In 1984, I was a senior at Tulane University in New Orleans. For a variety of reasons, I had become interested in the law, and had been fortunate enough to land a job as a “court runner” at a very well-regarded New Orleans law firm. As a court runner, it was my job to make sure that the firm’s legal papers were filed in the right place, and that the firm had filed copies to prove it. Most of the time, that meant a quick run to the New Orleans Central Business District. Sometimes, however, that meant a drive to one of Louisiana’s more remote outposts of justice.
One day that sent me to Point-al-la-Hache, the seat of the parish government in Plaquemines Parish, and home to the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court. Plaquemines Parish sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is where the roads end and where the land gradually disappears. To get to the courthouse, I had to go to road’s end and take a ferry across the river to Point-a-la-Hache.
My task that day was to get a particular court order signed. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that there was some sort of important deadline to make. So there I was, a young, skinny college student from Northern New Jersey, who was quite clearly from the city. I had never been to Point-a-la-Hache, so I had to figure out how to get a judge’s signature on the proposed order. I had to go to every room in the courthouse - Civil Case Management, the cashier, the Sheriff, jury management - before someone explained to me that I needed to go see the judge directly.
Usually, that means going to the judge’s chambers, which I did. Once there, the judge’s secretary told me that I needed to go into the courtroom and see the judge himself. The courtroom was one of those large courtrooms, sort of like the one in the movie “My Cousin Vinny”. From his elevated bench, the judge was presiding over a trial. I had no idea what to do. The secretary had told me to approach the bench and hand the papers to the judge, but to say the least, I was not comfortable doing that. More to the point: I was mortified.
However, I could not drive an hour each way, take a ferry, and come back empty handed and have my firm miss a deadline.
I asked the Sheriff’s officer what to do. He got the judge’s attention. The judge took a short break, and motioned for me to approach. I felt like I was approaching the fifty yard line in the New Orleans Superdome. That is, I felt very small and very out of place and like everyone in the room was looking at me. The judge looked at the papers, signed the order and sent me on my way. Once I obtained a true copy of the order, I got back on the ferry and made my way back to New Orleans.
I was not a lawyer, and I did not say a word on the record, but I guess you could say that on that day in 1984, I made my first court appearance on the banks of the river that inspired Mark Twain.
As a court runner, I learned about the practical side of the law. A lawyer has to be able to know the law and be able to find out what the law is so that he or she can advise his or her client as to their legal rights. But it is not enough to have a legal right. It is not enough to identify it. A lawyer has to be able to know where to go, especially in a pinch, to protect those rights. By learning the basements and the administrative offices that stand in the background of the courts, I learned how to do just that.