Friday, June 1, 2012

The practice of law

I was lucky enough to be sworn in to the Florida Bar in a private ceremony by a judge with strong connections to the Klausner family. He was excited to see me started and encouraged me to appear at that courthouse on business frequently. It’s a new building, he noted, modern and wheelchair accessible, with everything I would need. But he was only partially right. Yes, the courtrooms had no steps, there were ramps everywhere, the building had elevators and you could remove any chair to have me sit there, be it the counsel’s table or the witness stand.  But trying a case out of a wheelchair creates a number of other complications. In the courtroom what matters is not only what you say, but how you say it and how you present it. In law school I’ve taken a class on trial practice and a large chunk of our time was spent discussing where and how to stand, how to move with confidence and what to do with a podium. You put it in a different place during direct examination and somewhere else during cross. Sometime it’s best to move around during questioning, sometimes it’s better to stay still. It’s not just distracting theatrics- you want to convey to jurors that you’re skilled  and able and you know what you’re doing. Presentation is key and people tend to jump to conclusions- so you want to put your best foot forward. When I was presenting in that courtroom a few years ago, they had no podium I could use at the height of the wheelchair. That essential tool that lawyers read from, lean against for a boost of confidence or move around the room was missing. I was uncovered, there was nothing but me sitting in a wheelchair for the jurors to see. There was no place for me to even put my papers down. And not having any workable solution in place stressed me out even further. We are used to reading the body  language of people when they stand or walk. What they do with their arms, position their body, cross their legs. Those signals are obviously obscured when you’re in a wheelchair and you have to use your arms to wheel yourself around. And a lot of those jurors will take their assumptions and prejudice to the courtroom with them. Happens to anyone, even to judges.

During my class presentation I was marked down for not wearing a tie. Judge thought I was unprofessional or disrespectful . I couldn’t wear one because my neck is too large for my shirt size to comfortably button them all the way up. With the last one undone it doesn’t look much better with the loosen tie. But the reason doesn’t matter. What mattered was the judge analyzed and assumed things just by looking at me based on his experience. I’m actually grateful for this because it made me think about what people think and how I come across . Those are the instances we know of. There must be other situations I’m judged and I don’t even know. And then I’m slowed down by carpets in the courtroom. Think about it, I need to be quick and elegant when I come up to the judges table, to the stand and the podium, but my wheels are sinking in the floor. But I’ve noticed there’s one instance where I have the upper hand and it doesn’t matter. When I’m presenting about disability issues, because it appears like I speak from experience, like I embody the case.

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