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As a partner at New York Cahill Gordon & Reindel, Robert Hallman pulls down about $2 million a year. But after last November’s presidential election, the high-powered Manhattan lawyer was living in an $80-a-night room at the airport Radisson on the outskirts of Palm Beach. And instead of meeting with CEOs or investment bankers, Hallman found himself knocking on doors around town, talking to residents who’d had problems at the polls. The youngest person he met was 76 years old. Most were housebound. “It was unbelievably rewarding — it got to you emotionally,” Hallman recalls. “These were real people, real issues, and real problems.” At night, Hallman would unwind at the hotel bar with Democratic plaintiffs lawyers from Texas and Republican lawyers from Tallahassee. They debated issues such as whether it required “an act of God” before Florida could authorize a manual recount of ballots. Hallman had plenty of company: “There was just a huge turnout; lawyers came from all over the country.” Indeed they did — by the hundreds, perhaps even the thousands. (No one has yet assembled a complete count.) Not since the civil rights era has so much legal talent headed to the South, and never before has there been such a concentrated migration at one time to one place. The lawyers were responding to desperate summonses from the Bush and Gore campaigns, both of which needed battalions of briefcase bearers to prosecute their county-by-county fight for Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Some who responded, such as David Boies and Barry Richard, were well rewarded — if not in cash, then in something even more valuable to a rainmaker: hours of face time on national television. But most toiled anonymously, paying their own way, donating their time and talent, all for the privilege of participating in the most extraordinary legal happening in years. And, despite all the posturing and hoopla that surrounded the closest presidential election in more than a century, the truth is that the system of court challenges, counts, and recounts, while not always pretty to look at, fundamentally accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish: assuring the voters that the system gave their candidate a fair shot at winning. (For an opposing view, see the related American Lawyer article, “Rein in the Animal Trainers.”) What was the country’s response to this outpouring of legal public service? The thanks of a grateful nation? Hardly. Now perhaps that’s to be expected, given that lawyers rank somewhere below telemarketers in popularity with the American people. But it is impossible to speak to volunteers on either side and not come away with a sense that, for many, the journey to Florida was a transcendent experience. Susan Keegan, a litigator from Chicago, found herself on a plane, leaving her husband to mind their two children, after a colleague faxed a memo she wrote on Florida voting law to the Gore legal team in Palm Beach. Her first inkling of how massive the legal effort was came at a packed training session for recount volunteers held in an old union hall in Palm Beach. “When they said, ‘How many of you are lawyers?’ nearly everyone raised their hand and laughed,” Keegan recalls. Keegan speaks of her work taking affidavits in Florida with near-religious fervor: “We called it ‘The Affidavit Experience.’ Every so often you have to remember why you went to law school. This was it. It was a touchstone experience.” Fellow Chicagoan Enrico Mirabelli, of Nadler, Pritikin & Mirabelli, also made the trip down after his friend Joseph Cari Jr., national finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, called from Washington on the Friday morning after the election. The call came at 9:30. Mirabelli was in the air by 10:30. He had to call his wife en route to tell her he was gone. Upon arriving at Democratic headquarters he walked in the door and said, “I’m Rico Mirabelli. I just flew in from Chicago. How can I help?” Like many of the Gore lawyers, Mirabelli was put to work gathering affidavits, a process he describes as coordinated chaos, with dozens of lawyers seated at card tables taking statements while people waited in lines that stretched down the block. Mirabelli says the lawyers were infused with camaraderie and driven by a sense of mission often missing from their regular legal work: “Some guy down there said, ‘All you lawyers, you’re just down here for the quid pro quo to further your careers.’ I’m 19 years a divorce lawyer. I’m not going to further my career.” When Mirabelli returned to Chicago, his kids said they’d told all their friends, “My dad’s in Florida. My dad’s helping with the election.” The sense of mission was by no means confined to the Gore lawyers. David Girard-diCarlo is the managing partner of Philadelphia’s 400-lawyer Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley and co-chaired the host committee for the Republican National Convention last summer. When he got the call for volunteers from Bush’s Austin headquarters a few days after the election, he recruited a group of 10 lawyers at the firm to send to Florida. “I wasn’t sure what they wanted them to do,” he says. “I don’t even think they were sure at that point.” The Blank Rome team ended up in Tampa and from there spread out to monitor recount efforts in eight counties along Florida’s western coast. “We were the eyes and ears for Bush-Cheney,” Girard-diCarlo says. They were to phone in any suspicious Democratic tactics to a special hotline set up by the Republicans. A key issue that the team concentrated on was the treatment of absentee ballots. “I met with the postmasters to try and get an accurate count of how many were out,” recalls Carl Buchholz, a Blank Rome partner and Bush-Cheney volunteer. The absentee ballot issue grew increasingly contentious as time passed, especially after Mark Herron, a Gore attorney from Florida, circulated a memo to Gore lawyers on November 15 outlining methods for challenging overseas absentee ballots. Although the memo seems fairly generic, the Bush camp viewed it as a bid to exclude the votes of overseas military personnel on hyper-technical grounds. That’s certainly the way David Mandell saw it. The 26-year-old litigator from Blank Rome led the effort to have canvassing boards in Lee and Manatee counties include all the absentee ballots, even ones not meeting regulations under Florida law. “The federal law clearly wants military folks not to be disenfranchised and to be given the benefit of the doubt if their vote gets there within 10 days after the election,” Mandell says. When local Democratic lawyers argued against allowing the ballots in — despite national Democratic leaders’ opposition to such tactics — Mandell videotaped the hearings to document the inconsistency. Mandell’s efforts yielded only a handful of votes for Bush, but he is nonetheless proud of his role. “Helping get in the votes of people who put their lives on the line was an honor and something I’ll never forget,” he says. It’s tempting, perhaps, to dismiss such high-minded sentiments, from either party’s camp, as disingenuous. You certainly didn’t have to look hard to find that view expressed in the month after the election. “Whenever lawyers get involved, principle goes out the window,” opined Yale law professor Stephen Carter in the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Fire came from the left as well: “The Final Triumph of the American Lawyer,” The New Republic wailed in a piece portraying the recount lawyers as a bitchy bunch of backbiters looking to use the election to vault a couple of rungs up the career ladder. In an accompanying editorial, the magazine asked, “When did lawyers become the wise men?” I’m not exactly sure when it was, but I have a few ideas. Maybe it was after we had to listen to a frothy-mouthed William Daley from the Gore camp declare that the flawed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach was “an injustice unparalleled in our history.” Or maybe it was when Bush fixer James Baker III (who is technically a lawyer, but doesn’t play one on TV) held a press conference to blast the Florida Supreme Court for trying to throw the election to Gore by means of “judicial fiat.” Maybe it was just the unending stream of partisan snarlers from Capitol Hill cruising the plastic hallways of cable television, accusing the other side of trying to steal the election, and launching ad hominem attacks against political opponents. As the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Can anyone honestly say that Gore’s issues weren’t better served by the lucid reasoning of David Boies (he of the chopping hand and penchant for obscure citations) than by the intemperate rantings of Gore flacks Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane? Or that you didn’t find Bush’s points more convincing when coming from the sober countenance of Benjamin Ginsberg, rather than the curled lip of advisor Karl Rove? Or, for that matter, that the candidates’ positions were presented better by the lawyers than they were by the candidates themselves? The reasons for this are not very mysterious. Politicians and their cadres of spinners are accustomed to moving people on a massive scale. To do this, the rhetorical gods of our age seem to have decreed that you must communicate in a simple and repetitive fashion, bludgeoning the public with a message that conveys certitude tinged with outrage. Thus, the numbing mantra of Vice President Gore: “We just want every vote to count.” And the Republican rejoinder: “They just want to keep on counting until they get a result they like.” Both camps’ philosophies adopted the old dictate for effective disinformation: Admit nothing; deny everything; make counteraccusations. Lawyers, of course, can commit their share of hyperbole, but at least they are trained to argue more from reason than emotion. And the best lawyers, such as Ginsberg and Boies, know that effective advocacy involves a level of candor absent from political discourse. Thus you had Boies admitting before the Florida Supreme Court and the viewing nation that he wasn’t sure what deadline should be set for the certification of Florida’s vote, or whence the court should find authority for setting a new date. Similarly, Ginsberg repeatedly allowed that Bush’s difficulties in Florida were not the result of some perfidy of Al Gore, but resulted from the closeness of the election. Even when the fight was at its most contentious, the lawyers maintained a level of decorum sadly absent in most of the discourse surrounding the election. In part, this is due to another consideration — namely, that lawyers must conform to a code of professional conduct. Nonlawyers and worldly-wise poseurs laugh off this notion as quaint. Most of the lawyers I know don’t. They’ll make the best arguments they can, given the facts, but they won’t cross the ethical line. Would that the nation’s pundits and political leaders could make the same claim. Alexis de Tocqueville, that famously prescient nineteenth-century chronicler of American life, was an editorial page favorite during the election imbroglio — particularly his observation that “scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” The citations were not meant to endorse the premise, but condemn it. The pundits should have given Tocqueville a closer reading: “The authority Americans have entrusted to members of the legal profession, and the influence that these individuals exercise in the government, are the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy.” Then, as now. Additional reporting by Alison Frankel

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