The fact that I might encounter my friends in an adversarial or other legal proceeding never really crossed my mind in law school. Doubly so when I moved to northern Minnesota to clerk for a judge. So when I saw that a good friend and former classmate was an associate attorney on a case before my boss, I cocked an eyebrow and wondered just what course of action I should take.
Tell the judge?
Call her to spread the news as “friends”?
Send a professional email letting “counsel” know that you are in receipt of their motion documents?
Do nothing until you happen to meet in court or over the phone?
I opted for a personal email and received a response loaded with question marks and exclamation points seconds after I hit the send button. We were both excited but unsure how to proceed. It was a bit like meeting an ex and telling them you are now with somebody else and really happy. Their response: ME TOO!!!!
A few days later, we discussed our ostensibly precarious position over the phone.
“Do you think we have to disclose this?” she asked.
“Disclose what? That we were friends in law school?”
“Opposing counsel would have a fit if they knew.”
“I’m a law clerk. You are a junior associate. And frankly, to use a lame legal term, we are strange bedfellows. Our roots to rural Minnesota aside, we have nothing in common.”
“I’ll look for your motion, I already have opposing counsel’s.”
So it began. As the junior associate on the matter, my friend was charged with handling such mundanities as calling the court, and we spoke often. The formality of these conversations grew in direct proportion to the proximity of the summary judgment motion hearing. The closer to the hearing, the more formal, that is to say, awkward, things became.
As a clerk to an outstate judge, I met the local bar through work. The progression from professional colleague to friend occurred much easier than the converse. I am now hunting, fishing, and social buddies with several local counsel, and the transition from the courtroom to ducks, walleye, and beer was a breeze.
Prior to the hearing, I questioned whether this transition from the informalities of a law school friendship to attorneys with different professional duties was really all that different from my experience with area counsel. My impartiality wasn’t an issue, and neither was my friend’s expectation of any favorable treatment. I realized that prudence, more than anything else, dictated the nature of our interactions and we were simply discovering how to best avoid the appearance of a non-existent impropriety.
When we finally met, it was as friends and professionals. We exchanged a formal greeting accompanied by jocular smirks, the meaning of which was clear: great to see you, good luck, and if you screw this up, I’m going to give you hell. After the hearing we nodded at each other from afar. I left with the judge and she left with her client and the partner.
Had she been able to stick around, I’m sure we would have ventured to a local watering hole to talk about our jobs, trade updates on former classmates, and endlessly debate all the topics we disagree on. If opposing counsel showed up (a common occurrence here), I’d invite them to join us as well. And when it came time to pay for the bill, we’d each pick up our own tabs as friends, without benefits.