As I approach a milestone birthday, I occasionally think about aging lawyers, especially those who have spent their careers representing poor criminal defendants. Many of these lawyers cannot retire–some for financial reasons and some based on a compulsion to keep helping the poor. Early in my career, I wrote about an elderly lawyer in an email to my mother. Twenty years later, I realize that I was mean to old Abe Gray (not his real name), and what was then to me a comical situation is now an example of the resilience of experience and, yes, age. Here is my email:
Abe Gray is a fixture in court. A bit like the screw that holds down the tap on your faucet – he’s there but you don’t notice him until something goes wrong. Monday, he got noticed.
Abe looks to be in his eighties and all of the old court officers say he’s been around forever. He always wears a wrinkled suit with an old man’s obligatory dandruff. Abe’s client was a stocky young black man charged with trespass and disorderly conduct who had to be told to remove his hat. This admonition caused a guffaw from the young man; his guffaw only worsened the scolding from the judge who went on about decorum-this and respect-that before sending him back to his seat like a kid in the corner to wait a long time before she would have his case called again.
When the court recessed, Abe tried to explain his client’s behavior. I may have attracted his attention because we’d made eye contact, a difficult thing given Abe’s permanent downward head bend. About his client he said, “It was just a nervous laugh – he does that you know.” I certainly didn’t, and was pretty sure that neither did Abe. As our conversation continued, Abe insisted that I probably would not like being a lawyer for the poor very soon. “But it beats sittin’ in ya office doin’ nuthin’ don’t it?” which he followed with a friendly punch in the arm, a hearty laugh, and a consequent bout of coughing that only years of smoking can cause.
When court reconvened, Abe and I ended up sitting next to each other. A stern looking young lawyer whom I had seen run into the ladies’ room the day before to puke loudly into the sink (her stern expression was meant to mask an intense anxiety) sat on his other side. We were near the seats reserved for police officers. Abe decided he wanted to do what court officers most often have to rebuke lawyers for – chat. And not just chat. Abe wanted to talk about the police.
So there I am, trying to be decorous and show respect for the court, listening to Abe go on in the sort of loud voice the hard of hearing often think is a whisper, “the cops testiLIE, not testiFY” and how “THEY apparently can wear hats in the courtroom – look at that one over there – she’s got a baseball cap on just like my client’s!” He actually pointed. I was mortified. Some of the police were frowning in our direction. I smiled meekly. The stern looking puker turned a whiter shade of pale. Mind you, women are allowed to wear hats in court; men are not, even policemen.
I crossed my leeward leg away from Abe, leaned forward, elbow on knee, chin in hand, and pretended I was fascinated by the proceedings. He quieted.
About five minutes later, Abe’s client’s name was called. The client approached the bar, hat in hand, eyes down. Abe didn’t stand to address the court. When an uncomfortable silence followed, the clerk announced the name of the defendant’s lawyer (it’s not unusual for a lawyer to be in the hallway or another courtroom – the clerk will say the lawyer’s name as a way of prompting help from the court officers in locating a lawyer). Abe did not respond; the clerk scanned the courtroom and landed his gaze on us. He repeated Abe’s name more loudly this time. I couldn’t figure out why Abe still hadn’t stood. Maybe he was helping stern-face with something? So I turned around.
Abe’s head was tilted uncharacteristically upwards. His eyes were shut. His mouth wide open. His arms were crossed over his chest. Sleeping? Dead? God, I hoped not. I poked his left elbow with my index finger and whispered, “Attorney Gray?” No response. I pressed all four fingers into his left arm twice and, a little louder said, “Attorney Gray.” No response. Now I was worried. I returned his earlier punch three times to no effect other than tilting his torso towards stern-face and disrupting his dandruff.
By this time, everyone was staring at us: The judge, the clerk, the probation officers, the court officers, the police, Abe’s client, stern-face (who was leaning as far away from Abe as she could without pushing herself intimately onto the man next to her, an appalled expression on her face). I’m not certain what inspired me, but I grabbed the middle finger of Abe’s closest hand and tugged three times as hard as I could without popping his arthritic joints and said again, “ATTORNEY GRAY!”
He snuffled awake, looked around a bit dazed, asked me, “Wha- what?” “Your case” I said, inclining my head towards his hatless client. He leapt to his feet with amazing agility, strode confidently to the microphone and said, “Attorney Gray for the defendant, your honor. He then reviewed the entire case in the light most favorable to his client finishing his effective synopsis with “therefore I move to dismiss.”
Since I wrote this piece, Abe has passed away and, with his passing, I reflected on the experience. When I was younger, I was concerned about Abe’s client and thought nothing of poking fun at what I perceived to be Abe’s decrepitude. Today, I admire that Abe demonstrated an uncanny ability to go from dreaming to eloquent advocacy, even though it took some prompting. He fought for the poor his entire working life which deserves my respect. I hope that by continuing to find humor in the experience I have not dishonored his memory.