Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Pay Phone: A Very Short Story About Law School

The 1Ls filled the big classrooms, grinding through Contracts, in perpetual states of anxiety, fear and exhaustion. In the atrium, a few 2Ls and 3Ls relaxed on benches and chairs. Some chatted over their wraps and snack bars and Nalgene bottles. Some highlighted cases and book-briefed cases for the next class. Some disappeared behind screens and headphones. One napped without shame, her hood over her eyes, sprawled on a couch. The space was public, but their possession was open and notorious. Their domicile is the law school, and the atrium is their residence.

On the balcony above, two professors stopped to talk about the Dodgers’ strong start. A student hovered nearby, waiting for her chance to ask a quick question, worrying if she were near enough to get their attention without being intrusive. Across the way, an administrative assistant backed out of the library and hoisted a bulky box full of blue books and Scantron sheets.

When the phone rang, most folks reached for their mobile devices. The Boomers did not notice anything peculiar. The Gen Xers recalled the hint of a bygone sensation, and their minds toggled to an emerging memory dredged up from childhood. The Millennials registered the anachronism first, because the ring was too loud, too insistent and all the way across the room. Nothing vibrated in their hands, and no one raised a phone to their ears. It was an actual, honest to goodness bell. For a few of them, this was a brand new experience.

All eyes turned to the pay phone on the wall that none of them had noticed before. It rang again. No one moved to answer it, and everyone wondered who would. They think like lawyers, and all of them were analyzing the facts, their duty to answer, the defenses for not answering, the potential liability attaching if they did answer, the ownership of the phone, the likelihood of needing to help whomever was calling, the time before the next class, and the social cost of being the one person to do the peculiar thing. It stopped ringing.

Their obligation, if any, was waived. The professors asked each other if they had ever noticed that pay phone before. The hovering student chuckled to make herself heard and to move up the conversation queue.  The sleeper slept, and the people who had taken out their ear-buds put them back in.

One of the professors wondered why the law school still paid for a pay phone if they couldn’t afford more research assistants.  The other said that it would probably not survive the renovations planned for the summer.

It rang again. Everyone stopped, looked at the phone and looked at each other. They dared each other to answer it. One of the professors looked over the rail at a group of her students and pointed, “Come on, y’all, somebody answer that thing! It won’t bite.”

“No way! That’s how horror movies start,” said the articles editor for the law review, a once aspiring actress. She got laughs, but no one stirred. It rang and kept ringing.  It did not switch over to voicemail. 

With a shrug, a 3L marked his place with a highlighter and walked across the room. All eyes on him, when he put his hand on the blue receiver, it stopped ringing. The tension broke as he shook his head and returned to his cases, but it rang again before he made it back to his study group.

“Go faster,” commanded his moot court partner.

“Fine!” He put his hand on the phone, and it rang again.

Pausing a beat, he answered, “Hello?”

Everyone watched him as he became increasingly cross and concerned.   “Ma’am…” he tried to interrupt the caller, “… Ma’am?   Could you, could you hang on just a second?”  He looked at the keys to find a mute button but gave up and put his hand over the receiver.   “Is anyone in a clinic?   She’s calling about the clinic.” 

“Yeah,” an eager 2L said as she grabbed a pad and pen.   She was all about client intake, just not usually with an audience.   She took the receiver from the 3L who was happy to let her take over.  “Hello?”

Tethered to the phone, she perched her legal pad on her knee and leaned against the wall.   Most of the students went back to their work.   One of the professors walked down and stood nearby to keep watch over the student. 

“Yes, ma’am, but do you know which clinic represented you?”   She made a note but shook her head. “I don’t know that clinic.   I’m in another one, but I can ask….” She struggled to take more notes.  For long stretches she tried to listen, tried to take notes, tried to understand.  She tried to catalog a story, but she couldn’t get a question in edgewise. 

“Ma’am, do you have a number…. Ma’am?”  She stood up straight and spoke louder, “Ma’am, are you there?  Can you hear me?  I think we dropped the call?  Hello?”   She hung up and looked at her teacher.  “That was weird.”

“What did she say?”  The professor directed the law school’s elder law clinic and had taught the student in her professional responsibility class the previous semester.

“Well, she was talking really fast and said she didn’t have much time. I think she said that the Family Law Clinic had worked with her on a custody order before she went to jail but that she had just gotten out and wanted to see her kid.”  She looked at her scratchy notes.  “I think.  She was mad.   She was talking really fast, and it was hard to understand her.   She said she was running out of time, and didn’t have any change? Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” the professor smiled.  “She was calling from a pay phone, and you have to pay for the time you talk.  If she was the one trying to call before we answered it, she probably ran out of money.” 

“Oh.  I wonder how she got this number.  Do we have a family law clinic?”

“We used to, but the funding ran out a few years ago.  We transitioned the practice to other clinics when we got new grants, but that was like 15 years ago.  Did she say who helped her?”

The student checked her notes, “Um, Tracy? Tracy something?” 

“Tracy Welty, probably.   She was a professor, but she retired.  She moved back home, somewhere in the South, I think.  I wonder if we still have the client files.  Do you know her name?”

“She was talking too fast.  It was a sketchy connection.   She said it, Tamika, Tamara, something, but I didn’t catch her last name.  It was very loud where she was.” 

“Did you get a number?”

“No, but if she was calling from a pay phone, I don’t know how we can get her.  Can we call the number back?  I don’t even know where she was.  ”

“I don’t think so.” 

“What should I do? “

They pondered for a moment. The professor asked, “What clinic are you in?”

“The Immigration Clinic.  We don’t handle family law things.”

“I know.  Neither do I.  Why don’t you ask Prof. Williams what she thinks, and I’ll ask some of the older folks if they remember a case like this.”

The student capped her pen and flipped her legal pad back to her class notes.  “I feel bad for her.  I hope she calls back.” 

The doors to the big classrooms opened, and the first-years poured out into the common area.   The professor smiled at the student, “You did a good job. We do what we can.” 

The professor headed back to the faculty suite.   The students packed up, and most of them moved toward the auditorium.  A guest speaker was giving a talk on something, and there was free pizza for lunch.

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