Not too long after I started working as a paralegal, I had the rare opportunity not only to attend a trial, but also to sit at counsel’s table with the senior litigator and his co-counsel. I knew this was a big deal, but as I hobbled out the door that morning to catch a ride to the courthouse, I felt as if I had messed up already.
The case involved a dispute over the validity of a will, and Bob, the senior litigator, had invited me to sit with him at counsel’s table because I knew the decedent’s medical records. Because of my undergraduate degree in biology, he had asked me several weeks before to review these records. (It was one of the few times that my college major was actually useful in a job.) It turned out that I had known enough to decipher some of the entries that shed light on the decedent’s mental state – the key issue in determining the validity of this particular will. Bob was sufficiently impressed that he wanted me to sit with him, copies of the medical records at hand, so I could assist him in responding if unexpected medical issues were brought up.
The trial was starting the morning after a long weekend, and going into the weekend I was excited, for two reasons. First, I knew that participating in the trial was a very rare treat for a paralegal. Second, I was heading out to meet some former classmates in Philadelphia. I had never been to that city and was looking forward to exploring it with my good friends. Little did I realize the trouble I was about to get into.
We had uneventful fun until, walking along a river park, we came across a large sundial, bounded by a ring of bricks, 20 feet across. The inward slope of the bricks reminded me of the banked curve of a racetrack, and I had the brilliant spontaneous idea of dashing around the ring on the slope to see if it would really work the same way. It did – I got going really quick – so quick, in fact, that I couldn’t avoid sticking my foot into the hole that was left where one brick had been removed. In the resulting twist and tumble, my ankle was viciously sprained.
My friends were very accommodating – one of them went to the drugstore and bought me a cane so I could get around – and although my ankle was very painful, we still managed to enjoy ourselves for the rest of the weekend. But then came the morning of the trial.
It is not so easy to shower and get dressed in a suit when your ankle is singing arias of agony, and trying to carry multiple bags while holding a cane is just ridiculously awkward. So as I limped out to the street corner where Bob had arranged to pick me up for the drive to the courthouse, I was convinced that he was going to be horrified. With my sloppy outfit, tousled hair, and occasional wincing, I looked like a mess, and when I imagined myself clumsily dragging myself and my papers before the judge – probably dropping something or accidentally whacking opposing counsel with my cane – I was certain that Bob was going to reconsider his invitation to assist him.
He pulled up in his car, clearly startled by my appearance. “What happened to you?” he demanded.
“I, um, tripped this weekend. Sprained my ankle. It’s really painful,” I added, just in case he thought I was exaggerating.
“Well. This . . . is . . . great!” Bob crowed, a big smile on his face. “You’re going to have the judge’s sympathy from the moment you walk in the room!”
It took me a minute to catch up. “If I can get some help with the bags once we get there, I can probably leave the cane in the car . . .”
“Absolutely not! You’ve got to bring the cane in.” Bob got out of the car to help me get my stuff in. “But comb your hair. And walk into the courtroom really slowly, like it hurts.”
Well, it did hurt. But I didn’t mind. I was more than just relieved – I was actually pleased to discover that something I was certain was a mistake and a liability might actually turn out to be an asset. Sometimes in new situations, we jump to conclusions because we can’t see the big picture the way a veteran can, and having them share their perspective with us is one of the ways we develop in our work.