Naturally, I was concerned when my client showed up in my office with a dead fish.
I had seen The Godfather. I knew this was not a good omen. But the striped lunker that lay on my desk was not merely dead. It was embalmed, lacquered and mounted on a handsome mahogany plaque that my client had won in a fishing tournament.
- I’ve got lots more like it at home, said the beefy, big-bellied fisherman. I’ve won tournaments from Miami to Michigan.
He had come to me because a week earlier he’d been disqualified for allegedly cheating in the Santee-Cooper Bass Challenge. He said he was a winner, not a cheater. The plaque was proof. And not just a winner, but a Winner! One of the greatest bass-fishing winners ever.
- Why would I have to cheat, he said, when I win so easily?
One possibility, of course, was that he had cheated without getting caught until now. But I didn’t go there. I was a young lawyer early into my solo practice in Charleston, hungry for clients and disinclined to peer into the dark hearts of aggrieved anglers.
So when my mother called that morning I proudly reported that I’d landed a big one. To which she happily replied, “Keep reeling ‘em in.”
Little did we both know.
Little Debbie and a Lead-filled Lunker
Quickly I banged out a letter to the Santee-Cooper Bass Challenge appealing its decision to disqualify my client. This was back in the days when correspondence was generated by enormous machines known as IBM Selectrics, with copies created instantly by miracle sheets of carbon-polymer paper. I wrote that my client wanted to clear his good name. Oh, and he’d also like the $500 prize, thank you very much, since he caught the biggest fish.
My letter prompted a meeting at a hardware store in Holly Hill. There I met Darryl and Ida, the kindly store owners and tournament organizers, along with a game warden in waders. Darryl and Ida served coffee and Little Debbie snack cakes while we waited for my client to arrive. We waited and waited. We had more coffee and snack cakes. And waited.
Later in my career I would learn that it is always the belligerent and boastful clients who don’t bother to show up for their hearings. But at the time all I knew to do was keep trying to call him on the store phone – back then cells were places for convicts – to no avail.
- It’s not your fault, said Ida, sympathetically. We figured he wouldn’t come.
I realized they knew him better than I did.
- Would you like to see the evidence, asked the game warden, helpfully.
I perked up and said sure. It seems that on the day in question my client had indeed returned from the lake with the largest bass. But when the fish was placed in the holding tank – this was a live-catch event – it sank straight to the bottom and flailed helplessly.
- I knew right away that fish was weighted, said the game warden.
He produced photographs of the fish before, during and after the gutting that revealed a string of lead weights crammed down the poor thing’s throat. He produced the weights themselves. He produced a copy of the tournament rules prohibiting fish-tampering.
I half-expected him to produce evidence of my client’s fingerprints on the murder weapon. But there was no need. It was plain enough what had happened. My client had stuffed his fish with weights and got busted. His vanity led him to my office, where he told me a whopper that I fell for hook, line and sinker.
Winners Swim Freely
Later my friend Nick – the ablest attorney this side of Aiken – said my mistake was not seeing through my client’s desperate self-puffery in the first place.
- Real winners don’t have to go around broadcasting it, he said.
This is an important lesson for us all to remember – especially during March Madness, which is all about winning. Not that there is anything wrong with victory. Our clients expect us to win. It feels good when we do.
But if we have to resort to cheating in order to win, we end up losers. We lose our dignity. We lose our sense of right and wrong.
An innocent fish could even lose its life.
Most important, we lose the right to complain when others break the rules. And before you know it, we’ve all sunk to the bottom.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.