The bench, the bar and the lunch table

The courtroom is a stuffy place. Attorneys and judges interact with each other at arm’s length. Formality is a virtue. Jokes aren’t really funny. And it’s almost never a good idea to say what you’re really thinking.

Perhaps that’s the way it should be. Serious business happens in the courtroom, and practitioners of the law should not allow outward signs of joviality to distract from the gravity of the business at hand. In courtrooms, clients want to see their lawyers as dignified professionals soldiering through the case, suffering alongside them. And that’s okay. Appearances are important in this profession, and serious work often demands humorless hands. The glum courtroom is important to a healthy legal community.

But a healthy legal community also needs a pressure release valve. Attorneys and judges need a common escape from the courtroom in which they can sit down with one another, without an agenda, roundtable-style, and chew through whatever conversation—or food—they like. In my experience, the lively lunch table is as important to the legal profession as the glum courtroom.

In Champaign County, where I practice criminal law, Bunny’s Tavern in Urbana is every Wednesday’s lunch spot. A hundred yards from the courthouse, the long table at the end of the bar (next to the poker machines) is usually full by noon on Wednesdays. Lawyers and judges pull up chairs to break bread and shrug off the tensions of the courtroom. The Bunny’s lunch table has its weekly regulars, its every-once-in-a-while attendees, and the occasional “Oh my God—he’s still practicing!?” Any lawyer or judge, regardless of practice area or experience, is welcome. The federal judge doesn’t mind squeezing down to make room for the first-year associate. No one is unapproachable. No one is presiding. There is no record. There are no clients.

Every legal community needs such a lunch table.

The lunch table is where judges and lawyers can come together as equals to share insight, perspective, and friendly gossip. It’s where prosecutors and defense attorneys can scream and yell at each other about last night’s football game while sharing sighs of relief over the completion of a tough case. The lunch table offers an oasis where courtroom adversaries can discover their common ground. In my experience, the bonding and candid discussion that happens at the lunch table improves what happens in the courtroom. The lunch table lets in the empathy that the courtroom pushes out. Not all problems are solved. Not all future problems are avoided. But the trust, understanding, and companionship found at the lunch table carry over to the courtroom.

And even for those not interested in making friends, the lunch table offers practical benefit. It is a live-action bulletin board in which lawyers and judges share scuttlebutt, tradecraft, and premonitions. It is the courthouse’s debriefing room. A lawyer can learn more about the practice of law sharing a plate of nachos than he can at a routine hearing. Once a lively lunch table forms within a legal community, you don’t want to be the lawyer who doesn’t show up.

I encourage all lawyers and judges to seek out their local lunch table. Come prepared to talk about your latest legal quandary, client gripe, or the political outrage du jour. And if no local lunch table exists, start your own. All it takes is one other practitioner, a centrally located food joint, and an appetite for camaraderie.

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September 2017Volume 48Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)