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Stern Agony---excerpt

Hungry for money, Shaw needed publicity, start a buzz about the young criminal trial lawyer in town. Once he’d proved his worth, judges would appoint him to better cases--homicides and rapes--cases that attracted reporters. But at this point, he wouldn’t turn down any case, because every case meant word of mouth that would spread. Eventually, the phone would start ringing. The cash would begin to flow on retained cases. Instead of meager checks from the government, he envisioned huge retainers from desperate private citizens accused of heinous crimes. He'd make the evening news.

Such thoughts tumbled over and over in Shaw's mind. When not in court on some middling case, he sat by the phone or napped so he could stay alert for his night job as repossession agent at the mortgage company. He read novels and lifted weights. No calls other than more court appointments. 

Shaw went to the courthouse and observed experienced lawyers in court, their style and strategies. He got to know the clerks, the bailiffs, the parking attendants, the janitors. Hell, if the janitor knew who you were, you’d have to be famous. He’d emulate the style and confidence exhibited by the best. The inside-game of trial lawyers. As a young attorney struggling for clients and with no money for advertising, Shaw needed leverage, a reputation to attract business. He knew rumor and gossip came in many forms and, if wielded properly, could prove invaluable. Word of mouth was the cheapest form of advertising and hype.

On Monday morning, five o’clock as usual, Shaw, sipping coffee, watched the news. The River City film festival was a week away. Soon, the city would be jammed with movie goers, screenwriters, actors and agents. There’d be parties and showings. He always got an admittance badge. But to Shaw, the bigger news was the jury trial starting in district court, starring the renowned attorney, Canton James.

Canton James—of James, Eddington and Wheeler, Attorneys at Law—was defending  a wrongful death case. James was the most publicized trial lawyer in the region, his courtroom mastery, his spellbinding panache, legendary. Representing high profile clients, Canton James' cases made front page. He held press conferences, appeared on television. A stickler for technique, his cross examinations were scintillating, and his closing arguments packed courtrooms. Even though Canton handled only civil cases, Shaw was intent on adapting his methods and presentation style to criminal law. 

Shaw arrived at the courthouse early. A throng of reporters waited on the courthouse steps.

In the case at bar, Canton James represented Caroline Atwater against Wheaton Aviation. Wheaton had allegedly committed gross negligence by failing to properly maintain Denton Atwater’s twin-engine Cessna. It crashed and killed Atwater, a respected neurosurgeon. The widow Atwater hired Canton James and filed suit.

At a recess after opening statements, Shaw sat at a side table in the cafeteria eating five undersized burgers--sliders, they called them. It was early for lunch, just after eleven. The place was nearly empty. Lost in thought over what he’d just watched, Shaw heard murmurs and looked up. Canton James had entered the cafeteria. 

A slim man of sixty and medium height, Canton wore an impeccable black pinstriped suit that cost more than Shaw’s car. Holding a salad in one hand and a cup of water in the other, Canton looked at Shaw and smiled, then came directly to the table and sat. 

Why the legendary Canton James had taken a seat at Shaw’s table when there were many others available, baffled Shaw, made him nervous. Canton reached across the table. They shook hands. Canton began to pick at his salad with his fork.

“Hello, sir,” Shaw said, feeling ridiculous, “I've watched several of your trials. I’m a lawyer.”
“Yes, I've seen you there. I watched you argue a case the other day.”
“You did?”

Canton said he’d been in court days previous waiting to take Judge Potter to lunch, and had listened to Shaw’s arguments on a motion to quash. 

“You’re talented, good command for a young advocate. With all that potential, I thought you could use some pointers.”
“No, I mean...damn. I’d be honored.”
“Potter’s a friend of mine, and he’s also impressed with your ability. He mentioned your substandard pedigree, your background and schooling. As a Yale grad, I’ve not had to deal with such impediments. It’s unfair. Potter said back home you were a dirt farmer. His words.”

Shaw laughed. He put his right hand under the table and wiped perspiration on his pant leg.

“You remind me of my son, Barton,” said Canton James, his expression stern. “Bart was a lawyer.” He sighed and looked away.
“I didn’t know you had a son.”
“He was twenty-nine. Car accident. Six years ago.”
“I’m sorry, sir. That’s a terrible thing.” 
Canton pushed away his salad, lifted his face and bit his lip. “Yes, a terrible thing.” 

In his inimitable style, Canton began questioning Shaw. Shaw felt like a witness, but agog to hear Canton’s advice.
“I’ve only a few minutes. So, tell me, Shaw, why a lawyer? What about this noble profession attracts you?”

Shaw sat back and looked down at his sliders. Did he have an answer? The right one? When Shaw looked up, Canton was staring at him. “Don’t give me any bullshit here, son. I’ll see the con. What is it about being a lawyer that has you so dedicated? Give me the short version.”

“We lost our ranch in a divorce mess. Ranch land that had been in our family since 1853. It’s twenty-five hundred acres of Missouri river bottomland, and expensive. It’s my legacy. I want it back.”
“Admirable.” He leaned in and lowered his voice. “So, do you want to be rich, maybe famous, or go back to farming?"
"Ranching. Horses rather than cattle and pigs and corn."
"And you decided a career as a trial lawyer would be the best bet.”
Shaw cleared his throat. “Um, yep. Right.”
"I think you're missing something. You could own the ranch and still practice trial law. I own a ski resort."
"Not sure I'm cut out for it."
"You're a natural in the courtroom, believe me. Just need some advice."
"I'd appreciate it."
“Fine then. Same here. I’ll be succinct.” 

He motioned his hand up and down, making reference to Shaw’s appearance. “This isn’t going to work. You argue well, but you dress like a hired hand suited up for a funeral. No bling, no style. Flair entices clients. You need lots of exposure, get people talking, noticing.”

“I figured that. What's the best way?” Shaw slid his plate to the side. So hungry earlier, he’d lost his appetite.

“It’s a shame I can’t hire you, but my partners are Ivy League and your resume…well, let’s just say it doesn’t mesh with our clientele’s expectations. We're all country club and opera. But your focus on criminal law is the right one. Most lawyers with your skill set go civil, get on with big firms. With criminal appointments, you'll be lumped in with shoddy lawyers. Easy to stand out. But again…” 

He covered Shaw again with the motion of his hand. He took two quick bites of salad, folded his napkin in half and dabbed his mouth. He continued. “All on your own, without benefit of a sparkling resume or a big firm handing you clients, you’ve got to attract the accused and their family members. Families will pool their resources and pay-up for the best lawyer. You're that guy. You just don’t look it or act it yet. If you want to be successful, act like you already are.”

“Well, I get that part. I’m getting court appointments, but the phone won’t ring. I’m dead broke. Hate to admit it, but I work evenings collecting bad debts for a tiny mortgage company.”

“Understood. But, listen to me. What you lack is superficial. It’s con. To attract money, you’ve got to look as though you’re already rich. You’re clothes say you’re a hack. Or maybe a hick.”
“I’m listening.” Shaw leaned forward on his elbows. Canton leaned back in his chair, flicked lint from his lapel.
“So many people are defeated before they start because, well, they look defeated. I’ve always thought the opposite. I’ve seen your office. You don’t need an office. Not right now. Certainly not that one. Get rid of it tomorrow. Save you the rent.”

He bit an inch from a pickle. “I know I’m rushing here. But I have to go. Bear with me. Your tawdry office spells failure, same as your clothes. Better to have them searching than find you in that dump. Interview clients at the courthouse, work at one of River City’s back street cafes or at home. Use an answering system. What do you drive?”
“A VW Beatle.”
“Get rid of it. Lease a Mercedes--black. You need an entire makeover. Look at yourself, you’ve got too much bottomland in your wardrobe. You own a mirror?” He tilted his head to the side and gave Shaw a fatherly grin. “Your cuffs are too short, your sleeves too long. Your jacket falls off your shoulders. And your ties are of another era. Buy suits from a tailor, not off the rack. You cut your own hair? It’s obvious you’re not married. Got a girlfriend?” 

“Too busy for that.” 

His nights were filled with driving seedy streets collecting money from the poor. No way he could handle the extra baggage of a relationship, let alone the expense. But, he’d never thought intently about appearances. He bought shirts and ties at Walmart, and wore his grandfather’s suits. What Canton James said rang true. Appearances for the sake of appearances. Sounded like Shaw's mother. Perhaps giving false impressions would come naturally.

“One thing I’ve learned, young man, there's no substitute for family. I’ve lost mine. Not only my son, but my wife. To divorce. Some guys get angry writing alimony checks, but it breaks my heart every time I write her name.”
“You’re alone?”
“I have a friend, but it’s not the same.” 

He removed his glasses and took a ragged breath. “Not even close.” An emotional man, it seemed. Perhaps why he showed so much passion in the courtroom. “I’ve got to go,” he said again, replacing his glasses. “Don’t be lonely. Get around and meet people. If nothing else, if you change your look, think of it as advertising.” 

He shook Shaw’s hand, wished him luck on buying the ranch, smiled and said he’d watch for him on the news.
He pushed back his chair and stood. Then he pulled out a snakeskin Louis Vutton wallet and slid five crisp hundred dollar bills across the table. He winked. “You can repay that when you get famous.” Shaw stood and pushed the bills back. 
“I can’t take this.’
“You can and you will.” 

Canton straightened his jacket and turned to leave, but paused, glanced at his cufflinks, his fingernails, looked at his Rolex. He retrieved a Mont Blanc pen from inside his jacket, wrote his private number on the back of an expensively embossed business card, and handed it to Shaw. “Call me. We’ll have lunch. Remember, develop a signature look. Always wear the same and they'll remember you--dark silk suits with a razor crease, bold-red ties. And learn a tight knot with the right dimple. Get your hair styled by a professional.”
“People will think I’m trying to look like a big shot, all important.”
“That's the idea.” 

He stepped away, but turned again and came back to the table. He leaned his head to Shaw’s ear and said, “Focus more on what people don’t say. And get a fucking manicure.”



1 comment:

  1. An amazing contrast from his younger days of poverty and life on the other side of the tracks. I am anxious to know how he got here, and impressed that he is still a thoughtful man, even when the flesh is calling. A sense of melancholy no matter his circumstances persists.

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