In my career, I have learned a few things about the stigma attached with being a “collections attorney.”
Firstly, collections attorneys inexplicably and peculiarly transform into “commercial litigation attorneys” somewhere around the five figure mark. Secondly, the only attorneys who seem to respect collections attorneys are personal injury lawyers, (or sharks), who get possibly the worst rap from movies and television. (At least we’re not considered “bankruptcy chasers.”) Third, the oft-overplayed, cliche’d adage of “catching more flies with honey” is unequivocally my mantra in Court. Although when I’m faced with a hostile attorney, a nasty pro se debtor, or agenda-wielding Judge, “catching flies with sugar substitute” may be more appropriate.
For those unfamiliar with the Courts on Long Island and in New York City, we have over a dozen courts of limited jurisdiction. Accordingly, the venue for civil cases under $15,000.00 on Long Island, and under $25,000.00 in New York City are exclusive to these District and Civil Courts. Unfortunately, often the Civil Courts in New York City are anything but. Packed with pro se litigants, these calendars are called in conjunction with small claims cases and landlord-tenant matters, (Ok, I take it back. PI attorneys are not the only other attorneys who respect collections lawyers.). What this often means is that the Judges are impatient, the Court Clerks are agitated, and the Court Officers are ready to throw the first ire-raising attorney out of the courtroom, and into the local correctional facility.
Now just to set the premise, when I was admitted about six months, (which now seems like eons ago,) I had the pleasure of going to Court in one of the Civil Courts, before the Honorable Judge… let’s call him Judge Housefly. Here I am on a pro se Order to Show Cause, where the Defendant failed to appear at the mandatory trial date, on a matter where the Defendant defaulted on a car loan. As a result of the Defendant’s non-appearance in Court, my office obtained a default judgment. The entire body of the Order to Show Cause was, “I don’t have money. I want to pay less.” I opposed the application with a litany of case law, and I was ready and raring to go with the oral argument. Before I could spout platitude numero uno about the counter-intuitiveness of granting an application that was so bare, the Judge vacated the default judgment. I guess in Judge Housefly’s mind, “I don’t have money” constitutes a reasonable excuse, and “I want to pay less” is a meritorious defense.
Now, thus far, it was standard operating procedure. However, as the green-rookie that I was, I just couldn’t fathom the Court’s “interest of justice” vacatur. So what do I do? Well, I not-so-calmly asked the Judge for a written decision. (Mistake number 1). Judge Housefly declined. So I vehemently asked if he could put his decision on the record, as the Civil Courts do not typically used Court reporters, nor tape recorders. (Mistake number 2). The Judge declined again. And then the Judge has the unmitigated gall to “recommend” that I settle the case for an interest-free payment plan that would have taken over two hundred and forty months to complete. When I laughed aloud, (Mistake number 3), the Judge dismissed the case, with prejudice.
Here’s where I not only tried to catch a fly with vinegar, but I try to swat it with a sledgehammer. It was incomprehensible to me that Judge Housefly could be treating me like this. I’m a lawyer! I’m a professional! I have thirty years of debt to get this degree! How dare he vacate the judgment with no basis! How dare he dismiss my case! How dare he ask the Court Officers to escort me from the Courtroom!
“Counselor, step back.”
“Your honor, I want your dismissal on the record.”
“There will be no record. Step back.”
“I want your vacatur and your dismissal on the record.”
“I said there will be no record, counselor. Step out of the courtroom!”
“I want your vacatur, your dismissal, and you throwing me out of the courtroom, on the record!”
(At this point, the Court Officers are standing, and I am backing up, adhering to my zealous advocacy.)
“You can’t dismiss the case, Judge. You have no basis.”
“Fine, then, Counselor. You’re going to trial today. You have one hour.”
“My office is an hour away, and besides, there has been no Notice of Trial.”
(I’m almost at the door of the Courtroom, now.)
“Ok, Counselor, you have until 2 pm. I want the senior partner from your law firm here.”
So I call the senior partner, who shows up lickety-split, in an effort to keep me out of jail.
At 2 pm, the Judge looks at my boss, who has been practicing for over thirty-five years.
With a snarl, the Judge looks at my boss. “Counselor, I’m not happy.”
And with equal venom, “Judge, I’m not happy, either!”
To make a long story short, (too late), the Judge instantly takes him into the back conference room, and forces a settlement, to be paid off in one year.
This case had quite an impact on me. The biggest effect was the demeanor I newly adopted. When I’m in Court, I treat everyone, be it the adversary, the Court Officer, the Clerk, or the Judge, with the same respect that I would treat a friend. I keep my professional head. The “zealous advocate” comes out with an argument about the facts, and not with an attack on anyone. I always (ok, until my ire is irked), treat my adversary attorneys as fellow professionals, who are also trying to do a job for their clients. I catch more flies with honey. Even anytime I appear before Judge Housefly, I keep a smile on my face, even tho I may feel like I’m being fed dung.
Inevitably, when I’m faced with a hostile attorney, a nasty pro se debtor, or agenda-wielding Judge, I swallow my pride, and if I can’t catch them with honey, I put out a plate of sugar substitute. My perspective is that I travel thru the same Courts, day in, and day out, and I see the same faces. Why not make all our lives easier, and more pleasurable? Even when someone’s got their boxing gloves on, I still won’t waver from my generally pleasant demeanor. A little sugar substitute never hurt anyone. Except for lab rats. And lab rats definitely rank lower than collection attorneys.
(Originally published in Debt3 Magazine, November 2007)