by Gina Sestak
I gave up my private law practice in 1986. I was tired of fighting for people in court, then fighting those same people to get them to pay me. I had begun to regard clients as somewhat akin to cockroaches, except I liked the roaches better.
So I began to rent my services to small firms and sole practitioners. Let those lawyers fight their clients over fees -- as long as the lawyers paid me, I was happy. I billed myself as a freelance associate, willing to step in at a moment's notice to handle awkward, inconvenient matters.
It is an immutable truth of the universe that, if you have to be at two events in any given year, those two events will be on the same day in different locations. Hence the need. A sole practitioner might received notice of a motion being presented in Lawrence County at the same time she is due in court in Allegheny County. I would step in to handle the motion in Lawrence County.
This was fun. There are several small counties with pretty little courthouses around Pittsburgh. I often didn't even charge for travel time. It was too enjoyable, learning to navigate unfamiliar court personnel and judges, and being out and about -- although I admit that I sometimes got confused on the way to Washington County and almost went to Erie (you local folks know what I mean).
My favorite part of this job, though, was attending depositions with the deponent. Modern law practice tries to avoid courtroom surprises, so it is the norm (at least in larger cases) for each side to question the other's witnesses under oath prior to trial. Such a questioning session is called a deposition; the testifying witness is called a deponent. The purpose behind this is simple: if both sides know what the evidence is, they are more likely to reach a settlement. Even if the case isn't settled, the attorneys may be able to agree to certain facts. This can streamline the trial by cutting down on the number of things that have to be proven in court.
The attorney taking the deposition might spend a day or more asking probing questions, while the attorney on the other side fretted over taking time away from other pressing matters. The solution: I would attend the deposition. It is important for attorneys for both sides to be present but, if you're not the one taking the deponent, you don't have to do much. I mainly drank coffee and took the deponent out of the room on occasion to provide advice but -- and this is crucial -- whenever inappropriate questions were asked, I would object. Different jurisdictions handle deposition objections differently. In some places, I've heard, you can go directly to a judge for a ruling. Our local judges don't want to be bothered. Around here, you simply put the objection on the record and, if the deposition is used at trial, a judge rules then.
I also did a lot of research, writing briefs and other legal documents. That, too, is fun in its own sick sort of way. The trick is figuring out what the law is. Oh, I know we say "the law" as if it were a list of dos and don'ts, like the ten commandments. In reality, "the law" consists of thousands of federal statutes and regulations, thousands of state statutes and regulations, and the thousands of cases in which judges have applied and interpreted them. Not to mention the hundreds of rules that govern how, when, and where each issue can be raised. Research can be mind boggling. I must admit that I don't find the law itself as fascinating as the facts. I briefed one marital dispute over cows who were in utero at the time of separation. I can't remember how the Divorce Code regarding them, but the phrase "after-born cattle" has stayed with me.
I freelanced for a few years, mainly for a small group of customers. Although the income was irregular, the work was interesting. What more can you ask than that?