This was early in my legal career.
I was a defense lawyer.
I represented doctors and hospitals and people in accidents who were sued.
I was assigned to go to Court in New York City one day.
It was at 60 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan.
This was a 'motion' that was being heard by this judge.
A motion is a formal request by one side to do something.
It asks the judge to take action.
In this case, the attorney who represented the accident victim had made a motion to be relieved as counsel.
I was supposed to show up to find out why this attorney wanted out.
I might be able to learn something useful.
I knew that the law firm representing this injured victim was an excellent firm.
They did great work.
They were highly respected in the City.
They had achieved great results in many of their cases, both by settlement and by trial verdicts.
When I was heading into court that day, I expected one of the junior associates to argue this 'motion' before the judge.
I had no argument to make.
I did not oppose the attorney's request.
I had no reason to oppose it.
Instead, I was there to gather intelligence.
Learn what the problem was.
Use whatever I gleaned from the conference and oral argument.
The written papers to the judge were very vague.
"Judge, we ask to be relieved as counsel. A dispute has arisen between our client and my firm that we cannot resolve. Accordingly, we ask for court approval to be discharged as attorney of record," the attorney wrote.
That didn't tell me why.
That didn't explain the dispute.
That didn't explain the irreconcilable differences.
My boss sent me into court that day to pick up any information I could.
I'd talk to the attorney who asked to be relieved.
I'd talk to the judge if I had an opportunity to, though I expected I wouldn't.
That morning, I arrived at the courthouse.
It's a beautiful building.
The rotunda is a beautiful piece of art.
I took the stairs to the second floor.
Most of the active courtrooms that dealt with accident cases, medical malpractice cases and wrongful death cases were on the second floor.
This was pre 9/11.
There was no security at the building.
There was no security at the front entrance.
There were no magnetometers to screen visitors and attorneys.
I walked into Court with my leather briefcase and made my way upstairs.
Most courtrooms are packed with lawyers waiting their turn to see the judge.
Not this one.
This one was mostly empty.
There were four attorneys in the courtroom by the time I arrived.
Two were defense lawyers like myself.
The other two were from the law firm trying to get themselves out of this mess.
They were the ones who had asked the judge to be relieved.
I recognized one of the attorneys immediately.
He was a high profile attorney.
He'd achieved stunning remarkable results in his trials in New York.
He was extremely well known throughout New York City and the State of NY.
I immediately walked over to him and introduced myself.
I told him it was an honor to meet him and that I did not expect someone of his caliber to appear on this 'motion to be relieved'.
He explained briefly that his client was a big shot financial guy and he needed to make sure this request was dealt with appropriately.
As a side note, he had very nice things to say about my boss and my firm.
Let me revise that...
He didn't have 'very nice' things to say.
Instead, what he said was respectful.
He respected my boss.
My boss was well known throughout New York City and New York State and was a very formidable opponent.
He respected him, I believe, since they were both old school trial lawyers who were now in their prime.
It sounded as if they'd gone up against each other on more than one occassion.
Our case was the only one scheduled for that morning.
Unusual, but that was great.
That meant we would not be sitting around for hours waiting our turn to see the judge.
Hopefully, the judge would come into the courtroom shortly and dispose of this legal issue quickly.
I had a lot of work to do back in the office which was on Wall Street.
120 Wall Street to be exact.
At 9:35 a.m. the Judge came in and took the bench.
The court clerk called all the attorneys up to the bench.
The Judge locked eyes with the high profile attorney and with a big smile said hello.
Everybody elese was just an afterthought.
The judge asked the high profile lawyer "What's this motion about?"
The attorney recited, almost word for word what was in his papers.
He added nothing.
Not a very enlightening argument.
The judge, being astute, looked right at him, then waved at the rest of us flanking him at the bench and said "Now tell me what this is really about counsellor..."
The plaintiff's attorney quickly glanced around and quietly asked the judge if he could speak to him privately.
The judge said "Yes."
"Everyone else, step back," the judge said.
I then approached the other lawyer from the plaintiff's firm.
"What's this all about?" I asked him.
"Why do you guys want out so badly?" I asked.
He looked at me while deciding whether to answer.
Then, realizing there was no real harm in telling me said "Our client lied to us. What he said and testified to at his pretrial testimony is different than what we uncovered during our own investigation. Our client refused to correct the problem. That's why we need to get out."
He told me, but he didn't really tell me anything.
He didn't divulge what his client lied about.
If he did, he's be violating an ethical rule.
He didn't tell me the real reason why he wanted out or what his firm uncovered during their investigation.
Nor would he.
You see, when an attorney asks a judge to be relieved as the attorney of record, you cannot give the specific reason in the motion papers. Doing so would tip off the other side.
Doing so would jeopardize the client's right to have his conversations with his attorney totally confidential.
That's known as the attorney-client privilege.
Anything discussed between attorney and client are private and confidential.
The reason why this high-profile attorney asked the judge to speak to him in private is to disclose the real facts leading to this request without letting anyone else know.
Then, the judge could make an educated decision about whether the attorney's request would be granted.
I knew it would be granted.
There was no reason not to let him out.
It's not as if this was happening during trial.
We were far from trial.
We were still in the discovery phase.
If the judge agreed to let them out, the client would then have plenty of time in which to try and find another attorney who was willing to continue on with his case.
After ten minutes of watching this high-profile attorney huddle with the judge, the judge looked up and called all the attorneys back up to the bench.
"I'm granting your application to be relieved. Your client has 60 days to find a new attorney. Send them a copy of my order. The next conference on this matter will take place in 60 days. NEXT CASE!" the judge said.
With that, I shook hands with the high-profile attorney, gathered my briefcase and walked out the courtroom and down the stairs to the main floor.
My job was done.
I had learned what I could and now had to get back to the office and write my report of what just happened.
I sent that report to the insurance company who had hired us to represent the driver involved in this case.
I suspected that the injured victim would never be able to find another attorney willing to take over this case.
Once another attorney learned that this high-profile personal injury firm had backed out of the case, they'd want to know why.
If they learned why, they'd never take it on.
I relayed that opinion to the insurance company.
That was the last I ever heard of that case.