Beware the power of the gatekeeper.
January 14, 2015
ONE OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS is always the gatekeeper, the person who comprises the first line of defense. In the courtroom setting, this person is usually called the “court coordinator.” Woe be to the lawyer who gets on the wrong side of that bitch, I mean, that public servant.
Judges, especially in large jurisdictions, are usually swamped day in and day out. So, they rely on their coordinators to handle the details of organizing their work loads. This practice results in a tremendous ceding of judicial power to a bureaucrat who mans the front desk like a honey badger during mating season.
Truthfully, the coordinator may be a pleasant person, interested in the efficient management of justice. But sometimes, he is little less than a petty tyrant who wields the power of his position like a sledgehammer. They don’t teach you any of this at law school, but if you expect to succeed in a trial practice, you’d better know the book on various coordinators. In some cases, these clerks can grant or deny continuances, set bonds, appoint attorneys and make all sorts of quasi-judicial determinations.
And they know it. They know they can pave the way for the lawyer, or make her life hell.
And they won’t hesitate to do either. They know how to drop just the right word at the right time to create an impression in the judge’s mind about a particular litigant. “Woodfin in an asshole,” they might say. “He just yelled at me on the phone.” So, when I step in front of that judge, I am already in a deep hole.
Or, they might say, “Woodfin is one of the good guys.” No more, no less. Think how much good that might do in the case of a close call on a crucial issue.
The ability to finesse a court coordinator is one of the greatest courtroom skills any attorney can possess. This creates endless possibilities for the writer.
So, here’s your assignment: Write a scene where a lawyer from another jurisdiction walks into the court coordinator’s office wearing a thousand dollar suit and rudely demands to see the judge. Now, have his opponent, a local lawyer with years of built-up goodwill, walk in behind him and “nice” his way in to see the judge. In the legal profession, that’s what you call being “home-towned.”