After yet another victory, Victor Sifuentes is handed a divorce matter. Rebecca Stevens has hired McKenzie, Brackman to get a fair settlement in her divorce. And as Arnie Becker, the firm’s divorce guru, is busy, the duty falls on the new guy.
She doesn’t look happy, and interviewing her, she has little reason to be:
- Her husband, John, was very controlling, not allowing her to work outside of the home, not discussing money with her, and so on.
- They got married in Utah.
- John was also very rich, making big purchases of stuff like boats in cash.
- Rebecca doesn’t know exactly what her husband does (RED FLAG ALERT!)
- Her husband offered $10,000, her car, her clothes, and some furniture to settle the matter.
- Rebecca had brought the furniture and some bonds into the marriage (this is important for reasons I will get into soon). She does not know the final disposition of the bonds, but the furniture had been sold with their old house (I’m assuming this is different furniture than the furniture Rebecca mentioned as being part of her husband’s settlement offer).
- John’s accountant is named Averel Harrison, who had been by their house “a number of times.”
- John also did business with a Mr. Birelli. Rebecca is clueless about Birelli’s business, but he had also been over to the house “fairly often.”
This case is the first where the television-show roots of L.A. Law: The Computer Game really show. How? This divorce case turns into a matter touching upon drugs and international arms smuggling . . . as well as the option to engage in some serious breaches of lawyerly ethics.
Yes. Stop laughing. Lawyers have ethical rules. For real!
Anyway, we have a list of contacts, a phone and a list of number, an in-house legal library, and some highly experienced and skilled colleagues to go to for advice. Lawyering! Computer games! A natural fit!
|Just like peanut butter and chocolate, if the peanut butter |
was actual butter, and the chocolate was candy corn.
Before I start getting into what I’m looking to accomplish with this case, let’s talk a little bit about divorce law. Now, the game gives you no indication about the applicable laws in the run-up to this case. But while I am not a family lawyer and have never handled a divorce matter, I did take courses on family law in law school and I know that California was one of the first jurisdictions to adopt a community property approach.
In community property states, whatever the spouses brought into the marriage partnership is pooled together and divided equitably in a divorce. In other words, if one side brings 90% of the marital assets to the table, and the other only 10%, during a divorce there is a high likelihood that everything is tossed into a pot and divided 50-50. This is in contrast to other states, where the court looks at what each party owned before the marriage and what the parties earned together while married in making the division of property determination.
Is community property fair? It depends on who you ask and what you believe. Me, if I may get on my soapbox for a bit, I believe that the State should get out of the marriage business entirely. But that would mean fewer jobs for lawyers, less opportunity for control, and cutting off an avenue for the State to wet its beak at our expense. So it’ll never happen.
An interesting wrinkle to this all, and something I noticed in the interview with Rebecca, was that she and her husband were married in Utah. I don’t know what kind of divorce laws Utah had in 1992, nor do I know how the jurisdictional issues play out. My assumption is that the parties are governed by the law in the state they got married in, but I could be wrong—it might be the state they get divorced in. See, States in the United States respect each others’ laws, but they also want to allow their residents to avail themselves of the laws of the State. This is all, of course, assuming that John and Rebecca Stevens become actual residents of California, or if a determination can be made that they are, or—
I need to stop. As you can see, many questions in the law can be answered not by “Yes” or “No,” but “It Depends.”
Anyway, I want to make sure that Rebecca gets what she’s entitled to under the law. This will involve figuring out what Mr. Stevens’ assets are. And the man sounds kind of shady . . . buying massively expensive things like boats in cash? Not being forthright with his wife about what he does for a living? I don’t know, this just doesn’t smell right.
Five hours until trial . . . let’s dig in!
First, I place a call to good ol’ Joe Spanozi to check out John Stevens. While Joe’s doing his thing, I can make a few other phone calls. I call John Stevens, despite the fact that he has an attorney, but get no answer.
It is here I realize I should just get up and go to his attorney’s office, since John would be a good person to depose prior to trial. But that would take time . . . time I don’t have. So I call Birelli instead as he’s before Harrison on the phone directory.
I get Birelli’s answering machine and the opportunity to leave him a message. Let’s look at the options. Victor can either:
- Tell the truth,
- Pretend to be from a credit bureau calling about problems with Birelli’s credit report, or
- Pretend to be John Stevens’ attorney.
So I do the right thing and choose option one, not wanting to deep six my client’s case for something stupid like, you know, violating the standards of professional conduct.
Seirously! Lawyers have ethics rules! I told you to stop laughing!
Next, I call Harrison. He’s very unhelpful and rude, and refuses to divulge any information about John’s assets. He also makes a snide comment about lawyers’ lack of ethics.
Man . . . just because something is true doesn’t mean you’ve got to harp on it all the time.
There are a number of options to try with Harrison, and none of them work. Stymied, I then get a call back from Joe with the scoop on John Stevens:
So Johnny Boy is having an affair with someone I don’t have the phone number for, and is involved with money-laundering, drugs, and guns. Now, sure, he was an “honest investment broker” at one time. But he’s clearly turned to the dark side. Things are getting interesting.
Now seems like a good time to talk to my colleagues. Arnie just says to “follow the money,” but Grace has an interesting bit of information about the ill-mannered Mr. Harrison.
Turns out that Harrison’s a sleazeball trying to pass himself off as an upstanding citizen. Kind of hard to do with ties to organized crime, but America is the land of opportunity, don’t you know.
Doug tips Victor off that there are “questions” about John Stevens’ methods, and that the guy’s a “piranha.” “Sgt. Barton of the LAPD might know more.
Lastly, Leland McKenzie advises Victor to look into the community property issue, letting him know the important bit of information that Utah is not a community property state.
So if some assets were acquired in Utah, they’d be off-limits for Rebecca . . . I think. This depends on how the jurisdictional issues are handled. Do I smell a trip to the law library?
No, not in real-life. In the game, thank goodness. There’s a limit to what I’m willing to do for this blog!
I head back to Victor’s office and call Sgt. Barnton. He’s helpful enough, telling Victor he’ll check his files for anything on John Stevens and get back to me. He’s also heard of Harrison, saying that they know he’s shady but haven’t been able to nail him on anything. “There are people here who’d like nothing more than to put that guy away.” I file this away as potential leverage against Harrison, which is ethically sketchy for reasons I’ll get to later.
I do some legal research then, a full deep-dive (two hours’ worth; hours in which the client can be billed!) and learn more about California’s divorce laws.
The important thing to note is that “if one spouse has deliberately misappropriated community property, the court may order the property divided unequally.” That’s my new angle to attack John Stevens on. And given the shady nature of his two known business associates, I think I’ll have something to show for it.
Now, while I learn that the case needs to be heard in California due to John and Rebecca apparently being residents of the state, there’s no discussion about which law applies: The law of the marriage state, or the law of the divorce state, or if where and when the property was possessed matters. I’m just going to assume, arguendo (little legal jargon there) that everything, no matter where or when it was acquired, will be viewed as community property.
L.A. Law: The Computer Game! Why go to work when you can do something that feels like work . . . on your very own P.C.!
Back in Victor’s office, I get a phone call from the court. John Stevens’ attorney is all tied up in “the Tuttle embezzlement case” (am I supposed to have heard of this?) and requested a continuance. I am given no opportunity to oppose, and instead get another nine hours tacked on to the clock.
Oh. Okay. I’ll use this time, then, since I’d sure like to depose John Stevens, get in touch with Birelli, and maybe get some info on Harrison.
Unfortunately, attorney Cranky isn’t helpful, not even willing to work on this case while he has another matter going on.
This is just being a jerk. All lawyers are busy with multiple cases. The guy can’t take an hour out of his schedule to let me talk to his client? I could issue discovery requests or whatnot and force the issue, if only the game would let me.
But alas. I wish I came to visit opposing counsel sooner. Ah well.
Back at the firm, I call Birelli and pretend to be from the credit bureau. I call Harrison again, and get nowhere. I then call Joe, and now I can ask him to investigate Harrison. I phone Barnton, who still has nothing on John Stevens, and I call Harrison to harass him again just for the hell of it before Joe calls back with the scoop on our sketchy accountant.
Oh baby! Joe has documentary and photographic evidence of Harrison working with organized crime bosses and gun smugglers and all sorts of other lovely people.
When I bring this up to Harrison, saying that I’ll turn this evidence over to the cops if he doesn’t spill the beans about John Stevens’ assets, Harrison asks Victor if this is blackmail. Victor spins some b.s. about his duty to his client being balanced against his duty to report what he knows to the police.
This is garbage. As far as I know, it’s not only an ethical breach but a crime for an attorney to threaten filing criminal charges in order to gain leverage in a civil case.
But then again, this is a computer game based on L.A. Law. And as we all know, television show writers and audiences love these ethical gray areas. Ambiguity creates drama, and while not entirely realistic, I suppose it does what the makers of this game set out to do.
Wow! John Stevens launders money, covers arms smuggling for the Libyans and Iranians, and takes a cut. What a scumbag! That $5,000,000 profit John made last year piques my interest—if that’s not “misappropriated community property,” I don’t know what is.
Actually, it’s illegally obtained money, which, if proven, would likely be forfeited to the government.
Either way, John’s in trouble.
I call Barnton again. He still has nothing about John, but now I can ask him about Birelli.
Birelli, it turns out, is one Mawrouk Birelli, an Italian-Arab who works for an Iranian expat named Rahbeza. Now, it seems that the game is implying Birelli is actually half-Italian, half-Iranian, and Iranians, as we all know, are not Arabs, but I diguress.
The important thing is, as you can see, this innocent divorce case is actually pretty deep . . . and dangerous.
Naturally, I ask Joe to look into Birelli. While I’m waiting for his report, I get another call from the court that John Stevens’ attorney has requested, and been granted another continuance, taking on another nine hours on the clock. This is weird, and makes me think that the game does not intend for there to be a trial in this matter for whatever reason.
All Joe tells me about Birelli is that he’s dangerous and that I should stay away. So naturally I call him and choose a new option, pretending to be someone interested in buying some “hardware.”
Finally, I call John Stevens, and . . . actually get a hold of him! He agrees to come to Victor’s office to talk settlement.
Boy, is he in for a surprise.
John is enthusiastic to talk settlement first, offering peanuts, but really changes his tune when I drop the law on him . . . the L.A. Law!
I hit John Stevens with his mistress, Harrison’s dealings, the sinister Mr. Birelli . . . . Shaken, John says he needs to talk to his wife, and we agree to reconvene in an hour.
The trial is going to be so much fun.
Psych! There is no trial! Victor’s discussion with the reprehensible John Stevens spooks the guy into . . . getting back together with his wife.
And she agrees!
Are you mad, woman?! Your almost-ex was associated with the dealing drugs and smuggling weapons to international terrorists. He lied to you, he treated you like a prisoner, and you were about to get a massive divorce settlement . . . and you want to get back with the guy.
Oh well. It’s a free country. And that includes the freedom to be an idiot.