The litigators, p.8
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       The Litigators, p.8

           John Grisham
 

  Sincerely, Wallis T. Figg, Attorney and Counselor-at-Law

  “Has Oscar seen this?” she asked.

  “Not yet. Pretty good, huh?”

  “This for real?”

  “Oh, it’s so real, Ms. Gibson. This is our biggest moment.”

  “Another gold mine?”

  “Bigger than a gold mine.”

  “And you want to send three thousand letters?”

  “Yep, you print ’em, I’ll sign ’em, we’ll stuff ’em, and they go out in today’s mail.”

  “That’s over a thousand bucks in postage.”

  “Ms. Gibson, the average Krayoxx case will generate something like $200,000 in attorneys’ fees, and that’s on the low side. Could be as high as $400,000 per case. If we can find ten cases, the math gets real easy.”

  Rochelle did the math, and her reluctance began to fade. Her mind began to drift. With all the bar journals and newsletters that crossed her desk, she had seen a thousand stories about big verdicts and big settlements. Lawyers making millions in fees.

  Surely, they would give her a fine bonus.

  “All right,” she said, shoving her newspaper aside.

  Oscar and Wally had their second Krayoxx fight not long afterward. When Oscar arrived at 9:00 a.m., he could not help but notice the flurry of activity around the front desk. Rochelle was working the computer. The printer was in high gear. Wally was signing his name to letters. Even AC was awake and watching.

  “What’s all this?” Oscar demanded.

  “The sounds of capitalism at work,” Wally answered cheerfully.

  “What the hell does that mean?”

  “Protecting the rights of the injured. Serving our clients. Purging the market of dangerous products. Bringing corporate wrongdoers to justice.”

  “Chasing ambulances,” Rochelle said.

  Oscar looked disgusted and continued to his office, where he slammed the door. Before he could remove his coat and park his umbrella, Wally was at his desk, nibbling on a muffin and waving one of the letters. “You gotta read this, Oscar,” he said. “This is brilliant.”

  Oscar read it, the wrinkles in his forehead getting deeper and deeper with each paragraph. When he finished, he said, “Come on, Wally, not again. How many of these are you sending out?”

  “Three thousand. Our entire client list.”

  “What? Think of the postage. Think of the wasted time. Here we go again. You’ll spend the next month running around chirping about Krayoxx this and Krayoxx that, and you’ll waste a hundred hours looking for worthless cases, and on and on. We’ve been here before, Wally, come on. Do something productive.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like go hang out in an emergency room somewhere, wait for a real case to come in. I don’t have to tell you how to find good cases.”

  “I’m tired of that crap, Oscar. I wanna make some money. Let’s hit it big for a change.”

  “My wife’s been taking the drug for two years. Loves it.”

  “Did you tell her to stop, that it’s killing people?”

  “Of course not.”

  As their voices grew louder, Rochelle eased over and quietly closed the door to Oscar’s office. She was returning to her desk when the front door suddenly opened. It was David Zinc, bright and sober with a big smile, sharp suit, cashmere overcoat, and two thick briefcases loaded to the max.

  “Well, well, if it ain’t Mr. Harvard,” Rochelle said.

  “I’m back.”

  “I’m surprised you could find us.”

  “It wasn’t easy. Where’s my office?”

  “Well, uh, let’s see. I’m not sure we have one. Perhaps we should ask the two bosses about this.” She nodded to Oscar’s door, beyond which voices could be heard.

  “So they’re here?” David asked.

  “Yes, they usually start the day with a round of bickering.”

  “I see.”

  “Look, Harvard, are you sure you know what you’re doing? This is another world. You’re taking a plunge here, leaving the fancy life of corporate law for the bush leagues. You might get hurt out here, and you sure won’t make any money.”

  “I’ve done the big-firm thing, Ms. Gibson, and I’ll jump off a bridge before I go back. Just give me a little room somewhere to park myself, and I’ll figure it out.”

  The door opened, and Wally and Oscar emerged. They froze when they saw David standing in front of Rochelle’s desk. Wally smiled and said, “Well, good morning, David. You look surprisingly healthy.”

  “Thank you, and I’d like to apologize for my appearance yesterday.” He nodded at all three as he spoke. “You caught me at the tail end of a rather unusual episode, but it was nonetheless a very important day in my life. I quit the big firm, and here I am, ready to go to work.”

  “What type of work do you have in mind?” Oscar asked.

  David gave a slight shrug as if he didn’t have a clue. “For the past five years, I’ve labored in the dungeon of bond underwriting, with emphasis on second- and third-tier aftermarket spreads, primarily for foreign multinational corporations that prefer to avoid paying taxes anywhere in the world. If you have no idea what that is, then don’t worry. No one else does either. What it means is that a small team of us idiots labored fifteen hours a day in a room with no windows creating paperwork, and more paperwork. I’ve never seen the inside of a courtroom, or a courthouse for that matter, never met a judge when he was wearing a robe, never offered a hand to help a person who needed a real lawyer. To answer your question, Mr. Finley, I’m here to do anything. Think of me as a rookie fresh out of law school who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. But I’m a quick study.”

  Compensation should have been the next issue, but the partners were reluctant to talk money in front of Rochelle. She, of course, would take the position that anyone they hired, lawyer or otherwise, should be paid less than she was.

  “There is some space upstairs,” Wally said.

  “I’ll take it.”

  “It’s a junk room,” Oscar said.

  “I’ll take it,” David said, lifting his two briefcases, ready to move in.

  “I haven’t been up there in years,” Rochelle said, rolling her eyes, obviously unhappy with the firm’s sudden expansion.

  A narrow door next to the kitchen led to a stairway. David followed Wally, with Oscar bringing up the rear. Wally was excited about having someone to help hustle Krayoxx cases. Oscar was thinking only of how much this might cost in salary, withholding taxes, unemployment deductions, and, heaven forbid, health insurance. Finley & Figg offered little in the way of benefits—no 401(k), no IRA, no retirement of any kind, and certainly no health or dental plan. Rochelle had been griping for years because she was forced to buy her own private policy, as did the two partners. What if young David here expected health insurance?

  As Oscar climbed the stairs, he felt the burden of a heavier overhead. More spent at the office meant less to take home. His retirement seemed even more elusive.

  The junk room was exactly that, a dark, dusty landfill with spiderwebs and pieces of old furniture and boxes of files. “I like it,” David said when Wally switched on the light.

  He must be crazy, Oscar thought.

  But there was a small desk and a couple of chairs. David saw only the potential. And there were two windows. Sunlight would be a nice addition to his life. When it was dark outside, he would be at home with Helen, procreating.

  Oscar swiped away a large spiderweb and said, “Look, David, we can offer a small salary, but you’re gonna have to generate your own fees. And this won’t be easy, at least initially.”

  Initially? Oscar had been struggling to generate meager fees for over thirty years.

  “What’s the deal?” David asked.

  Oscar looked at Wally, and Wally looked at the wall. The two had not hired an associate in fifteen years, nor had they even considered doing so. David’s presence had caught them by surprise.

  As the se
nior partner, Oscar felt compelled to take the initiative. “We can pay a thousand bucks a month, and you keep half of what you bring in. After six months, we’ll reevaluate.”

  Wally jumped in quickly with “It will be rough at first, lots of competition out there on the streets.”

  “We can toss some files your way,” Oscar added.

  “We’ll give you a piece of the Krayoxx litigation,” Wally said, as if they were already banking huge fees.

  “The what?” David asked.

  “Never mind,” Oscar said with a frown.

  “Look, guys,” David said with a smile. He was far more at ease than they were. “I’ve made a very nice salary for the past five years. I’ve spent a lot, but there’s a chunk in the bank. Don’t worry about me. I’ll take the deal.” And with that he thrust out a hand, shaking Oscar’s first, then Wally’s.

  CHAPTER 10

  David cleaned for the next hour. He wiped dust from the desk and chairs. He found an old Hoover in the kitchen and vacuumed the plank floors. He filled three large bags with trash and put them on the small porch out back. He stopped occasionally to admire the windows and sunlight, something he’d never done at Rogan Rothberg. Sure, on a clear day the view across Lake Michigan was captivating, but he had learned during his first year with the firm that time spent gazing out from the Trust Tower was time that could not be billed. Rookie associates were placed in bunker-like cubicles, where they toiled around the clock and, with time, forgot about sunshine and daydreaming. Now David couldn’t stay away from the windows. The view, admittedly, was not as captivating. Looking down, he could see the massage parlor, and beyond it the intersection of Preston, Beech, and Thirty-eighth, the very spot where he’d taken a piece of metal to the slimeball Gholston and chased him away. Beyond the intersection was a block of more converted bungalows.

  Not much of a view, but David liked it anyway. It represented an exciting change in his life, a new challenge. It meant freedom.

  Wally dropped in every ten minutes to check on things, and it became obvious he had something on his mind. Finally, after an hour, he said, “Say, David, I’m due in court at eleven. Divorce court. I doubt you’ve ever been there, so I was thinking you could tag along and I’ll introduce you to the judge.”

  The cleaning had become monotonous. David said, “Let’s go.”

  As they were leaving through the back door, Wally said, “Is that your Audi SUV?”

  “It is.”

  “Do you mind driving? I’ll do the talking.”

  “Sure.”

  As they were pulling onto Preston, Wally said, “Look, David, the truth is that I got a DUI a year ago and my license is suspended. There, I said it. I believe in being honest.”

  “Okay. You’ve certainly seen me drunk enough.”

  “I have indeed. But your cute wife told me you’re not much of a drinker. I, on the other hand, have quite a history. I’m sober for sixty-one days now. Every day is a challenge. I go to AA, and I’ve rehabbed several times. What else do you want to know?”

  “I didn’t bring this up.”

  “Oscar, he has a few strong ones every night. Believe me, with his wife, he needs them, but he keeps it under control. Some people are like that, you know. They can stop with two or three. They can skip a few days, even weeks, no problem. Others can’t stop until they black out, kinda like you yesterday.”

  “Thanks, Wally. Where are we headed, by the way?”

  “The Daley Center downtown, 50 West Washington. Me, I do fine for a while. I’ve quit four or five times, you know?”

  “How would I know that?”

  “Anyway, enough of the booze.”

  “What’s wrong with Oscar’s wife?”

  Wally whistled and looked out the side window for a moment. “Tough woman, man. One of these people who grew up in a nicer part of town, father wore a suit and tie to work, as opposed to a uniform, so she was raised to believe she’s better than most. A real snot. She made a major mistake when she married Oscar because she figured he was a lawyer, right? Lawyers make lots of money, right? Not exactly. Oscar has never made enough to satisfy her, and she hammers him relentlessly because she wants more money. I loathe the woman. You won’t meet her, because she refuses to set foot in the office, which suits me just fine.”

  “Why not get a divorce?”

  “That’s what I’ve been saying for years. Me, I got no problem with divorce. Been down that road four times.”

  “Four times?”

  “Yep, and every trip was worth the hassle. You know what they say—the reason divorce is so expensive is because it’s worth it.” Wally laughed at this stale punch line.

  “Are you married now?” David asked, somewhat cautiously.

  “Nope, back on the prowl,” Wally said smugly, as if no woman were safe. David couldn’t imagine a less attractive person hitting on females in bars and at parties. So, in less than fifteen minutes, he had learned Wally was a recovering alcoholic with four ex-wives, several trips through rehab, and at least one DUI. David decided to stop with the questions.

  Over breakfast with Helen, he had dug a bit online and learned that (1) ten years earlier, Finley & Figg had settled a sexual harassment suit brought by a former secretary; (2) on one occasion, Oscar had been reprimanded by the state bar association for overcharging a client in a divorce case; (3) on two prior occasions, Wally had been reprimanded by the state bar association for “blatant solicitation” of clients who’d been injured in auto accidents, including an apparently messy affair involving Wally wearing doctor’s scrubs and barging into the hospital room of a badly wounded teenager who died an hour later; (4) at least four former clients had sued the firm alleging malpractice, though it was unclear if any recovered damages; and (5) the firm had been mentioned in a scathing article written by a professor of legal ethics who was sick of lawyers’ advertising. And all of this was just over breakfast.

  Helen had been alarmed, but David took a hard, cynical line and argued that such dubious behavior couldn’t touch the cutthroat brand of law practiced by the fine folks at Rogan Rothberg. He had only to mention the Strick River case to win the argument. The Strick River in Wisconsin had been thoroughly polluted by an infamous chemical company represented by Rogan Rothberg, and after decades of brutal litigation and skillful legal wrangling the dumping continued.

  Wally was digging through his briefcase.

  The skyline came into view, and David looked at the tall, majestic buildings crowded together in downtown Chicago. The Trust Tower was in the center. “I would be there right now,” he said softly, almost to himself. Wally looked up, saw the skyline, and realized what David was thinking.

  “Which one?” Wally asked.

  “The Trust Tower.”

  “I was in the Sears Tower one summer, a clerk, after my second year of law school. Martin & Wheeler. And I thought that’s what I wanted.”

  “What happened?”

  “Couldn’t pass the bar exam.”

  David added that to the growing list of defects.

  “You’re not going to miss it, are you?” Wally asked.

  “No, I’m breaking into a sweat right now, just looking at the building. I don’t want to get any closer.”

  “Take a left on Washington. We’re almost there.”

  Inside the Richard J. Daley Center, they passed through security scanners and took the elevator to the sixteenth floor. The place was bustling with lawyers and litigants, clerks and cops, either hustling about or huddled in little pockets of serious conversations. Justice was looming, and everyone seemed to be dreading it.

  David had no idea where he was going or what he was doing, so he stuck close to Wally, who seemed quite at home. David was carrying his briefcase, which held only a single legal pad. They passed courtroom after courtroom.

  “Have you really never seen the inside of a courtroom?” Wally asked as they walked quickly, their shoes clicking along on the worn marble tile.

  “Not since law
school.”

  “Unbelievable. What have you been doing for the past five years?”

  “You don’t want to know.”

 
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