Opponents sometimes, colleagues always

chaz-ballBaltimore is sometimes accurately referred to as “Smalltimore,” a very small-feeling large community, vast in population but intimate in the near-constant experience of meeting someone who knows someone who you know. And within the legal profession, and then in a certain practice area within the profession, the community is even smaller, and that connectivity and network is even more interwoven.

Attorneys repeatedly are going to come across the same contemporaries, on the same side or the other side of the table. As professionals, as advocates for our clients, and as competitors, we can get into impassioned battles in motions, or negotiations or trials. But as colleagues, we must also be cordial, seek justice and, if doing so does not offend our ethical obligation to our clients, be fair. I once experienced that type of professional courtesy in the form of an opposing counsel who chose to back down when she could have done anything but.

Before I started with my current firm, I worked as a document reviewer while gaining experience freelancing district court cases, mostly criminal, all people I knew. During that period, I took on a very-small-quantity marijuana possession case I was confident I could get a not-guilty finding based upon insufficiency of direct evidence. I had done my research, diligently using a free subscription to Fastcase to draft a motion to suppress (which in retrospect was way wrong in formatting). For a very new attorney, I had a lot of experience in bench trials from my time as a student attorney in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I believed in the case and the motion, but I knew next-to-nothing about the judges in that court.

When I spoke to the prosecutor, she advised me that she would offer diversion, which I responded that my client would not accept. The prosecutor then offered to stet the case — which in retrospect was a fair offer — but one my client also did not want because it impacted the ability to immediately expunge the record. While I was confident we could go forward and was ready for trial, the assistant state’s attorney urged me not to and even asked another more experienced defense attorney to speak to me about having my client accept the stet.

After discussing the matter with my client, I again refused on behalf of my client. After spending a bit of time trying to come up with a solution that would be acceptable to both my client and the state, I spoke to the assistant state’s attorney about a very small number of community service hours in exchange for a nolle pros, to which she somewhat reluctantly agreed. She did not have to. I know she knew the potential outcomes with that judge much better than I did. And I know the she could see how much more that case meant to me, and my client, than it did to her.

The assistant state’s attorney could have fought the case, and I may well have been right in reasoning but wrong in result. But that prosecutor chose not to put me or my client in that position, and we were left with a fair outcome instead of fought-over one.

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