Searching for truth in halls of just us | Marcel Strigberger
Friday, May 20, 2022 @ 2:15 PM | By Marcel Strigberger
I recall that fateful day while in grade one in my schoolyard, in Montreal. Two boys approached a girl classmate and snatched away her ball. This disturbed me. I immediately intervened, grabbing the ball away from them. This act of justice apparently disturbed those bullies. They both descended upon me, and a scuffle ensued. A teacher rushed over and broke us up. She then notified the principal, Monsieur Lafontaine, who punished with detentions both me and the goons.
I protested vigorously but Monsieur Lafontaine would not hear my explanation. I suppose he believed he was meting out justice fairly pursuant to the legal maxim, “equality is equity.” He actually hit me harder, calling my mother warning my behaviour was not acceptable as in addition to being combative I was also argumentative.
I thought about this unfairness. I cannot say I said to myself something like, “That’s it. I want to see justice done. When I grow up I’m going to become a lawyer.” But I likely would have had I known what a lawyer was. Most of us then would have experienced some interaction with a doctor, a dentist and even a firefighter. Actually my fantasy calling then was to become a firefighter. These noble first responders always achieved a just result, from extinguishing a fire to extricating a cat from a tree. I recall high on my wish list was securing one of those cool firefighter hats.
But my intro to lawyers came later while still in grade school when I avidly watched the Perry Mason television series. I was impressed seeing Mason week after week successfully resolving his clients’ murder charges.
That was it. I’m becoming a lawyer. I will say that I wondered about District Attorney Hamilton Burger who kept on getting beat week after week. I dismissed this string of losses by presuming that Hamilton Burger was not actually a lawyer. After all Perry Mason attained justice. The D.A. tried hard to scuttle it, interrupting Mason with senseless “objections.” He was probably just some civil servant.
Soon enough, there I was, my first day in law school. The dean assembled and welcomed the class. He quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Story, who said, “The law is a jealous mistress, requiring long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors but by lavish homage. “
The point was as lawyers we would have to spend many hours working. I never noticed how many hours Perry Mason worked. After all in a 52-minute episode there was only so much room to show him burning the midnight oil.
No problem. I was in.
I was newly married at the time, and I told my wife about the dean’s quote. Shoshana thought it was amusing, remarking she did not mind our newly formed threesome.
However, the real world was not all Perry Mason. I initially worked for a general practice firm. During my first week my boss sent me to the Land Registry office for a house closing with the vendor’s lawyer. While I did not expect a murder brief on day one, starting with a house closing was a downer. I just could not visualize Perry Mason meeting up with Hamilton Burger at the registry office. Without ado, he hands Burger a cheque and Burger responds by giving him the house deed. Awesome! Wow!
Where was the justice buzz? I thought to myself, is this why I went to law school? I would very much have welcomed an “objection” from the vendor’s lawyer. Even something like “You’re not getting the house keys.”
That evening when my good wife asked how my day went, I meekly confessed to the day’s legal career highlight. She laughed and said, “I see you had some disenchantment with your mistress.”
I thought about another quote, from that Dickens character Mr. Bumble, who said, “The law is an ass.”
And the setbacks continued. I soon developed a busy litigation practice. Did justice always happen? One case involved a forgery charge which with the help of a handwriting expert we were confident we could win. The Crown attorney offered us a deal on a guilty plea. My client refused, and I told the Crown he wanted justice. The case crashed and the client got convicted. Given some extenuating circumstances I asked for compassion in sentencing.
The Crown responded, “Too bad. Plead guilty If you want compassion. Plead not guilty if you want justice.”
I guess we got justice. They never told us about these moments in law school. And I certainly worked hard on this case. I did not think I cheated on my mistress.
The motto of the Law Society of Ontario is “Let right prevail.” But does it always prevail? I would say in over 40 years of practice, in my respectful view, most of my clients were in the right. Naturally. And yet my success rate was nowhere near 100 per cent?
But is not our job to uphold the principles of access to justice and to do our best to try to get it right? I would like to think most of us entered this noble profession as we possess a preponderance of justice molecules in our DNA. And just maybe these molecules were stimulated early on by one experience or another, such as the likes of a Monsieur Lafontaine. I doubt those schoolyard bullies ever become lawyers. Or firefighters.
Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. His book Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging is now available in paper and e-book versions where books are sold. Visit www.marcelshumour.com. Follow him @MarcelsHumour.
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