Then there was the client who wanted to sue Santa Claus.
Well, that’s not completely true. Actually, he wanted to sue the shopping mall where Santa worked, the employment agency that hired Santa, the general contractor that built Santa’s workshop and dozens of other parties.
It was a nightmare of a case. It dragged on from one Christmas to the next. Of course I should never have taken it in the first place. But this was back in the ‘80s, when I was a struggling young attorney who had difficulty distinguishing bad cases (which comprised half my caseload) from terrible ones (which comprised the other half).
The good news is I came out of it with the best gift a lawyer could ever receive: peace of mind.
Ho, Ho, Whoa!
This was my first slip-and-fall case, and I was ready for it. A few months earlier, I had attended a seminar where a speaker explained how he’d won hundreds of thousands of dollars for a client who slipped on a celery stalk and half a million for a client who fell while going to see Beverly Hills Cop.
So naturally I was excited when a gentleman limped into my office after slipping and falling at a local mall. He came with his wife, who did all the talking.
The couple had taken their son to see Santa. They were walking up to get a picture with St. Nick when Dad tripped on a dangerous patch of fake snow under which an electrical cable had been negligently snaked. Dad pitched forward, crashed through a white picket fence bordering Santa’s Workshop and came to rest in Candyland.
He suffered a wrenched knee and a poke in the gut.
- Show the lawyer, Warren, said the wife.
Warren solemnly obliged by lifting his shirt to reveal an extremely large and hairy stomach. Next to his navel was a tiny purplish bruise.
- Ouch, I said, and made some notes on my yellow pad.
She said Warren had seen a doctor and been unable to work since the tragedy. Not only that, he had been unable to eat, sleep, enjoy intimate relations or do practically anything but sit around in pain.
- Christmas is basically ruined, she said. Tell him, Warren.
- Christmas is ruined, he said.
Waving the Red Flag
I have since learned to look for red flags before taking on a new matter. For instance, it is a red flag when a client enters your office favoring his right leg but leaves favoring his left. Another is when a client’s spouse says she has already done the necessary legal research and has even prepared a list of defendants that need to be sued.
Yet another would be the distinct odor of alcohol emanating from your client.
But I was still new to the law and grateful for anyone who stumbled into my office.
So I worked the case to death. It was hard enough getting anyone to take my calls, much less finding a deep pocket. Then there was the little matter of an incident report from mall security that said my client had been drinking before he fell.
- Only two beers over dinner, said the wife. Tell him, Warren.
- Two beers.
I was so green I did not yet know it is always only two beers over dinner.
The Greatest Gift of All
At Christmastime – almost one year to the day it began – my Santa Slip-and-Fall Fiasco came to a merciful end. My client got his medical bills paid. He even got a little bit for himself. He wasn’t thrilled but he was glad it was over.
- We’re not going to let them ruin this Christmas too, said the wife. Are we, Warren?
- Two beers, said Warren, who was feeling much better.
Afterward I was telling my buddy Nick about it. He said, Wait right there and disappeared into his office. He returned with a manila envelope.
- Merry Christmas, said Nick, and handed the package to me.
- What’s this?
- Peace of mind.
Inside the envelope was a stack of sample client letters and fee contracts. One document was something called a non-engagement letter.
Not long after Christmas I met with a man who wanted to sue the Mayor, the President and the Pope. I thanked him for coming but said I wouldn’t be able to help. After he left I sent him one of Nick’s magic non-engagement letters.
And it was amazing. The letter worked just like Nick said it would. I never heard from the man again. And I went home at night with peace of mind.
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.