How I learned to stop worrying and love my first client (part 1)

“I assume you’re calling me because you’ve reviewed the file. So, what’s the theory of the case? Have you started researching the personal liability of sole shareholders?”

My first mistake: calling the senior partner without having read a single word in the hippopotamus of a file that he’d left on my chair (hereinafter, the “Hippopotamus”).

Did you know that the hippo, seemingly innocuous, kills more humans than any other animal in Africa, ahead of crocodiles, lions, leopards, etc.? Hardly anyone knows that, or that I can watch National Geographic documentaries for hours on end, practically without blinking (that’s my deepest, darkest secret).

I’m between a rock and a hard place here. How can I wriggle out of this call? What can I say, apart from the truth, which is:

“Uh, actually no; I haven’t looked at the file yet, but I was just about to. When would you like to meet to dis—”

“In 15 minutes.”

“15 minutes, OK, sure, no problem.”

Second mistake: thinking that reading just the first line of each of the billion pages of the Hippopotamus was a good idea. When my 15 minutes was up, I was more prepared to explain the theory of relativity than the theory of the case in this monster file.

The upshot of my meeting with the senior partner was, however, that I’d not only been given my first file but I now had my first very own client. A pro bono client who could hardly speak English or French, mind you, was probably insolvent, and had just returned from an extended road trip across North America, earning him the wrath of the tax authorities, his creditors, and his wife — and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.


It’s Sunday, and I’m sitting in the same café, at the same table, and in the same chair as I was when I met Melissa. I’ve been working for 10 days straight, preparing for my first meeting with the client, and thinking about the Hippopotamus 24/7.

I remember meeting Melissa here like it was yesterday. It was the first time I’d ever set foot in this café.
She was sitting at the table next to me, a copy of Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto in front of her. She saw me looking inquisitively at her book and then noticed the haphazard pile of books on my table, topped precariously by my laptop, smartphone, glass of water, cup of coffee, and a kaleidoscope of highlighters.
She couldn’t help laughing, and who could blame her? We started talking, and she soon learned I was as passionate about literature as I was about wildlife (that’s my second deepest, darkest secret).

After a few minutes, I was about to ask her what and where she was studying (philosophy or fine art at McGill, I figured) when she suddenly got up, went behind the counter, and started making espressos. She was a barista! From that moment, I developed an all-consuming passion for coffee. I try every type of bean and preparation I can, to try and appreciate all the different textures and aromas (that’s my third and latest deepest, darkest secret).


I was jolted out of my rêverie by the sudden vibrating of my smartphone, which threatened to topple my super-stack of files and other paraphernalia. According to the screen on my phone, the person calling was . . . me! Had my personality split due to lack of sleep?
The Hippopotamus was finally getting the better of me.


I answered and heard the soft, calm, imperious voice (like Marlon Brando in The Godfather) of the senior partner who was supervising me on the file. He was calling from the phone in my office.

“Having brunch, I presume? Hope I’m not interrupting. I’m in your office reading all those decisions you printed out and left on your desk — nice colour-coding by the way.”

“Uh, thank you.”

“Can you handle the truth?” he asked, somewhat more pointedly. I steeled myself for a lambasting à la Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.

The senior partner calmly went on to explain that I’d taken the wrong tack by doing a lot of research on an issue that would no doubt be important, but only at the trial stage. For now, the priority was to prepare for the negotiations that were to start next week . . .

Third mistake: developing a convoluted theory of the case that would have filled up a blackboard from Good Will Hunting, when the most important thing was to come up with practical arguments for the negotiations with the other party. I was too close to one particular tree to see the forest anymore.


Freshly shaven, hair neatly trimmed, sporting my Robert Bourassa glasses (his first-term pair, not the post-referendum goggles) to try to give my first-year self some credibility, I’m about to meet my new client.

To be continued . . .

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