The Racquet Club

I was new at the firm, a lateral hire from a place I’d prefer to forget.  Three and a half years out of law school, the perfect time to make a move according to the headhunter who’d contacted me about the job.  “You’ve got the skills, they’re not paying you for them,” he said.

I asked him which firm he was calling about.  “Actually, I’m not at liberty to say,” he said.  “You may have heard of them, Harris & Block.”  I let that one sink in for a moment.  At 25 to 30 percent of my salary, if the guy placed two or three others besides me he’d make as much as I did that year; the legal recruiting business wasn’t attracting America’s best and brightest, but they were doing all right.

It was a matter of months and several rounds of interviews before I got an offer, and I was awfully happy when it came through.  It was conditional upon a phone call between senior partners at the two firms but I hadn’t screwed up in any significant way so I had nothing to fear.  That letter sized envelope—hand-delivered–was my ticket out of a hellhole where in less than four years time, I was already the most senior associate.

I still harbored some guilty feelings about leaving the firm that had given me a chance when I was just a tyro out of law school, but my guilt couldn’t overcome my sense of elation as I settled in at the new place.  I got a nice office, probably a better one than I deserved but it temporary until a smaller one opened up.  I was busy right from the start, but not so busy that I turned away anybody who showed up at the door of my office.

And so it was that I came to know Ray.  I’d seen him in the halls before, usually pushing a baby carriage.  His wife, I later learned, had left him.  It was the 80’s, women were doing that sort of thing, going off to discover themselves or something.  There were movies and books and magazine articles that validated the whole trend for women who needed encouragement to follow through on an impulse.

When he first stuck his head in my office he didn’t have the baby with him.

“You’re new,” he said, with a mixture of surprise and cordiality.

“Yes,” I said.  What else was there to say?

“I’m Ray.  Ray Goldberg,” he said, advancing into my office as if he were part of the firm, which he wasn’t.  I told him my name and he asked what kind of work I did.

“Debtor-creditor, commercial law.”

“Oh, okay.  I see why they hired you.  Nobody here likes to dirty their hands with that kind of stuff.”

“Yeah, I guess I fill a hole.”

We chatted for a bit—everybody “chatted” at my new firm, nobody just talked; some wore bow ties, even if they weren’t WASPs.  The place had its share of Episcopalian Jews, as I’d been informed by a salty-tongued son of South Boston at my old firm.

“Well, I maybe could use you,” Ray said.  He still hadn’t said what his connection to the place was; I assumed he worked there.  “I’ve got a situation going on.”

By now I was guessing he was a client, and so I asked him to explain, which he did in the shorthand fashion I came to expect from him.  “Guy I was in business with had me sign a lot of paper,” he said.  By questioning that he seemed to find a bit tedious I got out of him what he meant; he’d been in cahoots with a real estate developer who’d converted a number of buildings to condos.  He’d sell the condos to friends who expected they’d be able to flip them quickly for a profit; the real estate market was hot in Boston at the time, and there was no reason to think it would cool off anytime soon.  The bank wouldn’t finance the full amount and the buyers didn’t have the cash, so the developer took back notes and second mortgage from guys like Ray.

Then, as always happens, what went up came down; one big project on the South Shore went into default and it made the papers.  Suddenly banks stopped lending to developers.  Things tightened on the retail side, too; if you weren’t going to live in the place they weren’t so quick to lend to you anymore, so that was it for the speculators.  Down payment requirements went up, and there weren’t as many buyers out there.  The “bigger fool” theory—that if you’re fool enough to pay too much for something, there’s always a bigger fool out there to buy it from you—was discredited.  The number of available fools decreased substantially all of a sudden.

“Anyway, I did it so I could get first crack at some units,” he said.  “I was okay there for awhile—sold one in a day for twenty thousand dollars profit–but now I’m stuck with three I can’t unload and they’re coming after him.”

“Why doesn’t he just file for bankruptcy,” I began but he cut me off.

“It’s not just the bank,” he said.  “It’s the feds too.  He knew one of the directors.  The bank’s in receivership.  Their take is there was no way he could ever repay the loan, so how did it get approved?”

“I assume they got an appraisal.”

“They did, but it wasn’t worth much.”

“The project?”

“No, the appraisal.  It was a ‘drive-by.’  It was worthless.”

I didn’t know what to say other than “So—it sounds like fraud, huh?”

“Some people might say that,” he said, less candid now.  “Anyway, you seem like a good boy, maybe I’ll have you take a look at the papers, see if you can figure something out.”

“Uh, sure.  Yeah.”  I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

“I’ll drop them off sometime,” he said as he got up to leave.  We shook hands, as if he was a senior partner of the firm and I’d just been officially welcomed.

After he was gone a guy named Brian who was a year ahead of me out of law school, and who’d been with the firm from the start, stuck his head in my office.

“So you met Ray, huh?”

“Yeah.  Who is he?”

“He grew up with Eddie,” he said.  As a short-timer I didn’t know much, but I already knew that Eddie brought in more business and made more money than any other partner in the firm.

“Oh,” I said.  “So . . . he’s a client?”

“Sort of,” Brian said, then flopped down in a chair and told me how he’d extricated himself from providing free legal services to Ray back when he was new.  “I guess it’s your turn,” he said as he got up to leave.  “He gets passed around like a bad cold, and never goes away.”

“Thanks for warning me,” I said with rueful resignation.

“Hey—I didn’t get here soon enough,” Brian said with a sly smile.  “Remember to record your time,” he added facetiously.  “Ray’s number is 23629—not that he’ll ever pay for it.”

I had to laugh at myself; the rookie who doesn’t know any better who agrees to take on the client everybody else is trying to get rid of, like a Christmas fruitcake.

With the profile Brian had given me I expected Ray back at my door soon, but I didn’t see him again until that Friday afternoon, when most of the partners had left for the weekend.

“Hey, kid,” Ray said as he appeared at my door, emphasizing the difference in our age in a way I would come to expect; it was his way of putting me in my place, reminding me I was a rookie and he was somehow more a part of the firm than I was.

“Hi,” I said, trying not to be too friendly now that I’d been warned.

“Here’s those loan docs I told you about,” he said, taking a manila folder out of his briefcase that was stuffed to overflowing with paper in no apparent order.  He dropped it on my desk and sat in one of my chairs.  “There’s gotta be something in there that can get me off the hook.”

I picked up the file and started to flip through it.  “So—these are your signatures, right?”

“Right,” he answered, somewhat defensively.

I looked at the documents.  “Did the bank know about your mortgages back to your . . . friend?”

“I assume so.”

I pulled a legal size sheet of paper out of the file.  “This says you paid cash for the difference between the first mortgage and the sale price.”

“That’s what the note’s for.”

“But the note isn’t cash.”

“What difference does it make?”

I looked at him and thought for a moment about how to put what I had to say.  “It’s one thing if your friend . . . lied to the bank, it’s another thing if you signed something that wasn’t true.”

“I don’t know what I signed.  You’ve been to those closings.  You don’t get to see anything until you get there, then they shove it all in front of you at once.”

“But you must have filled out a loan application . . .”

“Maybe I did.”

“You knew you signed a note, but you don’t know if you signed a mortgage?”

“I dunno.  Maybe it was a silent second.  My friend arranged it all.”

“That’s not going to persuade a judge.”

“That’s why you gotta find something in there,” he said in a peremptory tone.  I didn’t know how much leverage he had, but I figured if guys like Brian—who did know—wanted no part of the guy, I was probably not in a position to resist.

“Okay, I’ll take a look at them.”

“That’s a good boy,” Ray said as he got up.  “You got any plans for the weekend?”

“Supposed to be playing tennis,” I said as tersely as I could.  I didn’t want to be his friend.

“Oh—you’re a tennis player, huh?”

“Yeah—after a fashion.”

“Where do you play?”

“On the Esplanade or the Common.”

“On those public courts?  Those are crap.”

“Well, I can walk to them and I can’t afford to join a club.”

“I’ll have you out to Newton sometime,” he said.  “The courts out there are nice–clay.”

“Sure,” I said.

“They take good care of them.”

It sounded unappetizing to me; a trolley ride and a walk out followed by an afternoon with someone whom I disliked more the longer I was with him, a trolley ride and a walk back.  I wondered if I had to do it because Ray was a client.

“Okay, well, I’ll let you get back to work,” he said as he got up to go.

I had nothing else to do and I couldn’t leave yet, being the most recent hire, so I started examining the documents.  There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with them at first glance; they looked like a million other notes and mortgages I’d seen before; printed forms spit out by a computer at a bank somewhere, blanks filled by hand in some places.  Somebody’d been on a mission to close a lot of loans for Ray’s friend.

When you read the so-called “fine print” on legal documents all day you have to resort to tricks to keep your attention from fading.  Sometimes I’d stop in the middle of a document when I get that snow-blind feeling and go to the end where they put the unimportant stuff.  That way if your mind wanders and a clause doesn’t register, you won’t have missed anything important.  You work your way back like a salmon swimming upriver to spawn, although the payoff when you get back to the headwaters isn’t as much fun.

I started right above Ray’s signature, the paragraph that usually begins, like some medieval bailiff or highsheriff about to seize somebody’s chattels, “In Witness Whereof, the undersigned has executed this note as an instrument under seal.”  I read the words and realized at a level below my normal consciousness that something was missing; the “seal” part.  I looked at the paragraph above and saw no reference to a seal there either.

The note wasn’t witnessed either, which meant that it came under the short statute of limitations; six years instead of twenty.

I turned back to the front page and looked at the date; it was six years and a month earlier.

So Ray may not have been smart or articulate or successful, but he was lucky, which is more important.  I picked the other notes out of the file one by one; they’d all been signed on the same day, and they were all no good at this point.

I called Ray’s home number—he didn’t have an office, as he was currently “between” jobs–and left a message on his answering machine.  Then I got up and started to leave, but just before I was about to turn off my lights, I went back to my desk and wrote “1.5 hours, review notes and mortgages” for client no. 23629.

I didn’t hear from Ray until Monday, when he appeared at my office door with a big shit-eating grin on my face and a bag of bagels.

“Counselor!” he said, loud enough to draw stares from the secretaries in their carrels.  “You’re a genius!”

Against the inclinations of my professional I couldn’t suppress a smile; everyone likes to be praised.

“Just doing my job,” I said with facetious modesty.

“Nobody coulda done better,” he said, moving eagerly towards me to shake my hand.  “I’m gonna tell Eddie you’re the best goddamn lawyer in the joint.”

I looked out the door where one of the elder secretaries was peering over her half-glasses with disapproval.  As much as I liked to hear the words, if Ray was going to go on like this I would have to shut the door, but he beat me to it.  “This is BIG, lemme tell you,” he said as he put his hand on the knob and pushed.  “Sit down, we gotta talk.”

I did as I was told, with the expectation that he had some major reward in store for me.

“I’ve got $25,000 here,” he said, pulling a check out of his pocket.

I wasn’t sure where he was going.  “To . . . pay a bill?” I asked uncertainly.

“Not quite.  This is gonna have to last me for some time, until I sell some property I got in a trust nobody knows about.”

“So . . . what do you want me to do with it?”

“I want you to put it in your clients’ funds account.”

“Why?”

“As a retainer.  In case I need more legal work from you.”

“You should probably talk to Ed, he’s the billing partner.”

“Eddie’s too busy.  He tolerates me.  He’s a big deal, I’m not.”

“So, why don’t you just put it in the bank?”

“I’m getting sued, see?  They’re gonna send out attachments to every bank in town.  If I put this in a bank it’ll be gone as soon as it clears.”

“But—if you need the money, what good does it do you to pay it to us as a retainer?”

“When I need it, I come and say you’re probably not gonna need the whole thing so give me some back.”

I thought about his idea for a moment; it was shady, but I didn’t think it was illegal.  “So if we’re holding the money . . .”

“I’ve signed your retainer agreement before.  It says the money’s security for your bills.  Creditors can’t touch it.  Attorney-client privilege or something.”

“Just put it in a bank that hasn’t got a claim against you.  That way the bank you owe the money to has to go to court to attach it.  You’d have plenty of warning.”

“I can’t afford to spend my last cash on legal fees to stop somebody from taking my last cash.  I’d be like a dog chasing its tail.”

“Still, the bank has the mortgages.  A judge will make them go after the condos first.”

His face took on a look of exasperation, as if I was a particularly dense child who wasn’t getting long division.  “It’s not just the banks,” he said, leaning in and speaking more quietly now, conspiratorially.

“Well, who else?”

“My wife,” he said with a note of finality.

That struck me as a difference in kind, not just degree.  “Do you owe her money too?”

“No, but she’s filed for divorce, and she wants to know all my assets.”

“You’re going to list it on the schedules, right?”

“No way.  That bitch left me with a two-year-old and now she wants my money too?”

His point of view appealed to a fundamental sense of fairness, but that wasn’t the standard.  “But . . . you have to report it, don’t you?”

“It’s not a bank account, it’s not a brokerage account.  It’s something I give you guys to take care of me.  As far as I know, it’s gone, you guys are so expensive.  I’ll probably never see any of it again.”

I took a breath.  I’d never taken money from a client before, except for $500 in cash from a guy who was leaving for China and wanted to pay on the spot for a note I drafted.  “I don’t know . . .”

“Gimme a break.  If there’s a law firm in Bostn that ever turned down a $25,000 retainer, it’d be on the front page of both papers.  Here . . .”

He held out the check over my desk, waiting for me to take it.

“Take it.  You’ll win the prize for Associate of the Year.”

I didn’t accept it, so after probably ten seconds he dropped it on my desk.  “Give it to your secretary, she’ll know what to do with it.  You don’t have to be involved.  I’ll let you know when I’m coming over and how much I need.  You fill out a check request, it’s that simple.”

I must have had a skeptical look still.

“You don’t have to touch the money or the check.  Take it to a partner, they’re the ones who have to sign.”

He got up and moved to the door.  I could hardly stuff the check in his pocket without creating a scene that would be worse than the alternative, which was to simply put the check in my desk drawer and lock it until I decided what to do with it.  If nothing else, I could simply write Ray a letter returning the check; then he’d have to come back with it and force it on me.  I figured if I did that he’d give up, since I could just repeat the process until I wore him out.

“Thanks again, kid,” he said with a knowing look as he turned the corner and walked down the hall.

I sat back down and stewed over my predicament.  If I were a braver man I would have walked down to Eddie’s office and turned the matter over to him, but I didn’t have the nerve.  I knew from my past dealings that it would take forever to get in to see him; he was so successful he had two secretaries, one who handled his paperwork and one who handled client relations.  The latter kept a file on every client’s preference for coffee, lunch and cocktails; their birthdays and anniversaries, kids’ names and ages, all the little details that made Eddie’s practice run like a private jet.  Which he didn’t have yet, but it was only a matter of time.

In the end, I took the walk down to accounting, filled out the forms and handed the check to one of the little women behind the cashier’s window where you got petty cash when you were going to the courthouse or something.  They took it without so much as a raised eyebrow.  As I walked back to my office I decided I’d been making too much of the situation as a result of my inexperience.  This sort of thing was probably as normal to the people in accounting as $1.25 in coins was to a toll taker on the Mass Pike.

I didn’t hear from Ray for two weeks—I guess he had enough walking around money to last him for awhile—then he called me up one day with his usual frat rush chairman bonhomie.

“Hey, buddy,” he said when I picked up.

“Hi Ray.”

“How’s my favorite lawyer?”

“Okay—how are you?”

“Hangin’ in there.  They haven’t caught me yet.  Say listen, I need some of that money back.”

“Okay,” I said.  The sooner it was gone, the better for me, I figured.  “How much?”

“The full twenty-five.”

I wasn’t expecting that.  “Doesn’t look much like a retainer if you were just parking it for two weeks.”

“No, but appearances can be deceiving.”  His voice conveyed the thin, wiry grin that came over his lips whenever he said something cynical and expected me to approve.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said.  “I’ll be happier when I don’t have it hanging over my head.”

“Geez, you’d think I asked you to watch my pet snake or something.”

“I never felt comfortable about it, but now I don’t have to worry anymore.  I’ll have a check made out to you . . .”

“Not to me,” he said sharply.

“Then who?”

The Racquet Club,” he replied, laying heavy emphasis on the definite article.  The place was definitely the genuine article; an old-Boston club with oak paneling, squash and tennis courts.  If you could get in there, you had arrived.

“Do you owe them money?”

“No—it’s my initiation fee.  I’ve been on the waiting list for eight years.”

I started to say something, then caught myself.  After a moment, I began again.  “But what about those loans?”

“I’m off the hook for those, remember?”

“I forgot.”

“All because of your legal talent.”

“Right, right.”  There was something else, I thought, as we hung on the line for a moment, both of us silent.

“What about your wife?”

“That’s why I want you to make it out direct to the club.  That money’s not going in a bank where she can grab it.”

I didn’t say anything, then he spoke again.

“She’ll never see a nickel of it, my friend.  Not one fucking nickel.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Ice Cubes for the Hell Ship and Other Legal Fictions.”

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