Gerald Watkins Mayfield …

I have a new favorite TV lawyer, or had, I  don’t think he’s going to be around very long. Gerald Watkins Mayfield (played by Geoffrey Owens – perfectly). He’s in HBO’s new series Divorce.

Divorce is the story of a successful business woman, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her not quite as successful husband, Robert (Thomas Hayden Church) living in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, a pretty, upscale town on the Hudson River an hour or so north of New York City. The town, by the way, is pretty much a character.

sarahbloghboObviously, they have marital problems. Just as obvious, as the show has been renewed for a second season and we’re only 6 episodes into the first, they are divorcing and it’s going to get ugly.

Last week’s episode saw Robert – well on his way to being the most annoying character on TV, cable and network – bagging mediation and deciding to hire a lawyer. That would be Gerald Watkins Mayfield and he is everything I’ve been writing about for the past year and a half.

In what is easily the funniest scene in the show thus far, Robert meets Gerald in his home office and ‘interviews’ him.

“So, you do mostly divorces?”

“Nope, mostly wills, trusts, estates.”

“You do some divorces?”

“You know what, Robert? Basically, it’s all law.”

That’s it, in a nutshell, perfectly put by a great character. ‘Basically, it’s all law.’

It’s not, of course, but clients still buy into it. As Robert does. Disastrously. I’ll leave it to you to watch the show to see just how disastrously it is.

Roger Ebert’s ‘Lawyer in a Movie Rule’ and My Practice

The late great Roger Ebert came up with a set of movies rules for movie viewing gleaned 20130405_roger_ebert_crop_91from his decades of amazing reviews. Things like ‘the guy in a war movie who shows everyone the picture of his sweetheart will die by the end’. Or ‘Ali MacGraw Disease’: A movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches. 

Another is ‘The Lawyer With One Case Scenario.’ That’s defined as: in nearly all legal dramas, the lawyer’s involved in only one case – the case the movie is about. They are never distracted by other cases, clients, or causes.

This is certainly true for every legal drama that doesn’t involve a down-on-his-luck lawyer grasping onto one case as a lifeline. Paul Newman in The Verdict and Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder come to mind.

For every other movie (and most TV shows, for that matter) it really is the one case goliath-600x400scenario. The one case that is really cool (or they wouldn’t be making a movie about it) and most certainly takes laser focus despite all the really neat stuff screenwriters come up with the throw in the way. Most of which have nothing to do with the with the law. (For an example of creative, if not ridiculous, ‘Hollywood-only lawyer faced with multiple obstacles while pursuing a case’, check out Amazon Prime’s Goliath.)

The typical movie lawyer, say Billy Bob Thornton, shows up and dazzles the court with legal acumen seemingly off the top of his head, while, miraculously, the lights in his office stay on, a paralegal/secretary/amusing investigator work 12 hours a day for free. Because, they believe in the case as much as the star, which is a really lucky thing as, let’s face it, the movie lawyer has no visible means of income. Needless to say, none of these legal thrillers ever starts with a client walking into the attorney’s office with a million-dollar retainer.

Half a century of ‘lawyer movies’ have had to have an effect on how people, i.e., real clients, see lawyers and law firms. Which is, on occasion, a problem.

download-1A few weeks ago I met with a prospective client. Very nice guy, the meeting was highly productive, I knew I could help him. So did he. He was all set to sign a retainer agreement when he stopped and said, “Just promise me you’ll be the only one handling my case. I only want to work with you.”

Well, a long line of movie lawyers would have agreed immediately. Everyone from Spencer Tracy to Debra Winger, George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, and, yes, Billy Bob Thornton, and everyone in between would have taken the retainer. Because, in movie law land, there are no teams, no need to pay bills, and the only legal work a case ever needs is when the lawyer shows up in court. (By the way, movie lawyers are almost always late to court, are usually seen running down the aisle as the judge takes a seat.)

In real like, it’s about a team, it’s about research or motions or briefs getting done while somebody else is stuck in the courthouse, it’s about someone painstakingly filling out financial disclosure forms and checking scheduling and …. you get the point.

I love movies, but I live and practice in the real world.

Foreclosure and Jimmy McGill

post26Probably the most authentic picture of what it’s like to run a small law firm is Better Call Saul. No, this has nothing to do with working with someone like Mike, or filming 2 am attorney ads surreptitiously on Air Force bases, or any one of his dozen other antics.

And, it’s not any of his personal quirks: the flashes of legal genius, his skill as a flim-flam man, his deft touch with the elderly client.

What makes Jimmy McGill real is his need for clients and that which comes with them and allows lawyers to continue to be lawyers – money. Jimmy needs every retainer he can lay his hands on. Paying for parking is a stretch for him.

It’s a well-kept secret in the TV/movie/streaming content legal world that (a) attorneys arebetter-call-saul business people and (b) they need to be paid to continue to be (a) above.

One of Connecticut’s best known criminal defense attorneys just wrote this in his weekly New Haven Register column: “Almost ever lawyer I know is struggling to keep the lights on these days.” That’s Norm Pattis, and while he is somewhat exaggerating (the column was an attempt to explain the appeal of Donald Trump) and ‘struggling’ is a very, very subjective term, he does underscore the much overlooked truism of the practice of law: lawyers need to be paid like everyone else who works for a living.

prodigalparent2No one ever saw Perry Mason or any of the guys from LA Law scrambling to pay the bills. As a matter of fact, Della Street seemed remarkably well paid for a 1950’s solo practitioner’s legal assistant. Popular culture portrayals of lawyers almost never even hint at the business side of practice. When they do, it’s almost universally about a poor but noble lawyer working a case without hope of payment.

Attorneys are not like doctors, they are not locked into a ‘specialization.’ As a matter of fact most Bar Association rules in most states prohibit attorneys saying they specialize in any aspect of the law.

Do you know what the equivalent title for Neurologist/Oncologist/Orthopedic is in the law? Attorney.

Attorneys are taught to think like an attorney – that’s it, that’s what law school is all about, thinking. Studying for the Bar means studying every aspect of the law. Torts, Bankruptcy, Easements, Constitutional, Criminal. Everything.

You pass the Bar, you’re a lawyer, there are no restrictions on what you can do, no restrictions on the license. It’s like the woman doctor repairing your ACL checking and treating the troublesome looking freckle on your forehead.

Here’s something that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone but frequently is: lawyers have student loans, lawyers need to eat, lawyers can accept any case they want as long as there’s no looming conflict of interest.

Most lawyers stay with what they know and are comfortable with. It’s smart, minimizes potential problems, allows for real expertise (although, per Bar rules, no one can really say they’re an expert) and rapport with the court and ‘the other side.’

When lawyers go ‘outside the box’ they usually do so for one of two reasons: a friend or relative needs help; they need the retainer to ‘keep the lights on.’ They are especially apt to do the second if they don’t see the area they are about to stray into as challenging.

In other words, they are more likely to stray into foreclosures than a civil rights action. Which is, of course, a misconception that can only arise when a practitioner is unfamiliar with, well, foreclosure actions.

The problem is, foreclosure law, like bankruptcy and a host other, looks – very much on the surface – like an orderly, procedural driven process. A -B-C … Z, keep the house.

This would be great if it were true. But, it’s not. Foreclosure defense is fraught with little hiccups and steep, nasty pitfalls that don’t show up in the manuals and guides – on-line and off. The only way to know where they are is to do it every day for hundreds of clients in a hundred different scenarios with scores of banks, mortgage companies, and lawyers on the other side. And, that doesn’t include knowing the judges, clerks, mediators in each court.

The learning curve in foreclosure court is steep, the timeline is restrictive, no one should go through it with the additional stress of watching their attorney catch up on the fly.

This is Where …

Broadway-0837-SlaveShip. . .I came in.

There’s a phrase that’s fast dying out. Oh, a few people still say it, usually when they get stuck listening to a repetitive argument – you know, a roll of the eyes as the speaker comes back to the same point yet again, then, “This is where I came in, I’m outta here.”

Easy to envision, we’re in the middle of a Presidential Election cycle.

Most people, though, don’t know what the origin of the phrase is. And, there’s no reason they should, it gets increasingly more archaic every day. It’s from the days when movie theaters ran features on a continuous loop. Walk in for a 4:15 show at 5:00, watch the last 45 minutes or so, then stay as the movie starts again. Bang, right back into it, you stay until you’re caught up, you leave … where you came in.

This was such a thing that some movies – Psycho, in particular – used it as a marketing Psycho_tiftool. “Absolutely No One Admitted After The Start!”

Today, there are so many ads and trailers before every movie that I, at least, need to be reminded what film I’m there to see by the time the theater finally goes dark. Even without all that, in this day of Spoiler Alert, it would never work without some form of violence.

Also – can you imagine seeing Pulp Fiction this way? Impossible to follow, I’m willing to bet.

Which – you had to know this was coming – is exactly what showing up in court after the case starts is: close to impossible to catch up. If they still let you in, because a lot of court actions come with the Alfred Hitchcock admonition, “No one … but no one” can participate after certain court proceedings start.

In court particularly foreclosure proceedings, we have to show up on time, sit through the ads and the coming attractions and go step by step, on time, from there. There’s little to no room for ‘coming in’ at any other time.

YO! Adrian! Here’s Why I’ve Been Posting About a Triathlon

forsarahblogFor about the past week, I’ve been posting on Facebook about the Litchfield Hills Triathlon I ran last Sunday. I wasn’t posting to help psych myself up for a rough, hot, intimidating race (okay, maybe a little), I was hoping to make a point. A strong point about a real problem my clients run into, especially when they are late becoming my client (i.e., have gone it alone through a court hearing or two).

So, here’s the thing: I have a running coach. She outlined a comprehensive, step-by-step program to help get me ready for this race. I considered that vital – anyone who’s ever driven around Litchfield, Connecticut would know why … it’s not call the Litchfield HILLS race for nothing.

My … edited … training plan

I followed the plan religiously … until I didn’t. Things got in the way. I am not a professional triathlete, I will never get any king of sponsorship to pay for shoes, clothing, coaching, all that stuff. In short, I’m a business owner who runs (swims and bikes too, I suppose) to stay in shape and, most importantly, stay mentally sharp.

So, things (life) got in the way of our perfect plan. A workout skipped, a mile or two skimped on, you know how it goes.

At no time during my training, however, did I ever run the risk of being kept from running the race. It wasn’t like I had to check in Sunday morning with my training program signed off on and in perfect order in order to race. No race clerk to scan through and say, “It’s all in order, go get in line, hand this to the starter and you’re good to go.”

And. it’s certainly not like, in my case, there was someone to say, “Oh, hey Sarah, you missed a timed workout on June 8th, and this long run on the 20th … sorry, you can’t race. You’re out … it just wouldn’t be fair to the racers who did the work.”

     My plan for clients

No, that would have been ridiculous, anyone who pays the race fee and wants to abuse their body for a few hours can start the race. Anyone who has prepared at least somewhat has a chance to at least finish.

The ‘Sorry, you can’t race scenario” is the foreclosure process. I give my clients a list of things they have to do. Same as my coach gave me. The difference is, however, that if they skip an item or try to get by with a half measure, they know they stand a good chance of defaulting – they will get kicked out of the race.

This kind of default means losing a home. It’s as simple as that.

For the people who are debating getting an attorney because they think they’ve got a decent grasp on what should be on the list and how and when to get into the race … well, usually I see those people at some point after it’s started and why I can usually help, it’s like running the race with a cramping hamstring – it can go a number of ways, only one is good.

2015: The Year in Themes

It’s been quite a year, in court, out of court, blogging, talking, consulting. Since I started putting my thoughts down early in the year a few themes have emerged, themes I’m sure I’ll continue to follow into 2016.

Looking forward to 2016 and many more posts. Happy New Year, and thanks for being a reader.

Google, Ben Affleck, Dogs, and Foreclosure Defense

The Internet? Is that thing still around? ~Homer Simpson

I have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. On one hand it brings imageme Netflix, instant access to my court cases, MapMyRun, legal research, and Netflix.

On the other, it has cost me hours – lots of hours – with potential clients while I refute and correct the ‘facts’ about foreclosures they Googled before meeting me.

Don’t get me wrong, a client trying to learn as much as possible about their situation and options is a nice client to have. The problem does not lie with them, the problem’s with the information not so innocuously floating around ‘out there.’ There’s tons of it and only a very small percentage is close to accurate.

Especially in foreclosure defense. Because of the way the mortgage crisis hit, because of the devastation it wrought so quickly, because of the publicity of ‘Too Big to Fail’ and everything it implied, because so many people were affected, because it all occurred in the single moment in time when the world was wired together with instant information and communication it has spawned hundreds of thousands of blogs, articles,ads, Facebook posts, LinkedIn rants, op-eds, and faux news reports.

None of which are the slightest help to any of my clients about to walk into a courtroom, though sometimes it’s hard for me to dial back expectations so cruelly raised on-line.

“Live free in your house for years,” “Get your house for free,” “Take down your mortgage company,” “Ten easy steps to win any foreclosure case,” and many, many more.

Enticing, alluring, seductive claims that also happen to be remarkable lucrative for a great many self-proclaimed experts.

Which brings me, naturally enough, to Ben Affleck.image In 2001 he starred in Pearl Harbor, a movie that was universally panned. As a matter of fact, it had some of the best written, funniest bad reviews of all time.

Back in 2001 movie reviews were pretty much the sole purview of newspapers and PBS’ Ebert and friends. It was pretty easy to figure out that Pearl Harbor was a stinker of a movie without having to blow $12.50 to confirm it.

None of that is clear today. Pearl Harbor is in pretty heavy rotation on cable. If you check on the film-goers’ online Bible, IMBd, while trying to decide whether it’s worth three hours of your time to watch it, you’ll find it has an almost respectable rating of 6.0.

How is this possible? Simple, when it came out a few dozen influential publications lined up to annihilate it. In the intervening years, however, the studio – and probably Affleck’s family and agent – have continued to post reviews on ‘movie review blogs’. Great reviews. About 200 last time I looked.

This is standard practice now. Studios have legions of on-line critics that post – sometimes months before the movie comes out – glowing reviews that will boost any less than perfect ones.

Which should be an object lesson for anyone looking for legal help online. Especially such a high profile, widespread, legal issue like foreclosures.
imagePeople are using the Internet to boost themselves and their agendas. There have been a few, fairly high profile, successful ‘get the house for free’ legal actions in the eight years since this all began. These few have been claimed as their own by any number of online foreclosure ‘experts’.

“Based on our original legal theory,” “they followed our blueprint,” “we guided the legal team through …” “here’s what our client’s say.”

Nowhere is there anything laying out the cold reality of legal outliers – the cases were issue and state specific, would never work anywhere else, the homeowners spent years and a fortune to pursue them, the fact pattern is most assuredly not yours.

This, then, is my problem – where the Internet does a grave disservice, It creates the illusion of authority/proficiency/excellence where there is none.

As the cartoon says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

A Day in Court

A different take in foreclosure court: usually the judge takes cases where attorneys have entered appearances – ostensibly to try and curb expenses, (who wants to pay a lawyer to sit in court all morning?) – but today, he decided to take homeowners representing themselves first – the better so they don’t miss work.

A lot of homeowners representing themselves don’t show up, but they did today.  So, I sat through foreclosure story after foreclosure story and a lot of pretty solid explanations why homes shouldn’t be foreclosed on.

                                                It really is no fun to be in court by yourself….

One man explained he fell behind after his house sustained storm damage. His insurance company assured him he would be reimbursed in full for the repairs. Two checks came and he paid the contractors but then, for some reason, the bank held the last $19,000 check.

He is in the beginning of a foreclosure while still trying to work things out with the bank. That’s it, he, by himself, is working with his bank, only, to get money released and start to ‘take care of the mess.’

The judge set a date and if the homeowner doesn’t resolve the problem in time the bank will own his house. The poor guy has the attitude of someone who just can’t believe that the problem won’t get resolved, that the bank won’t do the right thing. Eventually.

Other families came before the judge with different stories based on the same theme – the bank said ‘x’ and they’ll be following up … soon.

All of them now have foreclosure dates.

I wrote a few weeks ago about where the banks’ interest lay. To tersely sum up that post – the banks do not share many interests with regular people.

The general rule is once you don’t feel your bank is helping you or listening to you, you need to stop seeking help and advice from them.  I mean, if if you were arrested, would you ask the cops for help?  I think we have been trained from all the law shows on TV to know there’s an adversarial relationship between the police and someone who has been arrested (even if the person is innocent).  What TV hasn’t taught us – because how un-sexy would a show about foreclosure court be – is that the banks and mortgage lenders are the cops and homeowners have the right to remain silent and have the right to seek the advice of an attorney.  People who are arrested know that without an attorney they are likely to lose some liberties- likely to spend time in jail.  People in foreclosure are also at risk of losing similar liberties- like the right to own their homes- if they don’t seek out the advice of an attorney.

So please, don’t be standing in front of a judge before it occurs to you to check with a lawyer.

Lawyers, Doctors, Car Mechanics, and Authority

Lawyers are heavily regulated.  I know it may not seem that way to the public, but we have to follow a lot of rules.  Many of those rules are designed to protect the public.  “Ambulance chasing” has been, well, chased off for the most part, and lawyers’ contacts with potential clients are heavily regulated.  For example, if I learn of a homeowner who might need help fending off a foreclosure, I can’t call that homeowner (or have anyone else call them for me); and if I choose to contact that peter-steiner-bernard-is-our-sous-mechanic-new-yorker-cartoonperson via letter, I have to stamp ADVERTISING MATERIAL in big red letters on the envelope and the letter.  That’s because an average member of the public might think they HAVE to respond to a letter they receive from a lawyer, but this ‘warning’ makes it clear that it is a solicitation.

Why would a homeowner, or anyone else for that matter, think they have to respond because the letter is from a lawyer? 

Because lawyers, doctors, and car mechanics know things. dihydrogen-monoxideMore importantly, they know how things work. Inside knowledge. That instills authority whether it is warranted or not.

So when your mechanic tells you that you sheared the transmorgerfer gears in the sprocaxle – and he does it in German, Swedish, and Japanese – you nod along and write a check. When your doctor tells you that after running four miles you need a dose of Dihydrogen oxide, you nod and write her a check.

And in the law? Well, it goes like this:



Judge-Chamberlain-Haller-from-My-Cousin-VinnyLast summer I was in court when a guy appeared by himself before a judge who was subbing in for the day. This happens, foreclosure, however, is … somewhat arcane and most definitely not in the usual purview of a covering judge.

The homeowner, of course, had no idea he had a sub and pretty much cowered – hey, it’s lonely out there when you’ve done it a thousand times, it has to be close to terrifying doing it for the first time, and with your house on the line.

The judge was not gentle. He pronounced a date by which time the homeowner had to sell, pay all the past due payments or refinance the house. Period. The guy  explained, quite nicely, that he had a good job (with a state agency) and was there anything he could do?

No, the judge entered judgment and then said, “Sir, you better start packing.”

A few days later the homeowner got to me,  6 weeks later, he was on a payment plan with his mortgage lender.He’s still in his home. Had he taken the judge’s word – as most would, a Judge is a pretty intimidating authority figure – he would have bagged it and left his home and who knows.

I wish I could stamp “I’M ON YOUR SIDE” or “AN ADVOCATE FOR YOU” in red caps on the letters I send out to potential clients.  But I respect the rules and the reasons for them so I’m thrilled when someone in need sees past the big red letters and calls and asks for help.

Advice from Strangers . . .

leo-cullum-i-was-just-going-to-say-well-i-don-t-make-the-rules-but-of-course-new-yorker-cartoonI recently met with a woman  who told me she hasn’t been sleeping.

She’s been having nightmares where people from her mortgage company come to her house and move her stuff out.  She calls out “Stop” but either no sound comes out, or they can’t hear her, or they ignore her.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she’s having these dreams because reps from her mortgage lender have been calling because she’s a few months behind.

Which . . ., well, okay, they’re just trying to get a payment. Fine, understandable. Everyone wants to get paid. If it stopped at ‘when can we expect your payment?‘ it would be acceptable. In moderation.

But they don’t, they try to induce any kind of payment they can get out of her by advising that if they move to foreclose she’ll have to move out of her house in 30 to 60 days. That’s basically it – ‘Okay, don’t pay, we file, you’re out of the house before the the new season of Homeland starts.’

There’s pretty much zero truth behind that threat as it applies to foreclosures in Connecticut.  Since most every homeowner behind on the mortgage is stressed out, the bank’s threat/misrepresentation is very powerful.  Nightmare inducing, in fact.

There may well come a time in any unresolved foreclosure when the homeowner is 30-60 days from having to vacate the property.  That time is nowhere near being two months behind on payments.

One of the most satisfying parts about my job is counseling homeowners on just how long a foreclosure can take.  I get to tell them about due process and how long they still have to live in their homes. It’s always months and months longer than they think before meeting with me.

Then I get to hear  how well they are sleeping.

That’s me, Sarah Poriss, Attorney at Law & Sleep Specialist.