Legally Speaking: Free legal advice, from people who learned the hard way

By John G. Browning | Mar 18, 2013

Someday, I’ll be tempted to write a book full of practical advice for young lawyers just starting out in their careers.

But until then, I’m content to pass along some legal pointers from people who learned the hard way, as the following examples illustrate.

Tip No. 1 – There are Creative Defenses, and Then There are Just Plain Stupid Defenses

A man in Iran charged with bank robbery tried to mitigate his responsibility by claiming that he had made the mistake of trusting a “sorcerer.”  The would-be bank robber paid this would-be wizard the equivalent of about $500 for a set of spells that would render him invisible and enable him to rob all the banks he wanted.

Unfortunately for the aspiring holdup man, the spells didn’t work and he was apprehended (I hear he didn’t fare too well with these magic beans from someone named Jack, either).

Moral of the story: don’t trust strangers.

James M. Seehaus of Brevard County, Fla., didn’t do too well in the excuses department either.  He told police that he robbed a 7-Eleven convenience store on June 28, 2012, because he was upset that his fiancée refused to have sex with him.  Not surprisingly, Seehaus didn’t get a very receptive audience.

Tip No. 2 – Don’t Claim “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel” If You Represented Yourself

Christopher Clark was convicted last November in Memphis, Tenn., of 12 felonies ranging from carjackings to weapons charges to assaulting a police officer.

Clark went 0-for-12, in part because he insisted on representing himself despite the fact that the court had appointed counsel for him.  Now, Clark wants a new trial, citing as a basis ineffective assistance of counsel.

While the judge hasn’t ruled yet, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that you shouldn’t get a second trip to the salad bar of justice on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel when you were stupid enough to represent yourself (and have a fool for a client).  Get used to prison food, Mr. Clark.

Tip No. 3 – Don’t Be Surprised by Disappearing Acts, Especially When You Sue a Magician

Illusionist and entertainer Raymond Teller—best known as the silent half of the “Penn & Teller” performing duo—sued a Dutch magician, Gerald Dogge, for copyright infringement.

Apparently, Teller holds the copyright (registered since 1983) for a magic trick entitled “Shadows,” and Dogge allegedly ripped off the illusion by posting a video of it to YouTube and offering to reveal the secrets behind it for $3,050.

Teller has sued Dogge in federal court in Nevada, but he’s having trouble serving the Dutchman with legal process, reporting to the court that Dogge has “evaded personal service and cannot be located in Belgium, Spain, or in any country in Europe.”

Teller has, however, managed to email the legal paperwork to Dogge and prove that he opened it.  So, sleight of hand, Houdini-like escape artistry, and the ability to disappear in a puff of smoke only count for so much when the long arm of the law (with plenty up its sleeve) is after you.

Tip No. 4 – Ask a Stupid Question and You are Almost Guaranteed to Get a Stupid (But Entertaining) Answer

The rather humorless, rigid prosecutors with Great Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service may need to become a little more flexible when it comes to their official paperwork.

After a recent arrest of a suspect whose apprehension was facilitated by a police K-9 unit, the prosecutors insisted on getting written statements from all officers involved, including one “P.D. Peach.”

Even after they were informed that “P.D.” stood for “Police Dog,” and that Peach was in fact a canine, the prosecutors maintained that they needed a statement from everyone—no exceptions.

Exasperated, Peach’s handler filled out a witness statement form that reads as though the Alsatian itself had dictated it: it says “I chase him—I bite him—Bad Man—He Tasty—Good boy—Good Boy Peach.”

The form was even “signed” with a pawprint.

A photo of the form was posted on Facebook and on several police Twitter accounts by a West Midlands Police constable.  Let’s hope the Crown Prosecution Service learns to lighten up.

Tip No. 5 – Say It With a Straight Face No Matter How Ridiculous You Sound

Lawyers, as advocates for their clients, sometimes have to make some silly statements.  It helps to have a poker face, perhaps like the attorneys representing several San Antonio, Texas, strip clubs who are embroiled in a federal court lawsuit against the city of San Antonio over new restrictions on sexually oriented businesses.

Recent city council moves have tightened zoning regulations, addressed how much skin must be covered up, and restricted just who qualifies as a sexually oriented business.

The gentleman’s clubs’ lawyers have argued that these measures interfere with constitutionally protected free speech (an argument that has succeeded before).

But in extolling the benefits of strip clubs, the lawyers venture out onto much thinner ice, claiming that dancing in topless bars “creates an improved self-image for the dancer,” improves her self-esteem, and leads to “a socially fulfilling experience for both performers and patrons.”

I suppose that if the daughters of any of these lawyers started “working the pole,” the news would be welcomed because of all that “improved self-esteem.”

Yeah—I didn’t think so.

Tip No. 6 – Be Careful When You’re Put on a Pedestal, Because You May Fall Off (Literally)

It helps to keep your wits about you when people put you on a pedestal; not only does it keep you grounded, but it just may save you from literally falling off and causing a lawsuit.

George Washington University law professor Dinah Shelton could have used this advice in 2011, when she was delivering a lecture at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, part of being honored with the law school’s Myres S. McDougal Distinguished Lecturer in International Law award.

Shelton fell as she stepped back from the podium, breaking her heel.  She’s filed a lawsuit, claiming that the lecture platform was “unreasonably small in width and depth” and that it didn’t account for “the expected, planned, reasonable and foreseeable movements of Professor Shelton as she gave her lecture.”

Perhaps the law school should either invest in a bigger stage, or at least vet its future honorees with a simple question: “If we give you this award, do you promise not to sue us?”

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