The older members enter the traditional way, pulling up to the main entrance beneath the portico in their Mercedeses and BMWs and Cadillacs. They accept a deferential greeting from the parking valet and stroll down the main hall to the locker rooms to change into their swimwear. But others—especially the teenagers and the young mothers with children—prefer the direct route, which is through the entrance gate west of the parking lot.
On this sunny Thursday morning in late August, Patty and Josh are seated on folding chairs behind the table at the entrance gate. Patty is a freshman at Mizzou, Josh a sophomore at DePauw. Although their ostensible job is to check membership cards, this is, after all, Old Chatham Country Club, and at Old Chatham Country Club the first assignment for every summer hire is to memorize the names and faces of all members.
A mother with two small boys walks through the entrance gate.
“Good morning, Mrs. Appleton,” Josh says.
“Good morning, Josh. I just saw your mother at Neiman Marcus. She told me to remind you about the Mortons’ party tonight. Hello, Patty, dear.”
Patty smiles. “Hi, Mrs. Appleton.” She turns to the boys. “Hello, Trip. Hello, Fordham.”
“Hi,” the two boys respond in unison, and without enthusiasm.
As the boys follow their mother into the pool area, Patty opens her book again.
After a few minutes, Josh announces, “Oh, yeah!”
Patty turns toward him with a frown. “What?”
Grinning, he nods toward the parking lot. “The goddess has arrived.”
Patty follows his gaze and then rolls her eyes. “I cannot believe you guys.”
A fiery red Corvette has pulled into a parking spot two rows back from the entrance gate. The driver’s door opens and a stunning blonde emerges. Today she has on a short white caftan cover-up tied loosely at the waist over a white one-piece swimsuit. She’s wearing red espadrille wedge sandals and big sunglasses.
“I’m in love,” Josh says.
“Forget it, you doofus.” Patty shakes her head. “Look at her ring finger. And she’s probably thirty years old.”
Cherry Pitt reaches the entrance table where Josh and Patty are seated. She pauses and turns her beach bag toward them. Her membership card dangles from the bag handle.
“Hello, Mrs. Pitt,” Josh says in a sunny voice. “It certainly is a beautiful day for a dip.”
“Um-hmm,” Cherry says, distracted, scanning the pool area. She walks past them onto the pool deck.
“Have a nice day, Mrs. Pitt,” Josh calls after her.
Josh turns in his chair and stares at Cherry’s backside as she walks toward a lounge chair.
“Have a nice day, Mrs. Pitt,” Patty repeats in a nerdy voice.
“I’m in love,” he says.
“Have a nice day, Mrs. Pitt,” she repeats, in an even nerdier voice and returns to her book.
Josh watches as Cherry slips off her caftan, her backside to him. She bends over at the waist to set down her beach bag by the chair.
He groans. “Lord have mercy.”
Patty shakes her head. “Men.”
Neither of them noticed the late-model black Mustang. It entered the parking lot as Cherry was walking toward the entrance gate, paused until she had entered the pool area, and then pulled into a space facing the pool area, one row behind her red Corvette. The Mustang idles there with a throaty rumble.
Cherry settles into the lounge chair and opens a magazine on her lap.
After a few minutes, the Mustang shifts into gear, backs out of the parking space, and starts down the aisle. As it heads toward the exit, the tinted window on the driver’s side lowers. A smoked-down Tiparillo arcs end over end toward the asphalt and scatters sparks as it lands.
Twenty miles east of Old Chatham Country Club, on an upper floor in the Metropolitan Square Building, Milton Bernstein snorts.
We are in his office which charitably could be described as cluttered. The desk is a jumble of yellow legal pads, marked-up pages from various court papers, stacks of pleadings binders, and deposition transcripts. Documents are scattered in piles throughout the office. A dying rubber plant sags in the corner, its last three leaves a faded brownish-green.
Milton is on the telephone, the receiver pinned between his neck and shoulder, shaking his head. The Arch and the Mississippi River are visible from the office window behind him.
“That is patently absurd,” he says.
Sighing in exasperation as he listens to the lawyer on the other end of the call, Milton removes his horn-rimmed glasses, leans back in his chair, holds the glasses above his head, squints at the smudged lenses, and puts them back on.
Janet Perry is seated on the chair facing Milton’s desk. She is twenty-seven years old, slender, pale and—like most associates at the international law firm of Abbott & Windsor—intense. She studies notes on a yellow legal pad on her lap.
Milton stands. He is grasping the telephone receiver with one hand and jabbing at the air with the forefinger of the other. “You can assure your client that I shall make it an unforgettable deposition. By ten a.m. next Monday I plan to be charging through the rice paddies and taking no prisoners.”
If you have ever practiced in a major law firm in this country, then you know Milton Bernstein. Each such law firm has at least one Milton Bernstein. Abbott & Windsor has two, and one of them is actually named Milton Bernstein. The other, in the Chicago office, is named Melvin Needlebaum.
Regardless of their actual name, all Milton Bernsteins share a basic taxonomy. They are brilliant workaholic nerds, but—and this is important—they are not passive or submissive or bashful. Milton Bernsteins are ferocious in their commitment to the law and in their advocacy on behalf of clients, often to the exasperation of their opponents. Able to quote from memory key passages from obscure cases on even more obscure points of law, they are never at a loss for words, whether in a conference room or a courtroom. Never. They may pause for a moment, blinking at you from behind the thick lenses of their glasses, but then they will deliver a full paragraph of legalese on whatever topic you happened to raise. Although they may never have played a competitive sport in high school, and would likely have been classified 4-F by the Selective Service System, they are true warriors.
As Milton shakes his head in anger, Lawrence Armstrong strolls into the office. Lawrence nods at Janet, lifts a stack of pleading files off the chair next to hers, and sits. Lawrence Armstrong is a senior partner at Abbott & Windsor, a litigator who specializes in complex commercial disputes. Despite the salt-and-pepper comb-over, he has the handsome features of an aging Hollywood star with the build of a man who still plays tennis four mornings a week at his country club, squash racquets in the winter.
Milton is rapping a pencil on top of the computer screen. Now he jerks forward, eyebrows raised.
“Spare me, Joel,” he says. “Anyone with the brains God gave a goose would know that was patently absurd.”
Janet turns to Armstrong and whispers, “Are you here on the Pitt case?”
Armstrong smiles at Janet and nods. Once a noted trial lawyer, Armstrong spends most of his time these days overseeing the litigation needs of his clients. With a book of business in the mid-seven-figures, there is plenty to oversee, including the Pitt case he assigned to Milton.
Although Milton Bernstein matches no one’s image of a trial lawyer, Lawrence Armstrong can see beyond that. He knows that Milton’s special traits—dogged persistence, encyclopedic knowledge of the law, obsessive attention to detail—make him a good choice for the Pitt lawsuit. Indeed, those very traits, coupled with Milton’s 2,800-plus billable hours per year, convinced the firm’s partners, including Lawrence Armstrong, to elevate him to partnership last year, just two weeks before his thirtieth birthday. Non-equity, of course, but a partnership nevertheless.
A beep from the computer snaps Milton’s head back toward the screen. As he lowers himself into his chair, he shouts into the phone, “You, sir, have launched the first missile. Prepare for Armageddon!”
He slams down the receiver and leans forward to squint at the monitor screen, reading the Westlaw search results. “Superb.”
He rapidly types in a new search request, hits SEND, and then looks up, squinting first at Janet and then at Armstrong.
Armstrong says, “Leonard Pitt and Associates.”
Milton grins. “America’s favorite chaser. Defender of the lumpen proletariat. And a genuine sleaze bag.”
“Do we have a lawsuit?” Armstrong asks.
Milton rubs his hands together and raises his eyebrows. “We’re getting close. Ms. Perry has been researching some of the legal issues.” He turns to Janet. “Did you find the Edwards Electric case?”
Janet nods as she flips through her notes. “It seems right on point on the enterprise element.” She turns to Armstrong. “To bring suit against Leonard Pitt under RICO, we need to—”
“Wait.” Milton cranes his neck toward the ceiling, eyes shut tight. “Wait, wait. I think I have a better case. A 2002 decision out of the Tenth Circuit. Let’s see, let’s see. Ah, yes. Ames Financial Group versus toward… versus toward… aha, versus Patterson Industries, Inc. While not directly on point, there is a section on—”
“—time out.” Armstrong has formed a T with his hands. “Let’s cut to the chase, Milton. Where do things stand with this lawsuit?”
Milton is staring at the computer screen in disbelief. “Two hundred and eleven cases? What kind of computer search is that?”
“Milton.” Armstrong’s voice carries both his irritation and his authority.
Milton looks up with a sheepish grin. “Okay, okay. How much do you know about Leonard Pitt?”
“Not much,” Armstrong says. “He’s a politically connected plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer.”
Milton nods. “He is, indeed. By way of background, Leonard Pitt is an ex-Marine. He served in Vietnam. Started his career in municipal court, hustling the halls for clients. Remained there seven years, then he teamed up with Sam Blumenfeld. That partnership ended when Blumenfeld was convicted of eleven counts of mail fraud. He died of a stroke three years later in Marion.”
“Who is she?” Janet says, taking notes.
“It,” Armstrong says. “The federal penitentiary in Southern Illinois.”
Milton resumes. “Pitt has been a lone wolf ever since. His firm is Leonard Pitt and Associates. The so-called ‘Associates’ are two third-rate lawyers, four paralegals, and somewhere between five and nine chasers.”
“What are chasers?” Janet asks.
Milton grins. “The lifeblood of a personal injury lawyer’s practice, Ms. Perry. They spend their days prowling the highways of metropolitan St. Louis with police radios in their cars. It’s a never ending search for prospective clients of Leonard Pitt & Associates. They find them at the hospitals and even at the scenes of the accidents. They bring them in—for a handsome fee, of course.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” Janet asks.
“Of course it’s illegal,” Milton says. “Indeed, it is grounds for disbarment. More precisely, it violates Section 2-103(d) of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which provides, in pertinent part—”
“The lawsuit, Milton,” Armstrong says, clearly annoyed now. “Focus, for chrissake. Tell me about the damn lawsuit.”
“Ah, yes. As I was stating, the clients of Pitt’s firm are semi-literate blacks and Hispanics, brought to the firm by chasers, usually within an hour or so of the traffic accident that has given rise to their sudden allure as potential clients. Pitt’s paralegals get the victims to sign a fee agreement, pursuant to which the client agrees to pay Pitt forty percent of any recovery. Then they send the client to Dr. Rafael Hernandez up on the North Side. The good doctor runs up the medical expenses, which become the basis for the lawsuit that one of Pitt’s underlings files on the new client’s behalf. About two years later, Pitt settles the case for, say, twenty grand, takes his forty percent off the top, pays court costs, pays the good doctor, and gives the client whatever scraps are left.”
Janet looks up from her notes with a frown. “But forty percent of the settlement is just eight thousand dollars. How does he make a living?”
“Volume, Ms. Perry. Leonard Pitt is the Earl Scheib of litigation. Assume his average take per case is six grand. Multiply that by four hundred, which is the number of cases he settles every year, subtract his over-head, subtract cash he pays the chasers, and he still clears well over a million dollars.”
“Pitt,” Armstrong says, leaning back in his chair with a frown. “Wasn’t he involved in a shooting a few years back?”
“He was, indeed,” Milton says. “He shot and killed an armed intruder in his living room at two in the morning. A head shot. Pitt is a gun nut. His cronies on the police force let him practice on their target range. He’s a big-game hunter. Heads west each fall, usually to Wyoming, for the elk season. Been on several Afri”can safaris. I understand that the walls of his law firm’s reception area are decorated with the heads of animals he’s killed.”
“Is he married?” Janet asks.
Milton smiles. “For the third time. Wife number one was the former Evelyn Palermo. They were married for sixteen years. Two daughters. Divorced twelve years ago. Married wife number two a year later. That one lasted three years. No children. His third wife is his former secretary, Mary Charissa Kochilinski. She shortened her name to Cherry Koke after high school. She worked at the Kmart in Festus before she took a job with Pitt. However, she is not just another pretty bimbo. My investigator says she is one tough lady. Very smart, very crafty. Pitt had her handle the payoffs to the chasers. That is a job that takes more than a little grit.”
“How old is wife number three?” Armstrong asks.
“Thirty-one,” Milton says. “They’ve been married three years. No children. She had a miscarriage a few months after they got married. According to my investigator, she was pregnant when they got married.”
“They’re still married?” Janet asks.
“Oh, yes. Probably for the duration. Leonard became a Roman Catholic between his second and third wives. He’s a big pal of the Archbishop. Goes to mass each Sunday. As you well know, the Catholic Church does not look kindly on divorce.”
“So where does our client fit in?” Armstrong asks.
“Mid-Continent Casualty is the third-largest insurer of automobiles in metropolitan St. Louis. It settles seventy to a hundred of Leonard Pitt’s fender-benders a year. Comes to about five hundred thousand dollars annually. They think Pitt has defrauded them out of more than two million dollars over the last ten years.”
“What about the criminal authorities?” Armstrong asks.
“They tried. The U.S. Attorney wasn’t interested. The state prosecutor seemed interested at first but that investigation fizzled out under mysterious circumstances.”
Janet asks, “What kind of mysterious circumstances?”
Milton smiles. “Let’s just say that the influence Leonard Pitt wields within the state judicial system is not insubstantial.”
“What do you have so far?” Armstrong asks.
“Ah, yes.” Milton gives him a smile that looks more like a grimace. He turns toward his credenza, sorts through a pile of documents, pulls out two, and spins back toward Armstrong and Janet with the documents held high.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “I present the smoking guns. Plaintiff’s Exhibits One and Two.”