Jordan Rushie tells of his travails as he left the big city of Fishtown behind to teach the bumpkins of bucolic Ridgway, situated in Elk County, Pennsylvania, how law is done.
As I arrived late on a Sunday night, the area had a certain charm to it. Surrounded by state game land and steel factories, I felt like I had traveled back in time about 100 years. Things seemed much simpler out here.
Starving after a long drive, I pulled up into a diner and sat down next to a heavy fellow. We began striking up a conversation.
“You look fancy in that suit and tie. Are you a lawyer or a banker or something?”
“Lawyer. I have a trial out here tomorrow.”
“Where are you from?”
“Ah, a city slicker…” he said with a bit of a twang.
There is a certain rush to hitting the road when you’re a young lawyer, finally having someone think well enough of your talents to want you to travel far away to represent them. A change of pace, a test of one’s mettle, the chance to imagine oneself as Paladin, Have Gun, Will Travel. But being a stranger in a strange land has its disadvantages. Every lawyer loves My Cousin Vinny, even if we forget that it’s just a movie.
I pulled up to the hotel at around 8:15 pm. Usually I try and travel light. I typically bring one bag that fits all of my trial evidence, and a change of clothes. I packed a spare pair of underwear, an extra dress shirt, and an extra tie. I have found that traveling with too much stuff makes the experience miserable.
There’s a difference between traveling with too much stuff and traveling with the right amount of stuff. Jordan made some assumptions, fair enough on their own, as he was about to do a one-day trial. But this is one of those things that experience teaches shouldn’t be assumed. Kids haven’t experienced problems that should never happen, yet do. They leave no margin for error.
We walked into chambers and were greeted by a judge who looked to be in his 70s.
“John, good to see you. How was your son’s graduation?” the judge asked.
“It was great, thank you for asking. We’re so proud to have another UVA grad in the family, just like his father. And your honor.”
“And I take it you must be Mr. Rushie?”
“You must not be from around here. Around these parts, we still speak in the courtroom with proper decorum.”
“Yes, your honor.”
There are two things buried in here that give the problem away. The first is that Jordan assume a familiarity to which he was not yet entitled. That the judge called his adversary by his first name didn’t mean Jordan was his new best friend. Was the judge being a dick about it? Clearly. But he was teaching the young whipper-snapper a lesson.
The second problem is that Jordan walked into chambers alone. The first rule of going on the road is that you’re a carpetbagger. An outsider. When you’re a city slicker, from Fishtown of all places, you need to anticipate that the local yokels will test you. Get local counsel. Wherever you go, whenever you go out of town, have a local lawyer by your side. It’s not just because you need to know how they do things around there, though you definitely do, but that it’s a sign of respect, that you acknowledge that you don’t know everything and aren’t too important to spread some of the love locally.
This isn’t always easy. It can be hard to find a local lawyer interested in playing sidekick. There are times when the local guy tries to steal your client, because if they have him, who needs you? There are times when you retain the wrong guy, and it turns out your local counsel is the village legal idiot.
And then there’s the money, that the client can afford to retain you, but not you plus your second. This is one of the reasons why taking an out-of-town case might not be the best thing for the client. There may not be a good reason to pay for two lawyers, even if one is only there for show and some local pointers.
We went back out into the courtroom and waited. And waited. Around noon the judge’s clerk came out.
“The judge is going to be busy until around 4pm. Y’all can go back to your offices until then.”
“My office is four hours away, and my client is in town from out of state.”
“The judge is aware.”
We booked the hotel rooms for another night and continued preparing our case. Around 3:45, we headed back to the courtroom. The judge took the bench around 4:15.
“I am profusely sorry for being late. We will hear your openings today, and then start testimony tomorrow around 1 pm.”
The judge could have accommodated the carpetbagger. It’s not as if he didn’t get that Jordan was there for a day, and hadn’t planned on making this his life’s work. Maybe the judge was sincere that he had other things to do, similarly pressing, and Jordan’s trial wasn’t the center of his universe. Maybe he was just poking the city slicker. Maybe both.
Our trial was scheduled to start on Monday morning at 9:00 am. The day before, I had spent hours upon hours with the client, Jack McHugh, preparing, printing documents, and polishing his testimony. If I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s this — the more prepared attorney usually wins the day. Even the most talented trial lawyer will lose without prep work.
Any trial lawyer worth his salt knows this is true. Preparation is critical. Lack of preparation can be the death of the best case ever. But as important as preparation is, and it most assuredly is, it’s not everything. When you choose to be a road warrior, pack a shirt or two more than think you need. If that’s going to make the “experience miserable,” maybe it’s best to refer the case out to a local lawyer and stay home. After a few years sleeping in hotel rooms, even being Paladin loses its luster.