While there is no class in law school that teaches the etiquette of line-standing, it turns out that it’s one of the premier skills needed of a litigator. Unlike line-standing as learned earlier, which was primarily focused on straightness and, if one could get away with it, jumping ahead of the person in front of you when they weren’t looking, lawyerly line-standing involves both art and finesse.
Waiting on lines in clerks offices or before a judge’s law clerk is where one’s mettle is tested, and it’s fraught with pitfalls. The woman in front of you who steps aside momentarily, allowing the deft to squeeze ahead and edge her out in the queue, may turn out to be your client’s referring lawyer, and none too pleased at your slick move. Awkward.
But more importantly, the line is perhaps the single most utilitarian place to study the intricacies of practice. When the gentleman two ahead of you, adequately attired in houndstooth with a shock of salt and pepper hair, holds up the line arguing to no avail that his papers include the routine incantations that the clerk demands of him, but only slightly amended for some utterly logical reason, pay attention. Pay very close attention.
This is where you learn the most functional lesson of practice upon which your entire career may hinge. The line is where you learn who has the power. And who does not. The line is where you learn how to deal with the powerful, and how to manage to survive the million intricacies that can crush a young lawyer’s spirit.
Notice how the experienced lawyer argues with the clerk? Notice how you stand there, feet immobile as he makes great point after point? Notice how the clerk doesn’t flinch? There’s a reason for all of this, and if it eludes you, then your future as a line-stander is guaranteed. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not nearly as much fun as it looks.
The wise young lawyer watches. Listens. Feels the power ooze from the hub of all law that matters: the clerk whose approval you require to get you off the line. Love the clerk. Respect the clerk. Become one with the clerk.
There are few magic bullets in the law, few true secrets to reveal. This is one. As you shuffle closer to the brilliant light, say these magic words:
“I’m new, and my boss says I’ve got to get this filed or I’ll be sharing a cubicle with a guy from Kazakhstan. I think I’ve done it right, but I really don’t know because I’ve never done this before. I hope it’s right. Do you think it’s okay?”
The clerk’s eyes start to glaze as he drifts into his favorite daydream. Ah, a snot-nosed kid who couldn’t wipe his butt without me. Me, the guy who had to cheat to get a C- in English, and he’s nothing without me, this pathetic worm of a lawyer-child. I will be benevolent. I will teach this grasshopper to fly. I will show him the ways of the omniscient ninja clerk.
After making a few incomprehensible marks on your papers, and informing you to change a neutral pronoun to masculine, he smiles at you and accepts your papers with the admonition that it’s just this one time that he’ll allow your disastrously hideous efforts to pass through his portal to lawyerly success.
You bow. You scrape. You show him the love and deference usually reserved for minor deities, then you get the hell out as quickly as possible, having survived the line. You can use the time you’ve saved from having to redo your papers over a misspelled modifier to get a vente mocha frappuccino, knowing that your feigned stupidity has not only accomplished the impossible, getting papers filed the first time, but gained you a friend for life.