Lawyer in New York

It’s time for lunch, and we are just along 42nd Avenue from Grand Central Station, Manhattan. September here in New York is a glorious month of sunshine, the leaves showing their first flush of colour as high temperatures slip the right side for comfort, and the crazy rush of the city takes on a more gentle pace.

Leaving Subway line 3 at Times Square, Maureen Hackett‘s Bryant Park is our first stop where we rest beneath the canopy of planes amid the gardens, promenades and terraces. The square is one of Manhattan’s most sophisticated, with open air chess and reading room, and a flood of little tables at which office workers and tourists take a break. It is by John Quincy Adams Ward‘s Dodge monument that we meet with Garrett who has just published his third book, a narrative poem about the life of a professional dancer, contrasting with his previous  ‘Steinbeckian’ Alaskan novel. He is part of that great wave of writers who are attempting to make it in the cut-throat literary world.

Our main purpose of the day is to meet with Keith, a maritime lawyer. Keith, a Yale and Vanderbilt graduate has been practising in shipping law since 1980, dealing with collisions, charter parties and maritime contracts, having a shared interest in arbitration and alternatives to litigation. We greet just outside the doors of 100, and slide down Park Avenue to Pershing Square with its bright tables spread out across the street. We are midtown, amongst so much that is Manhattan – the Chrysler building, Waldorf-Astoria, and the top of the Empire State building peeping between the roofs.

Keith has reserved a table, one that is away from the breeze, but catches the autumn warmth. As a specialist lawyer he dresses informally and looks relaxed. His practice is a mixture of court and tribunal work, but with an emphasis on problem-solving, deal brokering and contract management. Like many other professionals who work in Manhattan, he lives outside the island – in this case, Connecticut to the north-east of New York, and travels in daily by high-speed train. His offices give a sky-level view over Manhattan towards the East River.

It would be unfair to compare the life of an American maritime lawyer with that of an English advocate, but the obvious contrasts are significant. Working life here appears more intense – early starts with fast journeys decanting at Grand Central into pressured meetings and hard negotiations followed, at the end of the day by a wind-down beer. This is a truly urban working life, surrounded by soaring buildings shading East side Manhattan.

We talk about deals, cases, ADR and working life in the city. We glance back over the life challenges of the first American lawyers,  time spent in current working lives, and forwards to the new opportunities that life may afford. Keith’s Blackberry signals the end of lunch and the start of his next appointment. We part, two very different professional lives of lawyers slipping their own way – his to the upper floors of Park Avenue’s first modern glass and steel tower, ours towards the shady Garment district of Manhattan for our next rendezvous.

Judge Bowers : what is your verdict?

His Honour Judge Bowers has caused a furore, and the press are enjoying a feeding frenzy concerning his comments about burglary and bravery.

Without a transcript, we do not know precisely what he said, and more importantly, the special context of his remarks. Sentencing comments do have a dual role – a message to the public about the crime – and a message to the offender about their behaviour and how it impacts on society. It may be that Judge Bowers on this occasion, has got the balance wrong, or misjudged his audience.

Contrary to the press reporting, Judge Bowers’ comments in no way condoned burglary, nor applauded a perpetrator. Judge Bowers is known as a resolute sentencer and a mile from a soft touch. His reputation is for sound common sense and safe, realistic  judgment.

The purpose of this part of his sentencing remarks was not to excuse or condone the acts of burglars. It was aimed specifically at Richard Rochford, sending this message to him:- ‘if you have the courage/capacity to commit a heinous crime like this, you should have the courage/capacity to change your ways’.

Whilst society expects most offenders to self-determine their rehabilitation, my thirty three years of experience of criminal justice says otherwise. One of the most testing and difficult changes for a re-offender is the decision to quit. Offending frequently becomes a lifestyle for criminals, trapped by weakness, insignificance, life experience, drug dependence or peer group. Such offenders stand little chance of escape from crime. Their criminal lifestyle is self-perpetuating, whilst society looks on – administering deserved punishment but without offering solutions.

This is why re-offending in a prison-obsessed society is so high. It is also why on the whole, prisons cannot work. Being confined to a cell, exercising and socialising with other criminals is not a good recipe to bring about change. Community sentences attempt to address this, and have some success – certainly better than incarceration with other offenders. Britain has an unusually high prison population, which over many decades, has not reduced offending. For that, one needs to look to other social measures.

I sense that the message Judge Bowers wanted to convey was that as this particular offender was clearly not daunted by the sheer risk of committing the crime, he should have sufficient courage to tackle the hazardous and testing task of his own rehabilitation.  In speaking about courage, Judge Bowers sought to harness Rochford’s strengths for ‘good’ rather than ‘evil’ – for rehabilitation rather than re-offending. This is a sensible message to an offender. But perhaps it was too subtle for the media to grasp?

When the press has moved on to new news, and politicians have ceased to posture, perhaps then we can explore the real debate that Judge Bowers’ starting pistol has triggered. What is the true role for prison, why does it not provide sufficient benefits for the public, and how can it be made to work? It is notable that, in the aftermath of Judge Bowers’ remarks, no one seems willing to seize that particular nettle.