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That One Day I Missed Practicing Law
Last week I made a social call at my old office and caught up with several work friends. Aside from a brief visit almost a year ago to pick up a box of girl scout cookies, I’ve had no reason to return to the space where I spent almost three decades toiling as a lawyer for the government.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
By the time I retired in the fall of 2020, we were all working from home, which, for me, was a dream come true. I offloaded a three-hour commute for the freedom and flexibility of getting my work done the way I wanted to get it done. My Wi-Fi was so poor, I often had to turn off my camera, thus relieving myself of the task of projecting interest in meetings I found entirely mind-numbing. I no longer needed to make small talk, an often exhausting and time-consuming chore. I chose to burn up my vacation time and found myself easily able to get my work done in six hour days.
But I digress.
Since leaving the grind of legal work, I’ve written a book and countless other shorter essays. I volunteer at my local wildlife refuge and hone my skills as an amateur naturalist. I spend more time thoughtfully training my dogs. My creative mind is always engaged. I’m learning new ways to be strategic in self-promotion - something that would have nauseated me just a few years ago.
That said, there are days I truly miss the unique intellectual stimulation that came with my old job. You see, I dealt primarily with the human condition. People did bad things and I had to prove that their actions were criminal – easier said than done, sometimes. I was forced to rely on the testimony of witnesses who were impaired, untruthful, afraid, hostile, or a combination thereof. My job at trial was to prove to a group of (hopefully) unbiased jurors, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the charged offense.
The job was stressful; the work environment, often toxic. At some point I could no longer compartmentalize the awfulness of what I faced every single day. When I spoke up about the awfulness, I was involuntarily transferred to civil litigation, which I found loathsome for entirely different reasons.
Much, if not most of the legal profession is conflict based. Negotiations are based on the threat of something far worse if the parties exercise their rights to a trial. When I was a young gun, I preyed upon lawyers and their clients who did not share my love of trial litigation. There was nothing quite so enticing as the opportunity to create a compelling direct examination, or cross examine a known liar. Reading people became my superpower along with listening carefully to every utterance. When victims of domestic violence recanted their initial reports, I found myself at a crossroads when it came time to go to trial. I learned how to look for corroborating evidence when I believed the victim’s initial report. I became a pretty good investigator.
Words matter. You can glean someone’s intent by what that person says.
But you also have to observe someone’s demeanor as they utter the words they want you to believe. Judging credibility is entirely the jury’s job. To believe, or not believe, that is always the ultimate question, and the way words are spoken can easily betray the witness uttering them.
When I popped in on one of my work friends, he and an investigator were studying the words and actions of person suspected of criminal activity and comparing them to the words contained in a particular Minnesota state statute.
“Whoever intentionally, knowingly and willfully…”
Seems a bit redundant. And proving all three states of mind could be difficult, if not impossible.
As a lawyer turned writer, words still matter to me. These days, I much prefer the challenge of choosing the best word to describe a scene, person or action - to that of trying to prove someone committed a crime.
Especially when they’ve used their own words to deny it.