This doesn’t look promising, thought Ben Corbin as he eyed the potential new client sitting in his lobby. The man looked like he was about seventy, and he had clearly owned the suit he was wearing at least since he was fifty. He had a thick shock of unruly gray hair set atop a head that was incongruously large for his short, wiry body. His thin, age spotted hands obsessively clutched a dilapidated and overstuffed briefcase he held in his lap.
Ben didn’t need more clients, he needed more paying clients. In the six months since he had opened his own law practice, Ben hadn’t had trouble keeping busy. The world, he had discovered, is full of people who want to hire lawyers, but only a fraction of those people had both the desire and the ability to pay their legal bills in a timely fashion. That hadn’t been a problem at Beale & Ripley, the 1,000 lawyer firm where Ben had spent the first seven years of his career. He had gone up to his 40th floor office every morning, worked hard for ten or twelve hours a day, and gotten a fat paycheck twice a month.
Ben was a litigator and a good one. At 5’10”, he was a little short to be the archetypal courtroom lawyer, but his strong-jawed good looks and muscular build helped make up for that. He had also worked hard at developing a relaxed, confident demeanor that made him very effective in front of a jury. Most of his cases had been resolved before trial, but he had won all five of the ones that hadn’t—including one that the lead partner had called “a dead bang loser” and had given to Ben solely for experience.
Ben enjoyed his work at Beale & Ripley, but it wasn’t very fulfilling. Most of his clients were big corporations that used his services primarily as an adjunct to their business strategies. Even his big courtroom victories had little real meaning. “My job is to redistribute wealth,” he would joke, “from the rich to the rich.”
So when the time had come to make a run for partner, Ben had faced a hard decision: Would he spend even more hours in the office and trying to build his book of business? Or would he give up the security and comfort of life in a big firm for his own practice? Ben and his wife Noelle spent a lot of long nights trying to answer those questions. Noelle was an accountant working for a bank headquartered in Chicago, and for the last couple of years she also had been chafing to get out on her own. They planned to start trying for children in two years (when Noelle turned thirty-two), and she wanted to run a part-time practice from their home once the kids were old enough. But spending all her time reconciling telecom expenses for a Fortune 100 company left her a little too specialized to open a general practice of her own.
Ben and Noelle eventually decided that they would rent offices together. Noelle would do the accounting and office managing for Ben’s law practice part-time to gain experience and spend the rest of her time consulting for her former employer (which she suspected would involve a lot of telecom reconciliations) to pay the bills.
The Law Offices of Benjamin Corbin had opened six months ago last week, and the past half year had been a mixed bag. Ben had won two trials, but had been paid for only one of them. Noelle was doing a good job running the practice and getting great experience with the accounting issues facing a small business, but she wasn’t getting as much consulting work as she had hoped. And their expenses were, of course, higher than they had projected. Not a lot, but enough to make their finances uncomfortably tight.
Ben was probably too busy to take the man’s case, even if he could and would pay. In fact, Ben knew he really should be preparing for a court hearing he had in less than an hour. The hearing wasn’t particularly important, but the case was. Ben represented a small company called Circuit Dynamics whose trade secret software had been stolen (or so Ben hoped to prove) by several car part manufacturers. If Ben won, the damages would be at least $50 million, and Ben would get 10% of that under a partial contingent fee agreement he had with his client.
Still, this man had been referred by Cathy Pugo (one of Ben’s more reliable clients), so Ben had to at least talk to him. He swallowed his doubts and strode across the lobby with a smile on his face and his hand reaching out. “Hello, I’m Ben Corbin,” he said, shaking the man’s hand warmly.
“Mikhail Ivanovsky,” the man said with a sharp nod. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Corbin.”
“Likewise,” replied Ben. “Please come with me.” He led his guest into the firm’s conference room. It was small, but the table and chairs were beautifully finished solid oak, and Ben took pride in the fact that the paintings on the walls were both originals, though they had come from the Starving Artists gallery South of the Loop. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
“Tea with sugar,” said Ivanovsky in clear, but thickly accented English.
Ben picked up the phone and dialed. “Susan, could you bring in tea and sugar for Mr. Ivanovsky? Thanks.” He surreptitiously glanced at his watch as he sat down at the table. He had twenty minutes. “So, what can I do for you, Mr. Ivanovsky?”
Ivanovsky reached down into his battered briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers. “I need you to get some things that are in a safe deposit box. I bought these things, but they will not give them to me,” he explained opaquely.
“Who won’t give them to you?” asked Ben.
“The bank which this box is in. American Union Bank.” Ivanovsky picked up a sheaf of papers from his pile and handed them to Ben. “Box number 4613 in the LaSalle Street American Union Bank building.”
Ben glanced quickly at the papers, which consisted of a map of downtown Chicago with the location of the bank helpfully marked with a red X, some handwritten Russian notes, and a letter from the bank refusing Mr. “Ivansky” access to the box. “They say their records show that the box belongs to a man named Nikolai Zinoviev,” Ben observed.
“This lies!” insisted Ivanovsky hotly, pointing to the letter. “This Zinoviev, he sold it to me for $5,000 last week.”
Ben noticed that Ivanovsky hadn’t handed him a contract for the sale of the box. “Did he sign any papers showing that he sold it to you?”
Ivanovsky hesitated. “Not yet.”
“Have you asked him to?”
“What did he say?”
“He said he would sign papers from the bank to show that this box is mine, but then he did not do it. Now he will not sign. I think he discovered someone who will pay more.”
“I see,” said Ben thoughtfully. Now they were getting somewhere. “Were there any witnesses to the conversation where he agreed to sell it to you?”
“No, we were alone.”
“Did you actually give him the money?”
“Yes, yes,” said Ivanovsky, shuffling through his papers, happy to be able to prove something again. “Here is the receipts, here is the bank statement showing my account before, and here is another statement showing my account is much lower now.”
Ben’s secretary, Susan, came in with a mug of tea and a sugar bowl for Ivanovsky. He thanked her and dumped four heaping spoonfuls of sugar into his mug. Ben’s teeth hurt as he watched his guest drink. “By the way, what’s in the box?” Ben asked.
“What kind of jewelry?”
Ivanovsky put down his mug. “OK, here is what happened. I was at St. Vladimir Church two Sundays ago and I talked to this man, and he told me about a man who died in 1985 and maybe he put some jewelries in this box at American Union Bank on LaSalle Street. This man who died, his brother lives in Chicago now, so I telephoned the brother and asked if it is true. This brother is Nikolai Zinoviev who is called Nicki.
“I said to Nicki Zinoviev, ‘A man told me that when your brother died, maybe he left jewelries in a safe deposit box at a bank. I maybe would like to buy these jewelries.’ He knew nothing of this box and was very surprised, but he said I can have anything is in this box for $5,000, but I must pay in the next two hours. American Union Bank is closed, but I think maybe these jewelries are very valuable, so I take this risk and say yes. I gave him $5,000 and he said we will go to the bank the next day and fill out necessary forms, but now he says no.”
Ivanovsky’s monologue seemed oddly pre-planned to Ben, and he had a vague feeling that there was more going on here than this man was telling him. But did he really need to get to the bottom of it? Or more accurately, did he need to do it now? Not really, he decided. After all, he hadn’t even taken the case, and he probably wouldn’t. He decided to let it slide, at least for the time being. He glanced at his watch again; he had eight minutes. “OK, I think I have a basic grasp of what your case is about,” he said. “The real problem I see is money. This isn’t a very large dispute, and litigation is expensive. No matter whom you hire, you’ll almost certainly spend more than $5,000 on lawyers. Are you really sure you want to file suit over this?”
Ivanovsky didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Ben shrugged. “OK,” he said slowly. “And you don’t just want your money back. You want the jewelry, right?”
“Well, that will mean not just filing a complaint, but also moving for an immediate temporary restraining order, or TRO, to keep Mr.—” he checked his notes –“Mr. Zinoviev and the bank from giving it to someone else. TROs only last ten days, so whether you win or lose the TRO motion, you’ll need to file a motion for a preliminary injunction that will prevent them from doing anything with whatever is in the box. The trial on the preliminary injunction may come within ten days, but what usually happens is that the parties agree to extend the TRO—if it’s granted—and hold the preliminary injunction trial a little later. That way they can do some discovery before jumping straight into a trial. Still, the trial will probably come within a month, which is about two years sooner than in a regular case.
“My old boss used to describe this type of case as ‘litigating with your hair on fire,’ and that’s what it feels like. You’ll be constantly running from the moment you start until the end of the trial. You’ll also be spending lots of money because your lawyer will be working for you pretty much full time for the whole month.” Ben did some quick calculations in his head. “It would probably cost you at least $20,000 to get through the preliminary injunction trial. The case won’t end then, but the work and the bills will probably drop off.”
Ivanovsky went a little pale. “I, I do not have so much,” he mumbled, searching through his bag. “I only have $5,000 with me.” He pulled out a stack of traveler’s checks and showed them to Ben with a downcast look on his face. “I can get more, but not right away. Would next week be OK?”
Ben was slightly stunned. “Uh, yeah, sure.” Ivanovsky started to countersign the checks. “No, no. Wait,” said Ben quickly. “I’m not sure I can take your case. Remember how I said you’ll need a lawyer who can work on this full time for a month? I’ve already got a busy month ahead of me. I wouldn’t want to take your case and then not have the time to represent you as well as you deserve.”
“But you must!” said Ivanovsky with sudden fierceness. “This is a very, very important case. When I told Ms. Pugo I needed a very good lawyer, she said, ‘Call Ben Corbin, here is his number. He is a good lawyer, Mikhail, the best that you can afford.’ So you must take this case.” He paused. “I need you.”
Ben knew he was running late without looking at his watch. “I apologize. I have to leave for a hearing now, but I’ll take a close look at my calendar, and I’ll call you tonight and let you know whether I can take the case.” Ben was already thinking about the Circuit Dynamics case by the time he closed the door behind Ivanovsky.
* * *
Mikhail Ivanovsky took the elevator to the ground floor, walked out of the office building and turned left. He walked north for a block and a half, then abruptly turned and walked back south for three blocks, intently looking at the other pedestrians as he went. Then he caught a cab to Union Station.
He got on his train, but got off two stops before his stop. He carefully watched to see what other passengers got off and where they went, then waited alone on the platform for half an hour. When the next train came, he acted as if he was waiting for another train. When the doors were about to close, he leaped in, barely avoiding getting his arm caught. There were seats available, but he stood in the unheated, drafty vestibule for the rest of the trip. When the train reached the next stop, he got off, looked up and down the platform, then jumped back on.
He got off again at the next station (which really was his stop) and walked toward his apartment building. He stopped halfway there and stood in front of a storefront display for several minutes, staring at the reflection of the street behind him in the window. Then he walked briskly around the block twice, once going clockwise and once going counterclockwise. Finally satisfied, he went home.
* * *
Ben’s hearing was not going well. The defendants had sent Circuit Dynamics a document request asking it to produce all of its tax returns since the day it was incorporated. This, of course, was highly intrusive and had nothing to do with whether the defendants had stolen Circuit Dynamics’ software. Ben had objected to the request and the defendants had filed a motion to compel, which Ben and defense counsel were now arguing in front of Judge Patrick Ryan. “This isn’t discovery, your honor, it’s harassment,” Ben insisted. “My client’s tax returns are private documents that have no bearing on any issue in this case. I therefore ask the Court to deny defendants’ motion.”
Judge Ryan had nodded several times while Ben’s opponent argued, but he looked at Ben with an expression of withering skepticism that is only truly mastered by trial court judges and grade school principals. He ran his fingers through his thin white hair and sighed. “Mr. Corbin, I’m going to grant the motion, and you’re fortunate I don’t sanction you as well. In a trade secrets case, the plaintiff has to turn over lots of private documents, as you should know by now. Your client has ten days to produce the records.”
“But your honor, these records have nothing to do with—” began Ben in frustration.
“I’ve made my order, counsel,” Judge Ryan said flatly. He turned to his clerk. “Call the next case.”
As he waited for the elevator, Ben found himself standing next to the lawyer who had just defeated him, a man named John Weaver. Weaver was a partner in a big litigation firm, which he seemed to feel automatically made him a courtroom heavyweight even though he had never actually tried a case. He was the number two lawyer on the case, which meant that he made most important decisions prior to trial. Steve Rocco, a well known senior litigator, was number one. He wouldn’t get significantly involved until the case got close to trial or settlement. “I never heard back from you on our settlement offer,” said Ben.
“That should tell you something, shouldn’t it?” responded Weaver with a sardonic half smile. “I’ll get you a formal response, but I can tell you what it will be. Frankly, your $25 million offer is laughable. We may offer a few thousand as a nuisance payment to make this case go away, but that’s it.”
Ben had expected something like that. “You’re that sure you’re going to win?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Weaver as the elevator came. They both got in. “Your client’s case is totally baseless.”
“So was your motion, as we both know,” retorted Ben. Weaver smiled, but said nothing. “But look what happened. You can’t be sure of anything in that courtroom. Judge Ryan is like a barroom drunk waving a gun around. Today it was pointed at me, tomorrow it may be pointing at you, and neither of us knows where it’ll be pointing when it goes off. Your client faces liability of up to $100 million, and there’s no way you can honestly tell them they have a 75% chance of winning.” The elevator jerked unsettlingly, then came to a stop. “Think about it,” said Ben as the doors opened. “I wouldn’t laugh too hard at $25 million if I were you.”
Weaver chuckled. “But you aren’t me, are you?” he said with an arrogant smile as they stepped out into the crowded courthouse lobby. “And you sure aren’t Steve Rocco. Look, I said I’ll get you a formal response to your offer and I’ll do it, but you and your client will need to seriously rethink your position if you really want to settle this case.”
They parted as they walked through the banks of steel and glass doors surrounding the Daley Center, Chicago’s huge high rise state courthouse. It had courtrooms of all sorts—criminal, family law, traffic, and civil. Each branch of the law was broken down into its own subspecialties. For instance, the civil division, where Ben spent most of his time, was further split into Municipal (for small cases), Law (for larger cases where only money is sought), and Chancery (for cases involving injunctions and TROs), each with its own warren of courtrooms and offices. The Daley Center also held a large law library, hundreds of government offices, several vast filing rooms, and two mediocre restaurants.
So much went on in this massive building that no one was able to keep track of it all. A few years ago, for instance, an unused piping system full of decades-old water had burst, flooding several floors of courtrooms and judicial chambers. No one had known about the pipes or the water until it started raining on the startled heads of judges, lawyers, clerks and bailiffs.
A wide stone plaza sprawled immediately south of the Daley Center, watched over by an ominous fifty foot tall sculpture by Pablo Picasso. The City of Chicago is quite proud of the statue, but not quite sure what it is supposed to be. The prevailing theory among art critics was that it was the head of a woman. Ben had always thought that theory questionable at best; the statue was black and gray steel, and it had wings, a long beak-like snout, and an empty ribcage. Several of his clients had commented that it looked like a hungry vulture, which they found to be a particularly apt guardian for a hive of lawyers.
City government put the plaza to good use, and today it held a bustling farmers’ market. A maze of stalls sold apple butter, gooseberry preserves, maple syrup, gourds, fresh flowers, and anything else that could be grown legally for profit in the Midwest. The combination of rural sellers and suburban and urban buyers chatting reminded Ben pleasantly of a county fair.
Ben spent twenty minutes wandering around the market, making an effort to shake off his irritation at the judge’s ruling and Weaver’s arrogance. He gradually relaxed as he walked, and he was actually in a good mood by the time he finished paying for half a dozen ears of sweet corn.
* * *
“Will it be a problem to give them the tax records?” asked Noelle.
“Not really,” said Ben. He and Noelle were sitting on their deck, finishing a pleasant dinner of grilled pork chops and the corn Ben had bought. They sipped their iced tea and enjoyed an unseasonably warm October evening. The rich golden light from the low sun made everything it touched glow softly, bringing out the auburn highlights in Noelle’s brown hair and making her deep blue eyes strikingly luminous. Ordinarily, Ben would have noticed and said something nice, but today he was distracted. “Nothing in them has any impact on the case—a point that Judge Ryan completely ignored.”
“Is that what’s bugging you so much?”
Ben didn’t answer right away. He looked thoughtfully at the row of oaks at the back of their yard, their red leaves beginning to thin as Fall took hold. “Well, I hate getting criticized by a judge, particularly when he’s wrong,” he said after a moment. “But what really bothered me was Weaver not taking me seriously.”
“He’ll learn his mistake in court,” said Noelle.
Ben shrugged. “I hope so.” He paused again. “You know what? Seven months ago, if I’d been in Weaver’s shoes, I would have thought the same thing he did. I wouldn’t have been enough of an ass to say it, but I would have thought it. Maybe that’s what’s really eating at me; I’m afraid I’ve become something I don’t respect.”
“What do you mean?” Noelle asked.
“Look at me,” said Ben in frustration. “I’m running around hustling nickel and dime cases to make my rent. I’m just a small time solo practitioner. When I left Beale & Ripley, I wanted to take cases that would make a difference in people’s lives. The only one I’ve got that fits that bill is Circuit Dynamics, and I just took a shot from the judge who’ll be trying the case.”
“Um, about the rent . . . ,” said Noelle.
Ben winced. “We’re past due?”
She nodded. “The check from Anderson Engineering bounced, so I couldn’t pay Chicago Properties. I called Ed Anderson and told him I was going to break his kneecaps if he didn’t have a good check in my hands within twenty-four hours. He said he’s bringing over a new check tomorrow morning, but even if it is good, it won’t clear for at least another day after that.”
Despite the bad news, Ben couldn’t help smiling at the thought of his 5’4, 110 pound wife threatening to take out the knees of the burly engineer. “And by then we’ll be past the grace period and we’ll get hit with another $500 penalty, right?” She nodded. Ben closed his eyes and sighed. “Any bright ideas?”
“We just don’t have $3,000 free right now. We could try to take out a loan, but that would be hard to do on such short notice. Also, we could easily spend $500 on transaction costs and interest.” She thought for a moment. “Is there any work you could do that could raise some quick cash? What about that guy the Pugos referred? What kind of work did he want?”
“Well, he wants a TRO and a preliminary injunction,” Ben explained reluctantly. “He’s willing to pay a $5,000 retainer up front.”
“Terrific!” exclaimed Noelle. “That’ll take care of the rent and leave enough extra to pay for the new computer we wanted.”
Ben frowned. “This is exactly the kind of work I’m trying to get away from. It’s just a two bit little breach of contract case with a weird, high maintenance client. Besides, this case could take up a lot of time over the next month, and I really need to focus on Circuit Dynamics. I was going to call this guy after dinner and tell him I couldn’t take his case.”
“Ben, we need that money. What if the Andersons bounce another check? Chicago Properties has already threatened to evict us once. You can’t focus on Circuit Dynamics without an office.”
Ben stared out into space, his jaws clenched in anger and frustration. The only way he was going to get more good cases was to do a good job on Circuit Dynamics, but he couldn’t do that unless he gave it enough time and attention. But if he gave Circuit Dynamics the time and attention it deserved, he wouldn’t be able to pay his bills, which would also prevent him from doing a good job. He felt trapped in a vicious cycle of mediocrity. He blamed his deadbeat clients for putting him in this bind, and he blamed himself for working for obvious (at least in hindsight) deadbeats, particularly without making them pay up front. But he didn’t really have a choice. “OK, I’ll take the case,” he said at last. What’s next, he wondered, defending DUIs to pay the phone bill?
Taken from Dead Man’s Rule © 2005 by Rick Acker.
Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI.
Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.