Urban Law 101
What I Didn’t Learn in Law School
Adventures with black clients
by Donald Williamson
I grew up in a suburb of a large northern city, and had no real contact with blacks until I became a lawyer. After I got my law degree I naïvely looked forward to a rewarding legal career. Little did I realize that 25 years later I would be a self-employed attorney doing domestic and civil litigation for a clientele that is overwhelmingly black.
I didn’t plan it that way. I just wanted to do a lot of work in the courtroom, and the best offer I got out of law school was with a small firm that specialized in bankruptcy. Most of its clients were black. Several years later, I set up an independent practice and many of my former clients came to me for domestic work.
Most people do not realize this, but outside the world of corporate or securities law, in any big city the legal profession is to a large degree fueled by the pathologies of blacks and other Third-World people. Of course, whites hire lawyers, but in any city, especially one with a good-sized black population, most of the people who need lawyers are black. In this respect, lawyers are like police officers or social workers — they rarely deal with ordinary white people.
To a large degree, I became racially conscious because of my black clients, who eventually destroyed all my preconceived notions about race. My awakening did not come from one or even a few incidents, but from the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of small interactions.
Day after day my clients continue to amaze me. There is no racial education quite so thorough and convincing as spending time with blacks, and my clients are far from being the poorest and least competent blacks. They are not indigent criminals for whom I am a court-appointed lawyer. They are people who can afford (or think they can afford) a lawyer to get a divorce, contest a custody judgment, beat a traffic ticket, etc. Some are government employees who make $60 to $70 thousand a year, yet even this group is vastly different from whites.
They Don’t Know
One of the most striking things about my black clients is the things they do not know. Many blacks, for example, do not know their own telephone numbers. They may think they do but they don’t, and the problem has gotten worse with the proliferation of cell phones. At least a third of the numbers they leave with my receptionist or on my answering machine are wrong numbers. Often, a potential client will call several times, each time leaving a variation of the same phone number. I keep calling until they get it right. At first I thought I was taking down the numbers incorrectly, but now I know better. With caller ID, it is clear when what the client says does not match the digital display.
Some callers don’t even leave a number. About a quarter of the messages blacks leave do not include either a name or a number. Needless to say, many calls are not returned.
More than a handful of blacks who have come to my office do not even know their own home address (they move often). Many cannot tell me their own spouse’s names. Now I know to tell clients ahead of time that they will need this sort of information when they come in. Otherwise, if I ask for someone’s address he may look hurt and say, “If I’d known you were going to ask me that I would have come prepared.”
Many black men know their children’s names but do not know how to spell them. With the proliferation of unusual names among blacks, I can only guess at how they are spelled. One client who told me he couldn’t spell his children’s names said I would need an encyclopedia to look them up. Many men have admitted to me they are not even sure how to pronounce their children’s names. Black woman, on the other hand, often become incensed if you mispronounce the very unusual names they have given their children.
The most unusual name I ever came across was Iisszzttadda. I have never met a person, white or black, who could pronounce it correctly. To my surprise the name is pronounced, “I seize the day.” Iisszzttadda had siblings named Raheem, Utopian, Desiorme, Sid-Timothy, Kizzma, and Larilaril. I have occasionally asked clients the reasons for such unusual names, but the most common answer is “I don’t know. It just sounded good.” This is the answer I got from a mother who named her child Latrine. (See sidebar for actual names of blacks I have encountered in my practice.)
I once had a client in my office who did not know his own name. He had been called by his nickname for so long he couldn’t remember his given name. This is not as shocking as it sounds. Some black names, like Phe-anjoy or Quithreaun or JyesahJhnai, are so odd, it would be no surprise if they were never used and eventually forgotten.
Names are not the only things blacks do not know. Once when I was filling out a form for a female client I asked if she knew how old her husband was. She told me she didn’t know. I asked her the next question on the form, which was her husband’s birth date. Amazingly, she knew it — and was genuinely surprised when I told her she could figure out her husband’s age from his birth date.
When potential clients call for the first time, often the hardest part is to figure out why they are calling. Usually they begin in the middle of the story. If you let them, they will go on and on, and say nothing. Clients may call about papers they got in the mail, but never have the papers in front of them. They may call for information, but never have a pen or pencil ready to take it down. I have learned to ask direct questions: “What is your name?” “What is the problem?” If a client cannot tell me in three minutes or less what the problem is, I tell him to come to my office and bring a small retainer fee. That way at least I will have to listen to their ramblings only if they are prepared to pay.
Blacks with whom I have already spoken seem to think I should know instantly who they are when they telephone. After I get on the line, a typical conversation may go like this:
“Who am I speaking to?”
“I am your client.”
“I have many clients, can you tell me which one?”
“I am your divorce client.”
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Rufus, can you tell me your last name?”
The conversation may go on for some time before I finally figure out who is calling.
I do not take personal injury or product liability cases, but blacks are always asking about bringing suits of this kind: “My vacuum cleaner broke. Can you help me?”
Most of my clients who are not black either show up on time for appointments or call if they must reschedule. Amazing as this may seem, only about five percent of my black clients show up on time, and by that I mean within an hour of the appointed time. Only one in five show up on the appointed day. A few trickle in a day or two later. Most just never show up. Missing an appointment never embarrasses black people. They call repeatedly for new appointments, making four, five or even six appointments and then miss them all. I had one client who called more than 50 times before he finally came to my office. Rarely do I ever get a call from a black client canceling an appointment.
When I first started out as a lawyer I would call clients in advance to remind them of their appointments. They thanked me, but it made them no more likely to show up. Also, I used to call clients and potential clients who missed appointments, and try to have them reschedule. This did very little good. The most common response was, “Why are you calling me?” and it was never their fault that they didn’t show up. They had many different excuses, but I never heard, “I forgot,” or “I’m sorry I didn’t make it.”
Since appointments mean so little to my clients, I decide each day when I am available, and tell everyone to show up at the same time. On Saturday afternoons I can have as many as twenty appointments for the same time. Usually it is not a problem because few show up and even fewer show up on time. Only once in the last 20 years did everyone show up.
Many of my clients are unable to explain even the most basic facts. Often they must take the witness stand, and no matter how many times we have gone over the testimony in advance, I can be surprised by what they say. Some are simply lying and get tangled up in their lies, but most have such low IQs, they cannot describe even the simplest things. Often they seem to say the first thing that pops into their heads. When they are questioned further they cannot remember what they said previously.
I once had a client whose wife was suing him for child support. In discussions before trial he told me he had two children from a previous marriage. This was favorable for him because it meant he would probably owe his current wife less money. At trial, his wife testified that my client had no children outside of their marriage. When I asked him on the stand how many children he had before he married his current wife, he said he had none. Later I asked him why he had answered that way, when he told me before that he had two other children. “Did I say that?” he asked. I never found out which version was true.
Many of my clients have a hard time following simple directions. Once I appeared in traffic court with a client. In lieu of a conviction he was to see a traffic safety movie. The courtroom was on the second floor of the courthouse, and the traffic safety movie was shown on the first floor. The client was to come back to the courtroom with proof — which would be given him on the first floor — that he watched the movie. Both the judge and I explained this to the client. At the designated hour my client did not come back to the courtroom. Later that afternoon I got a call from the judge, who told me my client had completely misunderstood the instructions. He went to the nearest commercial movie house, saw a movie, and brought back his movie ticket stub.
Long ago I stopped asking my clients why they did something. It is not worth the effort. Most don’t know. The ones who know usually cannot give a coherent answer. Even if they can give a coherent answer, it usually changes every time you ask.
For example, one of my black divorce clients tried to hide assets from his spouse — this is not uncommon. Through discovery it came to light that he had secretly bought a piece of property after the divorce had begun. He put his wife’s name on the title, a very odd thing to do, since he was trying to hide the property from her. I made the mistake of asking him why he did that. True to my previous experiences, he could not give an answer that made sense.
Clients sometimes tell me they knew they were being cheated, but signed the papers anyway. I have given up asking why they signed, because I know I will not get an intelligible answer.
My clients make mistakes in written and spoken English that are often comical. One client in a criminal case told me he was telling the truth, and was willing to take a “polyester test” to prove it. Another told me he desperately wanted to see me, and needed an appointment “between Tuesday and Wednesday.” One who bounced a check told me the problem was “insignificant funds” in his account. I have had clients who have “profiteering” plans at work, want an “uncontestable” divorce (or a “detested” divorce, or an “untested” divorce), had “insects” (incest) in the family, need an “annoyment” (annulment), want a free “flirtation” (consultation), ask about my “container” (retainer), want to “consultate” about a divorce, or had to meet with “media people” (mediation counselors). One man told me, “I own a car but it is not mine,” and one who was accused of indecent exposure insisted, “I didn’t take my stuff out of my pants.”
It took me some time to understand certain kinds of black slang. Within the first month of my independent practice a man called to ask if I could “put a suitcase on a cat.” After much inquiry I realized he wanted to know if I could file a law suit against someone. Within the week I got another call asking if I “did luggage.” Since I now knew about suitcases, I said yes, I do luggage.
I pride myself on doing good work for my clients, but I cannot remember even once being thanked or complimented by a black client. They do not observe even the most common courtesies. Also, with rare exceptions, blacks will never admit they made a mistake. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, it is always someone else’s fault. The most common excuse blacks give is, “They are putting me through the changes.” I have yet to figure out exactly what that means.
Most people tell lies because they think a lie will help them. I have come to the conclusion that most of my clients cannot distinguish between a plausible lie and a wild fairy tale. They are convinced people will believe anything they say. Clients often tell me some fantastic story I cannot possibly defend in court. If I tell them what they are saying is unbelievable the usual reaction is anger and screaming. Typically, they will add, “I’m paying you. You have to believe what I say.”
Cats on a suitcase.
Sometimes, despite my warnings, clients will get on the stand and tell obvious, outright lies. The judge may interrupt the testimony and tell me to go outside with my client to “get your story straight.” They are not going to sit in court and listen to fairy tales. I take my client outside and tell him he has got to tell the truth, or at least say something believable. My client then starts screaming. “Why are you talking to me this way? You’re supposed to be on my side.”
I once had a client testify about his assets in a divorce case, in which the court was to determine whether he should pay his estranged wife temporary support. My client was a store-front preacher, and testified that he lived in the marital residence with his wife, though in separate quarters. His wife testified that he was out living with his “ho.” My client went on and on about how this was impossible because he was a Man of God. I thought he was lying. The judge ruled that if my client was living with his wife he should share household expenses, which he was not currently paying. At this point, my client realized there was a cost to pretending to be a Man of God living with his lawful wife, and changed his tune. “Judge why are you believing me?” he said. “Believe my wife. I am nothing but an old lying nigger.” No one in the courtroom could stop laughing.
“Outside kid” cases are one of my specialties. For those not in the know, blacks call any child born out of wedlock an outside kid. Black men are good at making children but not at supporting them, and this can be a terrible burden under laws written with white people in mind.
In my state, the parent who does not have custody — almost always the father — pays a percentage of net income to the parent with custody — almost always the mother. The mother gets 20 percent of the father’s net income for the first child, 25 percent for two children, and up to 50 percent for five or more children. What if a man has children by several women? Each mother gets 20 percent for the first child, so a man with five children by five different women is supposed to be paying 100 percent of his income in child support. I once had a client who had 12 different children by 10 different women. Theoretically, he owed 250 percent of his income. These laws simply don’t make sense for blacks. Judges have to decide each case as best they can.
Not surprisingly, the average black client will not pay child support unless it is deducted from his paycheck. Many refuse to work, or leave a job to avoid paying. Job turnover is very high among blacks, and the court system has a hard time keeping up with them. Some blacks quit on purpose, and move to another job so as to keep one step ahead of the collections.
Whenever I ask a potential client whether he has paid court-ordered child support he will almost invariably answer with one or more of the following: “I always helps my kids.” “I gives the mother money whenever she asks.” “I am always there for my kids.” “I buys my kids whatever they needs.” It almost always turns out they have paid no support, haven’t seen their children in years, and at best may have paid for some basketball shoes.
Seventy percent are “outside kids.”
Children do not always seem to have the same importance for blacks that they do for whites. I was in bankruptcy court once waiting for my client’s case to be called. A black debtor — not my client — was before the judge trying to convince him to approve his bankruptcy repayment plan. The judge told him he could not afford both his Cadillac and his children, and had to give up one or the other. The debtor immediately said he could not give up his car, and therefore the judge would have to take his kids. The judge threw up his hands and walked off the bench. On another occasion, the same bankruptcy judge told a black debtor he could not afford both his Cadillac and his house. The debtor replied, “You can live in your car but you can’t drive your house. Take my house.” This was many years ago and tastes in cars may have changed, but I learned how important Cadillacs were to blacks.
In one respect my job is very different from that of a policeman or social worker: I have to make sure I am paid. I try to get paid in full before I agree to represent a client. If I am not paid in full before the case is over I know I will never get any more money. Clients have a hard time understanding they are paying for an attorney’s time. Invariably, if a client drops a case before it is over he asks for a full refund. Their reasoning goes something like this: “I paid for a divorce and I didn’t get one, so I should get all my money back.”
Once I sued a client who didn’t pay me. I finally garnished his wages and was paid in full. About six months later he called to ask me to take his next case. I told him I didn’t want a client that doesn’t pay his bills. He became indignant. He said I got all my money, so what did I have to complain about.
To hear my clients tell it, banks are constantly “messing” with their checking accounts. At least that is what they tell me when their checks bounce. Most of my clients do not have checking accounts, and pay cash. The ones who do have accounts have no idea how much money is in them. Many clients have written me checks on accounts that were closed.
Black clients yell and scream at me every day; I have learned that this is normal. They are like young children who don’t get their way. I usually ignore these outbursts, though screaming back at them is usually more effective. I have been threatened with physical violence only twice, and once I had to call the police to escort a client out of my office.
My experience is hardly unique. Most of the lawyers I know have practices similar to mine. Most lawyers therefore are racial realists even if they do not admit it openly. Their actions and comments are no different from mine. People who have daily contact with minorities, who know first-hand that there are racial differences, are likely to be the best prospects for any movement that promotes racial consciousness. They don’t like dealing with blacks, but that is simply part of the business. If they can’t take it anymore they get into some other line of work.
More important than house or kids?
One lawyer I know moved to the country so he would have white clients. He had lived in the big city all his live, but was willing to pull up all his roots to get a different clientele.
Recently the supreme court in my state ruled that a lawyer can be disciplined for communications that racially denigrate litigants. For that reason I cannot write this article under my own name, much as I would like to. I must hide behind a pseudonym for fear of falling victim to our politically-correct supreme court.
Donald Williamson practices law in the Midwest.