SHORT STORY CONTEST 2017 This is one issue that we—and many of our readers—particularly look forward to. Storytelling is alive and well, and the Texas Bar Journal relishes the opportunity to share some of it with you. We’d like to extend an appreciative thank you to the 36 writers who submitted entries to the 2017 competition. To keep the contest fair and impartial, author names were removed from each entry. Two panels of judges faced the challenging task of selecting the winners, and for each round, the same evaluation form was used for consistency. Eleven entries advanced to the final round, which was judged by Mike Farris of Dallas, Amanda Moore of Austin, and Stephanie Tillman of Houston. The winner, “The Peacemaker,” by Gregg Mayer, earned the highest number of points. We have published the first-, second-, and third-place winners on the following pages. We hope you enjoy these creative short stories as much as we did. To listen to a podcast reading by the authors, go to texasbar.com/shortstory. FINALISTS Please congratulate these attorney-authors for making it through the competitive first round of judging to the finals. “THE PEACEMAKER,” by Gregg Mayer (First Place) “JOHNNY FLASH,” by Logan Simmons (Second Place) “ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES,” by Mary Lou Jones (Third Place) “THE BLACK BUTTON,” by Michael R. Dreeben “CONFIDENTIALITY,” by David Jones “BOXES,” by Lane D. Thibodeaux “TERMINATION,” by Rosanne Gordon “DESERTED CITY,” by Erane “Raney” LaSusa “THE CASE OF BUSTER THE BULL,” by Susan I. Paquet “PERSONNEL FILES,” by Ron Satija “THE LAST EXIT,” by Jennifer Soldano First Place THE PEACEMAKER BY GREGG MAYER The lawyers were all dead. Luther Millenford liked it that way because that meant he was in control. Today, he was going to set right a wrong. He was going to the Peacemaker. It had been 43 years since a lawyer had set foot in any of the thousands of courthouses across the country, buildings that were now converted into restaurants, museums, or—in many cases—razed. The Peacemaker was a monolithic mainframe computer housed in Washington, D.C. It was connected by a vast network throughout the United States, installed with programming that contained every fact, the reasoning, conclusions, and dissents of every known legal case from every reported state and federal decision since 1847, updated as recently as last week. It was a spectacular achievement: the centralization, modernization of the law. When Luther filed his complaint, the first for him, he had read that judgments were made in seconds by the Peacemaker. He only had to show up at the appointed time at the East Texas Dispute Resolution Center, tell the Peacemaker his side of the story in one of its Testimonial Pods, answer questions the machine generated, and then wait for a result. Through cross-analysis of the facts presented of every known case—and specially regionalized state court analysis for Texas, which refused participation in the nationalization project—the Peacemaker rendered its judgment. Even outright lies from a witness couldn’t fool the Peacemaker—not with the pulse monitoring, infrared scans of brain activity, demeanor analysis, and perspiration indicator—all of which could spot an untruth 99.3 percent of the time. While not everyone was happy with the outcomes, all seemed to agree the expeditious handling of disputes was an improvement. “At least we’re not paying the lawyers,” was a familiar refrain. So it was when Luther filed his complaint with the Peacemaker. Luther was sure he was in the right against McVae’s Grocery Mart. It had been such a bad day to begin with when it happened. Luther was finishing his last day at the telecomm company, fired as part of automated work-force reduction, and on his way home to an empty house. His wife had left a month before. She had taken their little boy with her. He didn’t fight it. The boy was better with her. She could control him. At that point in life, Luther felt he couldn’t control anything. When Luther discovered the error on his grocery account the next day, he tried to work it out with Mr. McVae, insisting he did not buy the two pies on the receipt. McVae wouldn’t budge, insisting that his self-checkout system did not make errors. The “old Luther” would have let the error slide. Not the “new Luther,” though. He would fight it. The line outside the Resolution Center was long, but everyone was smiling, pleased with the ease of the process. There must have been 500 Testimonial Pods inside, Luther estimated. With his ticket in hand, he followed the painted line to Pod 284. Luther had written down what he wanted to say and kept it in his pocket. Inside the Pod, the air was chilled. Luther sat in the leather chair, pulled down the microphone, and put it in front of his mouth like the instructions stated. He placed the pulse monitors over his fingertips. He sat still for several minutes in complete silence. A green-lighted scan moved over him. “Good morning, Mr. Millenford, and thank you for coming today,” said a pleasant female voice over the intercom, its tone engineered for smoothness. “I have your paperwork, I have heard testimony of the accused, Mr. McVae. I have accepted evidence from Mr. McVae as to the events about which you have filed suit.” Luther nodded, as if listening to a person in front of him. “Please tell me what happened.” Luther cleared his throat and reached for his pocket to retrieve his bullet points, but the pulse monitors got in his way and he couldn’t get to it. No problem, he thought. “I went in and started to buy ...” he began. “‘Went in’ where?” she interrupted. “Please start from the beginning, and speak as clearly and comprehensively as you can.” “Yes,” Luther said. “On Friday, December 21, I needed some items from the grocery store. I went to McVae’s. I picked up milk, a frozen pizza, a six-pack of beer, and ... ” he paused, trying to remember the receipt. It was in his other pocket. He had provided a copy with his complaint. “Your receipt indicates the following,” she said, and read off brand names of the items he just listed, “and one container of McVae’s Generic Coffee Grounds, and one chocolate cream pie, and one vanilla iced pumpkin pie.” “But I didn’t buy the pies,” Luther said. He could feel his pulse quickening, his fingers twitching. “I’ve read your complaint and understand your allegation,” she said. “Do you understand that you purchase items in your cart when you leave the store?” “Yes.” “And the store’s input receptor collects scans of each item and automatically withdraws that amount from your account, correct?” “Yes, but I didn’t have pies.” “Please take a look at Exhibit C provided by Mr. McVae,” she stated. A small movie screen illuminated above him. It was a still image of Luther walking out of the store, pushing his small cart. “Is this you?” “Yes.” Luther could see the bag with the milk and the bag with the beer. He focused on his face and how drained of color it looked. His eyes were red. “Please look at the bottom of the cart,” she said, zooming in. On the bottom, unwrapped, were two pies. Luther felt his stomach tighten. “I didn’t buy those,” he said. “They are on your cart, and you have exited the store, correct?” “But I didn’t know they were on there. They had to have been there before I got the cart.” “You stated you understand the contractual obligation of entering and exiting the store and that you understood you purchased items on your cart as you exited the store, and you expressly authorized automatic withdrawals for all items in your cart, correct?” “But they were on there before I got the cart, I didn’t put them there.” “A contract is a contract,” she said. Trying again to reach into his pocket, knocking off one of the pulse monitors, Luther stood up. “Let me get something out of my pocket,” he said. He knocked off two more of the monitors, and the green light cast over him turned red. His foot was tangled on a wire, and he kicked out, hitting the lower front of the machine. He kicked again, harder, to get the wire off. He couldn’t get into his pocket. “Please, take your seat, or security will be summoned,” she said. Luther felt sweat on his brow and reached up with the back of his hand to wipe it off, but the cords from the pulse monitors scratched across his face. He put his arm down and let out a deep breath, resigned. “Keep the money,” he said. As he said it, there was a sudden flash in the room. The lights went dim, then completely dark. There was a buzzing behind the walls before the lights came back on. Luther looked around. The familiar hum of the Pod returned. “Thank you, Mr. Millenford,” her voice returned. “Now let me show you Exhibit C.” The movie screen was blank. There was a buzzing again—maybe more than a buzz. Suddenly, he heard a rattling behind the wall like someone was shaking a glass of marbles. He heard a thump, and then her voice again as the lights flickered: “Let me show you ...” she said, haltingly. “Let me show you ...” All the lights went dark again. Luther sat back down, hardly able to see his hand in front of his face. He thought he smelled smoke, but abruptly the lights came back on, the green glow cast over him. Her voice: “It appears, Mr. Millenford, that Mr. McVae did not provide an Exhibit C as required under Code 3576 to satisfy seller’s burden of purchase. A programming anomaly indicated incorrectly that he did. As a result of Mr. McVae’s failure to comply with Code 3576, my only question is do you contest that you possessed the chocolate cream pie and vanilla iced pumpkin pie on your shopping cart when you left McVae’s?” Luther sat quietly, confused. He was thirsty. The movie screen was still blank. “I repeat, do you contest that the two pies were on your cart when you exited McVae’s? If so, and due to Mr. McVae’s failure to provide proof of the same, Mr. McVae may only collect from you if you admit that the pies were on your cart.” Luther took in a breath and swallowed. “I contest it,” he said, starting to smile. Finally, he thought. He was owed one. “Then the funds shall be re-deposited into your account. He heard a printer starting on the far wall. “I am printing your judgment in the amount of $22.55, plus interest at zzzzzzzzcrakrikadiblimg.” Lights flashed again, brighter this time, before going black for the third time. Luther stood up and took the remaining monitors off his finger. He was ready to get out of there. The printer resumed. The lights returned. He heard a piece of paper drop into the drawer below the printer. “The evidence is concluded and judgment rendered, Mr. Millenford,” she said, her voice louder and firmer. “You have been found guilty. Please take your seat until the officers arrive.” “Officers?” Luther asked, opening the drawer and reaching in. “What? You just said I could get back my $22.” He picked up the paper in the drawer, reading it: COUNT ONE: GUILTY—FIRST DEGREE MURDER. COUNT TWO: GUILTY— POSSESSION OF A FIREARM BY A FELON. He heard the door start to open and a command from someone on the other side: “Sit down. Put your hands up. We are coming in.” Luther looked through the door’s small window, but only saw the outline of a helmet. “Wait,” Luther walked toward the door to open it. “Get down,” the man shouted. “Please sit,” she said over the intercom. “There’s a glitch,” Luther said loudly, waving to the men outside. “The lights keep going on and off.” The door burst open and two uniformed officers grabbed Luther and threw him down, pulling his arms backward and cuffing him. In pain, his arm wrenched behind him, Luther shouted: “This is all a mistake.” “I bet,” the taller officer said, stepping back. “No, you don’t get it.” Luther twisted, and felt that the cuff was loose on his left hand, so he gave a little tug and it fell free. Luther pulled himself up. “Listen,” he said. “He’s free!” the short one shouted, and tripped backward over the wire. Luther reached for him. Luther never saw the other officer fire his gun. In the aftermath—their helmets removed—the two officers shook their heads in disbelief. “Second one this week,” the tall one said, turning to the Peacemaker’s microphone. “Officer Myers reporting in the case of State v. Milenfeld,” he looked at the case number at the top of the bloodied sheet in Luther’s hand, “convict attempted to flee and assault and was put down. Please include in report and send in cleanup team.” “Affirmative,” she said. “Case closed.” Three weeks later, during routine self-maintenance, the Peacemaker recognized a diagnostic anomaly that inadvertently set free a convicted murderer. The proper local authorities were notified and the murderer, Roy Milenfeld, was apprehended without incident. Internal testing uncovered pictures from a grocery store that were mixed in with the criminal defendant’s files. No other records were found, and no further inquiry was made. It was determined to be an innocuous anomaly that otherwise did not affect the infallibility of the system. GREGG MAYER is a litigation attorney who frequently handles commercial disputes and tort lawsuits with an emphasis in First Amendment and appellate law. Mayer, a former newspaper reporter, is licensed in Texas and Mississippi. Second Place Johnny Flash BY LOGAN SIMMONS John Parkman had worked at the firm for only 30 minutes, and he already hated it. His dislike for the place did not come from the work itself—he had yet to receive his first assignment—but from the fact that everyone he encountered gushed over “Sergei the Great,” the associate John was replacing. You would think people would realize that the last thing a first-year associate wants to hear is how amazing the previous associate was, but the employees at his firm either didn’t get it or didn’t care. It started when he walked in that morning. He had greeted the receptionist with a warm smile. “Hello, I’m John Parkman.” She had greeted him with a raised eyebrow. “So you’re the one replacing Sergei. Good luck with that.” It continued during his tour of the building. Melissa Andrews, the senior associate tasked with showing him the firm’s space on the ninth through 12th floors, spoke of nothing but Sergei. “You know he billed 3,000 hours, don’t you?” “I didn’t.” “And I’m not just talking about last year. Five years he did it.” She then added, “I hope you don’t have kids.” “I don’t.” “Good. Not that I don’t like kids. I have two myself,” she said as she pulled out her phone and showed John a picture of two smiling boys. “It’s just that the partners have exceedingly high expectations. We can thank Sergei for that.” She looked again at the picture on her phone and sighed. “Impossible expectations really.” She then took John to his office—Sergei’s old one—a dark, windowless room that looked more like a cabin on a ship than an office in a mid-sized law firm. “Not much to look at, I know,” she said, “but at least you’re not across from the break room like me.” Her eyes scanned the small room with disapproval. “For some reason, Sergei liked it here. We never could get him to change offices.” She gave the room one last reproachful glance, then added, “Go ahead and get settled. Someone will be in soon to give you your first assignment.” When Melissa left, John sat down at his desk. He immediately noticed a small yellow note stuck to his computer. It read: “Don’t let it go to your head, kid – Sergei.” Before John had much time to think about this strange and rather rude remark, Duncan Quigley, the head of the firm’s litigation department, walked into his office. Duncan had interviewed John back in the spring and, fortunately for John, had seemed much more interested in their shared love of Aggie football than that Cin first-year property all the other interviewers fixated on. But today they didn’t discuss Myles Garrett or Ricky Seals-Jones. Instead, they discussed Sergei. “You’ve got some big shoes to fill, son,” Duncan said in his trademark drawl. “Sergei Gulanov was the best damn associate I’ve ever seen. Immaculate work product. Never missed a deadline. Billed like a heifer in heat.” Duncan shook his head and whistled loudly. “Big shoes to fill.” “I’ll do my best,” John said quietly. Duncan nodded. “I know you will. I just wish we could’ve convinced Sergei to stay. And boy did we try. Offered to make him partner. Offered him a nice corner office. But he didn’t want those things. Truth be told, I never really could understand what he wanted.” After a few moments of silence, Duncan slapped his hands together and said, “Well, Sergei’s in the past. Let me give you your first assignment.” Duncan then handed John three large stacks of documents and explained that one of their clients, Bristol Ventures, had just been sued. Duncan had a conference call in the morning and needed John to review the lawsuit, along with hundreds of pages of documents sent by the client, and draft a memo to help him get up to speed. “I wanna look at the memo before I leave, so I’ll need it by 4:00,” Duncan said. “You’ll need to analyze the plaintiff’s claims, and hopefully you can come up with some good defenses.” As soon as Duncan left, John turned his attention to the stacks of documents. He read the lawsuit carefully and then proceeded to read—not skim—the hundreds of pages of documents sent by the client. He read every single word. By the time he had reviewed everything, he was shocked to see that it was already 1:15. He was about to start drafting the memo when Melissa stopped by. “You’ve really been going at it,” she said. “Did you even go to lunch?” “Not really.” “Not really? How does one not really go to lunch?” “Okay, I didn’t have lunch. I’ve been working on something for Duncan.” “Aren’t you hungry?” “No.” “You look hungry.” “I’m fine.” “All right. Well, good luck.” She started to leave, but when she reached the door, she stopped. A smile crept across her face. “For the record, I told you they would have impossible expectations.” “Yah, yah,” John said as he waved her out the door. With Melissa gone, John went to his computer to start writing. Just as he was about to open a new Word document, he noticed an icon on his desktop titled “Perfect Memorandum re Bristol Ventures.” Thinking this was an old memo written by Sergei, and thinking that it might help him with his current assignment, John double-clicked the icon. It took him a few minutes to realize what he was seeing. The memo line contained his name and today’s date. Puzzled, John quickly scanned the eight-page document. To his surprise, the memo addressed the very claims and defenses he was supposed to analyze. What’s going on? John wondered. If they have the memo, why’d they ask me to do it? And why is my name on it? Is this a test? Or some kind of hazing ritual? Theories abounded. Ultimately, John decided the best course of action would be to ignore the “perfect memo” and get on with his work. Time flew. By 3:15, John had summarized all 11 of the plaintiff’s claims and had rough outlines of a couple of defensive issues. He could no longer, however, resist the urge to compare his memo to the “perfect” one, so he decided to look. He wished he hadn’t. While he had done a decent job analyzing the plaintiff’s claims, the “perfect memo” discussed several defensive strategies he had not even thought of. And there was a stark difference in the quality of writing. The “perfect memo” flowed smoothly. John’s writing style, on the other hand, seemed to be some strange amalgam of two parts choppy sentences, one part run-ons. John worked feverishly to edit his memo, but as it got closer to 4:00, he became increasingly aware that he would not have time to finish it. Not wanting to turn in his subpar work product, and angry at Duncan for making him write a memo when one was already drafted, John decided to email Duncan the “perfect memo.” Twenty minutes after John sent the email, Duncan appeared at his door. “Hell of a job, John! That memo was fantastic!” Duncan then handed John two stacks of documents. “You did so well with that one, I’ve got some more work for you. Here’s a summary judgment response I’ll let you take a stab at, and here’s a limitations question Melissa wants you to tackle.” As soon as Duncan left the room, John looked at his computer. After a couple of seconds, two icons popped up, one titled, “Perfect Summary Judgment Response,” the other “Perfect Memorandum re Limitations.” At that moment, John realized something: Sergei, it appeared, wasn’t so great after all. Six months later, it had gone to John’s head. John—now dubbed Johnny Flash by his colleagues—was in his office highfiving Duncan and Melissa. On his desk was a 2006 bottle of Dom Perignon, along with three champagne flutes. “I can’t believe we won,” Melissa said with a huge grin on her face. “It was Johnny Flash’s motion that did it,” Duncan said as he poured the champagne. In a hushed tone he added, “Now I don’t like to drink in the office, but this was a big one. We all—you especially John—deserve this.” Duncan handed Melissa and John their drinks and raised his high. “I think a toast is in order. First, here’s to me for landing the client. You can’t make money if you don’t have clients. Remember that. Second, here’s to Melissa for—wait, what did you do on this case? Just kidding. To Melissa, for all her hard work moving this case along. And finally, to John. Here’s to the best damn associate this firm has ever seen. Made me forget all about Sergei.” After they downed their champagne, Duncan turned to John and said, “Why don’t you take a week off? You’ve been working yourself to death.” With feigned reluctance, John agreed. Why not? Johnny Flash had earned it. When John returned to his office after his week off, he was shocked to find Melissa sitting at his desk. Just as he was about to ask her what she was doing, Duncan entered the room beaming from ear to ear. “Surprise!” he exclaimed. “What’s going on?” John asked with a pained look on his face. “Well, I thought I’d reward you for all the hard work you’ve been doing. So I decided to give you the corner office on the 12th floor. Melissa’s always hated her office—she thinks it’s too close to the break room—so I told her she could have your old one.” Not seeing the panicked look on John’s face, Duncan continued. “Now, don’t take too long to get settled. I have a brief due next week to the Fifth Circuit. I really should have given it to you sooner.” Duncan paused at the door and said, “I’m sure glad you’re here to write it. This ERISA stuff makes my head hurt.” Eight hours later, John was tired, hungry, and scared. He had received two other assignments, both of which required his immediate attention. He had turned in the first of them and was now working on the second. He had only been able to spend an hour on the ERISA issue, just long enough to realize that he was in big trouble. Sweat dripped down his forehead as he searched through the file cabinets on the ninth floor to find what he needed for the second assignment. He cursed silently under his breath as he saw five accordion folders. He wondered whether he would be able to get them all in one trip. One by one, he stacked them on top of each other until the last one reached just under his chin. As he made the slow trek down the hallway toward the elevator, he could tell that his shirttail was coming untucked. He had already tucked it back in a dozen times. Who knew that hard work could lead to such unkempt clothes? But he had bigger problems than an untucked shirt. As he neared the elevators, John saw the partner who had given him the first assignment heading in his direction with a scowl on his face. John acted like he didn’t see him and, with deft maneuvering, was able to get in and close the elevator doors before the partner could stop him. As the weight of the accordion folders became unbearable, he prayed that he could get from the ninth floor to the twelfth floor without stopping. The elevator stopped on 10. John wanted to cry. The doors opened, and Melissa appeared. She looked John over, taking in his disheveled clothes and sweaty face. She smiled knowingly and said, “I like your old office, Johnny Flash.” John could only think of one thing to say: “Don’t let it go to your head, kid.” LOGAN SIMMONS is a staff attorney with the 2nd District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth. He lives in Arlington with his wife, Emily, and his two sons, Luke and Jude. Third Place On Behalf of Themselves BY MARY LOU JONES Today she trades one kind of stress for another. Has he fallen asleep? Silence is unusual while navigating the meandering road cutting through the pastoral countryside on the way to his elementary school. Ahead, a doe hurdles one barbed wire fence after another with Olympian gracefulness, then disappears into the deep, ethereal morning mist. “Muscle car!” he shouts, halting her mental inventory of the day’s agenda. His index finger trails the passing orange Dodge Challenger. Through her rearview mirror, she glances at his happy face and smiles at his impish antics. Traffic multiplies as she nears town. “There! Muscle car!” “That’s a Firebird, not a Camaro,” she protests. He pumps his fist in the air and cheers. “My game, my rules. Two–zip.” Her Jeep stops in front of the nondescript brick building while he is still explaining the nuances of the deltoid-friendlier version of his modified Slug Bug game. He jumps from the backseat and opens the passenger door, grabbing his backpack and Doctor Who lunch box. After slyly scanning his periphery, he leans in and kisses her on the cheek. “Love you, Mom.” “Love you, Ben. See you tonight.” Westward bound, the morning sunlight seeps in through the back window. The glint from a pearlescent Carmex jar lying in the empty seat catches her eye. She unscrews the lid and swirls her pinky over the surface of the goo with the familiar scent. The olfactory sense, closely entwined with memory, dominates. Uninvited images flash of her catastrophically injured husband lying in the ICU while she tends to grooming details he cannot perform. Situating a warm washcloth to soften his whiskers before gingerly dragging a blade over the planes of his foam-covered face; brushing his teeth with the minty hospital-issued paste, circling and circling in sync with beeps of his heart monitor; ineptly parting and combing his slightly thinning and graying hair; positioning his eyeglasses to sit level; dabbing Carmex on his parched lips, dried from the detested oxygen cannula invading his nostrils. The light turns green, and she accelerates from the intersection and the slideshow in her mind. Even without her husband’s frequent warnings, she white-knuckles the steering wheel and is vigilant of lane drifters, speed demons, and mobile executives with whom she shares the interstate. It was just such a reckless driver that crashed into her husband and changed their lives forever. Everything, including the health and happiness of her family, now rests on her shoulders, where there is no space for another calamity. She is on leave of absence from her position as an English professor at her university, and she has closed the real estate business her husband began after retiring from the military. His therapy visits have dwindled, and they are acclimating to their new, functional life. Still, she is uneasy leaving her husband at home. “You’re sure you don’t want me to go with you?” “I’ve got this. It’ll be a quick hearing, and I don’t have to speak to Dexter. A courier is picking up our file.” She smirked thinking about the derogatory name—short for ambidexter—they use to refer to their lawyer. “I’ll be back in three hours. There’s chicken and dumplings in the fridge.” Stooping, she kissed his forehead. They locked eyes for a few intense seconds. “I’ve got this!” she assured him, while stroking his cheek with her thumb. She and Ben gathered their things and exited the front door with him rolling behind. Clack! The deadbolt is engaged. It takes an enormous amount of energy to ready her paraplegic husband to leave the house. She is still perfecting her skill of loading him in his wheelchair, into their accessible van. Even choosing how to dress him is difficult because of his inability to regulate his body temperature. Restroom facilities are always a consideration. But she chose to handle this herself because of his disdain for their attorney. He doesn’t need any emotional distress. She is careful to include him in important decisions, so as to not injure his pride. Yet, the resultant PTSD has rendered him unable to handle the day-to-day pressures of the lawsuit. Their anger toward their attorney is justified. They communicated their expectations upfront. They interviewed several attorneys recommended by associates. Some touted how few of their cases proceed to trial, which was not particularly what they wanted to hear. They found their attorney through a referral service, and he came to their house for an interview. He oozed sympathy and understanding; he praised them for their ability to carry on despite their challenging circumstances. “We want policy limits and whatever we can get from the wealthy driver. I rejected a settlement offer from the insurance company while my husband was still hospitalized. Frankly, my priorities at the time were to comfort our son, make sure my husband received the best care possible, and renovate our house to accommodate his wheelchair. I couldn’t think settlement.” “That’s understandable.” “So, we expect to come out better with you handling this.” “The liability here is obvious. You were an able-bodied man earning a living for your family and you have a young child. You have astronomical damages and no amount of money will give you your mobility back. You served your country. You’re the perfect, sympathetic plaintiff and this plays well to a jury. The defense knows this,” he opined while sitting at their dining room table, looking through the meticulous files. “We’ll demand policy limits, plus.” He produced a contract and continued, “And if that’s not forthcoming, I promise I’ll take this to trial. Thank you for your service, sir. It’d be an honor to represent you and your wife.” She noted the contingent fee agreement contained a disclaimer of any promises, which she found paradoxical as the man just spewed promises like Mentos in a Diet Coke. Did he mean what he just said? With the petition filed, discovery began. “We really have to hand over all of our tax returns with schedules and financial statements from the past 10 years?” she inquired. “We’re going to produce them, rather than going to a hearing,” the attorney responded. She eagerly examined the defendant’s discovery responses forwarded to them by their attorney. “... not in possession of ...” “... none exist ...” “... privileged ...” “... unconstitutional ...” “... will supplement as documents become available ...” In other words, “when we damn well please.” She hastily typed a reply. “Just finished reading their responses. You aren’t going to let them get away with not turning over their stuff, right?” He answered, “I don’t want to go to a hearing over it and risk ticking off the judge. We’ll get a lot of info at his deposition. Trust me.” She came to learn that depo prep for 30 minutes before showtime is woefully inadequate. “Be prepared to talk about your sex life. Emphasize how your family life has changed, including the division of labor. Let him finish the question before you answer and don’t volunteer anything. Don’t be argumentative, even if this lawyer is a jerk, which he is. Dress like you are going to work and be prepared to be there all day.” Are you kidding me? Was this little talk supposed to allay my fears? She was concerned about being served up like a Costco turducken, which prompted her to do some research, which is second nature to her. She assembled a fairly extensive dossier on the defense attorney: Forty-one. Northern transplant. Yankee. Irish triplet. Weaned too early. Thrice-married. Poor communicator. No detectable affluence. Mediocre career. Prestigious law school. Daddy issues. Frequent firm hopper. Malcontent. Contentious litigations. Puppy punter. Sanctions. Kamikaze tactics. Identifying supposed character defects in her nemesis using innocuous facts empowered her. The room was quiet as the diminutive man with wild, curly dark locks, who appeared younger than his age, scanned his legal pad for his next torpedo. “Now, Ms. Edwards, you stated that your husband was in a great deal of pain at the time of the accident. How do you know that?” Well, let’s sever your spinal cord, separate your shoulder, and snap your humerus like a chicken bone and you can see if it’s painful. “Because I was on the phone with him while they were extricating him from his car, and he told me how badly he was hurting.” “Okay, but I’m asking you, how do you know?” She paused to see if her attorney objects. “If I feel pain when I stub my little toe on the coffee table, I can deduce that my husband felt pain when he was maimed.” “So you can’t tell me how you know he was in pain. All right. Now you’ve stated that you perform all the household chores, even though your husband had a sedentary job. So, you’re saying he isn’t able to pitch in around the house?” What a D-bag! “I don’t understand your question or what you’re implying.” “Well, it sounds like he could help and that you might be trying to amp up the damages.” Is our attorney comatose? Do something! She stared directly at the man with the permanent scowl. “Let’s move onto the frequency of your marital relations prior to the accident.” Pop a vessel. Please. Right here. Right now. The following months passed like cold molasses. Phone calls to their attorney were seldom returned. Then, out of the blue, they were summoned to his cramped and dated office. “I have great news,” he gleefully reported. “They’ve offered policy limits! We can have this thing over in a few days, and y’all can get on with your lives!” What? “Uh, what happened to ‘policy limits, plus’? The driver has money.” “He may have money—that we can’t get. This is a great offer. You need to take it.” “We don’t know what he has because we’ve got no financials!” she interjects. “Look, I got this letter from them stating you were less than forthright at your depo. They think there’s malingering,” he counters, handing her the letter. “This was written two months ago. Where’s your response?” “I didn’t respond. I don’t do mudslinging.” Whose side are you on, you snarky orifice? “Weren’t you going to depose my physicians?” “I don’t waste my clients’ money. Take the offer.” “I want my doctors deposed and to go to trial,” he demanded. The attorney looked at the floor and shook his head. “Guys, you’re making a mistake here.” “This is barely more than the offer we got before hiring you. I didn’t put my wife through this just to make you money. You work for me, and I’m paying you!” The attorney snickered quickly and incongruously. She was enraged. He scoffed, “I’m telling you to go home and think long and hard about this.” On the way home, she thought long and hard about his termination letter. “Why would he pull such a 180 on us?” she asked her husband. “You don’t think ...” A hearing was set on the motion to withdraw, which their attorney reluctantly prepared. He sent a conciliatory email, offering to come to their home and discuss the matter, but they were done. “We’ll be pro se. A former student of mine is an attorney and has offered to help. We can do this!” she assured her husband. “It beats watching Dexter sit on his hands while we’re pureed!” The stately judge, with perfectly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, peered over the top of her reading glasses. “Ms. Edwards, do you understand that you’ll be required to comply with the rules with no consideration given to the fact that you are not an attorney?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Okay, motion granted. Good luck to you and your husband.” She arrives at the house and checks her inbox. From: No-Reply@eFileTexas.gov. Huh? She opens the document. What the hell is a “Motion for Summary Judgment”? MARY LOU JONES, from Granbury, is a registered nurse and attorney who represents the disabled and volunteers with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. She spends a good deal of time consoling her 1L daughter, assuring her "this too shall pass."
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