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Who Am I?

Bonnie Michelle Michelle Smith

Summary

  • We all became lawyers to do good works and make a difference in our corner of the world.
  • When asked "Who are you? What do you do for a living" sometimes we shy away from answering that we're a lawyer because much of the profession has been overcome with politics and cheating.
  • However, we must remember that trust is a facet of identity, and trust builds relationships.
  • Don't be afraid to do the right thing because our identity is who we know ourselves to be.
Who Am I?
istockphoto.com/Dmitriy Popoff

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Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” – Dr. Seuss

Recently, I had an incident that made me question who I was and my identity. I had an existential crisis of sorts.

Who was I and why was I a lawyer?

This summer I had to pay $71,000 because I represented a good man trying to do his job. I fought 7 years to not pay that amount, and in the end the case was too much a hot potato for anyone to touch. I am comfortable, but $71,000 hurt to pay. I had to pay it or go to jail. If that doesn’t question one’s decision to become a lawyer, what would, right?

My first year of practice, I had a case where my client died at the hospital in another town. He was taken off life support. He fell as a result of an accident in his hometown. My client’s wife cremated him, had a funeral, and that was that…until it wasn’t. Weeks later we couldn’t get a death certificate. Little did I know that if you die in Georgia as a result of an accident in one county, and die in another county, that the Coroner in the first county has to sign the death certificate and declare you dead. Well, that was a pickle. There was no body now and we had no death certificate. What now?

Needless to say, a lot of wrangling later and lots of conversations with the rural, country Coroner, we got the death certificate so my client’s widow could get her insurance and have her husband declared officially dead in the eyes of Georgia law.

That experience would make me and the Coroner friends for years to come.

So of course, it only seemed proper when the Coroner wanted a vehicle to do his job, he called a lawyer he knew and trusted. Trust is a facet of identity. We build relationships based on trust.

The County paid me to be the Coroner’s lawyer to sue them to get a judge to decide if the County had to pay for the Coroner to have a vehicle to tote dead bodies around, instead of in the back of his old pickup truck and trailer.

Seemed reasonable, right? Seemed like a case that no matter what the outcome, couldn’t fail, right? I mean the County paid me to step in and represent their Coroner since the County Attorney could not represent the County and the Coroner.

The Judge thought the case was frivolous, and he ordered the Coroner in his official capacity to pay the County’s attorney fees, and me as the Coroner’s lawyer. Then came a 7-year legal wrangling over who pays who. Even though the GA Supreme Court during the litigation ruled in Lue v Eady773 S.E.2d 679 (Ga. 2015) that in your official capacity case bills are always paid by the municipality/county, it was no matter here.

For many of us, the practice of law is not what it used to be. Some of it is good, some of it is not so good.

Electronic filing is good. We can file at midnight and procrastinate longer on a brief before getting it in. Remote work that used to be frowned upon is now normal after COVID. You can work anywhere as long as you work.

The “bad” is the system seems more political. Appointments and judges seem more about who plays golf with who, instead of who is really the best. You used to be able to give your word to another colleague on an extension and it was as good as gold. Now, you better have that extension signed by the judge and electronically filed. Somewhere, some lawyers forgot that our word is our bond.

Discovery. Don’t even get me started. Unless you are a big firm and have already “discovered” the smoking gun- don’t expect the other side to turn over anything meaningful. And if they do turn over files, kindly expect the files to be electronically encrypted without a key. How did our profession become like this?

For many of us, we pine over the “good ole days” in how we treated each other and why we became a lawyer in the first place: to do good works and make a difference in our corner of the world. Then, you get so many years into practice and find out the rules have changed. You wonder, “Was this what I signed up for?”  

Who am I?

When someone asks you what you do for a living, you used to be glad to tell them you were a lawyer. Now, you shy away from those introductions. Who wants to admit they are part of a profession that lies and cheats? Do I really identify as one of THOSE lawyers?

In my case, how the other side obtained an alias FIFA when they lost the first one, then changed up the entire case caption is reminiscent of old school racketeering.

How could a lawyer do that to another lawyer? Aren’t we in the same profession, fighting for what is right? Or it is really just about winning at all costs, even if you cheat?  I didn’t think I signed up for that when I became a lawyer. Did I?

Is that who I am now? Is THAT my identity? Am I one of THOSE lawyers?

Surely not.

I can’t tell you if you made the right decision to be a lawyer. Only you know that. We all go through phases when we wonder who we are and how did we get here.

If you are having an identity crisis, all I can tell you, is try not to spend $71,000 to figure out who you are. I don’t believe the ruling for me to pay $71,000was fair or just, but politics is politics.

Silence is complicity.

Maybe those of us who see a crisis in the profession should YELL LOUDER.

We all became lawyers for a reason. No matter how horrible some members of our profession become, how political the judges lean, or how grotesque opposing lawyers become in not handing over discovery, concealing documents, or just plain cheating in court, our profession is still a wonderful one with all of its messiness and ambiguity.

I don’t know about you. But I’d do it all over again. I don’t care what people say about me. Or that doing what is right is often unpopular to the status quo.

Those people don’t matter anyway. Our identity is who we know ourselves to be.

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