Long after Sofia and Abraham had left, I was sitting in the semidarkness of my office when Mordecai walked through the door and setfled into one of two sturdy folding chairs I'd bought at a flea market for six bucks. A matching pair. A prior owner had painted them maroon. They were quite ugly, but at least I had stopped worrying about clients and visitors collapsing in mid-sentence.
I knew he had been on the phone all afternoon, but I had stayed away from his office.
"I've had lots of phone calls," he said. "Things are moving faster than we ever thought."
I was listening, with nothing to say.
"Back and forth with Arthur, back and forth with Judge DeOrio. Do you know DeOrio?"
"He's a tough guy, but he's good, fair, moderately liberal, started with a big firm many years ago and for some reason decided he wanted to be a judge. Passed up the big bucks. He moves more cases than any trial judge in the city because he keeps the lawyers under his thumb. Very heavy-handed. Wants everything settled, and if a case can't be settled, then he wants the trial as soon as possible. He's obsessive about a clean docket."
"I think I've heard his name."
"I would hope so. You've practiced law in this city for seven years."
"Antitrust law. In a big firm. Way up there."
"Anyway, here's the upshot. We've agreed to meet at one tomorrow in DeOrio's courtroom. Everybody will be there--the three defendants, with counsel, me, you, our trustee, everybody with any interest whatsoever in the lawsuit."
"Yep. The Judge wants you present. He said you could sit in the jury box and watch, but he wants you there. And he wants the missing file."
"He is notorious, in some circles I guess, for hating the press. He routinely tosses reporters from his courtroom; bans TV cameras from within a hundred feet of his doors, He's already irritated with the notoriety this case has generated. He's determined to stop the leaks."
"The lawsuit is a public record."
"Yes, but he can seal the file, if he's so inclined. I don't think he will, but he likes to bark."
"So he wants it settled?"
"Of course he does. He's a judge, isn't he? Every judge wants every case settled. More time for golf."
"What does he think of our case?"
"He kept his cards close, but he was adamant that all three defendants be present, and not just flunkies. We'll see the people who can make decisions on the spot."
"Gantry will be there. I talked to his lawyer."
"Does he know they have a metal detector at the front door?"
"Probably. He's been to court before. Arthur and I told the Judge about their offer. He didn't react, but I don't think he was impressed. He's seen a lot of big verdicts. He knows his jurors."
"What about me?"
There was a long pause froin my friend as he struggled to find words that would be at once truthful yet soothing. "He'll take a hard line."
Nothing soothing about that. "What's fair, Mordecai? It's my neck on the line. I've lost perspective."
"It's not a question of fairness. You took the file to right a wrong. You did not intend to steal it, just borrow it for an hour or so. It was an honorable act, but still a theft."
"Did DeOrio refer to it as a theft?"
"He did. Once."
So the Judge thought I was a thief. It was becoming unanimous. I didn't have the guts to ask Mordecai his opinion. He might tell me the truth, and I didn't want to hear it.
He shifted his considerable weight. My chair popped, but didn't yield an inch. I was proud of it. "I want you to know something," he said soberly. "You say the word, and we'll walk away from this case in the blink of an eye. We don't need the settlement; no one does really. The victims are dead. Their heirs are either unknown or in jail. A nice settlement wili not affect my life in the slightest. It's your case. You make the call."
"It's not that simple, Mordecai."
"Why isn't it?"
"I'm scared of the criminal charges."
"You should be. But they'll forget the criminal charges. They'll forget the bar complaint. I could call Arthur right now and tell him we would drop everything if they would drop everything. Both sides walk away and forget it. He would jump at it. It's a piece of cake."
"The press would eat us alive."
"So? We're immune. You think our clients worry about what the Post says about us?"
He was playing the devil's advocate--arguing points he didn't really believe in. Mordecai wanted to protect me, but he also wanted to nail Drake & Sweeney. Some people cannot be protected from themselves. "All right, we walk away," I said. "And what have we accomplished? They get away with murder. They threw those people in the street. They're solely responsible for the wrongful evictions, and ultimately responsible for the deaths of our clients, yet we let them off the hook? Is that what we're talking about?"
"It's the only way to protect your license to practice law."
"Nothing like a little pressure, Mordecai," I said, a bit too harshly.
But he was right. It was my mess, and only fitting that I make the crucial decisions. I took the file, a stupid act that was legally and ethically wrong.
Mordecai Green would be devastated if I suddenly got cold feet. His entire world was helping poor folks pick themselves up. His people were the hopeless and homeless, those given little and seeking only the basics of life--the next meal, a dry bed, a job with a dignified wage, a small apartment with affordable rent. Rarely could the cause of his clients' problems be so directly traced to large, private enterprises.
Since money meant nothing to Mordecai, and since a large recovery would have little or no impact on his life, and since the clients were, as he said, either dead, unknown, or in jail, he would never consider a pretrial settlement, absent my involvement. Mordecai wanted a trial, an enormous, noisy production with lights and cameras and printed words focused not on him, but on the declining plight of his people. Trials are not always about individual wrongs; they are sometimes used as pulpits.
My presence complicated matters. My soft, pale face could be the one behind bars. My license to practice law, and thus make a living, was at risk.
"I'm not jumping ship, Mordecai," I said.
"I didn't expect you to."
"Let me give you a scenario. What if we convince them to pay a sum of money we can live with; the criminal charges are dropped; and there's nothing left on the table but me and my license? And what if I agree to surrender it for a period of time? What happens to me?"
"First, you suffer the indignity of a disciplinary suspension."
"Which, unpleasant as it sounds, will not be the end of the world," I said, trying to sound strong. I was horrified about the embarrassment. Wamer, my parents, my friends, my law school buddies, Claire, all those fine folks at Drake & Sweeney. Their faces rushed before my eyes as I saw them receive the news.
"Second, you simply can't practice law during the suspension."
"Will I lose my job?"
"Of course not."
"Then what will I do?"
"Well, you'll keep this office. You'll do intake at CCNV, Samaritan House, Redeemer Mission, and the other places you've already been to. You will remain a full partner with the clinic. We'll call you a social worker, not a lawyer."
"So nothing changes?"
"Not much. Look at Sofia. She sees more clients than the rest of us combined, and half the city thinks she's a lawyer. If a court appearance is necessary, I handle it. It'll be the same for you."
The rules governing street law were written by those who practiced it.
"What if I get caught?"
"No one cares. The line between social work and social law is not always clear."
"Two years is a long time."
"It is, and it isn't. We don't have to agree on a two-year suspension."
"I thought it was not negotiable."
"Tomorrow, everything will be negotiable. But you need to do some research. Find similar cases, if they're out there. See what other jurisdictions have done with similar complaints."
"You think it's happened before?"
"Maybe. There are a million of us now. Lawyers have been ingenious in finding ways to screw up."
He was late for a meeting. I thanked him, and we locked up together.
I drove to the Georgetown Law School near Capitol Hill. The library was open until midnight. It was the perfect place to hide and ponder the life of a wayward lawyer.