Legal Supplier

Kindergarten lunchbox heist led Strigberger to career in law

By Tony Poland, Associate Editor

Humorist and author Marcel Strigberger tells the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal that it was an “indelible incident back in kindergarten” that started him down the path to a career in law.

“I witnessed a cluster of kids swarming a classmate and snatching away his lunchbox,” Strigberger writes in his column. “Almost instinctively, I acted like a lawyer and demanded that they return the lunchbox to the victim.”

He says he essentially “sought intervenor status.”

“After listening to my eloquent plea, the rogue kids indeed granted me status. They grabbed my lunchbox away, too—in addition to knocking me to the ground,” says Strigberger, a retired lawyer who is now a humour writer and speaker.

“In retrospect, I can almost say that classmate/victim was my first client — more specifically, pro bono client.”

He writes in the ABA Journal that while he and his classmate were nursing their wounds, he reflected on the situation.

“I wanted so much to right the wrongs. I cannot say that at age five, I thought to myself, ‘that does it; when I grow up, I’m becoming a lawyer,” Strigberger says, adding it took him years to realize what lawyers did.

“Unlike our contact with doctors, most kids have little need for lawyers. I even had a toy doctor’s kit: stethoscope, Popsicle sticks and all. To this day, I have yet to see a toy lawyer’s kit. I doubt it would have been a bestseller.”

He writes that years later he became fascinated with TV lawyer Perry Mason.

“Every week, someone would be accused of murder, the prosecution would have an unassailable case, and yet, Perry Mason would get the guy off,” he says. “I cheered — almost as much as when my heroes, the Montreal Canadiens, scored a goal.”

Strigberger says he had his first encounter with a lawyer at 13 when his mother sought remedy for a fancy dress that a dry cleaner had ruined.

“The lawyer, sporting a debonair three-piece royal blue suit, listened attentively and told my mom we were going to fix that cleaner,” he says. “I recall he asked her to leave the dress with him ­— exhibit one, no doubt.”

Strigberger writes that he was impressed by the lawyer’s confidence and demeanour, “and wished he would have been with me during that lunchbox heist.”

“The lawyer sent a fiery letter to that cleaning outfit. The result? They ignored the admonition, and the case died on the vine,” he says.

“The lawyer’s bill was $10. That looked like a princely sum to me, given that my allowance was a nickel a day.”

However, Strigberger writes that the financial rewards of the law “were not the prime ingredient in me pursuing a legal career,” adding the same holds true for most lawyers.

He says Perry Mason never talked about money with his clients and he wasn’t flashy.

“He always wore that same black suit. Then again, given that my television was black and white, maybe his suit was not black but royal blue,” Strigberger says.

His mother didn’t pay the lawyer, reasoning she never recovered damages, so no fee was warranted, he says, adding “I guess this was also my first exposure to a de facto contingency arrangement.”

Strigberger says when he arrived at McGill University, he wanted to pursue a career to help people fix “what was not right in their lives” and was deciding between law and medicine.

The choice became clear after visiting the Man and His Health pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, he tells the ABA Journal.

It was there that he watched a series of films on medical procedures that were quite graphic, Strigberger writes.

“They even employed students who hovered around catching and reviving overly adventurous guests,” he says. “I was quite fine, rather smug, until the open-heart surgery clip. I recall a sudden odd sensation, like my ears being sucked into my head. As a student darted over to make the catch, I dropped, mumbling something eloquently like, ‘Ugggh.’ The path was now clear for a career in law.”

Strigberger says he takes solace in the fact that the legal profession is "humbler than medicine, noting lawyers assign clients names to landmark cases, not their own, such as Hadley v Baxendale, Donoghue v Stevenson or The Rule in Shelley's case."

“The medical profession, in contrast, calls many diseases after the name of some physician who was involved, for example, Crohn's, Alzheimer's, etc,” he says. “At least we lawyers don’t hog all the limelight.

“This gets us to prestige. Is this a factor in choosing law? I doubt it. The public’s view of lawyers is often ambivalent,” Strigberger writes.

He says the case that he dealt with during his first few months in practice that validated his choice of the legal profession involved an elderly man whose wife had just passed away.

The matrimonial home was registered in her name prior to the marriage, and the man had paid most of the house expenses, including the mortgage, property taxes and maintenance, Strigberger says.

“The man now had special needs and limited funds,” he says. “Unfortunately, the wife, by will signed shortly into the marriage, left her entire estate to her son by a former marriage.”

The son demanded that the man vacate the home, so Strigberger writes that he “devoted most of my work and non-work hours that year to this case, trying to figure out how to make justice happen.”

“We were successful in freezing the estate. Ultimately after a trial, the judge ordered the stepson to pay a substantial sum from the estate to my client,” he says. “The boost of morale in this freshman year of practice was indescribable, and it rarely left me.”

Strigberger says his client told him, “Your greatness will start with this case.

“I’d like to say this prognostication too was validated. However, I can’t say that it evolved exactly as he predicted,” he writes. “But I will say there were other cases throughout that gave me that similar shot of confidence and satisfaction, leaving no doubt that I had chosen the right career.

“What I took away from it was that my presence on this earth mattered. And I really didn’t care that the case was not reported as ‘Strigberger’s Case.’”

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