Sunday, April 20, 2014

Misfit Underdogs

By all objective measures, so far this year, my firm has had a good year.  We have had two trials, almost back to back, and won the first one big time, and won the second pretty good.  Hold on, though, we have more trials coming up and our winning record could very well plummet.  Time will tell. Sometimes I tell my clients that what my job really entails is being a professional gambler.  We generally work on a contingent fee basis.  We take significant financial and emotional risks when we take on a case.  We usually grow to love our clients and understand the devastating effects litigation can have on a person, especially when the case is lost.  As a lawyer, I learn valuable lessons from losing a case, but I fear my clients are not so lucky.  The last time I remember a significant loss, I grieved for six months, for my client and for myself.

I believe that when a case is lost, it is ultimately the lawyer's fault.  I hear people say, "We got a bad jury, or the client was unlikeable, or the judge hated us."   That's baloney.  Either you did a bad job in jury selection, you failed to empathize with your client, you failed to empathize with the job, or you were selling a bill of goods you felt were defective and you should never had taken the case.  That is what 30 years as a trial lawyer has taught me.

Even though going to trial is frightening, it can be invigorating.  I have seen clients who transform, back into what I imagine they were like before the harassment or retaliation.  It can be magical.  And for any adrenaline-junky lawyer like me, it can be a great high, until the adrenaline crashes and my whole being crashes with it.

Since I and my firm represent clients in discrimination matters, I mainly feel like a rebel warrior, fighting the awful corporate strongholds for justice.  Ha!  It is fun to have such a romanticized self-view, even when it may be much more economic than romantic.  But, I still tell myself I am a rebel.  My favorite saying is from Gandhi, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win."  We are not part of the status quo.  I tell myself that our job is to level the playing field, ya da ya day ya da.  We aren't part of a mega-law firm.  We don't follow the rules (actually, generally we do because we want to keep our law licenses.)

Well, this year, I was apparently nominated for two awards.  I do not know who nominated me for either award.  I do not know the criteria except in general terms for either award, but I am receiving them along with others.  Both awards are for litigation, one for a career of litigation, the other for being a woman litigating. I am getting ready for a fancy schmancy dinner, the kind I usually don't go to, to hob nob with other rewardees at a fancy hotel in front of important people in fancy clothes.  The second award will be in a more relaxed atmosphere with many of the Kansas City bar present.

I relate this not to toot my own horn (in truth, perhaps to toot my own horn somewhat).  I am extremely honored and grateful, because being recognized is much more important to me than my "rebel" self knew.  Yet, I have this part of me that believes that people tend to abuse money, power, fame, unless they have an unusual constitution and a great deal of pre-existing self-esteem.  While I realize that these awards are not Pulitzers or Nobel prize, it is a little disconcerting to my self-image as a misfit rebel to be honored by the powerful among my profession.  Yikes!  Will I start having dinner parties and playing golf, while discussing my investment portfolio?  Is there Botox or lypo-suction in my future?  Should I dye my nearly all white hair back to the unnatural (I was a dark haired brunette) blondish hue I had for years that cost tons of money and time? Or, my greatest fear of all, will I have to start dieting again after swearing off a lifetime of yo-yo dieting?

I truly appreciate being recognized.  However, these awards are wreaking havoc with my perceived rebel creds.  I feel like a pirate being honored by the British Navy or the Sheriff of Nottingham acknowledging the good work of Robin Hood.  In reality, I am probably no Robin Hood nor pirate, but more like an annoying horsefly that buzzes in your ear until you swat it dead.

Well, here is for the horseflies, the persistent pests who won't bid rid from buzzing your face!  Here is to dog that whines at your feet until you feed it a table scrap!  Here is to the persistent souls, who, regardless or talent or intelligence, refuse to give up!  Here is to the misfit underdog!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shalom Plaza and the Jewish Community Center Tragedies

I was going to write a post about my dog, but it seems that tragic events in Kansas City intervened. Apparently, a man, who when apprehended, yelled "Heil, Hitler," after he killed three innocent people outside Jewish places in the Kansas City area.  A 14 year old is among the victims.  The man shot indiscriminately in the parking lot, killing visitors who were there for other purposes.  Although I know a lot about anti-Semitism from stories of my family, I don't remember ever living in a place where there was an anti-Semitic attack during my lifetime.

My parents both ended up in Kansas City because of anti-Semitism.  My father's family came to Kansas City in the early 1900's from Poland.  My grandparents came here via Palestine in 1928, the year before my father was born.  My grandmother's sister never left Warsaw, and she and her family were slaughtered by the Nazis.

My mother and her parents and grandmother fled Germany in November 1938, weeks before Kristallnacht.  She had two first cousins who, as boys, separately left their respective families, both to never see their parents again.  My grandfather's sister and brother and their spouses died in Auschwitz. One son got to Kansas City at 16 years of age, to fend for himself while unsuccessfully trying to save his parents.  The other cousin, at eleven, hid out in France from 1939 through the end of the war, visiting his parents once before they were sent to Auschwitz to perish in 1942.  Henry led a life no boy  should have to live on the run in France with false names and constant fear of discovery by the Vichy.

When I was growing up, all of my grandparents had accents.  My grandmother's German accent was so comforting to me.  She called me Lynnilla and my siblings were Joycilla and Robbilla.  We used to mimic her "Auch du lieber, Gott in himmel," and we had "bed hoopsillas" (a piece of chocolate) for when we went to bed.  She fixed sauertbraten and schnitzel and talked about what it was like as a little girl when her father went off to fight for Germany in World War I.  Yet, she really didn't talk about the Nazis.  What I learned came in little pieces through time.  My mother as a little girl recalled the Gestapo storming their house every Sabbath evening.  She  remembers the non-Jewish children throwing rocks and her and how my grandmother steered her down side streets when the Nazi youth marched by so that that they would not have to salute.  In retrospect, I wondered why they never taught us German, and then I realized how they no longer wanted German to be a language the family spoke.  When Oma, my grandmother, took our whole family to Israel when I was 20, I remember how she almost could not endure our trip to the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem.  Oma did not like to cry in public, but she could not hide her tears.

I  have always been drawn to representing those who were singled out because of their race, or sex, or age.  I grew up when women started gaining momentum in the 1970's.  Perhaps, I was just part of the "feminist revolution," but that didn't ring true.  I relate to those people who have to fight to get equal rights.  In my mind, I relate to the plight of African-Americans, Muslims, gays, sexual harassment victims.  I know what it is like not to get a fair shake, even though I personally never had it so bad. After all, I grew up in Kansas City.  I went to college.  No one tried to kill me.  No one refused to give me a chance.  But, for me, I have always related to the plight of my forebears, to the generations of Jews who were reviled and persecuted, like those of my forebears just one generation removed from me.  And I weep for the hundreds of years that this country fostered barbarism and slavery, even though my family did not even live in this country then and was undoubtedly subjected to Pogroms during those times.  

I know that we are humans and humans are imperfect.  I know that we can all be cruel.  I know that I have been cruel towards others more times than I care to admit.  I read books about war and genocide. I seem to be obsessed with humans' inhumanity to humans and I try to understand why we are this way. I read about Rwanda and Vietnam and North Korea.  I try to understand how this country could have been founded off the toil of slaves in the not so distant past.  Is this what humans are?  Are we destined to be violent and jealous and cruel?

On days like today, I feel sad.  Perhaps I am so profoundly sad because this act today in this piece of my world was fueled by anti-Semitism.  Yet, I hear tales of racism and sexism and ageism almost daily. I wonder what will really have to happen for the hatred in this world to dissipate.  I suppose the hatred will always be there.  We can only hope to understand why people hate others and work to make things better.  I guess that is little consolation to the parents of that poor boy, who wasn't even Jewish, and just happened to be in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center today.  I am too old to believe that this poor child's death and the deaths of the two adults were anything but tragic.  Will we ever overcome our cruelty to others?  I am not hopeful.  I wish I was.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Discrimination Gone Subtle

When I was growing up, racism, sexism, gay-bashing, was pretty in your face.  People flung racial epithets, using the n word and worse, with little consciousness of the obnoxious nature of the words they spoke.  Sexual harassment was not a phrase - bosses oftentimes expected "perks" from their secretaries, who were never called administrative professionals.  Andy 95% of all gay people were in the closet.

Times have changed.  While prejudice is less direct, unfortunately that does not mean it is eliminated.   Racism, sexism, homophobia all exist, but are harder to spot.  Most people, have a hard time identifying their own bias.  When I say most people, I include myself.

Bias and prejudice have negative connotations.  However, we all have biases and prejudices, that is the nature of humanity.  We all have experiences, both good and and bad, which help to form who we are. Most of us grew up with people who look and act like we do.  When an aging white man crosses a lonely street with and encounters a group of teenage African-American youth, he may feel anxious.  He knows no African-American youth.  He has pre-conceived notions based on what he hears, sees or reads.  Those notions may have nothing to do with fact, but he is afraid anyway.  Yet when he sits in a jury panel and is asked if he can be fair in a criminal case with an African-American defendant, he will say, "Of course I can be fair."  We all want to believe we are fair.  Few people today admit to being racist.  Yet, I suspect, to some extent many of us, regardless of whatever ethnic group or race with which we identify. has pre-conceived notions about others.  

That is what prejudice is, preconceived notions.  Making assumptions about groups of people is discrimination. We all make assumptions.  Most of us are afraid to admit that we make assumptions about people.  We don't want to be prejudiced.

I submit that people who recognize and admit their biases may be more prone to being fair.  Honestly, especially about oneself, is a good thing.   Introspection aids the ability to make just decisions.   Of course, those crazy folks in neo-Nazi groups or the KKK may admit their racism, but their admission is not the product of introspection, but of insecurity, fear and hate.

Before we believe that racism is dead because we have a President of mixed race, before we declare that we are "color-blind," in reality a code-word for insensitivity, before we declare that women fail to break the glass ceiling only because they interrupt their careers with child-rearing, let's have a dose of reality.  Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and religious discrimination are alive and well.  We are just much for indirect about it.

Each of us, whatever or race, sex, sexual preference, age or religion, need to recognize how we have assumptions about others unlike us and those assumptions are prejudice, pre-judgment before we have facts.  Knowledge of our own feelings and assumptions is power.  Perhaps one day we will eliminate discrimination against humans, when we are all united against the space aliens invading our planet. Until that day of space invasion or global destruction, I suppose we will just have to do the best we can to eliminate attitudes that oppress others.  And we need to be honest about our own assumptions, even if it's hard and even if it's not politically correct. 

To a new dawn of opportunity for all.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Believing Your Own Story

One of the hardest things about being a lawyer is putting what you believe in before getting a big payday.  Most people in law school believe that he or she can use their law license to better society.  However, it's not as easy as it sounds.  We all need to earn money.  Too often, that paycheck becomes more important than a lawyer's principles and beliefs.  It is easy to fool yourself into rationalization.  I have rationalized my way through cases.  I like to think I have put rationalization and self-deception behind, but too often we, as lawyers, lose sight of the principles in which we believe.

I used to practice as a civil defense lawyer.  Two cases, which both were over 20 years ago still stick with me.  In one, I tried a personal injury case in which the insurance company hired a doctor reputed to lie on the stand.  Ultimately, in some courts around here, he was essentially outed by the judiciary and his lucrative career humiliating personal injury plaintiffs was stopped.  But that was not before he testified on behalf of my client in trial.  I remember his cackle as he discovered that the plaintiff, who was hit by my drunk client, got a fraction of what she was due.  Around that time, my firm was hired to defend a personal injury settlement where the plaintiff did not know about my client's additional coverage and I was charged with defending the appeal in an attempt to keep the policy limits of $100,000 out of the hands of the quadriplegic injured as the result of the car wreck in the case with my client.  I argued the appeal, came back to the office, cried my eyes out, and rejoiced when I lost the appeal.  A few times I defended individuals accused of sexual harassment.  I made them get second mortgages on their houses to pay my retainer.  I went after the plaintiffs, the way I hate it when defense lawyers go after my clients, fully using what we now call the "slut" defense.

I am very glad those days are behind me.  I don't send my clients regular bills anymore and I only get paid if we settle a case or win it.  Our income is tenuous and unpredictable.  It can be hard to plan financially, but it still beats defending cases where I have to rationalize my role.  I don't have to wine and dine potential clients, I don't steal clients from other lawyers, and I don't have insurance companies scouring my bills.   Sometimes it's hard not having a steady income, but I no longer have to represent clients who have acted in ways I do not like.  

I believe that our civil justice system works because of lawyer who work on both sides, plaintiffs vs. defendants, the government vs. criminal defendants.  While I admire criminal defense lawyers, upholding the constitution and protecting our liberties, I doubt that being a criminal defense lawyer would be satisfying for me.  I am sure that being a prosecutor would not suit me, since I tend to feel lenient towards people who have failed society.  I can't help thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I."  I know I am not cut out to defend civil cases, since I have done that and I am grateful I no longer am on the side of defendants, regardless of the steady pay.

Even though lawyers are attacked in society and have been for hundreds of years, I like to think that at least I have some control over what I do, however, misguided my belief may be.  I do admire my colleagues who take the roles which are hard for me and do so with dignity and respect, never forgetting their core beliefs.  There are many lawyers representing civl defendants, the state and criminal defendants who do so without compromising who they are.   I was unable to rise to that challenge.  If I were not representing regular people who need a level playing field, I hope that I would not be practicing law at all.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Work/Family Balance; You Can Have It "All"

Ever since I became a mother is 1978, I have been aware of notions of what women professionals have to sacrifice to keep the delicate balance between work and family.  I now have two grown children, one born 22 months before law school, the other born 17 months after I passed the bar.  In light of all of the literature and debate, I suspect many women, and men, struggle with this issue.  I suppose the real issue for most is how to be a good parent and continue to climb up the corporate ladder.  The corporate ladder may be difficult to navigate for those ambitious souls who choose to also attempt both.  I have always worked for the thirty-five years since becoming a mother.  I am a trial lawyer and my profession has been very important to me.  I am certainly not perfect, but I think I have found the perfect balance for me between work and family.  These are my work/family rules.

1.  GET OFF THE CORPORATE LADDER -

     From what I see and hear, it can suck eggs to work for a big corporation.  Managers can be petty, demanding, devious, under-handed and unreasonable.  If you have to be the CEO of GE and your ideas of success includes a 7 or 8 figure compensation package with your own private jet, I guess you have to attempt that unpleasant scaling of that unfair ladder.  If that is your goal, I am not talking to you.  If you want to climb over the backs of your co-workers to reign with a golden scepter, I am not talking to you.  I am talking to normal people who don't need obscene amounts of money or power to feel good about themselves.

I am talking to those of you who want to succeed, but success is not measured in dollars or power.  Corporations can be cutthroat places and do you really want to spend your life as a gladiator in the coliseum? How do I know that mega-big business is bad, you may wonder, since I have never worked for a giant corporation in my adult life?  Well, I have sued so many giant corporations for discrimination and retaliation, that I got the hint.  Don't work at a place where your fate is controlled by the whim of a snot-nosed kid or sadistic power-monger who would just as soon fire you as care about your mother's surgery.  I know this first suggestion, getting off the corporate ladder, may seem impossible, and sometimes it is.  We all need to make a living.  But, do you really want to trust your fate to a behemoth entity who, by definition, is only concerned with making a profit at all costs?  I do not.

2.      TAKE YOUR KIDS TO WORK WITH YOU,  A LOT

          Even when  I worked for others, I took my children, individually or together, to work.  I would go on walks with them during a break.  I would take them with me on out of town trips.  After a deposition, which they often attended, we would go swimming in the motel pool.  When you are not dependent on the whim of others, you can decide your own priorities.

3.        BECOME A ROOM PARENT OR SCOUT LEADER

       Staying involved in your kids' activities is not that hard when you are out of the rat race, because you no longer report to the rats.   Of course, there can be times when you can't make the Valentines Day party because you are in trial.  But go to important events of children if you can.  There is no way to make up the memories.  A child's feelings of abandonment last a lifetime.  Kids grow up fast.  You cannot get that time back.

4.      WORK FROM HOME IF YOU CAN

      To stay off the ladder and out of the rat race, work from home.  I invariably get more work done from home than at the office.  There are fewer interruptions and much less down time.  Be disciplined.  Work early in the morning or late at night, too.

5.       HAVE A SPOUSE OR PARTNER WHO DOES HIS OR HER SHARE OF THE       HOUSEWORK AND CHILD CARE

      I cannot stress this point enough.  If you are not only responsible for your work, but also responsible for all child care, laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc., you are going to go crazy.  You must insist that your partner do at least his or her share.  If you do not have a supportive partner, it is much worse than no partner at all.

6.     PRIORITIZE

      This is the most important point of all.  You should let things go.  No one needs a pie baked from scratch.   If it's a decision between scrubbing the bathtub or getting a report out, work on the report.  Of course, if your real love is going clubbing all night, you probably should forgo the family.  Know what your priorities are.  I try to follow my priorities:  a.  Family first; b. My law practice second, c. Then everything else.  (I am not religious, but I realize that some of you have your religion in the top 3.  Fine, just remember everything else is last.)

    One other issue, balancing family and career is not a "woman's issue."  It is both a men's and women's issue.  Everyone needs to think about the balance.  Men are struggling with the same issues and if this is a parents' issue, men are parents, too.

    Since my kids are grown, I am on the down-side of this struggle.  Neither one of my children have turned into rapists or serial killers.  So, if that doesn't make me a good mother, what does?

When I started out, women were leaving the practice of law in droves, because they could not balance family and career.  Now, both women and men my age are being bounced out from large companies due to age discrimination.  Perhaps the real title of this piece should be Don't Work For That Behemoth Company."  But, I suppose someone has to work there.

Above all else,  relax and enjoy what you have and live in the present moment.  It all goes by so fast.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Optimism and Humanity

I just got done trying two discrimination cases with my partner Kristi Kingston.  After almost  two months without a day  off, I took the last four days off, reading a John Grisham novel and watching Oscar nominated films.

That leads me to my conclusion of the last few weeks - most people are eminently compassionate.  I watched "Twelve Years A Slave" and rewatched a favorite, "Nebraska."  Couple the movie-watching fest with further lessons learned in trial, I have again come to the happy conclusion that normal, everyday people are basically good, caring, loving people.

Slavery was a despicable culture and condition, and fortunately it was short-lived in this country.  The fact it existed at all is problematic.  But, I do believe that people are good and kind and most want to be compassionate and treat people in a caring way.

The problem happens when we concentrate on our differences rather than our similarities.  I hope that as the people of this planet  grow closer, as our planet shrinks, and social media expands, we will see ourselves as part of the collective group of humans on the planet.  In a few hundred years, I suspect most people's pigment will become more similar, perhaps a nice lift brown or dark beige.  We will recognize our inter-relatedness and common origins.  We will love one another.  We will notice our similarities more than our differences.  I have faith that we can change the hatred, wars and bigotry.

However, my fear is that by the time we are enlightened, we will have wrecked this planet with climate change and waste.  No, I will not succumb to bitterness and fear.  The day is a comin'.  I feel it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why The Jury System Works

I have not posted much lately because we have a spate of trials coming up.  I had  to bow out of the photography classes I was taking because my firm has an inordinate number of trials this year.  My last trial was in June 2011 and the case settled after a week of trial.  It is unusual  for my firm and for me to go this long without a trial, and it feels good to get back in the courtroom.

This last week I helped my partner Kristi Kingston try a sexual harassment case.  In two weeks I have another trial, about which I will not discuss hear since the trial is approaching and it is improper to go into much detail on  the eve of trial because I will be picking a jury soon.

I have practiced law for over 30 years,  and I have tried more cases than most civil lawyers.  My first trial was in June 1984 days before I discovered I was pregnant with my now almost 29 year old daughter.  I have learned a lot since then.

On behalf of my clients, I have tried my share of winning verdicts and more than I care to admit of losing verdicts.  I have learned a lot about trying cases since then.  One things sticks with me since day one, though.  Juries usually get it right.  And I have thought a lot about why that is.

Jury service is the only form of real civic duty that people who have not served in the armed services are required to perform in this country.  This country is made up of patriotic people who courageously and diligently serve their country by serving on juries.  Juries are almost always thoughtful, diligent, intelligent.  We hear so much about people wanting to get out of jury service, and many do, but when a person is picked to sit  on a jury, people in our country, especially in this nation's heartland, take their job very seriously.

I am proud to live in a place where people take their civic duty to sit on a jury so seriously.  Americans care about justice and jurors try to and usually do the just thing.  I don't know what it's like in other countries who no longer have or never had the right to have their civil grievances, and sometimes even their criminal accusations, tried by a jury.  I am so impressed by how hard juries work and how important it is for people serving on juries to  render a just verdict of which they can be proud.

I know this may sound sappy, but I am so proud to live in this country because of the diligence and courage of its citizens.  As I said, I have had my share of losses.  I still believe that, uniformly, jurors want to be just, listen to the evidence and the law from the judge, and do their utmost to be just and fair.  It takes courage to be a juror, to speak up and let your voice be heard in the jury room.  We thank our service people for defending this country, as we well should.  But, I want to thank Americans who take days or weeks from their lives and their jobs, in Missouri at $6 a day, to decide the claims of others, whether it be a sexual harassment case, a wrongful death case, or a product liabilities case, and perform their service so honorably.

I know it's cliche, but Americans have the best civil justice system in the world.