Sunday, September 30, 2012

Who Are My Lawyers?-- Gilbert Schaffnit

     One of the first stories Gilbert Schaffnit told me was about his representation of Rodney Long in 1994.  Together with Gloria Fletcher they had been able to secure, in a jury trial, Long's acquittal following two federal grand jury indictments for drug conspiracy charges.  Mr. Long called Schaffnit his "F. Lee Bailey-like attorney," and said Schaffnit and Fletcher had  helped him "to team up with the Holy Ghost to beat this Goliath called the Feds."  Long went on to serve on the Gainesville City Commission for numerous terms.
     Mr. Schaffnit was not full of bluster or bravado when he recounted the story of that trial.  As a matter of fact, he said he had felt unsure about the outcome until the moment the jury announced its verdict.  "You never know about juries," he said.  "They are totally unpredictable.  I was nervous as heck up to that moment, and as surprised as everyone else afterwards."
     I like this about him.  He isn't skating by on conceit.  He understands his place in the big scheme of things, and knows that defense law is not necessarily about running all over the opponent, hollering and blaspheming.  Schaffnit has a sense of propriety, and doesn't want to make enemies.  "I have to keep working with these people, whether I win or lose a case," he said about government prosecutors and judges. So I retained him.  Some of my friends thought I should have chosen an animal of an attorney, a wolf, a lion, a three-headed monster.  But I didn't feel like hanging out with someone like that for the next who-knows-how-many years.
     He also regaled me with stories about the pornography cases he gets asked to defend, and a missing-person-whodunit-probable-murder case in Curacao--a tale fit for a bestselling crime novel.
     I guess it's standard practice for professionals to pull out these narratives as a sort of running oral history curriculum vitae for potential clients.  I do it myself, from time to time.
     "I had a patient with that same numbness and weakness in the legs, and I made the diagnosis of Guillaume-Barre," I've heard myself say.  Is this information--or boastfulness?
     Or, to a patient:  "I've seen that rash before--it's lichen planus, and here's what you do about it."  Sometimes stories are just information.  
     When Mr. Schaffnit recounts his memoirs he takes obvious pleasure in them, laughing at the funny parts, piecing together his identity for you, and everyone around you, out loud.
     What are clients thinking, when they sit around listening to lawyers' these war stories?
     What you're supposed to think:  This guy really knows his stuff, and he's smart, and experienced.
     What you're really thinking:  What do these stories have to do with me?  Am I paying for this time?
     What effect it finally has on you:  This guy's got the confidence, and reputation, and personality to handle my case.
     Mr. Schaffnit has a boyish charm, and not an ounce of malignancy.  He is acutely aware of politics within the local judiciary, and doesn't want to get in the way of the long-term aspirations of others--not even his opponents.  While this can be exasperating for clients who want to destroy their accusers as a way of exonerating themselves, that wouldn't be fair play for Schaffnit.  I think he felt genuine compassion for Corey Smith, my prosecutor, when Smith's big trial in Tallahassee flopped earlier this year. He had to make references to the case because it had been the excuse given by Smith for not paying attention to my case.
     "Corey Smith is incredibly busy," Schaffnit told me, as though expecting my sympathy.  "He's under a lot of pressure from his bosses, all the way up to the top.  They're under direct orders to find healthcare fraud, and prosecute."
     "Even people who aren't guilty?"  I asked.
     He didn't answer, at first, instead squeezing his lips together and looking up at the ceiling.  Then he said, "There's a lot more going on for federal prosecutors than you realize."
     Prosecutors are caught up in politics, and lawyers like Schaffnit are caught up with prosecutors.  I am a tiny fly stuck on one of the sticky strings of a political-judicial-financial web meant to capture dollars for a national system in arrears.  It's hard for anyone, even lawyers, to know the best tactics for extricating me from the entrapments utilized by our federal government.
     If it's true that the best lawyers are killer types, I'm doomed.  Mr. Schaffnit doesn't look lethal, and he's probably too cheerful to chop off someone's head in court.  But I can't discount his thirty-six years of experience in north Florida, taking on cases as unsavory as murder, rape, drug trafficking, child pornography, identity theft, and vandalism.  He seems to know everything about everyone in the northern and central Florida court systems--and "knowing the enemy" must count for something.
     Maybe his innocuous exterior is, in part, a bluff.  Despite his decency and bonhomie, and his harmless avocations (he loves to watch cooking shows), maybe he won't compromise when it's time to speak up on my behalf.  And postponing that time, frustrating as it is for me, seems to be part of his strategy.  

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