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Whither Perry Mason

In my youth, I always admired TV’s premier attorney, Perry Mason. In every episode of the series, steely but sensitive Perry (Raymond Burr) would take on a client who was apparently guilty, persevere in a seemingly hopeless case even when his client lied to him, and undertake countless hours of detective work (never mind researching the law – he seemed to know instinctively its every twist and turn). In the end, he would not only prove his client innocent but uncover the guilty party in a dramatic courtroom confrontation as well. And to top it off, the only time a fee was mentioned was when Perry would waive it or turn it over to some needy person.

Everyone says Perry Mason is a fantasy, and even as a teenager watching reruns of the series in the sixties, I knew that the existence of such an attorney was unlikely. Nonetheless, the image persisted in my subconscious, so I was not surprised by the generous nature of some of the lawyers I dealt with in everyday life.

Take the “parrot man.” He was a young attorney who lived in and practiced out of a three-story, 1800s building on Canal Street. What I remember about him was that he usually had a pet parrot on his shoulder (a little too pirate-like, I thought), and that he said that he would only charge me half his fee if he lost my case. (He lost, but his heart was in the right place.) Then, there was the lawyer who informally advised my 22-unit co-op. I had known him for years, and he gave us free advice on a lawsuit we were considering. He was a loquacious fellow, always reeling off stories about cases that he had won through outrageous legal stratagems, and I always thought he often took on a case not for the fee but for the anecdote he could get out of it. (We never tried out his advice, so I’ll never know how good it was.)

Finally, as a writer for Habitat, I have spoken with many lawyers on everything from sublet policy and proxy voting to construction contracts and noise complaints, and their expertise usually left a good impression.

That brings me to the tale of the small building. I know of a smallish co-op that has had attorney ups and downs. With its first one, things went swimmingly for a long time – fees were reasonable, advice was good. In fact, he seemed to be a real-life Perry Mason – until he moved to a pricier firm. The bills gradually increased, and many on the board became unhappy. So, they changed attorneys, explaining to the new one their problems with prices. Mason-like, he said he understood, and again, things went swimmingly. He negotiated a deal with the co-op’s commercial tenant brilliantly. He handled a refinancing with aplomb. He was always reachable. But then, as will happen in romantic encounters and attorney-client relationships, he seemed less attentive and more careless. Calls were not returned as quickly, and the board would get invoices citing lengthy conversations that few could remember, along with research draft opinions that were cited but not shown to the directors. When the board members inquired about these problems, they were given long e-mailed explanations – for which they were subsequently billed. After the board complained, the attorney would always adjust his fees, citing bureaucratic errors. But it all left a bad taste in their collective mouths. With both lawyers, I would guess that the building was too small to be a top priority.

The co-op switched attorneys. This time, however, the board opted for a tiny firm whose principal frankly admitted he wouldn’t make any money in the short run but expected to get income from handling apartment transfers; he also hoped to cement his already-existing relationship with the cooperative’s accountant, who was connected with larger (and more lucrative) buildings. His frankness was invigorating. So was his backup staff, which was refreshingly “mom and pop”: his wife was his chief staff member, and his mother-in-law his office administrator. Slightly rumpled and deferential, this new lawyer was reportedly more Columbo than Perry Mason, but what the heck, you have to adjust your sights to the new economy. At least he didn’t have a parrot on his shoulder.

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