THE DIME STORE LAWYER
by Jeffrey Gibson
The address on the letter was the same as the address on the building, but that was all that matched. The letter had been clean and inviting, whereas the building’s windows were dirty and repellant. The lettering on the glass windows of the door told me I was in the right place, but my gut told me that I was in the wrong place.
I turned and looked around at the half-deserted street in downtown Sheridan, suddenly feeling very self-conscious, although among the very few on the street, no one was paying attention to me. I could get back in my car and limp my way back out of town, suffering only the indignity of the loss of six hours of travel time and the cost of the gas to get here and back. Oh, and the humiliating call with some lame excuse of why I couldn’t keep the appointment.
But the appointment was a job interview, and considering that I hadn’t had any interviews since graduating, I should keep this one and count it as practice.
Well, if there really was an interview. The building housed a store with large display windows that had sun-faded merchandise in them. The scene was right out of an old movie. A five and dime. This looked like no law firm’s office I had ever seen. However, it did say “Flannery and Sanchez, Attorneys at Law” on the door. Large letters across the front of the building proclaimed the name of the store to be Flannery’s Mercantile.
I made up my mind to go in. Really, I thought, what did I have to lose? At this point, with my legal career prospects practically nil, I had little self-respect left. I stepped up to the door, grabbed the door handle, pulled it open, and went in.
My name is Michael Shore. I am twenty-nine years old, an Air Force veteran, a college graduate and a lawyer. Well, almost a lawyer. I still have to pass the bar exam, but I feel pretty confident that I’ll do well. I’m from Freeport, Illinois, and was exposed to the law while seconded to the Judge Advocate General’s staff while in the service. I decided that being an attorney is what I wanted to do for a living. After my stint in the service at Vandenberg Air Force base, I enrolled at the university, on track to finish in three years. After that, I would go to law school. My educational plan was moving ahead, until I met Sam. Sam is short for Samantha. We started dating and it wasn’t long before I asked her to marry me.
Sam said yes, and after a small family wedding, we settled into a small apartment where all was good. We struggled financially, but lived on love. She taught fifth grade full time and I worked security part time, and we made due. After I got my bachelor’s degree, I enrolled in law school, but the load was too much to handle while working full-time, so instead of three years, it took me four years to finish.
And apparently, graduates who take four years to finish are not the most sought-after candidates in the job market. Wall Street was not knocking on my door.
I opened the door to the dime store and stepped into the previous century. The sales floor had old wooden counters with pieces of glass dividing the merchandise. In the back of the store were what looked to be four offices hastily erected sometime in a decade long past. The walls still bore the departmental signs: Stationery, Health and Beauty, Women’s, Men’s, Dry Goods. On the wall to my right the sign proclaimed ‘Restaurant’, and a lunch counter ran the length of the building. Menu item signs promised delicious tuna melts, slices of apple pie and chocolate shakes. There were, however, no waitresses and no cooks working behind the counter.
A sales clerk was stocking a display near the checkout. There were two customers in the store, and there was one man in a John Deere cap sitting at the lunch counter lazily stirring a cup of coffee. He looked up at me. “You lookin’ for Betsy?”
“I must be in the wrong place.” Maybe I missed a different door that led to the law office. As I turned to go, I heard somebody coming up some stairs and noticed a stairwell in the corner on the side of the offices. A middle-aged woman with gray hair came up, looked at me, and appeared pleased by my presence.
“You must be Mr. Shore,” she said.
“Yes, I am. Please call me Michael.”
“I’m Elizabeth, we talked on the phone.” she said. “You can call me Betsy.” Betsy had been my contact for this interview. She came over and I noticed that she was not nearly as old as she appeared. Her face was relatively unlined but the gray hair and general frumpiness had definitely added some years to her appearance. “The lawyers will be here shortly. They both go home for lunch at noon and they return at one. I’m sure they scheduled you for one o’clock so they had plenty of time between lunch and their naps.”
“Naps?” I asked.
“Yes, sir, their nap time is at three,” answered Betsy. “I usually wake them up at four.”
“Naptime,” I said, mostly to myself.
Betsy continued, “But if it’s been a busy day sometimes I let them sleep until five and then wake them up before I go home.”
“And this is every day?”
“Well, of course, they are very hard workers,” said Betsy frostily, apparently disapproving of my question.
I was very close to saying goodbye to Betsy and heading right back out. My escape was prevented when the door opened. Two elderly, stooped men entered, each wearing a black suit, white shirt and a blue tie. One of them had a head full of thinning gray hair with a hint of red, the other had jet black hair with a distinct line of gray roots showing at the part. Betsy took up the introductions.
“This is Lawyer Flannery,” she said, motioning to the one with the red hair, “and this is Lawyer Sanchez.” They both came close and I shook their hands. I thought I smelled cabbage.
“You must be the intern,” said Lawyer Flannery.
“This is the new associate,” corrected Lawyer Sanchez.
Lawyer Flannery frowned. “We can’t afford an associate. You’ll have to be an intern,” he said to me.
“He can’t be an intern, he has to be an associate,” said Lawyer Sanchez.
“Can’t afford it,” said Lawyer Flannery.
They began walking back to the offices. As they passed me, Lawyer Sanchez said to me, “We will be with you in a moment.”
Lawyer Flannery repeated. “We will be with you in a moment.”
Together they walked back and shut the door of one of the offices.
Betsy motioned to the lunch counter. “You can sit there and wait. They’ll be with you in a moment.” As if I hadn’t heard them say that. She turned and started for the stairway, then stopped and looked at me. “Oh, my manners. Would you like some coffee or some water?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” I said, not wanting to extend the stay any longer.
“Well, if you change your mind, the coffee is over there,” said Betsy, motioning behind the counter. “Decaf only, Lawyer Flannery can’t have caffeine. Doctor’s orders.”
As soon as she disappeared out of sight, I turned once again to make my escape. Just then, Lawyer Sanchez came out of the office, with Lawyer Flannery peeking out from behind. “We’re ready see you now, Michael,” they both said, not quite in unison.
I thought about making a run for it but I dutifully turned and followed them back to the office, which was hardly any larger than a broom closet. Lawyer Flannery sat behind a tiny wooden desk and motioned me into the chair opposite the desk. Lawyer Sanchez took a chair from the corner and scooted it over behind the desk next to Lawyer Flannery. Together they looked at me, two shriveled men wearing identical black suits, white shirts and blue ties.
“You graduated from law school?” Lawyer Flannery’s rheumy eyes bored in.
“You’ve passed the bar?” Lawyer Sanchez followed up.
“Well, I, um, take the exam in July.” I answered haltingly.
“And you get the results when?” asked Lawyer Flannery.
“To find out whether you passed?” asked Lawyer Sanchez.
“I should get the results around the first week in September.” Then I just stared at the both of them. After a minute, I asked. “It works that way every year. Don’t you know this?”
Lawyer Sanchez answered. “We just need to know.”
“It’s important,” said Lawyer Flannery.
Knowing this interview was a lost cause, I just thought, screw it. “Tell me why.”
There was a halt to the conversation as the two lawyers looked at each other. Lawyer Flannery nodded and Lawyer Sanchez turned back to me. “We have a need,” he said.
“An important need,” said Lawyer Flannery.
“We have a case.”
“An important case.”
They paused. I ignored the inclination to make a remark about their constant repetition of each other’s sentences, but could not stifle my curiosity. “What kind of case?”
“An important case.”
“A critical case.”
Now I couldn’t stifle a laugh. These guys were senile. It was time to go. “Gentlemen, thanks for the conversation. Have a great day.” With that, I left the room and headed out the front door of the building, while they argued between themselves behind me. I reached my car and was opening the door.
“Michael, wait.” It was Lawyer Sanchez leaning out of the store’s doors. How he got there that quickly, I’ll never know. “We can pay you thirty thousand a year, plus full health and dental benefits, and cover your moving expenses.” He paused to catch his breath. “But you must pass the bar.”
I snorted, got into my car and drove away. Even though I had no idea what to expect from this interview, an offer of thirty grand a year was laughable. But what did I expect from a law firm in a dime store?
I arrived home, dreading the conversation with Sam. When the letter had arrived from the lawyers, we had been excited about the prospect of moving to a small town and getting a fresh start. The school year was coming to an end and we were both ready for a change. We had waited to have kids until I finished law school, back when the future had held a lot of possibilities. I hoped she wouldn’t be too disappointed that this interview hadn’t gone like we’d hoped.
When I came in the door, Sam was sitting at the kitchen table, grading papers. She smiled and said, “I want to hear all about your day, but I have one small surprise. Sit down.” She poured me a glass of ice tea, set it down on the table and then handed me a bubble gum cigar.
She couldn’t contain the smile on her face.
August is a hot month in northern California. Most days, the temperature hovers around ninety, and although the doors of the store actually claimed that the building was air conditioned, it wasn’t quite true. What was a bonus feature in the 1950’s was a necessity a half-century later.
I sat in what I considered a poor excuse for an office and wiped the sweat off my forehead.
I had taken the job.
After I had gotten home that night after the interview, Sam and I rejoiced at the news of her pregnancy. Then I relayed to her the unbelievable story of my day at the dime store.
She was enchanted by my story. Looking back, I must have told it wrong.
She wanted to go see the town. I said the money they were offering wasn’t enough. She wanted to meet the lawyers. I said they were weird. She wanted to visit the store. I said it was decrepit. Full health insurance? she asked. That’s what they said, I admitted.
The next weekend, we toured Sheridan. We saw the new regional hospital on the edge of town and drove through the “charming” (her words) downtown. Nearby, we saw older homes on tree lined streets. There was a newer housing development south of town with kids roaming the neighborhood. Sam insisted on meeting Betsy, whom I reluctantly called. We ended up having lunch with Betsy and her husband and they sealed the deal.
In a matter of weeks, Sam’s school year ended, I graduated from law school and quit my security job. We packed the sparse furniture from our small apartment into a U-Haul trailer and towed it behind my Chevy. I was still a few weeks away from finding out the results of the bar exam, but I was learning the ropes of property law in a small town. I also increasingly verified two beliefs: that the lawyers were useless, and that Betsy did all the work. She did all the research, she prepared the documents and she filed them with the court.
I was generally ignored by Lawyer Flannery and Lawyer Sanchez, which was fine by me. I actually enjoyed going to the courthouse and looking through the property records where I could meet new people and get away from the Venerari, as I had come to refer to the partners. The word is Latin for venerable, which is term of respect, so I laughed inside every time I called them that.
As far as I could tell, the Venerari had gradually stopped lawyering a few years earlier. But because they had been doing it for many years, they had acquired a clientele that brought in a steady income. They talked with people all day long, sitting at the lunch counter. The production in this firm of two lawyers and two non-lawyers was all being done by the non-lawyers.
I asked Betsy several times about the important case that the Venerari had mentioned, but she just brushed it off. As I went through files, I looked for anything that might be important, but came up empty. I also found that the Venerari had successfully avoided a courtroom for at least the last twenty years.
Sam and I were getting settled into the town. We found a church, she lined up a job at the elementary school, and I found a new best friend.
His name was Barnett.
Barnett told me about my two lawyers. I learned that they actually had wives and families. Lawyer Flannery was married to a Sanchez and Lawyer Sanchez was married to a Flannery. Each had a daughter who had married and moved away. I was surprised about the daughters, but I was not so surprised that they had moved away.
Barnett also filled me in on how the Venerari got to where they were today. Both the Flannery family and the Sanchez family had been in the county for a hundred and fifty years. My two bosses decided to attend law school together, returning after graduation to found their law firm in the back of the store in hastily built offices. Due to their families’ strong influence in the county, their practice soon grew and prospered.
And for the next forty-eight years, it continued to do so successfully.
My first day as a real lawyer started the same way as my days as a non-lawyer had. I was reviewing my active files and planning my schedule. Yesterday had been momentous, as I had been sworn in as a member of the state bar association, followed by a small celebration at home with sparkling grape juice.
My planning session was interrupted when the Venerari burst in.
“You passed the bar,” said Lawyer Flannery.
“Congratulations,” said Lawyer Sanchez.
“Thank you,” I said, hoping they would leave.
Lawyer Sanchez placed a file on my desk. “This is the case.”
“The important case,” said Lawyer Flannery.
“We need to file it immediately.”
I picked up the file and looked at the case name, Flannery vs. Gasco Oil Company. I asked, “Is this you?”
“We need to file it today,” Lawyer Flannery insisted.
“I heard that,” I said. “Are you the plaintiff?”
Lawyer Sanchez reiterated, “This is an important case that needs to be filed today.”
Tired of their ignoring my questions, I asked strongly, “Flannery! Are you the plaintiff?” Apparently, I said it louder than I intended to, as the two lawyers’ shock was evident and the store outside the office went still. When no answer was forthcoming, I said even louder, “Are you?”
“Yes, he is,” Lawyer Sanchez answered quietly, as Lawyer Flannery looked at the floor.
“Then why doesn’t he file it himself?”
“He can’t,” said Betsy’s voice outside the door. It slowly opened and she stepped into the already crowded office. She looked at the two lawyers severely. “You need to tell him.” The Venerari viewed her with horror and sat mute. Betsy finally spoke quietly so that no one in the store might overhear.
“Neither one of them ever took the bar exam.”
“The Gasco company had a refined oil pipeline break about eight months ago. The pipeline ran across Flannery land and poisoned a stream. They lost wildlife and livestock. We all knew about it because other property was affected. I was lucky, I have a couple of parcels nearby that are fortunately upstream of the break. My nephew Ethan wasn’t so lucky. He has a property that he rents out that was contaminated.”
Barnett and I were sitting in a café on the edge of town.
“There is a settlement conference next week. Things have moved pretty quickly because it contaminated some state land and that lawsuit has already been settled. Since the company has already admitted fault, they want to get these private suits settled quickly to reduce uncertainty for their investors. I’m just really surprised that Flannery hadn’t filed before now.”
I was still in shock over the revelation that I was working for two non-lawyers that had committed decades worth of criminal acts through the unlicensed practice of law. By keeping a low profile and never appearing in court, they had avoided being found out. Everyone in town just assumed that they had their licenses. And now, I had at least an ethical responsibility to turn them in. Probably a legal one, too, although I hadn’t checked into that yet. I was still debating whether to tell Barnett. He went on. “We’re talking millions on the table here. And Flannery may have the best claim of all. You better get this over to the courthouse.”
I had reviewed the file thoroughly. It had been prepared poorly and had fault not already been assigned to the oil company, the lawsuit would have been laughed out of court. I still needed to do a little work on the file to clean it up.
And then I needed to work out an agreement with my client.
I drove back to the dime store, practicing my spiel the entire way. I went straight to my office and closed the door, pulled out the file and began my editing. When I had it done, I took it to Betsy for proofing and printing. While she was working on that, I pulled out a legal pad and began drafting an agreement that would change my life. When it was done, it too went to Betsy, who soon brought it back to me with tears in her eyes.
I walked to the next office where the Venerari were huddled over a file, mumbling unintelligibly. Given the unenviable position they had put me in, I was tempted to unceremoniously drop the two documents on the desk, but instead cleared my throat and waited for them to look up.
“We need to talk.” Over the next ten minutes, I kindly yet firmly outlined the agreement that we were about to sign. I would file the lawsuit if and only if they agreed to my terms, and there would be no negotiation. The two soon-to-be ex-lawyers took a moment to read the document for themselves, then nodded to each other and picked up their pens.
FOUR WEEKS LATER
The retirement party was going well. So many people had stopped by to give their regards. Glasses and bottles of champagne lined the lunch counter. Mr. Flannery and Mr. Sanchez looked pleased and a little loopy in their black suits, white shirts and blue ties. I had stipulated they stop being referred to as Lawyer Flannery and Lawyer Sanchez. Their wives were nearby, explaining to all that they were looking forward to having their husbands home more. No one believed them, but went along with it anyway. Betsy was keeping the cheese and meat plates full while Sam, seven months along now and showing every bit of it, was cutting cake and scooping ice cream. My job was to empty the trash.
I walked out the front door of the store and stood out on the sidewalk, enjoying the cool October night. I watched the party go on through the display windows of the store, still laden with a seldom changing assortment of sun faded merchandise.
Inside, I could see Mr. Flannery, who, caught in his own deception, couldn’t file his own lawsuit. Neither could he engage another attorney without exposing his own malfeasance. Flannery could not accept that humiliation.
I could see Mr. Sanchez, who, while living his own lie, tied his future to his life-long friend. While I could never get a straight answer out to either of them as to why they never sat for the bar exam, I just assumed from Barnett’s history that they got busy working right after graduation and never took the time to take the test.
I could see Betsy, who believed herself to be a faithful employee and a caretaker for two elderly men. She claims that she had only found out that her employers were not really lawyers a few weeks ago, when she started doing some digging and found out that they were not members of the state bar.
I filed the lawsuit, and it was included in the settlement conference. Mr. Flannery received a fair amount for the damage to his land and livestock. Mr. Sanchez received a share of the attorney’s fees in the case, but pursuant to our agreement, their cut was more like a finder’s fee.
The attorney of record was me, Michael Shore, representing Flannery and Sanchez. I filed the lawsuit only after Mr. Flannery and Mr. Sanchez agreed to my terms. The firm would receive twenty-five percent of the settlement, with sixty percent of that going to me, ten percent going to Betsy and Mr. Sanchez each, and twenty percent staying in a firm account that only I controlled.
I was very clear with them. If they agreed to my stipulations, their secret would be buried forever. They would retire and I would take over the practice. And they would damn well like it. I had anticipated a fight, but both seemed relieved to finally have a way out.
I turned and looked at the front of the building, once again taking pride in seeing something that gave me a thrill every morning. The lettering on the door read “Flannery, Sanchez and Shore Law Office”. I dropped the “Attorneys at Law.” Mostly because of the three people that were listed on the door, only one truly was a lawyer.
I walked back into my place of business, shaking my head. I work in a dime store.
And I am okay with that.