From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
I can’t recall ever being more bored in my life. Compounding matters was that I had forgotten my fidget spinner at home. As I sat listening to speech after speech, I hoped that I don’t sound that boring when I’m on the other side of the bench.
I had received one of those notices calling upon me to perform my civic duty as a Nassau County juror. Of course, my report date was in one of my busiest weeks in recent memory. But I had no choice; I had postponed it once before. And so last Monday I sat in a cavernous room in Mineola with 400 or so others who wanted to be anywhere else but there.
I had arrived at 8:45 a.m. and quickly whizzed past all the other jurors on line because of my attorney secure pass. I reported to the front desk and informed the desk worker that I had two quick conferences that morning—one across the hall in a personal-injury case, and the other across the street in the Matrimonial Center. I asked the gentleman if I could take care of those matters and then return for jury duty. He obliged.
By 9:45 I had finished the conference on the personal-injury case, and by 10:40 I had concluded the conference on the matrimonial matter. When I returned to the hall of jurors at 10:50, no one had moved. All of the jurors I had left behind at 9:00 were still sitting in their seats in the main hall. Those who were not restless were sleeping.
I had to get out of there. I was bored and I had a massive amount of work to do in the office and two hearings to prepare for. One other gentleman, a doctor, was the only one besides me dressed in a suit, and people thought I worked for the court system. One after the other, they approached me with questions about everything—from the jury-selection process to where they could find a good place for lunch.
I hinted to the staff there that as an attorney, there was no way I would ultimately be selected as a juror and therefore, in a compassionate and practical move, perhaps they could wave some sort of wand and discharge me. Denied.
The way it works is that they put all of the names in a hopper and select 25 or so to sit in a room to be questioned by the attorneys. If I was not selected as part of the gang of 25, I would have to remain in the “big room” until eventually another group of 25 was selected to sit in a different room to be questioned by other attorneys on a different case.
One can’t be excused from the big room. So you sit and sit, hoping your name will be called to move to the “little room” where the voir dire process takes place. From the little room one can be excused, but only after the lawyers question you and either excuse you for cause or exercise one of their three peremptory challenges. Of course, the third possibility—that you will be selected as a juror—also exists.
Once in the little room, freedom does not come quickly. The lawyers place the 25 cards in a box and withdraw six names. The mind-numbing process of selection begins in earnest, and unless you are one of the first six chosen to be questioned, you can sit there all day, too.
Now you don’t want to be dismissed too soon, because if you get to the little room and then are dismissed for whatever reason, you can’t go home. You have to go back to the big room and wait to have your name drawn again to go sit in another little room to be questioned by different lawyers for another case.
I got lucky, as I was called in that first group of 25. I followed my fellow Nassau County residents into room number 3 and listened to three very non-engaging attorneys. My mind began to race. What if that’s the way I sound to prospective jurors when I am selecting a jury? I looked around and people were yawning, frowning, rolling their eyes, looking at their phones, and doing anything and everything to display that they’d rather be on a beach with Chris Christie.
I found the remarks of the lawyers to be condescending, but perhaps I just felt that way because I had uttered the same words or thoughts on occasion over the years and felt like “I know this already.”
What was most frustrating is that most people arrived that morning between 8:30 and 9:00, and now it was 11:45 and the attorneys were just about to begin to speak to us. After three minutes of introductory remarks, the lawyers had a dispute and had to leave the room to confer with a judge. The natives were not happy, and one by one they began to criticize the lawyers and the judicial system. “This is why I hate lawyers,” said a young woman to my right. I was looking for a place to hide.
The lawyers returned at 12:15 p.m. and spoke to the group for 15 minutes before breaking for lunch. In all that time, not one juror was selected. While the lawyers were out of the room, we began talking amongst ourselves. Someone asked the other fellow in the suit why he was so formally dressed. He answered that he was a doctor and he had stopped at his office on the way to the courthouse to see an early-morning patient. I was praying that I would not be asked the same question; if asked, could I lie and claim to be a doctor as well?
I was asked, and told the truth. “I am a lawyer, and I had two cases on the calendar this morning,” I replied.
I was instantly set upon, bombarded with the question: “You’re a lawyer; tell me, how do I get out of here?”
I looked at the group and responded, “If I knew, my dear friends, would I be sitting here all morning with you?”
The lawyers returned and dismissed the group for the lunch recess. We were told to return at 2 p.m., when the arduous process was to continue. They must have figured out that I was a lawyer and told me that I would have to return at 2 p.m. as well, because if they released me now, I would have to go back to the big room and not necessarily be excused for the day and for the next six years.
All’s well that ends well, and by 3:30 in the afternoon I was set free—free for another six years from a tedious but important civic duty.
But in that one day I was able to experience an important life lesson. In the early morning, I was the lawyer. When I reported to jury duty, I was a prospective juror, and once in the little room I had to put myself in the shoes of the other lawyers and then in the shoes of the injured plaintiff and the accused defendant.
In the span of four hours, I had to view the law and its applications from a multitude of perspectives; I had to wear the shoes of many others.
When Moses was first approached by G‑d to lead the Jewish people, Moses was instructed to remove his shoes. The classic interpretation is that the ground’s holiness required the removal of his shoes, as there should not be any separation from the holiness of the place and the person standing there.
Perhaps another reason can be offered. As one is about to embark on his journey into a leadership position, he is used to wearing his shoes and his shoes only. But an effective leader must cast his shoes aside and wear the shoes of his flock. To lead, one must also follow. And sometimes, changing into their shoes is not enough. Sometimes the leader has to remove his own shoes because some of the people he is leading don’t even have shoes.
There is a vacuum of leadership in many areas of our lives. From houses of governments to houses of prayer, from government programs to government-aid recipients. From heads of state to heads of institutions and heads of households.
Removing one’s shoes, baring one’s feet, is a good first step in the direction of righting the ship.
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.