Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Briefcase

 When I was a young associate at S&T in the 1970s, the firm had a single office location, like most other law offices in Miami at the time. We were in the Dupont Building on the corner of Flagler Street and NE 2d Avenue.  We then numbered about 22 lawyers.  The firm had several briefcases that the lawyers could use, first come, first served, for us to carry lawbooks, exhibits, notes and other papers west down Flagler Street to the Dade County Courthouse for a hearing or a trial.  This was well before the days of things on wheels with pull-up/put-down handles.  These were manly, black, box-like cases, made of tough thick leather, sewn together with thick thread.  They had a thick, comfortable, leather handle on the top side and gold fasteners that snapped open and shut with authority.  On top of each case, the vendor had stamped in gold leaf  “Smathers & Thompson” (on the first line) and “Miami, Florida” (on the second).  The cases were very expensive to buy.  But they were generous in size and very useful.

The lawyer carried such a brief case, maybe two of them, one in each hand, like a knight with his shield and spear, through crowds of civilians on the sidewalk, as he walked the quarter mile west to the courthouse. The suit and tie indicated to all of Miami that you were a lawyer.  But those brief cases shouted, "Litigator on the way to court!” - a well-prepared trial lawyer. 

The firm had a closet where those cases were supposed to live.  It was too expensive to buy one for each lawyer, I was instructed, and the firm certainly would not for a green associate. But the closet was always empty when I was getting ready to go to court. The fact was, there were never enough of those brief cases to meet the demand. Lawyers who managed to locate a firm brief case and went to court would walk back down to the Dupont Building after the event, making it safely back to friendly territory,  totally fixed on sharing the court’s ruling with the people in the firm who wanted to know, and  calling the client with the result.  As to the brief case or cases those lawyers would usually throw them into a corner of their office and often did not unpack them until days later.  Meanwhile, I am looking for one of those cases, anxious about my upcoming event, trying to keep my presentation in my head, seeking a case for the pile on my desk of materials, specially selected materials, that I intended to take to court,  But there would be no brief case in the closet.

So, I would start down the hallway, looking for one, keeping an eye on the clock and beginning to seethe and often to sweat.  I would stick my head in an office and ask the lawyer if he had a brief case, if the lawyer was at his post.  If not, I would make a quick search of that office.  If I found a case, I would unload it and take the thing back to my office, letting that lawyer’s secretary know what I had taken and telling her I would bring it back.  That was the routine for all the lawyers there, and the secretary would not bat an eyelash.

I finally got tired of all that.  I also got tired of asking the officer manager to buy more of the cases.  I found out where she bought them, and bought one for myself, as expensive as those things were and as frugal as we were at home.  It got around the office that I had my own briefcase – it was news, really.  And I was hardly going to keep it in the empty closet no one used.  So, other lawyers would come in and borrow mine. Fair enough. No problem. (Unless I had a hearing scheduled that day.)  One afternoon the officer manager came into my office to borrow my new case.  She started to pick it up, but stopped in mid-motion.  “This has your name on it!  Not the firm’s!”  You better believe it, I said.  And I let her take it, of course.

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