Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Eternal Frankie D.

Don McLean knew of which he spoke. Yesterday's paper did indeed drop bad news on the doorstep. A million years ago - or at least it seems that way sometimes - my first job out of law school was in a small plaintiff's PI shop in Plainfield. When I first started there - actually even before I was out of law school as I served as their law clerk (meaning I cranked out a lot of briefs, wrote a lot of motions and did a lot of on-line legal research courtesy of my free Westlaw subscription). I started working there shortly after the beginning of my final year of law school and upon graduation - and after having sat for the Bar - I formally joined the firm. It was while I was in the employ of a shop then known as Frost & Rhodes that I found out I had passed the Bar Exams of Pennsylvania (November 16, 2004 upon returning home from Boston where I had spent the day with the firm's senior partner Jack Frost doing some investigative work on a case) and New Jersey (Pearl Harbor Day - drove home at lunch from the office to check my mail). It was as a newbie at that firm that I took my oath and formally became a member of the Bar.

Ours was a little shop, more often than not maddeningly short on non-essential things such as funds to cover payroll and to keep the lights on, but loaded to the gunwales with colorful characters. That first Christmas Margaret and I were invited to the party that Jack and his partner Kirk Rhodes threw for the attorneys, staff and family. It was at that party that they announced that Frank DeVito had made partner. Everyone in our little group cheered loud and long. Frank was just one of those guys. Once you met him, you knew him forever. And once you knew him, you flat-out loved him.

From my pre-lawyer beginnings in the Fall of 1993 through June 1996 I worked at the firm that had given me my start in the law. I learned an awful lot while there - a lot of it good, a lot of it bad and all of it incredibly interesting about the law and the business of practicing law. The best part about my time there was that I got to work daily with Frank. Frank was in charge of the office's personal injury practice (we represented only plaintiffs) and worker's compensation practice (we represented only petitioners). We would meet in his office at day's end pretty much on a daily basis to review the day that was and the next day. There is a line in Springsteen's No Surrender, "We learned more from a 3-minute record than we ever learned in school" that aptly sums up what those daily skull sessions were like for me. Frank knew how to practice law. He did not pretend to be the most scholarly guy in the world and he carried himself with no artifice or pretense. But he knew what a case was worth, what it could be resolved for, the difference between the two and how to secure the former - and not the latter - for our client.

His ability to schmooze and to win people over benefited not only him. I became his tip of the spear guy for a lot of municipal court work that we took in and invariably before sending me off to battle on behalf of a client who probably deserved better than a still wiping the soap from behind his ears rookie, he would pen a note on the back of his business card addressed to the Municipal Prosecutor in the town where I was going. Nothing elaborate. Just a quick hello and a "be good to my boy" type of thing. Some of the best deals I have ever struck in municipal court were clinched upon a prosecuting attorney saying, "You work for Frank? Tell him I said hello. Now what are we going to do here?" or words to that effect. Once you met him, you knew him forever. Once you knew him, you flat-out loved him.

The advantage to being a newbie in a small, unpolished, trench warfare type of law firm (think "The Practice" circa Season One) is that unlike a number of my fellow newbies I got dropped into a vat of fire immediately. No one hides a newbie in a small firm in the rear office. Nope. You are sent off to defend depositions, take depositions, argue motions, appear at arraignments, negotiate settlements, negotiate plea deals and just about everything else under the son. And you are sent to do it before the ink has dried on the fancy law license the State of New Jersey gives you to display in your office.

Frank taught me the ropes with a velvet touch. I made more mistakes than I would care to admit - though I shall long remember them - and each one regardless of its slightness or its heft would cause me to seek his counsel. He was a priest and rabbi all rolled into one. No matter what I did - including when what I did created a mess that he would immediately have to clean up behind me - he would send me out to battle every day with the same credo, "Do your best and do your best to not commit malpractice" and he would send me home every night with the same pep talk, "You did not commit malpractice today. Tomorrow you will get up and do then exactly what you did today. Now go home."

My favorite memory of Frank is from shortly before I left the firm in June 1996. We used - as a lot of businesses do - postage paid reply envelopes. However, because we had failed to make timely payments on our account with the Postal Service and had not in fact paid the postage that was due and owing on those envelopes, we went a period of slightly more than 45 days in which we received none of them. Finally, upon paying the past due amount we were able to pick them up at the Post Office. A lot of them contained a Release that a client had signed to settle his or her case, which settlement had been held up by the fact that the signed Release had never been sent to the insurance carrier and/or to the defense attorney. How could it? It was trapped in limbo at the Post Office. Frank and I spent the better part of three days not only matching up Releases to resolved matters but then talking to insurance adjusters about how quickly we could get the settlement funds once the Release was received and - more than once - popping over to a claims office with the Release in hand to get a check issued while we waited. Check in hand, we would then endeavor to locate our client so that we could get the check signed and deposited into the bank so that we could thereafter issue a check to our client.

As part of our blitzkrieg operation we had to go door-to-door in the projects in Plainfield attempting to track down a client who we discovered had moved at some point after he signed his Release and sent it back to the firm. There we were, two white guys in dark suits wandering around a high-rise complex calling out the same name over and over. Bringing up the image in my mind's eye I never fail to think of Aretha Franklin in The Blues Brothers Movie when Jake and Elwood wander into the place she owns with her husband Matt "Guitar" Murphy and order lunch. Trust me when I say that the description of, "two honkeys who look like Hasidic diamond merchants" fit us - one a middle-aged Italian and the other a young Irishman - to a "T".

And the funny thing about all of our great adventures and misadventures was that we got done what we needed to get done......including getting our "lost" client to come to our office within a day or two of our hard-target search for him to sign his settlement check so that we could get him his money and ensure that the firm collected its fee.

Frank D. DeVito died on Monday. The obituary reports that he was a place he loved, home, surrounded by those he loved and who loved him the best, his family, at the time of his death. He was an extraordinary man for a million reasons that might - if taken alone - strike you as being eminently ordinary. I learned a lot from Frank during my "apprenticeship". I learned a lot about being a lawyer. I learned a lot more about being a man. About accepting both good fortune and tough luck with grace and with dignity.

Safe journey Frank. And many thanks. I owe a debt that I shall never be able to pay in full. But tomorrow is another day. And I shall be back at it. Continuing to apply lessons learned. Learned from a man I was fortunate enough to meet when I was young. A man who I was fortunate, upon meeting him, to know forever....and, well, you know the rest of the story.


1 comment:

Tara and Jerry said...

sounds like quite a man, Adam. Beautiful eulogy for him. I hope that his family is doing OK. Cas