Paul Levine
 

 

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THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT...MOSTLY

                                   
 By Paul Levine

"I'm your new co-counsel," said the tall blond woman in the glen-plaid suit and black suede pumps.

"You look familiar," I replied. Actually, she looked like a University of Florida cheerleader pretending to be a grown-up.

"Renée De Pres," she said. "I was your receptionist one summer."

Receptionist to co-counsel, I thought. One giant leap for a Gator Girl.

But what was she doing here? My client, who was either a legitimate coffee importer or an arms smuggler - depending on which side of the courtroom you plopped your briefcase - must have brought in another law firm.

"What am I supposed to do with a baby lawyer?" I asked her.

"You can start by making room for me at the table." She took a legal pad and a Mont Blanc pen from her Gucci bag along with five highlighters in a rainbow of colors.

"Great, you sit here and draw pictures. I'll try the case, cupcake."

"Not if I tell our client you're screwing up....cupcake."

* * *



Now, that probably sounds like fiction. But it's a real case with dialogue the best I remember it. By the wacky standards of Miami, where "murder is a misdemeanor" in the words of Dave Barry, the coffee lawsuit was a fairly tepid brew. Except...my client fled to Jordan, opposing counsel landed in prison for egregiously overbilling his client, and I married my new co-counsel.

Recently, a reporter asked me: "Are Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord based on people you know?" The reporter was referring to the protagonists of Solomon vs. Lord, my new battle-of-the-sexes courtroom novel. Those two lawyers can't agree on "good morning," much less the meaning of due process. Steve is a brew and burger guy who loves baseball. Victoria is a Chardonnay and paté gal who loves ballet. He's brash and irreverent; she's decorous and refined. He's reckless and unpredictable, a courtroom maverick. She's conservative and respectful, a member of the establishment. In short, he's a rogue and she's a lady.

Usually, when asked the source of my ideas, I say, striving to sound both self-deprecating and sophisticated: "I steal everything from Sophocles." Truth is, for these characters, I steal everything from the breakfast table.

As a child, the fictional Victoria Lord owned matched poodles named Van Cleef and Arpels. Yep, so did Renée De Pres. In the book, Victoria's mother, Irene, is called "The Queen" for her regal bearing. Yep, Renée's mother, too. As for Steve Solomon and his law office inside a second-rate South Beach modeling agency...well, that's an invention. I was a partner in a silk-stocking international law firm where I didn't even pretend to know the names of all my partners. (In Miami, a "silk stocking" firm is one where the lawyers wear socks with their loafers). My office was on the 52nd floor of a sleek high-rise on Biscayne Bay. Outside the windows, carnivorous vultures perched on the granite ledges. Inside the offices, they perched on leather chairs.

I was a trial lawyer, meaning I would frequently say, "Thank You, Your Honor," even when a judge had just held me in contempt for being obstreperous.

* * *

At the time I met Renée, the only fiction I'd written was in my trial and appellate briefs. In the years since, I've used my own triumphs and humiliations to breathe life into my fictional characters.

"Mr. Levine, if you persist in that line of questioning, I'm going to send you to a place you've never been," a judge once warned me.

"Already been to jail, Your Honor."

"Forget jail. I'm talking about law school."

In court, truth is often funnier than fiction. I tried cases in Miami for 17 years and have a briefcase filled with anecdotes: the good, the bad, and the nutty. I once lost an uncontested divorce, the husband and wife breaking down into tears and reconciling in the judge's chambers. In another divorce, I once asked the wife a seemingly innocuous question.

"What was the first thing your husband said when he woke up that morning?"

"He said, 'Where am I, Maria?'"

"And why did that upset you?"

"My name is Alice."

In one case, Renée sat quietly at counsel table as an expert witness delivered devastating testimony against her client. Suddenly, the witness's wristwatch alarm went off. Startled, the judge demanded: "What's that?"

"Lie detector," Renée quipped.

During my tenure in the courthouse, the late Frederick Barad, was one of Miami's most colorful judges. A survivor of Auschwitz, he spoke with a European accent and was known for his sly humor. Judge Barad was one of my favorites, but he cut me no slack. I once represented a successful orthopedic surgeon in a divorce case from his wife of twenty years. My client was deep in the throes of a mid-life crisis: gold chains, black Porsche, blond bimbos. In opening statement, I tried to minimize these peccadillos. "Sadly, Your Honor, in recent years, the parties have grown apart."

"Sure they have," Judge Barad interjected. "When the doctor's wife turned forty, he traded her in for two twenties."

In another case before Judge Barad, I spotted a juror sound asleep as I did my closing argument.

"Your Honor," I complained, "Juror number three is snoring."

"So?" Judge Barad said. "You put him to sleep. You wake him up."

Most courtroom proceedings are so deadly dull that any glimmer of humor from the bench is appreciated. Another Miami judge was known for keeping a box of cigars on his desk. In contested paternity lawsuits, he was fond of handing a cigar to the defendant and declaring: "Congratulations. You're a father."

Often in my fiction, I rely on courtroom tales passed on by fellow trial lawyers. Some stories seem too good to be true, but they're backed up by transcripts from no-nonsense stenographers.

Attorney: "Doctor, as a result of your examination, is the young lady pregnant."

Witness: "The young lady's pregnant, but not as a result of my examination."

The English language seems to confuse witnesses, as well as lawyers:

Attorney: "So, you are unconscious, and they pulled you from the car. What happened then?"

Witness: The paramedic gave me artificial insemination, you know, mouth-to-mouth."

The police are not immune to foot-in-mouth disease:

"Officer, what led you to believe the defendant was under the influence?"

"Because he was argumentary and couldn't pronunciate his words."

Vintage courtroom tales are fine, but the heart of my fiction involves the dueling wits and wills of Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. When I need inspiration for those squabblers extraordinaire, I need only turn to the Sturm und Drang of Paul and Renée. Our skirmishes are the battleground where my reality and fiction merge.

"I'm going out on my own," Renée once said.

"Your own what?" I asked.

"I want to open my own firm."

"Break up our winning team?"

"I'll never grow as an attorney until I have autonomy."

"Autonomy? You been watching Oprah again?"

"We're so different. I do things by the book. You burn the book."

"That's our strength. Our synergy. You kiss 'em on the cheek, I kick 'em in the cajones."

As I write those words, I don't know which couple said that first. I'm at a point where Paul and Renée, Steve and Victoria, have become inseparable.

Not that everyone agrees with me. One morning, while slicing papayas in the kitchen, Renée blurted out: "I don't like your new book."

"What!"

"Steve Solomon gets all the good lines."

"Art imitates life, my sweet."

"And that day we met. You never called me 'cupcake.' If you'd said anything that goofy, I never would have gone out with you."

Well, what's plausible to some may be goofy to others. Let me ask you this: In a novel, is it far-fetched for a lawyer to bribe a bailiff to unlock the jury room in order to make out with co-counsel?

Answer: Not if you've done it in real life.          

 

Originally published in Mystery Scene Magazine, January 2006. Reprinted by permission of the author.