As a litigator, you quickly learn to expect the unexpected in your cases. From learning surprising facts from a witness to researching an esoteric legal rule, or dealing with interesting and difficult people, every challenge is an opportunity to improve your skills. This happened to me early on in my career when I represented someone whose finger was bitten off.
“Get off my finger, man!” my future client shouted at the bouncer who had just bitten his hand and still had one of his fingers in his mouth. Drunk and trying to talk to the bartender who had broken up with him hours earlier, the client used his free hand to push the bouncer off of him. Fortunately, the shove freed his trapped digit. Unfortunately, the shove freed the client’s index finger of all flesh starting from the joint nearest the fingernail, upward.
According to the police report, officers arrived at the scene to find the client running around repeatedly shouting, “The bouncer bit off my finger!” The police examined the client’s finger and wrote, “Bite marks were noted.”
The bouncer denied biting the client’s finger. Instead, he argued that his fingertip was caught and cut off by a nearby ashtray during the scuffle. Police searched the scene, both that night and the next day, but they never found the client’s fingertip.
As paramedics treated the client at the scene, a young woman staggered up to him and asked to see his mauled finger. He pulled off the bandage to show her, and she happily stated, “Don’t worry, it’ll grow back.”
“It’ll grow back!?” the client exclaimed in disbelief. “What am I, a lizard!?”
The partners at my firm trusted me to handle the criminal hearing where the client and the bouncer were brought before the court. Before the hearing, I spoke with the bouncer’s counsel. We agreed to drop the mutual criminal complaints and to allow the civil process to handle the matter. All we needed to do was get judicial approval.
Our case was called, I nodded to the client (who was almost exactly my age) and headed up with defense counsel to relay our agreement to the court. As we proceeded from behind the bar, however, the judge pointed an accusing (whole) finger at me. “You!” she said, bringing the full weight of her judicial authority to bear, “Get back behind the bar.”
A little shocked, I scuttled back to my seat, exchanging a confused look with opposing counsel and the client. The judge and the bouncer’s lawyer then spoke; opposing counsel introduced himself and explained the essence of our agreement. The judge then asked where the plaintiff’s counsel was. “You sent him away,” opposing counsel said.
“Oh my god!” the judge exclaimed, looking back to me, “I’m so sorry! I thought you were the defendant.” She apologized profusely and beckoned me back up in front of the bar. There, our agreement was affirmed, and the criminal complaints were dropped. The client had a good sense of humor about what happened in court, and he was grateful that we helped him with this crazy situation.
This experience taught me early on to be ready for the unexpected in the courtroom and to stand up for myself as a young lawyer in a venue where my age could be misinterpreted. Judges are fallible too. You should not be afraid to speak up or correct them, with appropriate deference, when necessary.
As for the client, his finger did grow back pretty well. Unless you knew the story, you would not understand the significance of his one slightly stumpy index finger. I, however, will never forget.