Barely Legal (2014 Short-Fiction Contest Runner-Up)

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James Ly’s short-story, “Barely Legal” is the runner-up in the first annual Lawyerist Short-Fiction Contest.

Fresh out of NYU. My first real job. I had just been hired to be a clerk for a mid-size law firm in New York. It was my opportunity to observe attorneys at work before deciding whether I too wanted to take on more school loans to go to law school. Barely into my first day, the managing partner calls me into his corner office.

“What attorneys sell is time. And since you’re a part of the firm now, you also sell time. So keep a record of everything you do for the clients since you’ll be billing them your time,” he said.

Sidney Goodman was known in the legal community as “Sid Vicious” for his aggressive personality on the legal field.

“Dre, one of my associates, will show you what your project will be for the next month. I just wanted to welcome you to the firm,” Sidney said with a smile.

Dre poked his head in and said, “Let’s take the elevator to the batcave. That’s where we are keeping the files you’ll be working on, Harry.”

“I actually like being called Harold,” I corrected him as we step into the elevator.

He gave a shrug, “I want people to call me Dr. Dre but that guy from Compton put out a record before I could.”

Dre told me that he spent his weekends making rap songs about his father’s 80s Mercedes. “I bet you none of the tight asses at Cravath does that in their spare time,” he said with pride. He explained the song was about the difficulty of picking up women in a car that had no power steering or power windows. He also boasted that he was involved in a riot in college. He had no fear of volunteering that fact freely since the statute of limitations had long since expired. I realized that Dre was the frat brother I never had, nor wanted. Dre was his last name. No one called him by his first name except for his mother.

“So a law firm is like the military. There is a chain of command here to keep some order amongst the 40 or so attorneys in this office. I am going to explain it to you in very simple terms because I understand that not everyone grew up in a military family like me,” Dre said.

“My roommate was just commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy”, I said.

“Cool. My father was a naval officer. So was my grandfather before him.”

“You never thought of continuing the family tradition?”

“Hell no. I would have made too many ‘What’s long, hard, and full of seaman’ jokes. They would have thrown me out on suspicion of being gay. I’m not gay, by the way, I just think they’re funny.”

“Right….”, I replied sarcastically.

Dre gave me a look. I had responded to his joke with a sarcastic remark of my own. I had shown him that I did not find his jokes and demeanor inappropriate. “Anyway, a law firm is like the military. Sidney, the managing partner of our New Jersey office, would be considered as a four star general.”

“Don’t you call them admirals in the navy? Sorry, go on.”

Dre looked annoyed and moved on, “And then you have the senior partners like Jack McNulty who would be considered as the colonel. And then you have the new associates like me who would be considered as the newly commissioned lieutenants. So Jack answers to Sidney, I answer to Jack, and you answer to me. That’s the chain of command.”

“So what military rank do I hold in your analogy?”

“You, buddy, would be the expendable infantry. Or expendable seaman to keep it in line with your Navy theme,” Dre laughed.

He laughed for what seemed like an eternity, then finally gasped for breath while loosening up his tie. He then turned to me and said with an apologetic face, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I probably just created a hostile work environment on your very first day.” It was a very awkward elevator ride down to the Batcave.

The elevator doors finally opened up to a room with no windows. Rows after rows of shelves containing bankers boxes.

“So this entire section right here contains files from a case we’re currently working on. We’re representing ARW Logistics, which is being sued by Morgan Network Solutions for breach of contract. You heard of Morgan Network Solutions right?”, Dre asked as he pointed to rows of boxes.

“Yes,” I replied.

Morgan Network Solutions was one of the largest information technology companies in the New York metropolitan area. Though they were considered a small-cap company, they were nonetheless listed on the NASDAQ exchange. They had established themselves during the dot.com boom, setting up computers and networks for the various municipalities, investment banks, and fortune 500 companies.

Dre explains that it was common in large IT projects for a large company such as Morgan Network Solutions to subcontract their projects to smaller companies like ARW Logistics. ARW Logistics had walked off a major project that Morgan Network Solutions had subcontracted to them. The complaint was very simple and routine: that by walking off the project, ARW Logistics had breached its contract to perform, causing 2 million dollars in damages.

ARW Logistic’s cross-complaint against Morgan Network Solutions was a little less vanilla. Their complaint included fraud, unfair competition, and misappropriation of trade secrets, amongst a battery of other claims.

Like their complaint, the story behind ARW Logistic’s was a little more nuanced. The owners of ARW Logistics and Morgan Network Solutions were actually friends. Adam Ross Wilheim, the ARW in ARW Logistics, had been friends with David Morgan, the Morgan in Morgan Network Solutions, for over 20 years. They celebrated Christmas together and vacationed together.

It had started when David approached Adam and asked him about hiring Carl, his eldest son. David explained that while Carl was a good worker, his personality had rubbed the employees of Morgan Network Solutions the wrong way. David said that his son was a bit like himself, a very aggressive forceful personality. His managerial style got results but had rubbed his employees the wrong way. There was no longer a place in the company for him since the employees refused to work on any project managed by Carl. Besides, the throne had gone to his younger brother, Conrad, who was a rising star in the company. Conrad was everything that Carl wasn’t. Conrad had graduated from college, then from MBA school, and was currently the CFO of the company. Carl was a high school dropout. Conrad was a church-going family man. He had a wife and kids. Carl was still a bachelor with a string of unimpressive girlfriends and flings. He was allegedly addicted to cocaine and alcohol in the past.

Whether David knew his son was still addicted to cocaine was the multi-million dollar question of the case. The fraud claim was based upon a conversation the two owners had about bringing Carl into ARW Logistics. Adam had expressed concern to David about rumors he heard about Carl: it wasn’t his personality that lead to his exile but rather his substance abuse. He had heard rumors of Carl stealing equipment from his father’s company to pay for his drugs.

According to Adam, David assured Adam that it was simply untrue rumors. Though he admitted that his son could drink a little less, the rumors of the drugs and the stealing to pay for the drugs were just rumors made up by employees who had an axe to grind. Based on David’s reassurance, Adam hired Carl to be a project manager, subject to only Adam’s oversight.

It wasn’t long until Adam received a phone call from Carl at 3 AM in the morning. Carl told Adam that he was in the city jail for an altercation at a bar. He assured David that it was a misunderstanding but that he was wondering if Adam could bail him out. He would call his father but didn’t want to awaken his father’s temper. Adam, having been friends with Carl’s father for over 20 years, was well aware of David’s quick temper. Feeling sympathy for the boy, he arranged for his bail.

Adam thought his act of kindness was going to be rewarded with loyalty and hard work from Carl. He was wrong. Carl’s work ethic, non-existent to begin with, only deteriorated after he was bailed out of jail. He showed up to work late, often exhausted. Furthermore, Adam began to suspect Carl was stealing from him. One of Carl’s responsibilities was to transport metric tons of old computer equipment down to the recycling plant where the plant would pay for the old equipment. Adam suspected that Carl was pocketing the money the recycling plant paid for the computer equipment. Carl always had some excuse for failing to promptly transfer the full amount over to the ARW Logistics. Carl had left the money in his car. He had left it at his house. The recycling plant mistakenly gave him the wrong amount. What Adam received was always a day late and a dollar short.

Carl resigned before Adam had a chance to confront him about the money. Adam was surprised to find Carl back in the employ of Morgan Network Solutions a few weeks later. David had represented to him that Carl no longer had a place there yet there he was back in his father’s employ. His surprise turned to dismay when he discovers a few weeks later that several of his clients had switched over to Morgan Network Solutions. These were clients from project which Carl had no part in. But clients that Carl would be able to gleam off ARW Logistic’s client list since he was a project manager. Angry at being betrayed by the Morgans, Adam walked off a Morgan project where his company was the subcontractor.

“So these boxes are all the documents generated from this case. You’re job is to just organize them. Adam actually hired some big law firm to take his case before he came to us. The case was going nowhere with the big law firm so that’s why he fired them. And when they transferred the documents over to us, the files were in disarray,” Dre explained.

I picked out a random document from inside the bankers boxes. It was a letter from Morgan Network Solutions. On the letterhead was the company name. Underneath the company name was their mascot, an aggressive looking warthog wearing combat gear. Their motto read “Rapid Mobilization for your Base of Operations.”

“Their mascot looks like their pigs from that video game ‘Hogs of War,’” I observed.

Dre give me a blank look.

“You know, the one where you run around as a pig in battle gear. It was on the Playstation. It’s a role-playing game.” I explained to him.

“Okay, we’re going to have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy regarding your video games and any other geeky hobbies you engage in. I’m not going to ask about them, and you’re not going to tell me about them, alright?”, Dre said with a smirk. “Alright, I will leave you down here to organize all this. Keep an ear out if the phone rings in the room at the end of the hall. Some of our past clerks have failed to hear that phone ring since it’s a bit far away.”

“You can call me on my cell phone instead,” I suggested.

“Cell phone reception is spotty down here. We’re underground. There’s a reason I call it the batcave.”

“This is more like the Fortress of Solitude if cell phones don’t work down here.”

“The fortress of what?”

“You know, Superman’s version of the batcave in desolate Antarctica. Where he goes to retreat from the outside world.”

“Ughh, I may have just violated the don’t ask, don’t tell policy by asking you about your comic books. Anyways, you’re not Superman so we’re still calling this the Batcave.”

“So I’m Batman then. I’m playing detective trying to piece all these documents together.”

“Hell no, I’m Batman. You’re the butler who serves Batman,” Dre said as he stepped onto the elevator to go back to his office.

I spent the next couple weeks in the batcave trying to put the documents in some logical order. I decided to start with the depositions first. They were already bound with no loose paper and easy to recognize. I began to read some of them. The former law firm that Adam hired had deposed Katie Wilheim, who was Adam’s college-age daughter. While Adam had no sons, he did have a daughter who worked for him as a receptionist during her college summers.

Katie testified about her working relationship with Carl in her deposition. She described him as a bit weird, always leering at her. She once accepted his invitations to hang with him and his friends at an exclusive club in the meat-packing district in Manhattan. He said they had reserved bottle service, which included a secluded booth and a hostess to pour the drinks. Carl had invited all his boys to party with him that night. She described them as obnoxious and became even more so when they started snorting lines of cocaine. The hostess’ name was Allie. She later became his ex-girlfriend.

I didn’t think too much of Katie’s testimony. Carl was just the male version of Lindsay Lohan, but without the fame or wasted talent. Unlike Lohan, I concluded Carl never had talent to begin with, so how can you waste what you don’t have? I thought it was an interesting story, but with no bearing on the case and left it at that.

It’s Sunday night. I receive a phone call from Dre. I wonder if he wants to play another late night game of basketball. He asks if I can come down to the office with my key card. He had locked himself out of the office. The security guard wasn’t there to let him back in. I tell him I will be there in a few minutes. I pull up to the building and enter the lobby to find him in his boxers, a white tank top with a splatter of food stains, and bunny slippers.

“Dude, where are your pants?” I asked.

“Oh, I had my sweat pants on in the office but I took them off. If I have to work on a Sunday night, I am going to treat the office like my living room. Did you bring the key card?”

“Yeah, I got it”, I said as I pulled out my key card to authorize the elevator to take us up to the office.

“Thank you. You’re a life saver. I really appreciate this, Harry. I was thinking about calling my secretary to let me in but it’ll probably lead to an awkward situation if she comes into the lobby and sees me without my pants on. I’ll probably receive an HR complaint or something tomorrow.”

“And you don’t consider the current situation awkward?”

“No. Not really.”

“Okay then. Well, you’re in now. I’m off.”

“Thanks again!”, Dre called out as I took the elevator down back to the lobby.

The next day, Dre walks up to me and ask, “Harry, what are you doing for lunch today?” Before I could answer, he said, “Let me buy you lunch to show you my appreciation for yesterday.”

“So are you still thinking about going to law school? As you saw last night, we sometimes need to work Sunday nights,” he said as we sit down for lunch.

“Eh, it’s interesting work though. Where else can you find such interesting stories in your jobs? For most people, work is a thing you dread, where you clock in and out, doing the same thing every day. But here, it’s interesting. It’s a bit different every day. Like I was reading this deposition where Adam’s daughter was talking about how Carl was doing lines of coke at this club -”

Dre interjected, “Wait, what? We have a deposition of someone witnessing him snorting cocaine while he was with ARW?”

“Yeah, it was Adam’s daughter who saw it. It’s listed on the index of documents that I haven’t send to you guys since I still need to add a few more documents to the index.”

“Never mind the index. Show that deposition transcript to me when we get back.”

Dre and I proceeded straight down to the batcave after lunch. I retrieved the deposition transcript from the shelf and point to the pertinent page.

“Come with me. We need to show this to the partners.”

Sidney and Jack McNulty, the senior partner, were ecstatic. What I thought was just an interesting testimony was actually an important component to the case. It was evidence that Carl had done drugs while in the employ of ARW Logistics, contradicting David’s assertion that his son didn’t do drugs. Evidence of David’s knowledge would have to be established later, but the attorneys wanted to build a component at a time. The partners told Dre to draft a deposition subpoena for Allie. It was helpful to corroborate Katie’s testimony, who while gave no indication of being dishonest in her testimony, was nevertheless a witness with an axe to grind in the case since it involved her father’s company.

Allie’s deposition was held in the office conference room. Allie was seated with her lawyer next to her. Jack would be taking her deposition, but with Dre as second chair. Also in the room was the court reporters, who transcribed the testimony on her computer as well as video camera to record the session.

Jack sat across from Allie and began speaking, “Hi, my name is Jack McNulty. I am the attorney for ARW Logistics. You have been subpoena today to appear in a deposition for this this case. A deposition is simply where I, the attorney, am able to ask the deponent, which would be you, questions relating to this case. While you are not testifying in a court of law, your testimony is under oath and any perjury will be met with the same repercussions as if you had lied in court. Do you understand your duty to answer my questions truthfully?”

Allie nodded her head.

“Another thing is I need to you to answer the question verbally. A yes, a no, or I don’t know. Our court reporter, which is Erin over there with her machine, cannot transcribe your nodding of your head in her transcript. So you’re going to have to answer verbally and clearly for her. Do you understand?”

Allie answered with a verbal “Yes.”

“Now during this deposition, your attorney will probably object to several of my questions. He is just preserving his objection for the record. You still need to answer my question unless you attorney instructs you not to. For example, if I were to ask something that falls under attorney-client privilege – “

“It’s like we talked about yesterday, Allie. You don’t have to talk about your discussion with me yesterday regarding our thoughts about this case,” chimed in Bill Lynch, Allie’s attorney.

“I think you just violated your own attorney-client privilege, Bill,” Jack laughed. Bill sheepishly ignored him.

Jack started by asking series of background questions: her full name, her current occupation, current residence before getting to the topic in question. “So what is your relationship to Carl Morgan?”

“He was my boyfriend.”

“So you two are no longer together?”

“Yes.”

“How did you meet?”

“We met at Blur, a club where I was working at the time.”

“What was your job at Blur?”

“I was a hostess.”

“If you can please explain to me what that entails exactly…It’s be at least a decade since I been to a club.”

“I was mainly responsible for pouring drinks for parties who had reserve a table for bottle service. I guess I was to hang out with whoever reserved the table, pour their drinks, and just have a good time with them.”

“Now one of the younger associates at my firm tells me that bottle service can easily be half a grand and above. Is that true?”

“Yes, easily, depending on how many bottles and chasers you buy. But the markup is not for the alcohol. It’s paying for the exclusive use to a table and a cordoned off area for you and your friends.”

“Do you have any other responsibilities besides pouring drinks and accompanying the party?”

“I’m not sure if I understand your question.”

“That’s fine. And thanks for letting me know. I guess what I’m asking is were you required to do anything else as part of your responsibilities at Blur.”

“You’re not going to answer that. She’s going to plead the 5th on that,” Bill cut in.

“I think I’m going to do the 5th thing that my attorney said,” said Allie meekly.

“She’s going to exercise her right to 5th amendment. We’re going to go off the record here,” Bill said, motioning to the court reporter to stop typing.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to get at Jack but neither I nor my client is amused by this,” Bill said.

“I think it’s very revealing that you’re getting a fit over this. It was an innocuous question. It wasn’t designed to lead to an incriminating statement.”

“Don’t feed me that bullshit. You prefaced the question by asking how much it cost to get my client to appear at the bottle service table.”

“I thought she said the payment was for the table and the cordoned-off exclusive area. Not for her. Are you telling me something else now?”

“I’m not going to get into this with you Jack. She’s not answering it.”

“She’s answering. The 5th Amendment doesn’t apply to civil cases, only criminal cases.”

“It does in some civil cases. And this is one of those cases”

“Well, thankfully, you’re not the arbitrator of that. We can stop this deposition today and bring this matter in front of the judge if your client doesn’t answer.”

“Hold on, let me call my office and see what they think about this.”

Jack motioned me over, “Harold, let’s go into my office and have a chat.” We go out of the conference room and down the end of the hall into his office.

“So how are you liking your first deposition?” he asked.

“Looks like the attorney is more nervous than his client.”

“God, he is such an idiot. I wasn’t trying to establish she was a hooker or anything. It doesn’t help nor hurt the case. And even if she did admit it, it’s not like I’m going to run to the D.A. with my arms flapping in the air with this stuff. They have more pressing matters to attend to here in Manhattan.”

The deposition resumed. Bill announced that his client would not be answering the question.

“Alright, we’ll deal with that issue later. But let’s move on since you’re already here,” said Jack, “How did you meet Carl?”

“I met him when I was working for Blur. I was the hostess at his table.”

“And he later became your boyfriend?”

“Yes.”

“Were you also friends with Katie Wilhelm?”

“I wouldn’t say friends but she was there that night. We talked for a bit.”

“Katie testified in her deposition that she saw Carl and his friends snort cocaine that night at Blur. Do you witness this as well?”

“Yes.”

“So Carl snorted cocaine at Blur that night?”

“Yes.”

“Can you elaborate?”

“Well, he poured the cocaine on the table and yelled out, ‘it’s snowing.’” And then he started separating the cocaine into lines with his credit card, or business card, or something like that. And then he snorted it and his friends joined in too.”

“And you were able to see him snort it even if the club is a little dark?”

“Yes. I was sitting in the booth next to him and I saw him go like this.” Allie put her face down toward the table, move her head from right to left, and make a sniffing sound.

Her attorney grimaced in discomfort. Jack, however, was trying to hold in his laughter.

“Now, this a video deposition so I believe the camera recorded what you just did there. But for the purpose of the transcript, am I correct in saying that you just demonstrated a motion where you put your nose to the table and sniffed some imaginary cocaine?”

“Yeah, I am just trying to show what Carl did that night.”

“Did he ever do cocaine in your presence on any other occasion?”

“Yes.”

“How many times?”

“At least 30 times.”

“And was this when he was working for ARW Logistics?”

“Is that the company Katie work for?”

“Yeah, that’s her dad’s company.”

“Then yes, because I stopped by several times to meet him for lunch and I would chat with Katie while waiting for him to finish something up.”

“And you’re no longer together today?”

“Yes. He was too crazy and out-of-control. I think some of it came from the cocaine.”

“Well, as the great poet Rick James said, cocaine is one hella of a drug,” Jack commented.

The firm continued the case by building the fraud claim one piece at a time. They had established that Carl was a cocaine user. Next, they were going to try to establish that David knew his son was an addict yet made misrepresentations, which Adam relied upon in hiring Carl.

But the focus of the case shifted. While looking through documents provided in discovery, Jack discovered that Conrad Morgan, rather than his father, was the license holder for the company. In filling out his application for the business license, Conrad had sworn under oath that he had taken the prerequisite classes in network security, which allowed him to be certified to install networks for government entities that handle sensitive and classified information. Private companies also relied upon this certification in choosing companies to set up secured networks that would protect their closely guarded trade secrets. The issue was that Conrad was supposedly taking these classes the same time he was in his 1st year of MBA school.

“No way he was taking both classes in the same year. You can log onto the school’s website right now and read about how they design these programs. The way these dual-degree programs are structured is that you do MBA School one year, then do the other computer security program the next year,” said Jack.

“Forget the fraud that David committed on Adam when he said his son didn’t have a drug problem. The company was defrauding thousands of clients for years since they weren’t even qualified to set up a secure network. This kid started his computer security program but never finished. This is like trying to find a smoking gun but stumbling onto a WMD,” Sidney said with glee.

A deposition subpoena was sent out to Conrad. He and his attorney squirmed through the deposition. Conrad left the deposition looking dejected. He knew we knew.

Sidney emerged from the conference room with his usual stoic demeanor. As soon as the elevator door closed on Conrad and his lawyer, Sidney dropped his poker face and smiled. “You should have seen their faces. They were obviously in pain. But they haven’t truly felt pain yet. Jack, draft up a motion for a writ of attachment. Then, they’ll know what pain really is. We’re going to cut them off, literally.”

Seeing the confused look on my face, Sidney explained, “A motion for an attachment is basically asking the judge to freeze a company’s bank account. You have to show that you’re likely to be successful in obtaining this money. But more importantly, you have to show that the money is likely to disappear and therefore, the judge needs to step in and freeze the account to keep the status quo. And since we have proof of fraud in this case, we’re definitely going to freeze their bank accounts. And no business can rely solely on their lines of credit to run a business in the long run. They’ll be begging us to settle soon enough.”

Sidney was right. Morgan Network Solutions was willing to settle. They were willing to accept $500,000 out of their initial $2 million demand. And ARW had agreed to it.

“Wait, the Morgans committed fraud yet Adam is going to pay them?,” I asked.

“Well, Adam should have never walked off the job in the first place. He did breach his contract. And the counter-claims stemming from Conrad’s theft of property and trade secrets would have only offset the damages by so much. And I think Adam is getting some satisfaction that this entire thing was started over Carl, but it ended up implicating his father and brother, and nearly lead to the downfall of the entire family company. Adam said he doesn’t mind being banned from the Morgan’s Christmas party anymore because it must be a depressing event to attend,” said Jack.

Dre chimed in, “Think of the case this way, Harry. I was once speeding and got into an accident. It was my fault. You could hear the police sirens heading towards us. And the driver I hit gets out of his car all freaked out. I asked him if he was alright and he said he shouldn’t be here when the cops came. He said he had a felony warrant out for his arrest. I simply told him that if I was him, I wouldn’t want to be here either. So he took off on foot in the opposite direction. And the best part is the police and insurance said he was at fault since he committed a hit and run. So just think of this case that way.”

Sidney and Jack looked at Dre with a curious stare. They then turned to me. “What you should also get from that story is that if there is if you two have to drive anywhere, you shouldn’t let him drive. You’re in the driver’s seat now,” Sidney said while giving me a pat on the back.

THE END

James Ly received his BA from the University of California, Berkeley and his JD from Santa Clara University School of Law. He is not disclosing when he graduated because he is sensitive about his age.

His journalism professor in college encouraged him to write and rewrite to hone his creative writing. She had hoped he would become a journalist, novelist, and/or screenwriter. Instead, he went to law school (which really is a trade school), where it put an end to any creativity he may have had.

Featured image: “portrait of an unhappy man with fast food in a kitchen” from Shutterstock.

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