Carmine Marasco used to tell a story about a rather nasty trick an old judge played on him while Carmine was just a struggling young lawyer. It was one of his favorite stories. Not only is it true; it even has a lesson to learned.
When Carmine was first starting out in the legal profession he had a case where his client had a claim against an insurance company. It was a very small claim and the insurance company decided to settle out of court. The only formality left was for the judge to approve the settlement and the legal fee to be paid to Carmine by the insurance company. That would take place in open court on Wednesday as part of the many “housekeeping” functions of the court. So Carmine was surprised when he was called into a meeting in the old judge’s chambers on Tuesday afternoon.
He was even more surprised that the insurance company’s lawyer (we will call him “Mr. Smith”) was there. The old judge got right to the point.
“Mr. Smith tells me you two have reached a settlement, ” said the judge.
“Yes we have your honor,” replied Carmine.
“How much were you going to submit for your fee?” asked the judge.
“Well your honor, it was not a very complicated case so I am going to charge $250.”
The old judge leaned forward and in a serious voice explained the situation to Carmine. “That’s too little young man. This is what will happen tomorrow. I will ask you how much of a fee you are submitting and you will ask for $1,000. Mr. Smith here will object and I will cut the fee back to $500. Everybody comes out ahead. Mr. Smith looks like he has saved his company money, I look like I am keeping legal fees down and you get twice as much money as you thought you were going to get.”
Carmine knew it sounded wrong. Hell, he knew it was wrong, but he went along with it. Not for the extra $250, but because it seemed impossible for a new young lawyer to go against an old respected judge and an experienced corporate attorney. So the plan was set for the next day.
On Wednesday the courtroom was packed. There were a lot of cases and motions to get through that day and the minor insurance settlement was just the first of many items on the docket that day. Every seat was filled with lawyers and their clients waiting their turns. None of them was paying any attention to Carmine. At least not at first.
Carmine and Mr. Smith presented the settlement to the judge who approved it without comment. Then Carmine presented his request for his $1,000 fee and Mr. Smith objected. Carmine knew that the next step was that the judge would agree with Mr. Smith’s objection. What Carmine did not expect was that the judge would start screaming at him at the top of his lungs.
“This is outrageous!” screamed the judge. “You should be ashamed to even try to submit a fee that high. Well young man I am going to teach you a lesson! I am going to cut your fee in half! You are only going to get Five Hundred!”
Every eye on the courtroom was now giving Carmine a hostile stare. They all thought of him as some sort of money gouger. The type of sleazy lawyer that made them all look bad. On top of that the other lawyers in the courtroom were all now mad at Carmine for having gotten the judge in a bad mood before their cases came up.
Carine left the courtroom with his head down trying not to meet anyone in the eye. He realized that financially it had all worked out exactly the way the judge had told him it would. He had not realized, however, that the way the old judge would make sure everyone knew he was keeping legal fees low would be to shout it to the world, and shame Carmine in the process.
There was nothing technically illegal about what Carmine, the judge and the insurance company lawyer had done. But Carmine knew it was unethical. It bothered him so much that it was the first and last time he ever crossed that line.
Carmine Marasco went on to have a distinguished legal career and eventually even became a judge himself. He always kept in the back of his mind the old judge from the insurance case. He was Carmine’s perfect example of what type of judge not to be. After all, giving up your integrity isn’t worth the money.