Don’t Call ‘Em ‘Ambulance Chasers,’ Trust Me

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

No doubt you’ve heard that line, or other variations of it, and may even consider it a capital idea. Lawyers, after all, are a scourge, a plague maybe even “a pox on both your houses.” Aren’t they?

Ok, I stole that line from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and while it has no connection whatsoever with members of the legal profession, in some minds lawyers = the pox.

Remember this Julia Roberts line from her Oscar-winning performance as “Erin Brockovich?”

“You know why everyone thinks that all lawyers are backstabbing, bloodsucking scumbags? Because they are.”

This said after the attorney who took on her seemingly impossible, yet in the end hugely successful, fight against a polluting utility cautioned that her bonus would not be quite what she expected. He increased it, to $2 million. With her mouth gaping like a codfish, he answered, with a broad grin, “Do they teach beauty queens how to apologize? Because you suck at it.”

Roll credits, house lights come up and everyone – well, maybe not everyone – departs the theater with that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes when good triumphs over evil. Forget that in this story good, particularly the attorney, walked away with trainloads of moola.

But that was a movie, based on a true story, sure, but a movie nonetheless. In many minds, attorneys hold a spot high on the list of “The Utterly Despicable,” just behind child molesters and graverobbers. Well, maybe one notch above graverobbers.

Which brings us back to “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Is Shakespeare saying that we’d all be better off in a lawyerless world? Nope, dammit.

The line’s from “Henry VI” Part II. For you sticklers for accuracy – first, why in the name of Google or Yahoo! would you be reading my stuff? – it’s Act IV, Scene II, Line 73. As baseball legend Casey Stengel said, you could look it up.

Since it’s uttered by a guy with the less than savory name of “Dick the Butcher,” it doesn’t quite speak to purity of heart or an abiding concern for the common good. ‘Ol Dick backed a rebel convinced that erasing the rule of law would cut a path for him to capture the Crown, blah, blah, blah.

Every time I’ve uttered the “let’s kill” line in the presence of an attorney acquaintance I’m informed that it’s clearly pro-lawyer in intent. An Elizabethan counterpoint, I suppose to, “What do you call 100 attorneys at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.” Or, “What do you get when you cross an attorney with The Godfather? An offer you can’t understand.”

I love attorney jokes, the more spiteful, mean and unjust the better. Why, you ask? In addition to my attorney acquaintances, five members of my family are members of the bar in New York, California, Pennsylvania, Washington. D.C. and, I think, Virginia. Maybe New Jersey, but who cares?

If they formed one firm its name would likely be Kelly Kelly Kelly Keane & Skarka. That’s a brother, two sisters-in-law, a nephew and niece.

My penchant for arguing for argument sake has some referring to me as a “frustrated lawyer?” Isn’t that redundant? Sheesh! Just sayin’.

Seems I come by that trait honestly. DNA? Wouldn’t bet against it. When my niece interviewed for job with a Philadelphia firm a partner asked if she’d be up to working in litigation. Absolutely, she said, adding, “My family litigates over the last piece of Entenmann’s.”

Tru dat.

Some of my briefcase-toting, sensible shoe-wearing officers of the court relatives aren’t all that receptive to my gee-I’m-only-joshing jibes. And so, of course, I save the really bad (or good, depending on your perspective) lawyer jokes for them.

Top target is brother Dennis, who is closest to me in age and the person I most spent time with in our tender years. A teacher who became an attorney — not the only one of the five to do so — he worked his way up to partner in a Manhattan firm before moving with his attorney spouse and four kids to San Francisco. He’s a partner there too.

Proud of him? You think I’m gonna admit that? Whataya you nuts?

In my days as an ink-stained wretch (a local journalist), lawsuits became news with some frequency. Most were of the most bor-ring variety, such as an “Article 78,” a specific form of state court action in which a private party, say a developer with a big project in his pocket, challenges a “no” vote from a municipal entity, such as a town board, planning board or zoning appeals board.

Look, I told you it was boring. Think of what it was like trying to spin that into a captivating, compelling yarn. Especially since the State Supreme Court doesn’t second guess a town or village decision, it’s only called on to determine whether the determination was “arbitrary or capricious.”

Those terms raced through my brain on some sleepless nights, along with “draft environmental impact statement,” “side yard setbacks,” “preliminary plat approval” and “use variances,” to name just a few of the more arcane land use terms. I could have lived happy and fulfilled had they never invaded my cerebrum.

But every now and again, there’s a cool case. Yes, that’s the legal description. You don’t think so? Tough. For me, it came as an attempt to wrest control of Robins Island, 435 acres with only a few structures among the forest, fields and wetlands separating Great and Little Peconic Bays between the North and South Forks.

Been there a couple of times, C’est magnifique. (Hey, you could look it up.)

One score and I forget how many years ago, a gaggle of preservationists filed a federal action against the Island’s German owners, arguing that their deed violates the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution.

I kid you not. The suit’s name? “The Wickham Claim.”

The island and a big chunk of Riverhead belonged to a colonist named Parker Wickham, who, unfortunately, sided with the Crown during our colonial unpleasantness. The state confiscated his land and he died in exile in Connecticut.

His property was unlawfully taken, argued the preservationists, who wanted the county to gain title and prevent any development schemes. In court they claimed the current owners have no right to the land.

The judge tossed the case, citing many reasons, including a second arcane, well, to me anyway, term. Namely the “doctrine of laches.” In short, it says too much time passed. It all worked out, of course, when financier Louis Moore Bacon bought the island out of bankruptcy court and, by giving easements to The Nature Conservancy, ensured that no mansions, condos or casinos would ever rise along the five miles of bayfront.

Cool, right/ That story beats side yard setbacks to a pulp.

In the course of covering “The Wickham Claim” I came upon a second arcane, to me anyway, legal term called a “writ of mandamus.” What the…? In need of enlightenment, I conferred with the highest legal authority available – Brother Dennis.

He seemed less that happy to receive my call.

“Why would an editor out in the middle of nowhere need to know what a writ of mandamus is?” he asked. I politely — as always — and succinctly explained the case and issues involved.

It’s a judicial order, said he, instructing a person or entity to do whatever action they’re legally obligated to do.

Now, was that so hard?

I should have said thanks much, hope the family’s doing well, and hung up.

Instead, “Hey, Dennis, why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste and California get all the lawyers? New Jersey got to go first.”

At that point he got his Irish up and said something about how everybody badmouths lawyers, until they really need one.

‘Tis true, ‘tis pity, and pity is,‘tis true.

Came from “Hamlet,” that one did.


Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.

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