Anonymous Tip: In Which Lawyer Peter Lawyers

A review series of Anonymous Tip, by Michael Farris

Pp. 117-120

One of the oddest things about this book is the amount of attention Farris gives to completely unimportant and mundane details while leaving out other, more important details (such as Casey’s first doctor’s visit, or how she’s doing at the foster home). And that is what we get at the beginning of today’s passage.

Joe accompanied Peter to the Friday afternoon settlement conference with Judge Goodlate. It was a major case. Peter’s client was seeking $250,000 in damages—not inflated damages for pain and suffering, but clear, provable economic losses arising form a fraudulent real estate transaction. Goodlate would not be hearing the case when it came on the trial calendar in August. The settlement judge reviews the file and makes an independent assessment of the merits of the case. He then tells the parties what he predicts will happen and twists arms as hard as he reasonably can to get them to come to an agreement. About one-third of the time settlements occur on the spot.

This goes on for another six paragraphs. It includes bits like this:

Peter and Joe huddle in one conference room with Mr. and Mrs. Daniel King. Defense counsel and their insurance company representative found another conference room down the corridor.

And also this bit:

The Kling’s wanted $150,000 in their pockets, after attorney’s fees, costs and everything else was taken out. Peter was entitled to one-thrid of the entire amount if the case went to trial. He had worked for a year and a half on the case without receiving a dime so far. It is the way contingency fees work. Lots of families with a potential for feasts now and then.

The insurance company offered $125,000 initially. But after forty-five minutes of arm-twisting by the judge, interspersed with huddles and conferences, the case was settled for $187,000. There had been just under $7,000 in expert witness fees and disposition costs. Peter and Joe would take home $30,000—about half of what they would have received if the case had been tried and they had obtained a full verdict. But both the clients and Peter believed that a bird in the hand today was better than a larger amount that could be another year or two in coming after a trial and likely appeal.

I read the entire section and have learned exactly three things. First, Peter doesn’t like cases that seek damages for pain and suffering—he sees these damages as “inflated” and the cases as, I suppose, somehow beneath him. Second, Peter was a good, virtuous, kind, upstanding lawyer in letting the Kling’s get the amount they wanted through the settlement even though it meant his own fees were lower. At least, I think that’s what I’m supposed to take away from that bit. And finally, Peter now has $30,000.

As they drove back to the office, Peter and Joe were pumped with excitement.

“Thirty grand!” Joe exclaimed as they were alone in Peter’s car. “That’ll make it easier for us o tilt a few more non-paying windmills like the Landis case.”

“You got that right,” Peter said happily.

The drive along in silence for a bit as Joe beats the dashboard to the music playing on the oldies station (the song playing was “Wipe Out,” in case anyone’s interested). Then Joe asks Peter whether he’s done any research on the legality of the strip search Donna and Rita conducted on Casey. Peter says no, he’d been saving it for later. “I thought about that for a possible civil rights case later, but what difference does it make now?” he asks. “Do you think there’s some relevancy?”

“Maybe,” Joe replied. “I was just thinking about the ‘Fruit of the Poisonous Tree’ case from the Supreme Court. You know, where they ruled that if the search was illegal it could not be used for any purpose whatsoever.”

“I wonder if all of that applies in the child abuse context. It seems that the courts never follow the normal law the moment someone is suspected of child abuse,” Joe replied.

This is one of the themes not only of this book but also of Farris’s entire career—he’s very worried that the courts and the police ignore the law the moment child abuse is involved. But while I do agree that we need to have rules laid out that should be followed, for social workers, for police, and for courts that hear child abuse cases, I wish Farris would take into account the reality that child abuse cases are in some sense intrinsically different from other cases. For example, the fourth amendment protects people from having their homes searched without a warrant, but do children have any say in this matter? Isn’t it there home, too? I’m not saying we should throw out all of the regular standards, necessarily—and I’m no expert in child law—but I don’t feel like Farris ever considers the ways these cases are simply different.

“I think it’s worth checking,” Joe said.

“Well, there goes my Saturday,” Peter replied. “There may be something to it.”

Joe then points out how difficult it would be for Peter to argue and win a civil rights case, because it’s the sidekick’s job to be practical, to which Farris tells us:

Sometimes Peter wished Joe was less knowledgeable about federal law. Every lawyer loves to dream of legal revenge for his innocent client. Such cases are easy to dream and hard—very hard—to win.

Anyway, we get to learn a bit more about Peter here, too:

Normally Peter would spend a Saturday in late May out on Liberty Lake, either fishing or canoeing. But this Saturday he was destined to spend most of the day shuttling between his office and the law library, writing a brief on the constitutionality of the search and seizure conducted by Corliss, Coballo, and Donanue.

Farris tells us that Peter was pleased with what he found, and that “he did not have a great amount of constitutional experience, but he was a good, fast researcher.” He finished his day at the library with a twenty-tree page brief. This brought to mind something a number of readers pointed out. While most lawyers specialize, Peter appears to be a jack of all trades type. He does wills, real estate fraud, child abuse, now, constitutional law. As some have noted, it may have been better for Peter to pass Gwen off to a lawyer well versed in family law rather than keep the case himself. After all, as Farris made clear after Peter took the case, Peter started with literally zero knowledge of family law.

And here we see he’s at it again, jumping headlong into an area of the law where he has no experience rather than approaching a lawyer more well versed in that area of law about taking the case. Dashing lawyer Peter must be dashing, after all, and nothing says dashing like dashing headlong into an area of the law you have no prior experience with to avenge a damsel in distress!

By the way, I hope you’re on the edge of the seats for next week’s installment, because I read ahead just now and I still haven’t managed to get my eyes uncrossed. I read this book in high school but somehow I completely forgot sections like this.

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