Monday, March 31, 2008

HAVE LICENSE, WILL TRAVEL

by Gina Sestak

I gave up my private law practice in 1986. I was tired of fighting for people in court, then fighting those same people to get them to pay me. I had begun to regard clients as somewhat akin to cockroaches, except I liked the roaches better.

So I began to rent my services to small firms and sole practitioners. Let those lawyers fight their clients over fees -- as long as the lawyers paid me, I was happy. I billed myself as a freelance associate, willing to step in at a moment's notice to handle awkward, inconvenient matters.

It is an immutable truth of the universe that, if you have to be at two events in any given year, those two events will be on the same day in different locations. Hence the need. A sole practitioner might received notice of a motion being presented in Lawrence County at the same time she is due in court in Allegheny County. I would step in to handle the motion in Lawrence County.

This was fun. There are several small counties with pretty little courthouses around Pittsburgh. I often didn't even charge for travel time. It was too enjoyable, learning to navigate unfamiliar court personnel and judges, and being out and about -- although I admit that I sometimes got confused on the way to Washington County and almost went to Erie (you local folks know what I mean).

My favorite part of this job, though, was attending depositions with the deponent. Modern law practice tries to avoid courtroom surprises, so it is the norm (at least in larger cases) for each side to question the other's witnesses under oath prior to trial. Such a questioning session is called a deposition; the testifying witness is called a deponent. The purpose behind this is simple: if both sides know what the evidence is, they are more likely to reach a settlement. Even if the case isn't settled, the attorneys may be able to agree to certain facts. This can streamline the trial by cutting down on the number of things that have to be proven in court.

The attorney taking the deposition might spend a day or more asking probing questions, while the attorney on the other side fretted over taking time away from other pressing matters. The solution: I would attend the deposition. It is important for attorneys for both sides to be present but, if you're not the one taking the deponent, you don't have to do much. I mainly drank coffee and took the deponent out of the room on occasion to provide advice but -- and this is crucial -- whenever inappropriate questions were asked, I would object. Different jurisdictions handle deposition objections differently. In some places, I've heard, you can go directly to a judge for a ruling. Our local judges don't want to be bothered. Around here, you simply put the objection on the record and, if the deposition is used at trial, a judge rules then.

I also did a lot of research, writing briefs and other legal documents. That, too, is fun in its own sick sort of way. The trick is figuring out what the law is. Oh, I know we say "the law" as if it were a list of dos and don'ts, like the ten commandments. In reality, "the law" consists of thousands of federal statutes and regulations, thousands of state statutes and regulations, and the thousands of cases in which judges have applied and interpreted them. Not to mention the hundreds of rules that govern how, when, and where each issue can be raised. Research can be mind boggling. I must admit that I don't find the law itself as fascinating as the facts. I briefed one marital dispute over cows who were in utero at the time of separation. I can't remember how the Divorce Code regarding them, but the phrase "after-born cattle" has stayed with me.

I freelanced for a few years, mainly for a small group of customers. Although the income was irregular, the work was interesting. What more can you ask than that?

11 comments:

Tory said...

I agree, Gina. Last week I was talking to my financial advisor and told him, "I'm not where I want to be finacially, but I really like what I'm doing!"

I'd have it that way over rich and boring any day.

Annette said...

Fascinating stuff as always, Gina. And for anyone who isn't local, Washington PA is nowhere near Erie.

JennieB said...

'After-born cattle' - what a concept.

Sounds like this kind of person would make an excellent protagonist for a series of legal mysteries/thrillers. Every week a new case, at a new firm, with new partners and - of course - new clients, in a new location. What fun. And what scope for plotting!

Joyce said...

Jennie's right, Gina! If you're not going to write that memoir, get cracking on that mystery series!

Cathy said...

Gina,
Would you consider writing such a legal series? Just reading your blog was fascinating, so imagine what you could do in a novel, just drawing on your past experience. This was a lot of fun. Thanks.

Gina said...

I actually have a manuscript completed that could be the start of a legal series, although it involves a small general practice firm rather than a freelancer. I'm just no good at finding an agent or publisher for it.

The series has three point-of-view characters, two attorneys and their secretary. In the first book, which is tentatively titled "Running Rivers," attorney Shannon is going for a run along the Mon Wharf when she spots a body floating in the river. Once River Rescue* arrives, though, the body has disappeared. Shannon, her partner Becky, and their secretary Ethel each hold (or discover) pieces of a puzzle that involves the identity of the missing corpse, their firm, some prior deaths, and an immediate threat to Shannon herself. So why doesn't anybody want to publish it? Beats me. I must just be a crappy writer.

________
* Annette, now you know why I was asking so many questions about how river rescue operates at the last CPA class.

JennieB said...

Oh, sweetie, don't say you're a crappy writer! You're not; your blog posts are wonderful. It's just a matter of right time, right place. My agent has been trying for a year and half now to sell my first series, with no luck whatsoever, and I know for a fact that it's not due to crappy writing that no one wants it. You just have to keep trying until you hit the right person at the right time. It sounds like an interesting story. I still think the freelance lawyer is something you should think about, though. I could really see it work well. In a light and funny way, working in things like 'after-born cattle'.

Annette said...

Gina, you are NOT a crappy writer. Everything else I was going to say, Jennie beat me to it.

And I suspected the questions at CPA last week were for something like that.

JennieB said...

By the way, you guys, since I know some of you are yoga enthusiasts, and since I've mentioned it here before: my friend Diana Killian's new book, 'Corpse Pose', is officially available now. I came across it in my local store yesterday. It's the first in Diana's new 'Mantra for Murder' series from Berkley Prime Crime, and it's a fun read. Diana is blogging about it over on the Good Girls Kill for Money blog today, if anyone's interested.

Joyce said...

Gina, you're not a crappy writer. How many queries have you sent out? If you haven't reached the 100 agent mark or lost count yet, keep going!

brenda said...

Gina, You continue to fascinate me!