Local Voice: Lessons learned and lessons missed

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Judge David Allen
Wayne County Circuit Court

Attorney Frank Palazzolo, may he rest in peace, was a big part of the start of my journey in the law. Frank mentored me in one brief encounter, in a way he probably never really realized, and without ever uttering the word “mentor,” making the encounter all the more authentic and meaningful. As I reflect on the long ago lesson learned, I am reminded of all that we are missing in this remote court Covid world we find ourselves in.

Frank and I had a settlement conference in front of Judge Sean Cox. Judge Cox presided in Wayne Circuit back then. I had been out of law school a few years by then. I didn’t know much about Frank at the time, but he had been practicing law for many years by the time I first met him. I, on the other hand, was a “know nothing” (some attorneys might still use this moniker to describe me these days, just ask around after my motion call!) young attorney trying to impress a new client on a fairly routine business case.

I was exchanging a few pleasantries with Frank while awaiting our chance to see Judge Cox, but Frank was clearly anxious to get to another more important matter he had to cover elsewhere. I started to sense that he was going to shut down my annoying exchange of pleasantries, when suddenly he turns to me and says, “Kid, what’s your client’s bottom line, I gotta get out of here.” (Yes, he called me kid.) I had to think for a minute, should I try to capitalize on his impetuousness and gin up my client’s number, thereby coming back a bigger hero to my client? I thought better of it and gave him pretty close to the bottom line and he said, “You have a deal.” There was no haggle, no fuss, just his word and a handshake. For Frank, this case was an insignificant annoyance, for me the case was a big deal as my client, pleased with the result, had plenty of work to send my way afterwards. (Sorry, Butzel Long, Frank unknowingly helped me purloin one of your clients!)

Doing my best young lawyer “over lawyering” of the situation, I asked Frank what I should tell Judge Cox now that he was bolting the courtroom. Frank told me, “I don’t care what the hell you tell the judge. Figure it out, kid. You are in the big leagues now and I gotta go.” I then asked him how we should memorialize the settlement; should I draft a letter and/or release and what should be in it?
Frank, by now perturbed, said, “Son, my word is my bond. I told you your client would have a check in the morning and I mean it, now get out of my way.” I was going to ask him who should draft the order of dismissal and what it should contain, but thought better of it and figured it out myself afterward, as I should have thought to do in the first place.

Frank, true to his word, had a check to my client the next morning with nothing to memorialize the transaction/settlement but his word and a handshake. Perhaps I’m naïve to think we could use more of this bond of trust between lawyers, but I am jolted back to the reality of modern practice that requires an email to confirm an email that confirmed a conversation between two lawyers or an order to require an attorney to do what he or she had said would be done in the first place. I venture that over 50 percent of the orders I sign on a daily basis would be unnecessary if lawyers would keep their word and do what they said they would or the court rules minimally require. Come on, does it really take six months to have your client sign an authorization?

I did go back to see Judge Cox in chambers without Frank. I introduced myself, we discovered we grew up near each other and that we had some friends and family in common and thus began my 25-year friendship with Judge Cox. I have Frank to thank for that encounter and as I reflect back, I believe that relationships are the oil that lubricates the legal process or the blood that carries the nutrients to our courtrooms. While we have learned to survive and get by with Zoom, what have we missed out on in this remote year of Covid? Make no mistake, Zoom is here to stay, as it should. Do I really need to have you in front of me in the courtroom to grant or deny your motion to adjourn? If you are going to facilitate, do I need to drag you down to the courthouse to have you tell me that? On the other hand, where is the balance between remote work and in-person work to accommodate our newfound Zoom convenience, while providing for in-person work that permits the chance encounters with the Frank Palazzolos of the world that are so important, especially for the new attorneys? As I learned, sometimes it’s the small and routine encounters of the practice that have the most profound and enduring impact. I fear we have missed out on a whole year of same.

I had the pleasure to welcome Frank to my courtroom one last time before he died. I’m sure Frank had his share of faults, we all do as humans, but as far as I was concerned, Frank walked on water. Frank, without ever knowing it and with no real effort on his part, helped me win over the best clients in the world and some of my now dearest friends. How can I ever repay Frank for helping me gain clients that put “bread” on my family’s table for a decade? I suppose we all try to repay debts of this nature, by paying it forward to the judges and lawyers that come behind us, always, as a judge friend told me years ago, by firmly gripping up the rungs of the ladder of success with one hand, all the while leaving one helping hand free for those a rung or two down the ladder.

Frank settled the case that day in my courtroom. Seated across from Frank was his opposing counsel, a young attorney that reminded me of my younger and better days. They had agreed upon the “number” and now this young chap was getting lost in the weeds on details that with a guy like Frank, might scuttle the deal. It was a “quit while you were ahead” moment and I acted quickly to intercede. I pulled the attorney aside and calmed his fears, letting him know that Frank was a man of his word and that while getting the paperwork and details correct is an admirable and necessary goal in most instances in the law, sometimes you have to let it go in the moment and trust folks at their word.



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