Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Judgment Day

Last week, the blog Letters of Note revived a famous exchange of correspondence between two attorneys in 1988. Wyoming lawyer Becky Klemt wrote to several practitioners in California, seeking assistance with collecting court-ordered child support from her client’s ex-husband, who had skipped town to the Golden State. Stephen Corris, an Irvine-based international trade specialist, attempted to decline the opportunity politely: "Without sounding pretentious," he informed Klemt six weeks after her original letter, "my current retainer for cases is a flat $100,000, with an additional charge of $1,000 per hour."

Klemt fired off a cheeky reply, which quickly circulated throughout law firms around the country: "Steve, I've got news — you can't say you charge a $100,000.00 retainer fee and an additional $1,000.00 an hour without sounding pretentious. It just can't be done. Especially when you're writing to someone in Laramie, Wyoming where you're considered pretentious if you wear socks to Court or drive anything fancier than a Ford Bronco. Hell, Steve, all the lawyers in Laramie, put together, don't charge $1,000.00 an hour." After outlining her small firm’s intent to join Corris in his highly profitable global practice by relocating to California ("where evidently people can get away with just about anything"), Klemt assured him that the original client was "willing to pay you $1,000.00 per hour to collect this judgment provided it doesn't take you more than four seconds."

The exchange went as viral as could be in the pre-YouTube era, with photocopies and faxes of both letters making the watercooler circuit. Klemt found herself an unlikely celebrity, dubbed "the funniest lawyer in America" in a 1990 front-page Wall Street Journal article. The ABA Journal followed up a few months later, after Klemt had appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and received an offer to pose for Penthouse magazine. (She declined.) For his part, Corris defended his reply as satirical in a follow-up letter to the Wall Street Journal, stating that "Without taking anything away from Ms. Klemt’s well-worded riposte, I sure wish that I had not been taken so literally by so many."

But one other player in the tale was less amused: Klemt’s client, Marcia Broomell, whose judgment Klemt had written off after several months and dozens of fruitless letters to other California attorneys. “'Sure, sure, it's all incredible,'" Broomell told the WSJ. "'Now a thousand lawyers know about my plight, and not one of them can be bothered to collect my money!'"

Thankfully, there’s guidance out there for attorneys with clients in Broomell’s situation. Judgment Enforcement, 3d ed., a 2009 looseleaf treatise (KF9025 .B762 & full-text in Westlaw: JDENF database) includes chapters on "Basic Aspects of Judgment Enforcement," as well as state-specific guidance (including - yep - California). It and similar titles can be found in the Duke Libraries catalog with a subject search for "Executions (Law)-- United States". For help locating additional materials on judgment enforcement, be sure to Ask a Librarian.