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There is Power in a Name

by Lindsey Gilman 15 days ago in fiction


There is Power in a Name
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Bethany Hart was a young litigator. She rarely remembered the name of a case after it was over. Maybe that was because Bethany did not seek out the memorable or even groundbreaking cases. Bethany was a young female entering the ranks of a gritty career, so she wanted to blend in but perform well enough that her competency was not questioned.

That plan worked well for a bit until a senior male attorney came down with a medical emergency two years into her career. He was the face of a messy police case that she was assisting on in the shadows. Bethany enjoyed remaining transfixed in the background keeping mundane cases chugging along. She did not go to law school to remain hidden, per se. But if she was honest with herself, speaking up brought unwanted attention and more work, which meant more lattes than she could afford under her associate salary. No one at the firm asked her to take on the role of either thinker or persuader. That suited her fine.

But there was that pesky medical emergency. The case was high profile too. It was the kind of “moral fight” case that she did not want her budding reputation associated with. The allegations were messy: the plaintiff was a precarious character with a host of prior felony convictions. He fled police to avoid getting caught for yet another act of felonious behavior. He failed to evade capture and her cop client caught him, but not without a cost.

The plaintiff was left permanently disfigured. He looked gruesome, and his attorneys ruthlessly advocated for their injured client who sued the cop. Naturally, the plaintiff claimed the police used excessive force when he was apprehended by the police. None of his suspected crimes were violent or particularly radical, but the crimes were felonies no less.

Bethany ignored any uncomfortable details, especially the plaintiff’s disfiguring injuries, and kept her focus on her client, Tommy Woods. Tommy was a stellar and handsome detective. She had compiled his credentials into a neat list. It felt good comparing it to the other side’s nonexistent list of respectable achievements.

Bethany believed her client was the obvious winner of this case for roughly two years. It was a trap. She assumed that police officers garnered natural sympathy and admiration, so she never played devil’s advocate. Her side would win at trial; she was sure of it. The other side was represented by a law breaker, which is the type of person that rarely pulls at anyone’s heart strings. He would not win. Bethany was surprised that her thinking had become so black and white, but she surmised that this case fell neatly into simple thinking.

Because of its optics, her client wanted her to perform part of a mock trial in front of fake jurors. This was not a task that would have been assigned to her had her co-counsel remained healthy. Its purpose was aimed at determining the merits of both sides’ arguments before the real trial happened in a few months. She was given the task of representing the plaintiff because she was familiar with the case. She felt sick. She never allowed herself to consider whether the plaintiff had any meritorious arguments. Bethany grew up respecting law enforcement and assuming criminals were appropriately dealt with regularly.

She justified buying a few extra lattes and eventually got to work. The allegation of excessive force was captured on video. She had always found the post-op photos unsettling but mentally repeated her mantra: “He had it coming.” She listened to the plaintiff’s testimony that was taken by her former co-counsel, the one with the medical emergency. The plaintiff was surprisingly soft-spoken and emotional. Even candid. Without realizing that this evidence humanized him, she was excited that she had some workable testimony for her presentation. She knew that she needed to present his story well enough, in roughly the same way his attorneys would, so that the mock trial was worth the time and money. Her client was footing the bill. She figured she could accomplish that task robotically.

Later that day, Bethany started writing her opening statement perhaps a little too soon. She was still convinced that the case demanded simplicity. She felt distant from the story, so writing it felt like a forced homework assignment. She decided to read more about the plaintiff and his life. He had a young child at the time and very little money. He had also spent most of his life in prison but there was no evidence that he was a violent guy. It was ironic that he suffered such a violent apprehension.

A few hours into it though and she felt worn down. She called her boyfriend Trent to discuss dinner plans. He asked what was keeping her at the office so late, and she explained her task. Trent, a non-lawyer, also asked her why she kept referring to the other side as “the felon” or “the plaintiff.” The question gave her pause. “His name is Brian,” she eventually responded. She ended the call and contemplated why Trent’s question gave her pause.

Bethany had spent almost a year viewing this case clinically in her office. She had not mentioned Brian’s name once in her half-written presentation. She was not referring to him by name in thought or spoken word either. “Brian.” “His name is Brian,” she ruminated. Why was that so hard for her to do? Bethany stretched, stopped working, and stared at Brian’s bolded name on her computer screen.

Even she had to admit that Brian seemed terrified both during and after the incident and she noticed that he had no shame in admitting that he fearfully fled police. “Did he deserve permanent and gruesome injuries?” she asked herself. The hard part for her was simply realizing that this case transcended pen and paper. This case affected an actual human being.

Bethany came to realize that she needed to enter the dreaded “grey zone” that this case screamed. Her black and white thinking was getting her nowhere on this presentation. This case deserved more from her. That medical emergency gave her a gift: she could inhabit the dual roles of both thinker and persuader. She went to bed unable to cloak herself with that gift just yet.

She dashed home and welcomed her bed. Unfortunately, she slept through her alarm and woke up frantic. Memories of her dreams flooded her thoughts. None of them seemed particularly comforting. Her office was even less comforting. Her robotic new co-counsel Jordan was already there and had entered her office eager to brag about his progress on the presentation. He had the easy job of representing their client in the moot trial, which was only a few days away.

Bethany found his presence uninvited. He claimed that his presentation was easy to craft because this was a simple case about a cop using reasonable force to apprehend a fleeing felon. He insinuated that his presentation theme was going to be the well-known cliché: The ends justified the means. Bethany remembered not too long ago when her thinking fell so neatly into naivety.

Jolting her back to real time, Jordan asked if she had a photo of their client Tommy looking polished in his police uniform. He left with it and returned seconds later laughing because he found it humorous that he had forgotten to ask her for a copy of the plaintiff's booking photo. It was an unflattering photo. “Here’s the photo of Brian that we have on file,” Bethany replied. “Brian?” Jordan asked. “Oh yes, Brian,” he snickered. Jordan would not let it go. “Are you trying to get into character early for the presentation?” he sharply questioned.

Bethany was horrified that referring to a human being by his first name was not appropriate in this clinical setting. But, she realized, Jordan had referred to Tommy by name with ease. Why was that so much easier to accept?

Once Jordan finally left, she carried on and replayed the video of the incident over and over in her closed-door office. It dawned on her that Brian’s attorneys had a lot to work with. No doubt Brian’s attorneys would admit that their client was not a saint. They could not ignore his sizable criminal record, but she felt vulnerable and embarrassed for thinking an argument like that carried the day. The nitty gritty details would fall in Brian’s favor. Frankly, he was the underdog in a sea of privilege. Brian humbly admitted that he messed up in his deposition testimony, which was taken under oath.

But, contrary to his soft-spoken nature, he forcibly argued in his deposition that he never expected to look like a monster for the rest of his life. Bethany felt as if she had been operating under a trance for the past year: Her client unleashed force onto Brian with such quick timing that any form of contemplation seemed questionable. Surely making such a large decision required a few moments, even seconds, of careful thought.

Cliches have a way of encapsulating complicated concepts. She would counteract Jordan’s lexicon with one of her own: power comes with great responsibility. Despite the cheap cliché, she found herself relishing in deep thought. She was the thinker.

For the next few days, she allowed herself to enjoy the writing process and view Brian as a human being. Referring to him by name in thought and spoken word made the process enjoyable. On the morning of the presentation, she was frightened with her own success. Her presentation was good, but it was only persuasive because she had admitted to herself that her client’s case was not flawless.

After drinking too much caffeine, she touched the cold but commanding podium and had a conversation with the jurors. And she did just that. It was not a time for argument or condemnation. She proudly displayed a photo of a blind lady of justice in her powerpoint presentation.

Bethany's story was one in which an imperfect man had made mistakes but suffered an unimaginable result. His nonexistent polished list of credentials did not diminish his humanity. She relished in being given the privilege of presenting Brian’s story even if it was short lived in a contrived environment. She was the persuader.

When Bethany eventually forgot that her client was listening to her every word in a hidden room behind her, she felt goosebumps fill her arms and emotions emerge. “Am I going to cry in front of all these people?” she fretted. Her eyes locked with a captivated juror. Bethany’s voice quivered and a sense of genuine but contained emotion enveloped her. The audience seemed struck by the story and visible emotion.

She finished and returned to face her client seated in the hidden room behind her. Tommy looked at her as if she had committed treason. She tried to explain that she was just doing her job. He reasoned that her emotion was for theatric effect. Bethany did not correct him. She wished she possessed acting skills of any enviable nature.

Jordan commanded the podium after her and conveyed a narrative filled with blame and argument. There was no story or conversation with the jurors. Jordan’s oration felt wrong, but she maintained a brave face in front of Tommy.

The moot trial jurors rendered a quick verdict in favor of Brian. Bethany kept her excitement to herself. After deliberating, she asked them why. A juror spoke up and proclaimed, “You were the only person that mentioned Brian’s name.” Another said, “We realized that Brian was still a human being whose mistakes, past or present, did not diminish his constitutional rights.”

She was surprised that the jurors came to that result without her making that argument directly. There is power in a name. Maybe she would seek these kinds of cases out after all.


Lindsey Gilman

Aspiring writer. Lover of all things challenging. Always looking for a good story.

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Lindsey Gilman
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