Might Be a Lawyer But You Ain’t No Dancer

Most people have a scale that they use to measure positive and negative, good and bad, what they like or dislike. At the negative end of a typical person’s scale you will probably find things like Death, Hitler, Cancer,etc. On the other end are the things we consider to be good, Ice Cream, Babies, Beatle Songs and the like. Everybody’s scale is a little different and reflects his particular set of irritibilities and desires and memories. Somewhere between the KKK and root canals on my scale there is a special spot for lawyers.

Lawyers deserve every bit of bad reputation that they have. Any significant involvement with our legal system is bound to twist, corrupt, repress or otherwise mar the personality of anyone unlucky enough to be exposed. You can’t blame a lawyer for being crooked and morally retarded any more than you can blame a fish for being wet or an earthworm for being dirty. They are just adapted to their environments. The landscape of our legal system looks like something out of one of those post-apocalypse movies. It’s a steaming wasteland of wrecked lives and families, unimaginable crimes, and punishments even more vile and calculated. It’s a cesspool of greed and political intrigue and a quagmire of crackpot terminology. Like a frogman in a septic tank, the lawyer has to swim in the half-digested swill of our vanities and vengence, our frauds and feuds, divorces and petty disputes, our blame and retribution. It’s a filthy job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Somebody has to do it because the labyrinth of our law is a twisting trail in a tangled jungle where the natives speak in such exotic tongues that in order to travel through it one needs both guide and translator. The average American citizen with normal intelligence, a public education and functional vocabulary can no more navigate this maze without a lawyer than a Catholic could get into Heaven without paying St. Peter first.

Corruption is a form of forgiveness. It’s the flexible part that every rigid system needs to avoid cracking under the stress of its own operation. Most societies allow corruption to do its job of providing lubrication for squeaky institutions. Graft becomes a protocol and an accepted means of doing business. Bribes are seen as a legitimate fee for the service of expediting one’s transactions with slow official bureaucracies. Lawyers are the brokers of corruption.

You can work people and you can play people. They both amount to the same thing. When you work somebody it means that you are controlling them and when you play somebody it means that you are manipulating or influencing them, moving them like a piece in a game. We can work machines, we can work puzzles, we can work people, yes, and we can even work the system, but we can’t work the universe. We have to hire a lawyer to do that.

Most people’s legal training consists of watching the ubiquitous re-runs of Law and Order on late-night cable. We love a good whodunit and in the process are indoctrinated with the idea that Justice can be had through the law and that our police are so awesome that they know in seconds where any cell phone is being used and what every email you ever wrote says and a DNA match can be made during a two minute commercial break. Every crime is committed, solved and punished neatly in one hour. Well, it makes good TV but it depicts our legal system about as accurately as Ozzie and Harriet depicts marriage and family life.

My reluctant forays into the mirror land of American jurisprudence have made it necessary for me to familiarize myself with the language of the law and in the process become as tainted by its weird reasoning as any other lawyer. There is something about the chilling marble acoustics in the Halls of Justice that make common words take on strange new meanings and pronunciations. It is a language intended to baffle and cajole and deceive.

Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln and I are all lawyers who went to the same law school. I can relate to the story of Lincoln doing his studies in chalk on the back of a shovel lit by a fireplace. I did my studies in similar rustic conditions in the moldy law library of the Wynne Unit at Huntsville, Tx. It was a pain in the ass to even get into the prison Law Library. You had to fill out a request to get in line. Then a couple of evenings a week you would be escorted to the prison gymnasium where under the bleachers was a musty room containing pillaged stacks of dated law books. They might as well have been written in Greek for all that I knew how to use them. It was bewildering. I was supposed to write an appeal brief. I had never even seen an appeal brief. The first thing I learned was that there was nothing brief about briefs. They were the most turgid forms of literature that I had ever encountered. It was as if all the parts of a guided missile were dumped in a pile on the floor and I was being asked to assemble them with no manual or instructions. I felt totally abandoned. I needed a lawyer.

In America we know a gymnasium as a place to play basketball or waste ergs on exercise machines. In ancient Greece where they invented the word, it meant a school for both physical and mental training. On Law Library nights at the Wynne Unit the smelly old gym became a school in the spirit of the original word. Out of 2500 men on the unit, only about 10 to 15 at any given time had the brains, the moxie, the tenacity, the desperation or the foolhardiness necessary to mount legal appeals from prison. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, folding tables were set up on the gym floor and a jack-leg legal symposium was held where more experienced or erudite inmates helped their fellow litigants find a way through the maze of new languages and procedures. Jailhouse lawyers are a unique breed. Like in any extreme niche profession the best ones are totally insane. They have time on their hands and a desperate will to fight or at least not to totally surrender their hopes of triumph over the institution. And of course the longer they are exposed to the byzantine paradoxes that lurk like heavy metals in our law, the crazier they become.

My coach in the gymnasium of law was a charming con-man named Dr. Hamilton. He was an Aussie Phd. locked up for writing enough hot checks to decoupage the faces of all four presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Ham had been the principal of a boys prep-school in North Dallas. He must’ve gotten bored with his hum-drum if comfy job of kissing the asses of rich parents who were hiring him to civilize their wild issue, because he hung a string of paper from El Paso to Texarkana, bought everything from diamonds to show dogs. He knew the law. In Texas a defendant who is facing a pile of charges has the option of pleading guilty to one charge claiming all the indictments are part of the same ‘criminal escapade.’ This means that the penalty for writing 3 hot checks is the same as for writing 3000 hot checks if this clause is invoked. This is what Dr. Hamilton did and when the judge offered him a five year probated sentence including restitution, Ham just laughed at him. He had no intention of paying the money back. It was upwards of seven figures. He fully planned to get caught and then go sit out his little one or two years in prison, get out and spend the money. It seemed like a plausible plan to me. I would sit in jail again for a year if I was getting paid half a million to do it. Better than waiting tables.

Ham composed the only successful lawsuit against a prison official that I saw first-hand while I was locked up. He insisted that everyone address him by his proper honorific, “Dr.” Everyone included inmates, guards and prison administrators. The Warden was a reasonable man and had no problem with addressing Ham as Dr. Hamilton. It was a simple matter of courtesy. But the Assistant Warden was the tough guy of the institution, from the old school, and he was accustomed to addressing inmates as ‘old thaing’ and ‘hey, convict.’ He wasn’t about to bow to some sawed-off, intellectual Aussie paper-hanger. The ensuing dispute led to a sudden and arbitrary job reassignment for Dr. Hamilton. One day Ham was working in an air-conditioned office and he next day he was slopping pigs in the hot Texas sun. So he filed a lawsuit against the Assistant Warden. The brief was so well-written that the Texas Supreme Court who ruled on it commended Dr. Hamilton for his legal erudition and had him reinstated to his former job, gave him his good-time back and the sweetest part was that they admonished Assistant Warden Jones to address Ham as Doctor.

Ham showed me how to Shepardize a case and how to find my way around the outdated books of case law. After that I was pretty much on my own to discover the legal reasons why my conviction represented low comedy more than high justice. It took me six months to write my appeal and another year-and-a-half for the District Court of Appeals to rule on it. I wouldn’t have minded waiting the two years if I had been in my own house making my own living, but I was in jail making license plate stickers for the State of Texas. Justice moves slower for the poor. The Court rejected my appeal. I knew that almost all appeals are rejected, it is common. But they did rule on it with written opinions on each of my arguments and it was published. This is rare, even for briefs written by accredited attorneys. They usually dismiss them with no written opinion. While I was disappointed by the rejection, I was proud as a writer to have made an adequate showing in this difficult genre.

I’m no genius but smarter than your average bear. I possess a fair command of the English language and have attended all my civics classes. I should be able to avail myself of due process and the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Nobody mentioned in civics class that only those with means to afford a lawyer could participate in any meaningful way in the system which was supposedly created to protect the rights of common citizens. I don’t hate lawyers, that gives them too much power. I pity them. I hate the system which makes them necessary.

The lifeboat full of shipwreck survivors passes close to an island. In the front of the boat is a doctor, a lawyer and a priest. They decide that someone is going to have to jump in and tow the boat to shore. The priest says, “I’ll do it,” crosses himself and jumps in. He is immediately eaten by sharks. The doctor says, “I’ll try,” and puts his red-cross armband on and jumps in. Sharks eat him. The lawyer reluctantly straightens his tie and polishes his shoes and jumps in. He puts the rope between his teeth and tows the boat to shore. One of the other survivors says to him, “They ate the priest and the doctor, why didn’t the sharks eat you?”
“Professional courtesy,” said the lawyer.

One Response to Might Be a Lawyer But You Ain’t No Dancer

  1. Barbara says:

    right on, lightning rod. well written as always, and i’ll be repeating that joke.

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