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Shiny White Shoes

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I had depositions Friday with a lawyer named Stillman. Stillman, like many lawyers, has no past. It’s as though he was born in his office, at age 35. This is because Stillman doesn’t want you to know his past. He was born in some middle class development in Long Island, but fancies himself landed gentry. He’s working a tired “white shoe” marketing angle.

There are many definitions of “white shoe” out there, but in Philadelphia, it generally means working for a firm at least 80 years old and carrying oneself as though you’re above all the commoner non-WASPs who have polluted this storied profession in the past 50 years. Acting white shoe is similar to acting like old money. It’s really easy (and inexpensive) to play patrician here, since there’s almost none of the real article around for you to be compared against. The badges are simple. You wear solid or barely-striped Brooks Brothers navy or grey suits with black lace-ups, black socks and black belt. You wear your hair like Cary Grant in the 50s. Your shirts must all have buttoned down collars and, most importantly, they must be noticeably frayed. If your cuffs or collar, or preferably both, aren’t frayed, you must take an emery board to them until they are. French cuffs are forbidden. Only Italian personal injury lawyers and pimps wear French cuffs. Missing buttons suggest a thriftiness or disregard for appearance that often comes with blue blood eccentricity. You should rip the button off the cuff of at least two shirts you regularly wear and replace it with a safety pin. When someone asks why you’re wearing the safety pin, rather than just rolling the sleeve up, you can give him a puzzled look (“Do I look like Ralph fucking Cramden?”). And above all, the tie must be a conservative print or rep stripe. Ideally, it will look like a relic from prep school – rumpled, and inoffensively colored to match with khakis and a blue blazer. Stillman wears all the badges; he looks, at least as far as dress goes, like a circa 1975 photo of the elder President Bush.

Stillman, not surprisingly, works for a rapidly declining local firm that attempts to present itself as the ultimate white shoe outfit. If the bottom line were measured in pomposity, they’d have the highest PPP in this town. Unfortunately for them, it’s not. The business of law passed them by years ago. While everybody else in town was diversifying, they were holding committee meetings to debate whether their receptionists’ faux English accents were too Cockney, rather than the preferred Lancashire. They’re litigation heavy and hopelessly local, with no chance of developing a serious regional, let alone national, practice of any sort. Most moderately successful accountants make more than their average partner. Our HR people receive more resumes from their associates than any other firm in town. They won’t be gone tomorrow, but if you’re at that firm, you know, like Johnny Rotten sang about actual gentry on the decline in “God Save the Queen,” there’s “no future… no future for you…” At least not there.

Stillman and I battled all day during the deposition. He put on a show for his client, moaning and groaning a lot, as though the entire exercise was a waste of his time. There are several generic gestures and pantomimes that lawyers, and particularly these white shoe pretenders, use to convey contempt to an opponent. There’s the eye roll, the sigh, the shifting in the seat, the exasperated request for a bathroom break, the staring at the ceiling and the smirk. I must confess, I still use the smirk, not for strategic advantage, but to suppress laughter. When I’m defending a deposition, particularly one taken by a posturing blowhard like Stillman, I get bored. Stillman’s ilk tend to ask hundreds of senseless background questions at the outset (“What did you study during your junior year in India? Can you tie a proper slipknot?”). These immaterial questions are asked solely to “run the meter.” During these painfully dull exchanges I daydream about what would happen if I did a variety of absurd things…

What if I stood up, looked directly at Stillman and proceeded to lean over and, with no explanation or forewarning, slapped him across the lips? He’d fucking flip. Suppose I started rubbing my nipples through my shirt? I’d stop every time Stillman looked at me, then as soon as he started questioning the witness, I’d start doing it again. What if I took one of the sliced bagels from the food table behind me and began filling it with all the available condiments and snacks – mustard, ketchup, M&Ms, Sweet N’ Low, cream cheese – and started eating that sandwich in front of him? Suppose I just started screaming, and maybe placed my client in a headlock and rapped my knuckles on his head, then abruptly stopped, composed myself, apologized, and asked that we resume the deposition. I’d only do it once, and I’d never explain why it happened.

The smirk kills two birds with one stone. It allows me to stifle a laugh while also confusing my opponent.

“Why is he smirking? What does that cagey bastard have up his sleeve?”

Unfortunately, I was taking the deposition today, and Stillman was earnestly working all the pantomimes. He overacted – too forced in his delivery. When he stared at the ceiling and scratched his chin, he looked like a first year acting student doing Rodin’s Thinker. He also leaned back so far at one point that the chair began to tip over and he had to catch himself. As an experiment, and for a laugh, each time he looked at the ceiling, I did the same thing, which compelled his client to look up as well. After about an hour of this, the client snapped. “What the hell are you two looking at?” Stillman pulled his gaze from the ceiling quickly and caught me looking up. Until then, he hadn’t realized that I had been mimicking him.

“We just had it painted. Bone white. Nice, huh?”

“Are you going to ask questions, or waste more time” Stillman huffed, adjusting himself in his seat.

The few times I yanked an admission out of his client, Stillman went “off the record” and sniffed about how “none of this is going to make a difference at trial.” During the few heated exchanges where I threatened to call the Judge if his client didn’t respond, he called me unprofessional. At one point, he made a 2 minute speech on the record about how he’d be objecting to the entire depo on the grounds that I was trying to “enrage the witness.”

“Uh, don’t you mean ‘harass’ the witness?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’m just trying to be proper. We want to make a proper record. We are lawyers, are we not?”

“My client and I will walk out right now…”

“Ok, Ok, let’s just get this thing done.”

Basically, Stillman did his damnedest to make me feel like a dirty money changer in the temple. He even tried to belittle me during the awkward minutes of small talk at the conclusion of the deposition where counsel collect exhibits for the court reporter.

“You’re not from Philadelphia. You don’t have a local accent.”

“Thank you. No, I’m from ___________________”.

“Ah, I’ve been there. Interesting town. How did you make your way here?” Translation: “You’re from a sewer. How did you manage to crawl to the edge of the sewer?”

“I landed here by accident. I certainly didn’t pick this place. You’re from Hempstead, right? That’s just outside Queens. Why didn’t you work in The City?”

I know Hempstead. You know Hempstead. Hempstead is Amy Fisher territory. When Ralph Cramden dreamt of heaven, it was Hempstead. From a cultural perspective, Hempstead is an Exxon Valdez level disaster. Its clubs are the inspiration for SNL’s “Night at the Roxbury” skit. There isn’t a thimble’s worth of inherited or traditional anything in the whole town. If Hempstead has anything old in it at all, it’s the gold electroplated Italian horns on rope chains passed from generation to generation of the skinny young men wearing black leather coats and pounds of hair gel who saturate the area like mosquitoes in August.

Stillman nervously shuffled his papers, handing a collection of exhibits to the court reporter.

“Nice to see you as always,” he snipped, not even offering me a handshake as he gathered his briefcase and exited.

“Nice to meet you. Sorry it had to be under these circumstances,” I laughed to his client.

After they’d both left, I sat for a second, wondering if Stillman was really clueless enough to think that I wouldn’t read his online profile in advance. Or was he stupid and arrogant enough to believe I wouldn’t have the nerve to out him to his face? He’s at least smart enough to realize how transparent his act is, isn’t he?

[Read more from The Philadelphia Lawyer]


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