Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Musings, 23 June 2012

Good morning,

As I write, the sounds of joyful creatures fill the air. I hear crickets, I think, or perhaps cicadas, although I think of katydids as more talkative in the evening. But something chirps, rhythmically and loud; and the birds sweep from branch to branch in a style that I find comforting in the face of the nastiness on the front page of my morning paper.

At dinner last evening, with friends, we played the "Leisman Lunch Game", courtesy of our friend Matthew Leisman, with whom we dined along with his lovely lady Sara Madson and a friend of theirs. The game consisted of identifying people, alive, not relatives, not friends, with whom you would have lunch on the five weekdays. We went round the table, identifying increasingly interesting choices. Then we played another game: What was the worst job you ever had? What was the best? I close my eyes now, and think back, to the days when I had a job -- before I discovered the monumental freedom and calamitous curse of self-employment, when I still had to toe lines and meet the stifling expectations of others.

My worst job. . . It's hard to choose between being the maid in a convent and an otherwise pleasant job as a unit secretary in a psychiatric hospital which included the duty of observing electro-shock therapy sessions, a grim task that seared itself on some otherwise harmless corner of my brain, never to be forgotten.

My best job. . . leaving aside the banal, knee-jerk response of motherhood, unquestionably the most rewarding position that I've held is saving family farms from foreclosure. The thrill of setting foot down upon land that would have gone into bank inventory but for my deft and sometimes disingenuous legal maneuvering cannot be gainsaid. I've had the privilege of casting my gaze in a wide circle over the tops of gentle mountains, from the vantage point of acreage nestled on the peak of one of them where a small herd of cattle would continue to graze, for another cycle of interest payments at the very least.

I've hustled from a Louisiana courtroom, four months before my son's due date, labor pains having started hours before, my pilot and co-counsel each reaching for burdensome trial bag and pocketbook, hearing the outraged mutters of a Federal Land Bank officer telling his attorney: I can't believe we got beat by a pregnant crippled girl from Arkansas.

A fancy lawyer from St. Louis once moved to have me barred from humming in the presence of the jury in a civil suit in Dade County, Missouri, in defense of a farmer who had invented a unique apparatus for cultivating but lost the patent rights and subsequently stood to lose his land. The judge tilted his head, and asked me if I had been humming, and what the song had been. On hearing that I had actually been humming "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", the judge overruled the motion. We got that jury verdict, and settled in the hallway to save the homestead and avoid a likely reversal on appeal.

I argued jury instructions until midnight in Brookfield, a country code-phrase for striving to avoid the evisceration of our case through directed verdict. I heard the judge chide my boss for his seeming indifference to the process, and smothered an ill-timed smile at my employer's response: I already know what I'm going to say to the jury, Your Honor, so it doesn't much matter to me what you say to them. Left with a sole count of breach of contract, we nevertheless got to the jury and again, negotiated in the conference room across from their sequestered deliberations to save our client's homestead and a small parcel of surrounding land. We got the jury verdict once again, but it had no meaning other than to wet our appetites for the next case.

Through the 1980s we cut a swathe across the country, negotiating debt restructuring, attacking the feeble credibility of bank officers who handed out loads of cash and then pulled the plug when drought hit, and finding ways to let land go without sacrificing homes. We were reviled by fiscal conservatives who blamed the farmers for mishandling their businesses and castigated by government employees who felt they had no part in the pending demise of the American family farmer. We crafted causes of action that seemed dubious to many, and might have been. But in the process, we found a few smoking guns, including, most famously, a Farm Credit in-house private memorandum of which I still, somewhere, have a copy, in which it was said that no client of ours should ever be offered a deal, lest our efforts be validated and encouraged.

Looking back on that day, from the advantage of twenty more years of law practice, two decades of talking to others, reading the newspaper, and listening to the occasional pundit from both sides of the political spectrum, I understand both the pluses and minuses of what we did back then. Our work at times gave a second chance to a competent farmer, but some times merely prolonged inevitable failure. While we did find evidence of what could be called predatory lending practices, at times dramatically revealed in full-size exhibits in front of judge and jury, more often we found sad, unfortunate turns of events that no one could have foreseen -- the devastating droughts of the mid-1980s, the growth of commercial agri-business, the evolution of society away from rural life with new generations decamping and leaving aging fathers, mothers, and grandparents with no one to take up the plough from their tired hands.

The faces of those days still loom large in my memory. Careworn, worried and gray, most of the men and women who hired us bore themselves with dignity tinged with resignation. I followed my boss into the well-scrubbed kitchens of farm wives across America. I pretended to eat their land-raised beef, pulled hip-boots over my Mary Janes and toured pig sties, and hoisted myself, with assistance from a rough-skinned but gentle hand, to the backs of tractors. I shook the dust of their fields from my suit before taking my place at the counsel table in courtrooms throughout the Midwest and the South, with folders on my table and a full retinue of somberly clad bank lawyers opposite me. Most of the time, I could find a soft spot in the heart of someone, and it was often the bank officer, who in many instances attended the same church as my clients, whose children sat in the same small school house as my clients' children, and whose father and mother were buried in the same cemetery as my clients' people.

In one courtroom, a bank officer turned to his lawyer and said, Enough. Enough. I can't do this. You go sit outside, and let me talk to Miss Corley. I think me and her can figure this thing out without your fancy double-talk. Just step outside there, Bob, and let us work. And work we did. He wrote the debt down to the value of the land, culled out the family home and ten acres, and forgave my client anything above the value of the remaining property. My client lost his farm but kept his home. He took the deal. It's been a long time since that happened, and I do not know if he regretted following my advice. But the banker and I knew that what we did was right, and so, I hope, did God.

I held that job from 1989 to 1992, when I left the sinking ship that was the law firm where I had these magnificent experiences. It fell from grace to grief six months after I quit, toppled by some bizarre fee practices that cost my boss his law license in the end. I understood the folly and the fury of the place. The lawyers who started the firm had all gone to law school after suffering foreclosures, and their goal was to prevent others from experiencing the same sad fate. The goal's virtue got lost in the utilization of indefensible means to serve laudable ends, a course of action in which I was not asked to engage and of which I was unaware until after the fact.

On account of my job with that firm, I learned some of the best lawyering tactics that I've ever known. I also learned some of the worst. I got involved in wildly impractical efforts that sometimes shocked even us by succeeding, and I met characters, including Gerry Spence and Willie Nelson, of whom my opinions radically changed because of standing in their shadows. I sat in some of the smallest air craft imaginable, and landed in some of the worst airports on earth. I once gripped the right arm of a pilot as I huddled in a pair of coveralls, pregnant, skinny and scared, as he set the Cessna 150 down in an icy cornfield, bringing it to a shuddering stop beside my client's pick-up truck, on a clear, dark January night in northern Missouri.

Several of the people with whom I worked at that firm have since died. The rest are scattered, in private practice or social service jobs. Occasionally, I hear about one of them, and I've connected with a couple on Facebook. I rarely reflect on that time, except to remember the birth of my son, and our journey home. But when asked, despite the fact that my last few paychecks never cleared, and even though, a year after leaving, I sweated through an hour-long interview with an FBI agent, I can honestly say that saving American family farms from foreclosure was the best job I ever had.

Except, of course, for being a mom.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.