Calling Professor David Siegel a giant of the New York legal world would not only be a bit trite, but would still be an understatement. His treatise on New York Practice, the bible of New York civil procedure, is a required text for anyone that works in this state’s courts on the civil side and is routinely cited by judges at all levels, both state and federal.
He died yesterday.
In an obituary at the New York Law Journal, former Chief Justice Judith Kaye is quoted thusly from a 2008 Albany Law School event honoring him:
“Who among us doesn’t know that he is the—absolutely the—preeminent authority on matters of civil practice in the entire universe?” Kaye said at the time. “There’s no one with a bit of good sense who would dare ever to cross you on matters of civil practice, David Siegel.”
Like many other local lawyers, I attended Siegel’s continuing legal education classes regarding our civil procedure many times. And here’s the thing: The guy wasn’t just smart and practical, he was funny.
That humor was reflected not only in his on-stage manner, but incorporated into his New York Practice book. I mean really, who the hell ever laughed out loud at something in a book about legal procedure? But Siegel could pull that off.
On a few occasions in this blog over the years I’ve mentioned that it sucks to be a test case, usually on the subject of our new and untested ethics rules regarding online conduct and solicitation. That mantra of “it sucks to be a test case” comes from Siegel, who used to preach that advice when lawyers would pose factual situations that might (or might not) comply with our procedure.
Ever the practical person, he knew that it wasn’t always whether some procedural issue would work or not, but that lawyers should avoid placing themselves into the position to have to make that decision. You might (or might not) win your test case, but it will cost you time, money and sleepless nights to get there.
From appellate lawyer Jay Breakstone:
I suppose it’s to be expected. A lawyer dies and we all gather around and describe him in the most glowing terms, whether he was a saint or a nasty bastard. Sometimes, it’s like being at Hitler’s funeral. ”All in all, what can we say? He was a hell of a dancer.” At the time of death, there is always something nice to say about anyone.
But the recent loss of David Siegel is something else. It is the true loss of someone we needed, not just admired. Prof. Siegel was that one tool on the belt of every working lawyer that we couldn’t live without.
He was the Vise-Grip plier that could wrap itself around a particularly nasty question and break it loose from our own ignorance. And, just like that Vise-Grip plier, he was always there. Except for now.
To those of us who write about the law, David Siegel had a very unique talent. The Professor could make the law understandable. What a gift! After all, this is not John Grisham writing about steaming plot lines and attractive anti-heroes. This is New York practice, about as entrancing as a heartburn. Yet, David Siegel made it sing.
How did he do that? To this day, I do not know. In the master’s hands, New York practice was just about the most interesting thing in the world. It involved real people and real lawyers and real problems and, best of all, real answers. Like some ancient prophet, Prof. Siegel revealed all that came down from on high to those of us who lived below.
I first came across Prof. Siegel at a bar review course in 1976. They said that his course on New York practice was essential. I think I paid extra to take the course and they were right. He lectured in a style that can only be called “conspiratorial.” This was a lawyer talking to other lawyers (almost.)
It was him and us against the world. At last, this was the real thing. No theories, no big shot federal jurisdictional issues; this was blue collar lawyering at its best. We listened enraptured, for we quickly understood that if by some slight chance we actually passed the bar exam, this was what we needed to know on the day after our admission. I can still hear David Siegel today:
“One day, as young lawyer, your boss will send you to court. How exciting! You will carry the nice new briefcase your parents bought you and head off to the courthouse at 60 Centre Street. You will walk up the steps with the sun shining, ready to do battle for justice. You will enter the beautiful lobby and, just as quickly, you will descend into the bowels of hell. You have been sent to the Special Term, Part I courtroom.
As you open the swinging doors, you will be assaulted by a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Hundreds of lawyers will be there, shouting out the name of hundreds of other lawyers. You will sit down in the back of the courtroom and wait for the judge to take the bench and call your case. But there will be no judge to hear your application for an adjournment. Only the clerk will take the bench and he will begin to rattle off case after case in the order they are on the calendar taped to the wall outside the door – - the calendar you did not notice when you came in. So, you will listen for your case to be called.
Quickly, the case names go by, and then, you think you hear yours! You walk to the front of the courtroom, only to realize that in the time it took you to make that trip, fifty other cases went by. There is no one to talk to; you are alone in a crowd, secure in the knowledge that once you get back to the office, you will be fired and have to pack up your desk in one of those cardboard boxes and go home, telling your mother you’re not a lawyer anymore.”
It was then that David Siegel, as he did until the day he died, rode in like a knight on horseback and saved our lives:
“This is what you have to know: There are only three things you may yell out in Special I. Nothing else will register in the mind of the clerk. He or she is only programmed to respond to these three magical phrases. Write them down now. Memorize them. Never forget them. Here they are: Ready for; Ready against; Application.”
Prof. Siegel, I have never forgotten those words . . . or any of yours.