John Laughlin sat in his 43rd floor office, staring at the blinking cursor on his computer screen. He had started a memo and had typed, “Please be advised, my last day with the firm will be…”
But he only got that far. He was a fourth-year associate hard on the partnership track at a corporate law firm. He could see his future and didn’t like what he saw. It was pointless to work, he thought, defending corporations. At the same time, he worried that might just be an excuse, a way of not admitting that he just wasn’t tough enough to succeed. This wasn’t the first time he’d started this memo.
He was interrupted by a knock on his door. He put his computer to sleep as Patrick Gillis, a first-year associate, slipped inside without a word or even a glance in his direction. Gillis immediately turned around and pressed the door closed behind him. In one hand he clutched some documents so tightly that they had become creased. After the door was shut he turned to John.
“Do you have a minute?” Gillis stood with his neck stretched forward and his tortoise-shell glasses perched on the end of his nose. Over the last six months he had lost ten pounds due to stress. His forehead was as creased as the documents. Suspenders held his loose pants. John used to feel sorry for Gillis; he had since come to see him as just a big pain in the ass.
John shook his head. “I’ve got—”
“This will only take a second.” Gillis drilled John with an intense, beseeching stare. “What do you know about real estate?”
John sighed. “Nothing.”
Gillis thrust the documents forward. “What do you think about this?”
“What am I looking at?” John asked.
“A trust deed and title insurance policy.”
“Okay. Why am I looking at them?”
“The title. To the property.”
“What about it?”
“How is it held?”
John read the front page of the deed. It listed the owners as “Daniel and Anna Guercio, joint tenants as to a one-half interest and Mark and Catherine Blodget, joint tenants as to a one-half interest.”
John shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Gillis moved around John’s desk and peered over his shoulder.
“It’s the ‘and.’ Don’t you agree?”
John re-read the title declaration. “There are three ‘ands’.”
Gillis leaned over him and jabbed at the documents. “This one. Here. The one between ‘interest’ and ‘Mark.’ There’s no comma in front of it. That makes it ambiguous. Doesn’t it?”
“So do they hold the property collectively as joint tenants, or in couples as joint tenants and collectively as tenants in common?”
“That’s because it’s ambiguous. Right?”
“That’s what I thought, too.” Gillis looked as if he was relieved to find someone, anyone, who agreed with him. “But you know Barrett. This is for one of his clients. We have to clear a cloud on this title. The property is in Pasadena, but two of these people are missing, Daniel and Anna. They divorced eight years ago. No one knows where either of them live now. I’m not sure who’s entitled to notice. What if the undivided one-half interest went to one of the spouses in the divorce settlement? What if they’re dead? If it’s a tenancy in common, I have to find their heirs. But if it’s a joint tenancy, it passes to the others by right of survivorship. At least I think it does. I’m not sure what I should do.”
“I should find both of them, right? And their heirs. And send notice to all of them just to make sure.”
“That’s what I thought.” Gillis stared at the documents again. He was still crowding over John’s shoulder, so John stood up. Gillis backed out to the other side of the desk.
“But that might be a waste of the client’s money,” Gillis continued.
“What case is this for?”
“It’s a favor Barrett’s doing for a client he’s sucking up to.”
“Maybe you should just put everything in a memo to Barrett and let him decide,” John said.
“I did. He refused to read it. It came to twenty-three pages. He said it can’t be that complicated. He even told me to write off the time it took to draft it. Can you believe that?”
“Yeah,” John said, nodding.
“But I can’t do that, because then my hours will be too low this month.”
John’s phone beeped. The liquid crystal floated the name of the caller. Barrett Landry.
“Speak of the devil.”
“Who is it?” Gillis asked.
John picked up the phone. “Hello?” He heard noise coming through the other end, the shuffling of papers, and in the background, a voice giving instructions.
“Hello?” John repeated, a little louder.
“Hold on,” Barrett ordered. He finished giving his directions and John heard the noise of his door shutting.
“Do you have a minute?”
The phone went silent. John hung up.
“What did he want?”
“To have a meeting, I guess.” John grabbed a legal pad and his pen. Gillis moved in front of him, blocking the door.
“Wait. Before you go. Don’t tell him I asked you about this. Okay?”
Gillis didn’t budge. “And have you heard anything about layoffs?” he asked. “I heard there were going to be layoffs. Do you know who? My wife and I just bought a house. I can’t get laid off. Do you think I’ll be laid off?”
“I don’t know,” John said. But he did know that Patrick Gillis had partner written all over him, once he learned to handle the stress. John put the thought aside. “Look,” he said, “I’ve got to talk to Barrett.”
Gillis backed away, nodding. “Thanks, John.”
John watched him leave, then stepped back into his office and shut the door. He had a memo to finish.
© Copyright 2010 Scott Alumbaugh. All rights reserved.