As I approach Fall 2012 I'm fondly reminded of my very first court conference I appeared on as a young new attorney in New York County Supreme Court on that fine fall day.
The night before, the managing partner told me that I would need to appear on a compliance conference in a personal-injury matter in New York County Supreme Court at 60 Centre St. in downtown Manhattan. I was not yet admitted to the bar, but nevertheless was told and given my marching instructions on what to do.
One of the older associates in my office give me some practical advice: "Just read the file and tell the judge what documents we still need in order to prepare the case for trial."
I diligently took the entire file home. I read every page in the file from cover to cover. I knew the details of this case better than the clients themselves. I was excited. I was energized. I knew my first compliance conference would be fantastic.
ARRIVING IN COURT
In 1988 the New York County Supreme Court building did not have or need magnetometers. They did not have steel barriers that herded visitors into one line so security could frisk and check them for weapons. Instead, the courthouse was open for anyone to enter.
WALKING UP THE COURTHOUSE STEPS
I walked up the majestic steps of the famous courthouse seen in so many movies and TV shows. After walking through the great Hall with a beautiful magnificent dome, I headed to the closest stair case then proceeded to walk up to the second floor. The courthouse is a majestic sculpted piece of work made of marble and granite. It truly has history. Many famous cases and trials took place in this very courthouse.
As I arrived on the second floor and began to learn the landmarks where my intended courtroom was, I decided to take a walk around the entire second first. Each courtroom was the same. Each hallway looked the same. Lawyers all wore the same clothing. Dark suits with serious looking ties. Dark shoes and serious expressions on their faces. Briefcases of every color and shape could be found.
Lawyers were milling around each hallway waiting to gain entry into the respective courtrooms. Hushed discussions, loud discussions, lawyers writing and reading were taking place all the same time.
I finally found the courtroom I was supposed to be in. The double doors were leather padded but appeared to be almost 100 years old. The moment you pushed open those doors it was if you were taken into another time period where justice truly prevailed.
Counsel tables were 8 to 10 feet long and simply enormous. The jury box appeared to be nothing more than a gallery with chairs to accommodate waiting and expectant jurors to listen intently to every word that was being said in the courtroom. The courtroom had a particular smell. It was the same smell I distinctly remember at Harvard Law school when I walked in during the summer where I was going to summer school at Harvard. It was musty. It smelled of old books but it had a distinctly authoritarian flavor and odor in the air.
I CHECKED IN
I checked in with the court clerk and was told that my adversaries had not yet arrived. Upon their arrival at check-in, we would then go to the bottom of the list and wait to speak to the judge in her chambers.
Most clients don't know it, but lawyers spend most of their days in court sitting around waiting. In anticipation and having been tipped off of this fact by some of the senior associates in my firm, I brought a book with me to read in the interim.
I was too excited to read my book. I couldn't wait to get into the judge's chambers and tell her all that I knew about this case. I didn't realize that the judge would see and listen to lawyers in 40 to 50 different cases that morning. Nor did I realize how little time the judge would afford each one of us.
MY CASE IS CALLED
After half an hour of waiting, my adversaries finally arrived and made themselves known to me. After brief introductions we were then told to wait. One hour later my case was finally called. The three of us were marched into the judge's private chambers behind the courtroom.
The judge's private chambers were nothing more than a dimly lit back room with carpet. It had large desk and seating for five. The judge told us to sit in and began to ask questions from the plaintiff's attorney.
Two minutes later she turned to me and asked if there was anything we still needed in order to move this case along. I promptly pulled out my notes and rattled off a list of documents and authorizations still outstanding. I began to go into details of the case and the judge quickly put her hand up and said she didn't need to know the details right now. She wanted to know was what was outstanding so that she could order the production of those items immediately.
Within a span of three minutes my first compliance conference was over.
I felt elated.
I felt dejected.
I felt somehow I had let down my client.
Yet when I returned back outside this majestic courthouse and proceeded to walk back to my office at 120 Wall Street, I felt good about what I had actually accomplished. Although you would not actually say what I did was legal work, I appeared in front of the court, stated our position and got what needed to be done on this personal injury case my law firm was defending.
MY NEXT ASSIGNMENT
At the end of the day, the managing attorney gave me my next day's assignment. I was to return back to New York County Supreme Court for another compliance conference with a different judge on a different case. I grabbed the file with enthusiasm and headed back to my office to read the file from cover to cover. I couldn't wait till tomorrow.
24 YEARS LATER
24 years later I now look back fondly on those experiences as the best training I could have ever received in New York City. I worked for that defense law firm for four years and it was truly the best training ground for a trial lawyer in the city.
Today, when I attend a court conference, I'm confident about what needs to be done, what's outstanding and what the judge needs to know in order to immediately take action to move this case forward. I'm privileged that my clients give me the opportunity to let me help them through the litigation process in their time of need.