Editors at Work: Painful Experiences With Lawyers (Part One)

By Jack Limpert

Like many longtime editors, I could write a book—with plenty of tear-stained pages—about dealing with lawyers.  Here’s a start.

I  did go to law school. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree that was useless in the job market, I thought that being a lawyer might be interesting and well-paid work. I had some GI Bill left that paid a monthly stipend plus tuition, so decided to go to a good law school in sunny California and got into Stanford. After two weeks there, it was clear that the law wasn’t that interesting—there’s case law (what judges decide) and statuatory law (what legislatures decide) and then a lot of specialization. A lawyer also could  be a litigator and try cases in court, but I figured I didn’t think fast enough to be good at that. So I stuck it out until the first year was almost over and then found a job in journalism, leaving sunny California for the UPI bureau in Minneapolis. This experience is relevant only in that it convinced me that there is not much mystique to the law and that law schools are how colleges and universities make a lot of easy money. Some people claim that law schools teach you how to think—the logic course in the philosophy department at Wisconsin helped do that, but law school didn’t.

The Washingtonian once ran a story about auto theft in the region; it was written by someone who had graduated from law school. Several questionable characters appeared in the story, but when I gave it a final reading, it looked legally safe. Right after the issue came out, a lawyer sent me a letter, threatening to sue on behalf of one of the questionable characters. He said it was libelous to say of his client “Among his other criminal activities…”  when the client never had been convicted of a crime.

Whoa, where did “Among his other criminal activities” come from? It wasn’t in the final galley. Oh, the copy editor said, the writer inserted it at the last minute.

Lesson number one: Have a last line of defense against problems of libel or invasion of privacy—it probably should be the editor or a senior editor. Once the final version of a story is cleared, no changes can be made without that editor or senior editor okaying it.

It was a relatively inexpensive legal lesson—a  four-figure settlement and retraction.
Over the years The Washingtonian spent a lot of money battling with lawyers but only one threatened suit went to trial. We ran a story about the interesting ways that law firms sometimes break up. In one case, two lawyers abruptly left their firm and the story said they “stole away in the night with client files.” The two lawyers sued, alleging that the “stole away in the night” line accused them of stealing, of a crime. Our defense was to say that the words were used the way William Shakespeare used them, to mean it was done quietly. Lots of pleadings and legal bills but the trial didn’t last long and the DC jury didn’t give the two lawyers a penny. After the verdict, the writer of the story talked to one of the jurors, who said, “We didn’t like those two guys right from the start.”

Lesson number two: I never again was casual about words like stole away. And juries can be your friend but they can be unpredictable.

Postscript: As for the idea that a litigator has to be a fast thinker, I once had lunch with one of DC’s top litigators and told him about my law school experience and my feeling that I didn’t have the quickness of mind to try cases. He said, “Everything is letters, pleadings, interrogatories, depositions, settlement talks. I never go to court.” But that’s the civil stuff, where the big money is, not the criminal stuff that is so much fun to watch on television and in the movies.

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