Early on in my former Chicago practice I was sitting one morning in misdemeanor court on West Flournoy street with a few other lawyers as we waited to have our cases called. Sitting next to me was an older lawyer in a badly wrinkled suit. He was desperately in need of a haircut and looked very tired. We started talking. He could tell I was new.
He asked me, “You want some friendly advice?”
“Stay away from felony court!”
“Really?” At that moment, I couldn’t wait to get to felony court. That’s where all the action is. The real cases. Jury trials. Certainly most attorneys don’t aspire to practice in felony court…but I did! To use a baseball analogy: I was a rookie and wanted nothing more than to play in the majors, and nothing was going to stop me.
“Yes, really. They will bleed you dry over there. Felony cases can go on for years, and you’ll have a hard time getting paid. Then you’re stuck. You can’t get out.”
I looked at him, thinking about what he had said but not really understanding him.
He went on. “True, here in misdemeanor court you don’t get paid much, so you have to have a lot of cases to survive, but nothing bad ever happens here. You know these police don’t show up over half the time and the case gets dismissed, and you look like the greatest lawyer on the planet to your client. But really, though, no one goes to prison here. Rarely does anyone get any county time. What I am trying to tell you is this: there are no really bad days in misdemeanor court. Over there at 26th and California in those felony courtrooms” he paused and slowly shook his head as if recalling an endless string of unpleasant memories, “over there there’s nothing but bad days.”
My case was called, and the conversation ended but I’ve never forgotten it. Probably unjustly, I wrote off that lawyer as being lazy and uninspired; perhaps too scared. But a few years later after I’d been kicked around in those felony courtrooms, I knew what he had told me was essentially correct. I did have trouble getting paid and had to write off a lot of bad debt, and there were more bad days than good; the walls of those courtrooms were covered in a grimy hopelessness that sticks to the soul. It was a disheartening place to work on most days. Rarely did anything good happen in that courthouse. There were victories, to be sure; but elation was short-lived and almost instantly effaced by the next sad story. It was an inglorious existence.
Had I made a mistake by not taking his advice? After a lot of thought, I answered no.
Had I stayed in misdemeanor court I would have been spared a lot of grief, stress, anger, frustration, sadness, depression; but I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to gain the experiences I did. And it’s quite a thing to try a murder case to a Cook County jury in that old courthouse; it’s both thrilling and frightening at the same time. To my thinking, it was the pinnacle of legal practice in criminal courts; it was the stuff of movies, television shows and novels–but real.
So, it was all worth it. The experience was priceless.