Over the course of my year as bar president, I have had the pleasure of attending many different bar events sponsored by various bar sections, affiliates or partners. The good thing about these functions is that many times alcohol is served. Please don’t misunderstand: I would be just as pleased to attend these functions if they were dry events, but after a glass of wine, people tend to relax, the “masks” we wear every day sometimes come off, and the conversation veers away from purely professional and leans toward carefree and . . . well, sometimes bawdy.
It was during one of those conversations that I got the idea for this article, when another attorney and I were swapping stories about some of our less-than-stellar experiences: ignorant or ‘green’ mistakes, embarrassing court appearances, etc. You know – and most definitely have – one or two of those yourself. I decided to reach out to my friends, family and colleagues, and ask if they would be willing to share with me some self-deprecating humor, a memorable court experience, or one of their “green stories.” Several of you did, and for that, I thank you. Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow me to share every story submitted (or my own), but you can read more on the VCBA blog at www.vcba.org.
One day I appeared in a busy courtroom in Simi: I think Judge Hadden was presiding. I was standing at the podium arguing a demurrer and leaned over to get my file out of my brief case when the button on the back of my skirt blew out, and then the zipper started skirt blew out, and then the zipper started to quickly come down as well. I almost had a coronary knowing there were a good 20 lawyers directly behind me and I was on the brink of indecent exposure. At that point, I had to drop the file and pin my arms against my sides to keep the skirt from falling down. So, I argued the demurrer without moving and without my notes. Judge Hadden then ruled and looked at me strangely as I took no notes on the ruling. Getting out of court was a major challenge, but I somehow managed to pick up my files and meander out without incident. (Linda Ash, Assistant County Counsel)
The second time I sat pro tem for Judge Reiser, I noticed a robe hanging in the closet with great silver clasps on the outside. Thinking Judge Reiser had left the cool robe just for me, I put it on and took my seat on the bench.
It was a long session, and I called a recess to give the staff a break and to give some of the hotter heads in the court room a chance to cool down. As I stood up and turned my back on the court room, the bailiff hurried over to walk close behind me. He chuckled as we walked lock sync back to chambers, and he pointed out I had the robe on inside out, with the big block inside label prominently displayed outside for all to see. I turned the robe right side out–but those shiny snaps sure looked good for a while. (Loye Barton, Norman Dowler)
It wasn’t my first court appearance, but I did give closing argument with my pants split up the back, which I discovered when I got back to my hotel; I also gave a closing with red dots all over my shirt from a leaky pen. (Jon Light, Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton)
Did I Just Say That Out Loud?
When my boys were small, Ed and I decided to take them to a Dodgers game. As I had a Ninth Circuit appearance in Pasadena, we decided to stay in a hotel, let the boys watch me in court, and then go to the game.
Sometime on the trip (don’t recall if it was in the car or at dinner), one of my children sarcastically asked “So?” (as in “so what?”) in the way only a kid can do, in response to something either Ed or I told him. Both of us jumped on him about how disrespectful that was.
The next morning I argued what I thought was a fairly simple appeal from a Rule 12(b) (6) dismissal. One of the judges asked me a challenging question, and “So?” popped out of my mouth. I immediately apologized and carried on with the argument, but my children have never let me forget. (Wendy Lascher, Lascher & Lascher)
My First Time
My first Nordman appearance was in 1985, a four year lawyer fresh out of Big Firm Los Angeles. My appearance was in front of Judge Willard, the stalwart of the probate bench for a million years. I was in a real estate dispute and a motion to compel was brought against my client. Because of some related probate issues, we somehow were in front of Judge Willard for this motion.
Not only was a Nordman senior partner there to watch, but so was the client. Over 70 matters were on the calendar, the courtroom was jammed with lawyers in every corner, including the jury box, and much to my dismay I was third on the calendar.
Judge Willard’s first words were, “It might have been more appropriate for Ms. Reese or Mr. Wojokowski to have made this appearance.” They were two stellar and well-known probate and estate lawyers at the firm. I sank a bit in my chair. I then wanted to crawl in a hole when Judge Willard sanctioned me $1200 for discovery abuse.
When I reported this to Janet Reese, she said, “Judge Willard has never sanctioned anybody for anything.” (Jon Light, Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton)
When I passed the bar, I was practicing law in Honolulu, Hawaii. I had my first court appearance within my first week after being sworn into the Hawaii bar. I really wanted to look like a seasoned trial attorney, so I prepared mightily for the appearance, even down to asking my supervising partner to give me a map of where I needed to go when I went to the courthouse. When I arrived at my designated courtroom, I made sure that I looked like I knew what I was doing. I was cool, calm and collected. I confidently introduced myself to opposing counsel, told him I couldn’t agree with his position, and marched into the courtroom.
As soon as I walked into the courtroom, I saw a friendly face—my law school classmate, who was now the judge’s law clerk. She saw me enter the courtroom, squealed with delight, and jumped up from her seat, screaming, “YOUR VERY FIRST COURT APPEARANCE! I’M SO EXCITED! I HAVE TO GET A PICTURE!” She pulled out a Polaroid camera, made me stand with my opposing counsel in front of the judge at his bench, snapped our picture, and posted it on the bulletin board behind her desk, where she had created a commemorative wall of the “newbies” in the courtroom. So much for looking like a veteran, right? But, I still won the motion! (Karen Gabler, Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton)
I had barely landed in Sacramento in the fall of 1969 after a tour of duty in Vietnam when I landed a job with the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office. I went into the Navy straight out of law school, but as a line officer, not JAG, and had absolutely no experience. I had not been with the office for more than two days when my supervisor handed me a file and told me the misdemeanor case was going to jury trial the next day and I should handle it. Witnesses were under subpoena and basic jury instructions had been pulled. To that point I don’t think I had even seen a trial outside of Perry Mason shows.
I think the case involved a petty theft, but the underlying facts had to do with a Sacramento madam and her prostitutes, with two of the prostitutes getting out of line and somehow ending up the defendants in this prosecution. I had the opportunity to talk to all of my witnesses before the trial, but by the time we picked a jury the only witness within shouting range was a police officer who took a report.
I put the cop on while I had an investigator go out and round up the other witnesses. I was about 30 minutes into the examination when the judge looked down and said, “Isn’t this an awfully lot of hearsay?” The public defender said he didn’t object. I didn’t know it, but he had some hearsay he wanted to get out of the some hearsay he wanted to get out of the officer as well when it was his turn. With my dragging out the testimony of the officer and a tremendous amount of leeway by the judge tolerating my stalling, it wasn’t all that long before my witnesses showed up again—the madam herself and one of her prostitutes. I guess they had some quick business to take care of.
What a circus that was!!! And of course, being very new and very raw, I had no idea how to handle it. To say that they led me around by the nose is probably putting it generously. Later, after about 6 months in the office, I learned just how notorious these folks were, but I was naive at the time and I am sure the judge was having a very difficult time controlling her laughter. I was so raw that I started by handing exhibits to the court reporter instead of the clerk for marking, with very shaky foundation by my hearsay witness. I learned in virtually two minutes about laying a foundation, and I thought I was rather cool in smoothly shifting from the reporter to the clerk when the reporter pointed in that direction.
After more hours of this insanity than I would like to think about, the PD (who was not a great deal more experienced than I was) and I rested and submitted the case to the jury with rather terse arguments. Mercifully, they were back in record time with a not guilty verdict. I was actually feeling a bit guilty about prosecuting these fine defendants by the end–but, you know, it was my first case and I had not yet learned about requesting a dismissal myself. While the defendants were prostitutes themselves, they were looking a heck of a lot better than my witnesses–almost saintly by comparison.
I thought I would be in for a rhubarb from my office when it was all over, but it turns out they were totally relieved that they had some stooge to foist the case onto at the last minute and were not about to criticize.
I had about 20 jury trials during my tenure with that office, many of them colorful, but none as memorable. (Bart Bleuel, Arnold Bleuel LaRochelle Mathews & Zirbel LLP)