By: Sawyer Bennett


Five Years Ago

I can’t control the way my legs are shaking, so I sit back in my chair and cross one leg over the other, hoping the weight and position will still the trembling.

You’ve got the job, Leary. Nothing to be nervous about.

Glancing out the lobby window to my left, the sun is breaking high over the downtown Raleigh cityscape with clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds. It’s a bright, cheerful scene and yet I’m filled with oily dread.

Today is my first day of work with the law firm of Knight & Payne, and I don’t know why in the hell I thought that I’d be cut out for a job like this. I’m waiting in their massive lobby on the twenty-seventh floor of the Watts Building. The firm is so big it actually has two lobbies: one on this floor for the civil litigation department, and another on the twenty-eighth floor for the criminal department. Exposed black-iron beams above and rough-hewn wooden floors below lend the decor an intimidating air. The raw nature of the industrial design is tempered with sleek leather furnishings in shades of cream and taupe, which screams money and power—two words that would never be used to describe Leary Michaels.

As one of only two incoming associate attorneys for the year, I’m still convinced they made a mistake in offering me so highly prized and coveted a position. I didn’t think my interview six months ago was anything special, and while I graduated in the top ten percent of my law class at Stanford, firms like Knight & Payne usually only accept the top one percent.

Still . . . I wanted this position badly. It was something I’d set my sights on early.

Even though I went to law school on the West Coast, I always knew I’d come home to North Carolina to practice. More important, I wanted to be the type of lawyer who made a difference in an ordinary person’s life, and in my mind, the best place to accomplish that was with Knight & Payne.

The law firm is massive, employing sixty-three lawyers, twenty-nine paralegals, thirty-six secretaries, and two receptionists, one for each floor. It’s an institution in North Carolina, sought after by every top-ranked law school graduate, because the pay is legendary, the benefits are beyond belief, and the work environment is cutting-edge. But that’s not why I wanted to come here.

I wanted to be a Knight & Payne attorney because the firm’s entire practice was built upon helping individuals. You won’t find any corporate lawyers here representing banks insistent on foreclosing on poor, unfortunate fools. You won’t find a single insurance company represented in these halls. Big business is the devil within this institution.

No, the founding attorney, Midge Payne, has it clearly written on her website for all to see that she represents only the downtrodden.

Come, any poor soul needing help.

That’s her freakin’ tagline.

It’s like an open-door policy for every miscreant and shiftless bum to seek help from the best attorneys in the state. We’re talking the dregs of society . . . drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, homeless people, deviants, assholes, and various other scum. Some of these people are so vile most people would shun them. Many attorneys would refuse to help them, forgetting the fundamental concept that everyone deserves a fair shot at justice.

Don’t get me wrong—the firm represents ordinary citizens who need legal help, too, but the point is Midge Payne does not discriminate, other than she’ll only represent people, not corporations. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and that’s what I wanted in my law practice. I want to help those folks who need help lifting themselves out of the filth and grime of unfairness.

“Miss Michaels,” I hear from my left.

Turning my head, I see Danny Payne walking toward me. He conducted my interview all those months ago, and he still looks as sleazy as ever. Oh, he’s dressed impeccably enough, in a custom-tailored suit that perfectly fits his five-foot, six-inch frame. I tower over him by four inches, thanks to having a tad more height and sensible three-inch pumps.

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