Under Analysis: Traditions revisited

Spencer Farris

It was a typical holiday weekend in the Levison Towers. Not even the most gunner of associates showed up this weekend. Maybe it was the unusually mild Midwestern weather that kept my co-horts out of the office. I hope that was it, and not the stink from the office refrigerator that everyone was avoiding.

Max is new on the cleanup crew at the Towers. He whistles the theme from the Pink Panther while he works. To young ears, it is just a pleasant melody. The rest of us can’t hear the song without smiling. To Max, it is just what he has always done, and what he did that day while emptying out the leftover food.

The ink was barely dry on my last column when I ran headlong into a tradition that made me smile. Evidently Under Analysis has flowed into the cosmic consciousness.

I was set to argue my first case in the Western District Court of Appeals for the state of Missouri. I used to show up in court just as proceedings started, flushed after running up the stairs or to the court house itself. As has become my tradition now that I am older, I showed up at court early to get a feel for the place. I struck up a conversation with the bailiff who was also new to the court—he’d only been there for 5 weeks.

He told me that the court clerk would ask if I had ever argued there before. Since I had not, I would need to be introduced. “Who is here to introduce you?” he asked.

Everything in my brain, the facts of my case and the law, poured out of my ear in instant. While there are statewide rules to govern the courts, there are also local rules unique to each courthouse. An effective lawyer knows these rules by heart. A smart lawyer at least reads them before he appears in a new venue. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember any rule about introduction for first-timers.

My opponent is well respected among judges and lawyers. To put it differently, he had clearly been here before. The look on my face told him that I had not. Without hesitation, he told me that he would introduce me. He then asked me a few questions. Thankfully, he didn’t ask how I could be so ignorant of a tradition everyone else in the courthouse knew.

While this tradition does not seem onerous in retrospect, it bothered me. Lack of preparation is a cardinal sin among litigators. I knew my case and the law backwards and forwards and felt confident until I walked into the courtroom. It is the little things—where to sit, how to address the judge—that separates experienced attorneys from the noobs. My self identification as an outsider made me feel like a first-year lawyer all over again.

“Oyez, oyez, oyez,” the bailiff announced as the judges entered the room. His pronunciation of the Z would have been curious to me if I weren’t already wondering how this introduction thing was going to play out.

I recognized the judges from bar events around the state. When they asked if there were any introductions my opponent stood and introduced me as though we were old friends. The chief judge smiled and bade me welcome. He then invited me to sign the roll of lawyers which he said had been used in the court since horse and buggy days.

I haven’t signed a roll book in 20 years. I will admit to being as giddy to do so this time as I was the very first. It was almost as if I was freshly admitted again to the profession I dreamed about through college and law school. At the heart of professionalism is a common connection among lawyers. Regardless of our path to law school, we all shared the law school experience. First-year torts. The face of a client’s trust in us and the client’s story. The great lawyers we admire.

Traditions, even simple ones, unite us with our ancestors. They give us a sense of place and belonging. Signing my name in the roll book made concrete the fact that my brothers and sisters in the bar had stood exactly where I did.

I left court that day feeling exuberant. Not because of my case, I assure you. Arguments went fine. While the judges were cordial, I had a sense that things were not going to go our way. A couple weeks later I was sadly proven right when the court’s opinion came down.

I’ve become a little cynical practicing law. While we always search for truth and justice, both can be elusive. Leaving the courthouse, none of that mattered. We had all shared a moment and signed our name in a roll book. This tradition may seem insignificant. I have written my name thousands of times. For this law geek, the roll book was more emotional than just signing my name. I felt connected to decades of attorneys, most of whom I had never met. It was a good day.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a law geek. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2013 Under Analysis L.L.C.

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