In The Belly Of A Beast
Today, a column from the archives, first published in 2014. One of my favorite old war stories … hope you enjoy it.
Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes, from little boo-boos to big screw-ups. Sometimes the consequences are inconsequential, sometimes dramatic and tragic.
All of us have something we wish we had handled differently, when our behavior fell short. You could fill an entire library with books describing human imperfection. And lest I be placed on a precariously high pedestal where I don’t belong, I’ll share a story that confirms my own frailty.
When I suffered in the belly of a beast.
After I left working on high profile cases in the big city and became a country lawyer in the Philadelphia suburbs, I basked in the warmth of my newfound independence and freedom. Finding office space, buying furniture, getting everything set up for my private practice – it was an exciting time. Expensive, but incredibly exciting.
New life, new job -- I loved it. And, as my practice grew, it’s no exaggeration to say 97% of my clients loved me. This being an Equal Opportunity column, there were always a few clients who didn’t appreciate my advice – bad news served up on a crusty, old bagel isn’t very appetizing. But within a short time in the ‘burbs, I had earned a reputation for competence and professionalism among my new suburban peers.
Among my corporate clients was a medium-sized company that sold soft pretzels, an iconic symbol of the City of Brotherly Love. Their product was sold in major league baseball stadiums throughout the east coast. In the extended universe of soft pretzels, my client was a market leader.
The corporate sailboat hit rough waters when the company expanded into a new product line – small packets of frozen fruit juice that were packaged in colorful triangular cartons and sold in school cafeterias.
Kids loved ‘em. Problem was, a NY company was selling a nearly identical product in nearby market areas, employing the same colorful triangular cartons. In a NY minute, they filed a lawsuit claiming trademark infringement.
My client handed over the pleadings. “Get us out of this. Do whatever it takes.”
The lawsuit was filed in New York City, not Pennsylvania. It’s helpful to know that state laws differ greatly, including the window of time in which to respond to legal pleadings. When the Pennsylvania lawyer got around to looking at the New York lawsuit, he nearly fainted.
I missed the deadline.
The plaintiffs had already taken a default judgment against my client.
The consequences for failing to timely respond to a complaint can be catastrophic. In over three decades of practicing law, representing thousands upon thousands of clients, it would be the only time I missed an important filing deadline.
Right then, I wanted to die. I was mortified.
Despite my grievous blunder, I had earned enough “cred” in the bank that my client stood by me. They were confident I would rectify the problem and get everything back on track.
That’s when I entered the belly of the beast.
I began a three day marathon session to get the case reopened, canceling appointments and working 72 straight hours. Preparing petitions, making phone calls and researching caselaw. Other than short catnaps at my desk, I didn’t sleep, shave or shower for three days. My beloved office manager took care of me, bringing me food and coffee.
In all my years of practicing law, I never felt so much stress. If I couldn’t get the case reopened, my client would be barred from selling competitive products in the most lucrative markets. The financial realities weighed on me with the force of a Greyhound bus.
Late one afternoon, living within the beast of my own creation, I looked out my window … eyelids seemingly supported with toothpicks. I was probably seeking divine guidance, but instead saw a UPS truck at the stoplight. The driver was smiling and happy.
A freeze-frame moment burned indelibly into my sleepy brain.
I was overwhelmed with envy. I would have given everything to trade places with that driver. I’m not kidding – anything to rid myself of the unbearable pressure.
The truck drove off. My stress remained.
Despite the predicament, I never lost confidence in myself. The lawyers in NY were acting like typical tough New York City lawyers – attempting to bully me with threats.
Clearly, I surprised them by not rolling over submissively, but responding with some Philadelphia aggression of my own. I always ascribed to the theory that the best defense is often a well-planned offense – a lawyerly punch in the nose.
With petitions to reopen the case in hand, I met with plaintiff’s lawyers in their posh Manhattan offices, forcefully arguing my case. We could duke it out in court at great expense of time and money, or we could be reasonable and negotiate a settlement acceptable to both our clients.
Was I blustering? A little. I had some caselaw on my side, but it was no slam dunk.
My aggressive bluster worked. Over the course of two days, we hammered out details of a settlement my client was thrilled with. My client agreed to some minor design modifications and would change colors on their packaging.
The case in NY was withdrawn; my client could sell their products anywhere.
Honestly, it was almost a total victory.
On the train ride back to Philly, contemplating my astonishing reversal of fortune, I managed a weak smile. I had crawled out of the belly of the beast.
Woozy, but victorious. Shaken, but not stirred.
No longer envious of a certain UPS driver.
I wadded up my raincoat to make a softer pillow against the window.
Gently removed the toothpicks … and fell … fast … asleeeeee …
R. Michael Owens, of Colorado, is a certified rascal and raconteur.