Family Court to hear and decide 30 cases in an afternoon. A volunteer stenographer -- typically, a judge's secretary -- would transcribe the testimony. And I, or one of the other students, would present the case. Usually, we each handled ten cases, taking them in rotation. The cases were fairly straight-forward. There was no alimony in Pennsylvania then, and our clients were too poor to have much in the way of marital property to divide. In fact, most of them had been separated for many years - the marital relationship was long over but the marriage had remained in effect because neither spouse could afford a divorce.

I was able to handle these divorce cases from beginning to end: the initial meeting with the client, drafting the Divorce Complaint and filing it with the Prothonotary (what we in Pennsylvania call a civil clerk of courts), arranging for service of a copy on the other spouse by the County Sheriff's office, begging lawyers and stenographers to volunteer for the hearings, obtaining use of an available hearing room in the Courthouse, preparing the client to testify, questioning witnesses under oath, and obtaining the Divorce Decree -- complete with embossed gold seal -- and delivering it to the client.

In addition to the divorces, I had other duties. I was sometimes pulled into service when a staff attorney was unable to make a court appearance. The first time I ever tried a case before a real judge was a child support case. Judge Flaherty (who went on to become a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice) was making a name for himself as a tough judge in the Allegheny County Family Court. I appeared before him on a child support case, having received a call late the night before from an attorney who had a time conflict. Judge Flaherty did not like the idea of a law student practicing in his court. He yelled at me for about 15 minutes, leaning forward over the bench, and I stood there with my fingernails digging into my palms, trying not to laugh because his tirade seemed so ridiculous. He finally let me present the case, and I got one of the best child support orders (in relation to the father's income) that the office had ever obtained. [Of course it helped that the guy tried to conceal income, then said he couldn't afford to support his kids because he just bought a new luxury car.] I haven't been afraid to go to court since.

What did I learn from this? A lot. By the time I graduated law school and passed the bar, I had tried more cases than many lawyers handle in a life time. I became comfortable in court, which is critical because, when trying a case, you have to simultaneously structure your presentation to prove your client's case, analyze what the other party/parties is/are presenting, question witnesses, and remember gazillions of rules of evidence, laws, etc. that might come up. Some lawyers spend days thinking this all out ahead of time, writing every question they intend to ask. I find this too constricting -- the courtroom is a place of constant change. While I try to anticipate and prepare for whatever might happen, I prefer to go in with an open focus, ready for whatever. I can do this effectively because of the solid ground of my Legal Services experience. I learned to handle a high volume of cases without neglecting any of them. I learned to work with clients, other lawyers, and court personnel. I learned to practice law.

So, how did this help me as a writer? I gained an understanding of human relationships through my clients' marital problems. I learned to write on demand and in accordance with a set format by drafting divorce complaints and other legal documents. And law practice has provided me with a day job that lets me pay the bills while trying to sell the stuff I write.


Anonymous said...

Loved this post, Gina! A real "working stiff" report from the trenches.

Anonymous said...

You make the courtroom work sound so appealing! I get the impression that your current work isn't in court. If that's true, why didn't you end up in a law specialty that does more courtroom work?

Anonymous said...

Tory, I do get to try cases in my current job, although not in a regular court. I handle regulatory litigation for an electric utility, trying cases before Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) administrative law judges. Unlike some administrative hearings, a PUC hearing is essentially the same as a bench trial (i.e., one decided by a judge alone without a jury). Most of my cases are not legally complex -- they involve interpretation and application of one statute, the Public Utility Code, and the Public Utility Commission's regulations, but they can be factually complicated. Just this summer I had a 3-day evidentiary hearing in which I presented the testimony of 9 witnesses, most of them experts. I usually have at least a few hearings every month, sometimes several a week. I was scheduled for a 2-day hearing last week, but the other side got it postponed. Most of the lawyer jobs I've held have involved a fair amount of litigation. I'll be blogging about them in the months to come (as well the dozens of other non-legal jobs) -- or are folks getting tired of hearing about my work history????

Anonymous said...

Gina, I love hearing about your diverse work history! (But then, my original major in Psychology of Organizations was about studying people at work, so it's my thing.) I'm just waiting to hear what you have to say about your Law and Psychiatry gig! You can be sure I'll pass it along to Chuck. :-)