My very first pro bono client was an older woman who cleaned office buildings at night and whose landlord wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent. My grandmother’s sister had been a cleaning lady, so I was very sympathetic to this client. She had had trouble making her rental payments, but at the same time there were some significant physical problems with the apartment that her landlord was neglecting to address. She could take the position that she was not obligated to pay rent during the time that these physical problems remained unrepaired – essentially depriving her of full use of the property – and, ideally, avoid eviction and the weight of past-due payments while forcing her landlord to make the needed repairs. But she needed help to take that position and to navigate the legal system.
For that matter, so did I. I didn’t know how to file court documents or to stand before a judge. I was a first-year tax lawyer; basically, I knew how to read without falling asleep and write without making sense to most ordinary people. Fortunately my firm was fairly large and had hired its own pro bono coordinator to guide all its lawyers in such cases. She was experienced, knowledgeable, and committed to helping those who could not normally afford to hire an attorney.
The pro bono coordinator explained what documents I would need to file in court on my client’s behalf. The client was working poor, so the filings would include a financial statement and a request to file in forma pauperis, a legal status that allows a party to avoid paying court fees. This, the coordinator assured me, was standard procedure in pro bono cases like this, and the court would grant the request as a matter of course. I went over my client’s income and expenses with her so we could complete the financial statement. She certainly was on a tight budget; though I could see there was a little room for scrimping, it wasn’t so much that it would have enabled her to afford court fees. Still, a little unsettled, I asked the coordinator about how to present the client’s wiggle room. She assured me it was nothing to worry about.
Fortified with knowledge and assurance, I filed the necessary papers and, a short time later, appeared in court before the judge with my client. This being my first appearance in court, the pro bono coordinator came too, for moral support. I was grateful for this, because I was pretty nervous. Not only was this my first solo client, but also, if I screwed this up, she could literally end up out in the street. I felt as though I were fighting to keep my great-aunt from wandering D.C. with a toilet brush in her hand. Still, all went well, until I almost off-handedly made the request for leave to file in forma pauperis. I expected to hear something judicial, like, “Granted,” or a least something positive, like the classic, “Yes”. Instead, the judge said, without looking up, “No.”
I was totally blindsided by this. Inside my head, an alarm like a train whistle started howling, and I was pretty sure everyone in the courtroom could see flashing lights beaming out of my pupils. I felt like I had to do something for my client – who really could not have afforded the court fees – but I couldn’t think of how to protest. So instead, in a miraculously level voice, I said, “May I ask why, Your Honor?”
“Because she can afford to pay. She’s got cable TV.” This was the wiggle room I had noticed, though, to be fair, it was only $20 per month, and it was the only source of entertainment in her budget. Even if she’d dumped cable, saving for the court fees would have taken her nearly three months. I did not understand why this judge was being so Draconian, but I sensed he was not liable to yield, so I said, “I understand,” and moved on.
After we left the courtroom, the pro bono coordinator told me she was astonished; she had never, in all her years, seen an in forma pauperis petition denied in a pro bono case. Remembering the siren and emergency lights going off in my head, I asked her if I had responded appropriately, and she assured me that I had done really well. Later, the whole hitch turned out not to matter, practically; my law firm fronted the filing fees and then never charged the client for them. And in the end, my client avoided eviction and we even got the repairs taken care of. Still, even though the denial of the petition had no effect on the very positive outcome of the case, that’s the moment I remember most clearly.
I think that was because I was the surprised party. The judge’s denial certainly surprised me. But it triggered a broader surprise: surprise at discovering that the authority I had relied upon was wrong. I had accepted the coordinator’s assurances as definitive; I know she sincerely and legitimately felt they were. But because I had simply relied on her authority, I neither investigated the situation more thoroughly, nor prepared a fallback plan in case she was wrong. Had I accepted that it was my responsibility to be totally prepared for that moment, I might have been less expectant of a positive outcome, and I certainly would have lined up a smoother response.
Another surprise was my own calm, natural reaction to the judge. I hadn’t planned what I ended up saying, yet it was respectful and appropriately inquisitive, and, to those in the courtroom, sounded entirely even-keeled and professional. It was then that I learned that the polite formality that my parents had cultivated in my siblings and me was a fitting level of diction in a judicial setting, and that from then on I would not need to worry about whether or not I was equipped for the courtroom.
There are good surprises and bad surprises, and by definition you cannot predict them. Or, to be more precise, if you do predict them, then you destroy them, either through elimination or expectation. But it’s hard to foresee everything. If you end up a surprised party, make the most of it. Don’t focus on the shock, wonder, or embarrassment. Instead, use those intense feelings to help you learn and retain whatever lessons you can from the experience. After all, a surprise is the sudden assimilation of information you did not have before — which is something we usually call “learning”.