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Convicted Union Clerk

When I first opened our South Carolina office, I quickly learned about South Carolina’s court appointments. At the time, lawyers were court appointed to cases in every county where they practiced.

Soon, I started getting court appointments in a multitude of courthouses. Fortunately, the Chief Justice ultimately changed the rule on court appointments there. Now, as a South Carolina lawyer, you only have to have your name placed in two counties. Then, you cannot be appointed to more than 20 cases per year, and I don’t receive that many in any calendar year.

I could spend many words on stories about being appointed to matters of unusual events. For the purposes of this blog, I will discuss Union County, because of a story that I just saw in the Spartanburg online newspaper.

First, my Union court appointments. At the time, Union was about two hours from my South Carolina office. All of a sudden, it seemed that I was constantly getting several court appointments from Union County. I called and spoke to the Court clerk, who advised that there were only 23 lawyers in Union County. Since I had chosen to place advertising in their local phone book, I was added to their roster of lawyers.

The rotation of 24 lawyers meant that I kept coming back up on the master list,  for court appointment and the clerk told me that there was nothing I could do about it. Next time I received a call to renew my yellow page advertisement… I did not renew. I called the clerk and advised that I no longer was advertising there and I had no phone in that county. I was taken off the list!

The story I have attached is about the Union court clerk. This clerk was sworn in around 2004; so it was after my slew of appointments. It’s a story about the clerk being convicted of embezzling county money and being sentenced to jail time, and ordered to pay restitution of $239,982 to the county’s child support fund.

I feel bad that this happened and I am only blogging on this because my of my past experiences there. Now, when a Union story comes across my “in box”, it reminds me of my “practice” there.  Coincidentally, several of my appointments related to juvenile and domestic matters that also sometimes included child support issues. I still don’t feel comfortable handling those matters. Let me stay right in the practice of injury law where I am comfortable!

For pic o’ day, here’s a golf game spoiled:

So, How Ya Doing?

I have great memories of walking with my grandfather on the farm. It’s hard to classify it as work when you are under 5.  You are just kinda taking it all in.

First, we would go feed the pigs; My grandfather would dispense wisdom. I would ask, “Pop Pop, why are they laying in the mud all the time?”  He would look at me with a smile and say, “because they are pigs”.

“Do cows ever bite?” I would ask as we looked out over the pasture. “No, but you have seen them try to kick a few times.” Of course, I knew some of their names. Brown Sugar was my favorite. I wasn’t supposed to name them because some of them were going on “vacation” in the winter. Don’t know why Pop Pop named them Rib Eye and T-Bone.

I did retain some wisdom from the farm. While I was eyeing the cats and trying to figure out why they were missing  their tails, sometimes people would come see us and ask how we were doing. Other than saying “great”, usually there wasn’t much in specifics. I can remember him saying, “Shouldn’t talk about your business”.

Years later, while still in law school, I would return home for the summers and sell motorcycles at Gordon Harper Harley Davidson. People would ask Mr Harper if motorcycles were selling. He’d look them straight in the eye and tell them, “we sold one last week”. They didn’t know whether to take him serious or not, so they’d just say, “wow, that’s great”. Of course, just sellling one last week would have meant that we’d all be looking for jobs soon.

Both were saying the same thing. No need to talk about yourself. I put that to use in trying to sell motorcycles. In the two summers that I worked there, I averaged selling 14 motorcycles per week. I know, I just broke the rule there. But, I did it to make a point.

While selling motorcycles, I didn’t have a motorcycle license. When someone would ask a specific question about how fast I might have been on a specific model, I’d say, “Never had it over 55”. Of course, I’d never had it over 5, since that was how fast I could ride around the parking lot,  to park them up front.

I learned that no one really wanted to hear about my riding. They wanted to talk about their experiences; and the more they talked, the better salesman I was.

When we started to build our website, we started from scratch and didn’t know a lot. Those working on the website at the Firm, and others working on it outside of the Firm know a whole lot more about social media than I do. They just keep saying “keep writing your blog”.

We all have attended several seminars on a good website. Repeatedly, we hear the recommendation that you shouldn’t put anything about case results or money on the website. It just feeds into the stereotype about lawyers; that they are only interested in money.

All the experts tell us that people want to know that you are experienced and can handle their case. Ultimately, they aren’t really interested about your self-laudatory comments. Getting their car fixed, getting treatment and resolving their case is more important. It really is a good lesson all across life to listen to others and not dwell on self.

Sometimes, people ask me how we’re doing at the firm. Usually, I will say, “we settled one last week”.

And for pic o’ day, I guess you can either see humor or danger. Quite a thought provoking picture.

Winning But Losing Verdict

Sometimes at dinner or a reception, someone will ask me if I am working on any exciting cases. Even as I typed that last sentence, I wondered how to respond, and that’s usually what happens when I’m asked that question.

Clients’ secrets and confidences normally put some restriction on what I can say. But, the truth is, I usually am working on “some exciting cases”.  In my mind, I define that as unusual and challenging.

The restricti0n on discussion is waived a bit, if I have filed suit. It’s odd though; I never describe a jury trial case. Maybe that’s because I’m not actually working on those right then.. Plus, my mind works like an old number 9 wash tub, which makes me forget details of  past cases, after I don’t need to know them  … first you fill it up and then you empty it when done.

So, while thinking about cases, and number 9 wash tubs, I sorta traveled down memory lane and did think about some past trials. One that specifically came to mind was the one that I always describe as “the one I won but lost”.

I had been practicing law for less than a year. Have you ever heard someone say that they “need a young lawyer who is willing to fight for me but won’t cost a lot of money”. Yep, that was me. Especially the money part; because I did not have that many cases to work on. Self-employed with more emphasis on self.

So, one day, a boy that had just enlisted in the military came to see me. He told me the story about a Navy chief  that had gotten drunk and beaten him up. He wanted me to sue the chief. I know, I should have stopped there. But a consultation only, doesn’t make for a  blog story about winning and losing.

I told him that I would take the case. I don’t even know if I understood the difference between negligence and intentional tort. The easiest way to describe that is that intentional means, NO INSURANCE is paying for the damages. That chief meant to hurt that new enlistee. Oh yes, they had both been drinking at the same place too.

I filed suit for civil damages relating to assault. The chief hired an attorney and never made an offer. That was OK, because I was ready to go to trial.

We put on our case. I cross-examined  the defendant. The jury seemed to be listening attentively; Although, while the trial was going on, I did notice that my client probably weighed 80-100 lbs. more than the defendant. That detail had previously escaped me. I just kept saying to myself…. assault has nothing to do with weight. Plus, my minister used to say, “the  freedom for your fist stops where my nose begins”.

I introduced my client’s hospital bill through him and after all the testimony, the jury got the case in about 2 hours. That included picking the jury and the Judge’s instructions.

The jury was out about 40 minutes. They came back with the verdict form in their hands and the judge asked the foreman to stand and read the verdict. “We the jury, find in favor of the plaintiff”.

My heart took a bit of a jump because I knew my client had won. The foreman went on to say, ” and award damages in the amount of $1″. I think I noticed the Judge fight a smile back.

The Judge then thanked the jury for their service and excused them. I walked my client out of the courtroom and into the hallway. I tried to give him some “glass half full” by saying that at least the jury had believed him.

He thanked me for “going to the mat for him”.  At the time,  humor was not proper, but  I thought , “look, I’ll waive my 1/3 attorney fee. You can keep the whole dollar”. Taking that case to trial made me realize that I was really a “glass half fool”.

Now, pic o’ day. It might be how I looked when the jury said “one dollar”.

Is That a Hat or a Squirrel?

     Prospective jurors arrive at the courthouse and report to the jury duty room. They are unsure what to expect. Once they have gotten over the concept that they have jury duty, the next question is whether “they will get picked”.  Will this be an interesting case?

     One jury consultant reminded me of the significance of 20 feet in the Courtroom. If one juror tells another that they have a headache, it’s no surprise if the other juror reaches into their purse and pulls out aspirin or Advil. Yet, if a plaintiff, sitting at counsel table, reports that they have headaches from the crash, it’s not unusual for the jury to suspect that the plaintiff is faking and only claiming headaches for money. How does that 20 feet so effect jurors to make them claim to be from Missouri, the “show me state”.

     With prospective jurors being bombarded with media messages of the need for tort reform; and the reminder of the evils of “The McDonalds’ case, they suspect that many plaintiffs’ lawyers are attempting to  “pull the wool over their eyes”. I finally got to blog it. I have always wanted to somehow reference “pulling the wool over their eyes” . Do you know where that saying came from? It is usually attributed to lawyers that wore wigs in the Courtroom.

      Even today, lawyers still wear wigs in England courtrooms. In fact, that is one of the initial major expenses that new lawyers must bear. It makes the new pack of legal pads seem a bit boring.  Here in the United States, though, lawyers no longer wear wigs and that is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson who remarked,”For Heaven’s sake, discard the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.”

     One renown lawyer in Chicago, who has practiced over 50 years, has declared that he would never hire a lawyer who wears a wig. He believes that a jury may not know why they distrust that lawyer, but wearing a wig is really hiding something, which means that you are not entirely being honest with the jury. If they already have difficulty believing in the headache, maybe he has a point. For me, I’d like to get a crew-cut for the summer, but then it would look like the crew had bailed out.

     In every trial, there is a fight for the minds and hearts of the jury. In the trial story, the jury will either believe the plaintiff or defendant. It was reported that before the first Vioxx trial in Texas, Merck bought a significant amount of TV ads that touted all the good that Merck had done for medicine. I’ll let you ruminate on why they did that media buy. In the end, if you recall, either the jury didn’t see the ads; they had little effect on them; or the evidence simply was too overwhelming, so as to result in a verdict of $253.4 million, in a venue that was and still is considered very conservative. It shows that many jurors are ultimately able to overcome pretrial bias and prejudice and that they take their jury oath seriously in considering the evidence.

     Let’s summarize my rambling blog thoughts. A plaintiff’s lawyer should only bring real injuries and real cases to a jury, or that jury will not be persuaded to accept them.  That defeats the rhetoric of the politician politician, who seeks tort reform because too many lawyers are somehow profiting from frivolous lawsuits;  Next, a headache is still a headache, even from 20 feet away; Finally, at least I don’t have to worry about wearing an itchy wig, that might not match with my suit and also cause courtroom sneezing.

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