The Colorado Lawyer
Vol. 32, No. 7 [Page 51]
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CBA President's Message to Members
"I Love My Lawyer"
by Robert J. Truhlar
I’ll never forget my last jury trial. Oh, not as a litigator, but as a defendant.
|Robert J. Truhlar|
It all started on tax day—April 15. When my law firm and personal returns were copied, enclosed with checks, and sealed in their envelopes before 5 p.m., I drove to the Littleton post office on the route I had taken for the last fourteen years, two to three times each week. It was my regular route to drop off our law firm mail. Traffic was a little heavier than usual because it was tax day. After several waits and turns, I pulled into the line of cars waiting along the curb and headed for the series of mailboxes where tax returns could be deposited.
On this special day, several postal employees stood near the mailboxes and happily accepted the returns from drivers handing them out their car windows. Traffic was backed up, however, and people who had handed in their mail could not easily return to the through lane until the light changed. Things were moving very slowly. I was at a full stop. I sat smiling and listening to Dolly Parton on the radio. I thought, "This is the song that Doris [my wife] and I identified as ‘our song’ when we first met. I can’t believe how easily I’m filing my returns this year. I’ll be on time for the 7 p.m. dinner presented by the Cardozo Society." Jan Schlichtmann (the Jan Schlichtmann about whom the book and movie A Civil Action were written) was going to speak at the dinner about his real-life experiences. I couldn’t wait.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large semi-truck, not marked as a postal truck, but LARGE, pulling up on my right-hand side. I was stopped in line, and the truck cab began to move in front of me into a small space I had left open for a driveway into the post office parking lot. I thought, "Well, I guess even truck drivers have to drop off their returns, and if he wants to go ahead of me, he’s bigger than me. Let him go." But the truck continued to veer left, and I realized he was planning to turn into the parking lot. The back of the trailer moved closer and closer to my stopped car, so I started to lay on my horn. It was to no avail.
The double-tandem back wheels of the semi began crunching the front of my car from right to left into the curb. POP! went the right tire. POP! went the left tire as it smashed against the curb. My big, beautiful, blue Cadillac was being crushed like a walnut in a nutcracker. My horn never got the driver’s attention, but the resistance of the car finally caused him to look out his window and see the accident. I jumped out of the car, very thankful I was not hurt. The truck-driver would not speak to me, and when I asked him for his name the second or third time, he said he would not talk to me until a postal inspector arrived. One never did, but a local Littleton police officer showed up.
Forty minutes later, I was standing with a ticket in my hand for running a stop sign. Go figure! Of course, the next day when I went to pick up a copy of the police report, the charge had been changed to careless driving. Can you imagine—careless driving while sitting still in a line designed to mail your tax returns?!
About ten minutes after the accident, to my good fortune, a lawyer was walking down the street; a prominent lawyer in the Arapahoe County Bar Association whom I knew well. He looked at the car and the truck, smiled and said, "What happened to this poor guy?" I replied, "That’s my car." He said, "Oh no." I explained what happened with the truck. He gave me his condolences and moral support. I decided right then and there, if I ever used a lawyer on this case, it would be him, if he’d have me.
Hours later, after the semi was backed off my car (without a scratch on the truck, I might add), my car was loaded onto a flatbed by a tow-truck driver who also had a smile on his face. My daughter Ivy, whom I had called from a pay phone, was standing there to take me to the dinner. I decided to go to a local drugstore and buy a disposable camera to take some pictures of all the cars being driven down the lane next to the curb to hand their mail to the postal workers. After shooting off the whole role of film, my daughter took me to the talk. I had missed the food, but got to hear Jan Schlichtmann.
By the way, Schlichtmann tells a good joke about John Travolta playing him in the movie A Civil Action. He says that when they asked Travolta if he would play Jan, the eccentric lawyer, he said, "I don’t know. He seems arrogant and money hungry." So they asked Mr. Travolta if he would play the part for $10 million and he said, "Sure!" The movie was made. Jan Schlichtmann is always amazed to think that John Travolta made more money playing him than Jan Schlichtmann ever made as a lawyer.
Meeting With My Lawyer
The city would not dismiss my ticket when the accident was explained to the city’s prosecutor. I just couldn’t bring myself to take any points on my driving record for listening to Dolly Parton and waiting to hand in my tax return. After all, it’s bad enough having to mail that tax return! So, I retained the lawyer, Matt DePetro, who saw me on the street that day.
We began to prepare for trial. I showed him the pictures and, knowing that every lawyer appreciates a client who does legwork, I went back to the scene and measured it with a tape measure, inch by inch. Then, I went home and drew the area on graph paper, marking the positions of the vehicles. Next, I went to Kinko’s to ask them to blow it up as large as they could. I went to my lawyer’s office and unveiled the seven-foot-long picture of the intersection. He smiled, took the two-foot-long version from my other hand and said, "We’ll use this one."
As a client, I realized at trial that I had only one thing going for me—my lawyer. I had a good one, so I was fortunate. The prosecutor started his opening statement by saying how disgusted the jury would be by my actions. I wanted to look around and ask, "Who’s he talking about?" but my lawyer stood up and said it for me. As the trial proceeded, my lawyer got the truck-driver to admit he never saw my car and never knew that I was there before he hit me. The truck-driver admitted he couldn’t say that he had his turn signal on. But, best of all, my lawyer got the pictures that I had taken of the other cars admitted into evidence—the ones I had taken with the little camera. And he got them in during the testimony of the city’s witness, the officer who gave me the ticket.
Listening to the closing was painful. The prosecutor labeled me "Mr. Entitlement," stating that I tried to butt in front of people for the mailbox drop. This was not true. The prosecutor told the citizens on the jury that they had to watch out when I came down the street in my big, blue car. I was described as having broken the law for fourteen years as I drove up to that mailbox in a non-traffic lane next to the curb. I felt terrible. I realized right then that our clients in the hot seats, in criminal or civil cases, all must feel helpless. But, I had my lawyer. Matt got up and straightened everything out in his closing. He explained my side of the story.
My lawyer was by my side as we sat in the hall while the jury deliberated. We talked about unimportant things, but he put me at ease. He assured me that things had gone well, but said that strange things occasionally happen. Then, the clerk came and got us. We went into the courtroom expecting a verdict, but found the jury had sent out a note. The judge read the note in open court. To summarize, a member of the jury realized that she was in one of the vehicles dropping mail off at the post office in one of the pictures I had taken after the accident. In fact, this juror was pretty much in the exact spot I was in when the truck hit me.
The judge informed us that he would instruct the jurors to decide according to the law they were given. "YES!!" I thought, "This is a good sign." We waited a little longer, and sure enough, the jury came back and found me not guilty. I remember thinking I would never go to trial again. I felt bad that I had caused the citizens to take a day out of their schedules to hear my case. I felt good that the system worked. I especially understood that the person I valued the most during the ordeal was my lawyer, Matt DePetro, a former president of the Arapahoe County Bar Association.
This same feeling was more eloquently stated at a CBA Board of Governors meeting that I attended a few months later. A lawyer made a presentation about a case in which he had represented a client who had been helped through the Metro Volunteer Lawyers ("MVL") family law clinic. It was an example of pro bono work and also a plea for more volunteers. His client, a woman who really needed help in a divorce that she could not afford, also addressed the audience. She had been in attendance earlier when the group had listened to a one-hour talk about advanced technology and how it would replace much of what lawyers do for our clients in the future. She stood in front of us with tears in her eyes and talked about how she had first been assigned her lawyer through MVL. She described how he explained things to her, gave her moral support, argued for her, and helped her keep the custody of her child.
Her description brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience. She presented her lawyer with a little flower basket, a few mints (which he always claimed he liked), and a plaque along the lines of "World’s Greatest Lawyer." She ended with the comment, "I heard the presentation on technology, but if you do what you’re supposed to do for your clients, you won’t ever have to worry about being replaced. No technology could have replaced my lawyer."
As we venture through the new millennium and we hear more and more stories about technology infringing on our fields of law, let us remember that our human counsel and compassion for our clients will only be replaced or unwanted if we stop providing it. The next time someone makes a derogatory comment about attorneys or tells an insulting lawyer joke, ask whether she or he likes her or his own lawyer. I would bet the response will be, "I love my lawyer!"
Please e-mail your "I love my lawyer" anecdotes or any other comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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