As I passed his office I saw the associate packing up his briefcase, one of those big bags that look like the cases that TV repairmen used to bring into your house back in the days when TVs had tubes and they were so new that repairmen actually made house calls.
“Going out of town?” I asked, sticking my head in.
“Yeah—we’ve got a two week trial in Chicago,” he said, showing just a touch of manly trepidation at the enormity of the task before him, the way the girl in the Cole Porter song showed a glimpse of stocking.
“Who’s first chair?” I asked.
“Nelson,” the kid said. He allowed a note of reassurance to color his answer, I suppose so an old buffalo like me wouldn’t think that the firm had entrusted a big case to a rookie quarterback such as himself.
“Ah, the client’s in good hands then,” I said. Nelson was ten years ahead of me out of law school, but showed no signs of slowing down. “We used to call him The Wallbanger,” I said with a wistful little shake of my head.
“Why?” the young man asked.
“Because when he came back from court after losing a motion, he’d close his door and start banging on the wall.”
“Wow,” the kid said, clearly impressed—or something.
“Yep. When you work as hard as Nelson does, and fight for every last scrap like a German shepherd in a tow truck lot, it makes it harder to take when you lose.
“Huh,” said the kid, as he turned back to his packing. Probably didn’t want to risk his career listening to one partner gossip about another. “I assume nobody calls him that to his face,” he said gingerly.
“No, no, of course not. Only behind his back,” I said, leaning up against his bookshelf. “To be quite honest, I think people were a little jealous of him. I mean, he had a pretty prestigious clerkship—9th Circuit—before he came here, and he drove himself very hard, made partner a year ahead of schedule.”
“You can do that?”
“Sure you can. He was a real star. He was like a football player who brings his own photographer and reporter to the game. If he won a case, he made sure everybody heard about it. Still does. You know the newsletter they send around here?”
“A few months ago he put in a little item about how he’d won a motion for summary judgment.”
“The marketing department asks people to send stuff in . . .”
“I know, there’s nothing wrong with that. But as soon as it went around, I got a call from somebody in the department, a young woman who . . . let’s just say she felt Nelson didn’t respect her enough, didn’t give her credit for her contributions.”
“Did he do something to her?”
“Nope. She just thought it was curious to note that Nelson didn’t say it was an unopposed motion.”
“So . . .”
“The other side didn’t even file any papers, much less appear in court. Not hard to win when the other team doesn’t show up.”
The kid got a look on his face like he’d just found out that his mom and dad had sex before he was born.
“Don’t worry, Nelson’s the real deal,” I said. “He’s gone on to fame and glory and tons of money, all of which he richly deserves. In a year or two he’ll get out of the way and let the young Turks run the department.”
“So . . . is this like his ‘Last Hurrah’?”
“Hmph,” I snorted, laughing. “I didn’t think anybody read that book anymore.”
“Somebody told me I should if I wanted to understand Boston.”
“Not our world, you know, but that’s the real Boston—or at least it was. Yep, this may be Spanky’s last hurrah.”
As soon as I said it I realized I shouldn’t have.
“Who’s Spanky?” the kid asked.
“Sorry, that’s . . . uh . . . another name Nelson picked up along the way.”
“So . . . like Spanky and Our Gang?”
“No, no, not that at all.” I looked at the young man, trying to judge if he could be discreet. He gave me a funny sort of smile, as if he knew that the story was probably a good one, one I shouldn’t tell him, but maybe I would. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help smiling back at him; he was going to be with Nelson—I’m sure his mother chose that name so he’d never have a nickname—for two weeks. He deserved to know what he was in for.
“Can you keep a secret?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said; the smile was more open now.
I leaned back in the chair and gave his door just enough of a push to close it.
“It was . . . I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago. Nelson was at the peak of his career. Busy as hell, probably keeping five associates hopping at the same time, in court every day. He had a bet-the-company case going on, probably just like the one you’re working on.”
“I don’t think ours is that serious, just complicated.”
“Well, this one was World War III. Plus, if he didn’t win, there was more than a little risk the firm wouldn’t get paid anywhere near what we were owed in fees. So it was a triple threat; the client could have gone under, we could have taken a big hit, and Nelson wouldn’t be compensated for all the time he’d put in on this one case, which took him away from other work. He was wound pretty tight.”
“I can imagine.”
“Anyway, he flies out to Chicago with the client and an associate and they’re staying at the same hotel for obvious reasons. They work late into the night on the eve of the hearing, and when they come down in the morning they meet at the front desk to check out.”
“Well, the client’s this tough-talking, no-nonsense guy, so he says to the concierge ‘Give me his bill, I’m the client, I’m going to be paying it anyway.’ All of a sudden, Nelson’s face goes white, and he starts in with ‘No, I’ll take care of it,’ which the client thinks is just the usual act you put up when somebody else grabs the tab.”
“So what happened?”
“The client’s used to this little minuet, he’s a big wheel, so he assumes it’s just for show, and he turns towards the desk so Nelson can’t get the bill and throws down his credit card.”
“And . . . that’s the story?”
“That’s not the end of it. Nelson’s standing there, hoping that the client is only going to look at the bottom line—he’s a businessman, right, that’s all he cares about.”
“Except that he’s the kind of guy who looks at every bill just to make sure he’s not getting screwed.”
“And what did he see?”
“Well, uh, there was ‘Cheerleader Sex Slaves’ and ‘Naughty Nurse Nancy.’”
The young man was silent. “They put that kind of stuff on the bill?”
“It’s all computerized. You buy the movie, it goes right down to the front desk. Anyway, so the client gets a look on his face like he’s swallowed a bad oyster, and say ‘Christ, Nelson, what were you doing? Spanking the monkey all night long?’”
The kid suppressed a laugh—my guess is he figured the Law Firm Gods would strike him dead if he let loose. “So what’d he do?”
“Well, he tried to deny it, but of course the evidence was right there in black and white. Maybe it’s from the night before, he says to the clerk. No, the clerk says, checking the computer, today’s the 17th, the charges were incurred on the 16th. Are you sure that’s my room, he says, nodding towards the associate. The guy at the desk says you were in Room 1421, the suite, sir, while the younger man was in 1423, the single. So then Nelson tries to laugh it off, and the client’s looking a little queasy, but I guess he figures he’s stuck with Nelson, the partner-in-charge. It’s not like he can switch horses, it’s post time.”
The kid looked at me and started shaking his head. “So what happened?”
“Well, as you can imagine, Nelson wasn’t at his best that day. The fiery courtroom presence was, shall we say, doused a bit.”
“Did he win the case?”
“No, but who’s to say it was his fault. I mean, the facts weren’t on his side, and the law was unclear.”
“So . . . did the client go under?”
“Yep. They hired another firm to handle the bankruptcy. They had to, we were one of their biggest creditors.”
“We lost a couple hundred thousand.”
“Jesus is right.”
The kid was quiet again, this time for longer than before. “So . . . right at the peak of his career, he got hit with something like that--and still recovered?”
“Yep. Pretty remarkable when you think of it. Of course the client didn’t say anything, but the story got back to the firm.”
“How? There was just the two of them.”
“And an associate,” I said.
“Ah . . . I remember now.”
“People will talk,” I said. “Even a circumspect individual like me.”
The kid nodded his nod slowly, and a knowing look stole over his face.
“As you might imagine, that’s another nickname that is not used to his face,” I said.
“I guess,” the kid said.
There was a knock at the door, and when it opened slightly there was Nelson in his three-piece suit and his overcoat with his suitbag and briefcase. His vest had slim little lapels—it was an English model he’d picked up on a trip to London.
“You about ready?” he said to the associate, ignoring me, his mind already focused on the trial that lay ahead.
“We’re through here,” I said as I got up.