OK, I admit it: I'm a lawyer, but don't ask me to handle your divorceHaving made $3,252 and some odd cents, I retired from practicing law at age 29, after overcoming my own ineptness to win one hopeless case and helping a famous law firm sue one of the world's largest companies.
I don't actively conceal that I'm a lawyer - my framed old license to practice, the glass long since broken out, is propped up in a corner of my office at the newspaper. But I don't often bring it up in polite company and have never before written about it in any detail.
My wife suggested I tell some funny stories about law school. Possibly if I reminisced long enough with one of my classmates - Seaside romance novelist Cheryl Holt, for example - we could come up with something humorous to say about legal education. It makes me smile a little to think of how terrified I was, and I'm not exaggerating, of our intellectually sadistic contracts law professor. I made myself sit in the front row in a show of bravado not unlike poking a hand into a jar of snakes, but then used to literally shake in fear of being called on.
I was yakking with the governor the day I found out I had been accepted into law school. He took a long drag on his cigarette, tapped the ash onto the floor, shook his head sadly, and said "I'm not sure I'd do it again." I know exactly how he felt. Funny stories about it don't just roll off my tongue. Our criminal law prof joked on the first day of classes that they had never lost anybody to suicide. He should have knocked on wood - that lucky streak ended while I was there.
One of my favorite movies is Peter Weir's "The Year of Living Dangerously," and law school reminds me of it - one long excess - booze, hormonally charged late nights and a wild mix of callousness and idealism.
There's an old saying about law school that "The first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you to death, and the third year they bore you to death," and I found it to be true. After grinding through second year, I was set for the home stretch and a comfortable job in my dad's law practice when my first cancer episode changed my mind. Disbelief cast aside for the occasion, a long conversation with God in the summer of 1985 convinced me that if I lived I'd spend my life doing something other than shuffling legal documents, which somehow seem dry and dusty even when brand new.
But I figured I'd better take the bar exam just to be on the safe side, and while waiting around for it worked for Spence, Moriarity & Schuster. The advantage of even doing grunt work for an internationally known crusading law firm is that they only take interesting cases, and Bob Schuster put me to work figuring out how to force Volkswagen to respond to questions about an allegedly faulty design. For reasons so complicated they still make my head hurt, Volkswagen was legally able to put its engineers out of reach, but we figured if we could drag them into court, the company might prefer to settle. I supplied the intellectual ammunition.
Celebrity lawyer Gerry Spence is, of course, the big gun in the firm and I've known him a little since he and my dad ran against each other for county attorney back in the 1960s. Our family opinion of him is, well ... mixed.
My little blue-collar grandfather kept the courthouse boiler working and always said Spence was the most gentlemanly of all the lawyers, and I think Mom, who sat on one of his juries, still has a little crush on him. Dad, on the other hand, always remembered the time Spence flipped him the finger in the courtroom during a trial and believed him capable of any degree of underhanded dealing to win, a belief shared by Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, one of the uncommon attorneys to have beaten Spence on a case.
For my part, he stormed into my office once after I reviewed one of his books, yelling "You got it all wrong!" But then he kept us all laughing at his stories for the better part of two hours. Loves an audience, that man, and hates big corporations. Hard not to like. I've been unable to resist yanking the chain on his teepee-tall ego a few more times over the years, but am happy to see he's representing Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was improperly persecuted by the FBI.
My other big case? Well, I busted a career burglar out of prison after the judge told me how, but that story will have to wait for some other Editor's Notebook. For now, suffice it to say that he didn't stay out for long.