Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2010
Parting Thoughts
The Best Fee I Ever Earned
By Ronald Talney

It was the late ’80s. I was still in private law practice. That day I had been in court in downtown Portland at a hearing that I had anticipated would take about an hour. It, in fact, lasted all morning and into the lunch hour. I had agreed to staff a free legal clinic in Old Town that day, sponsored by the Multnomah Bar Association Volunteer Lawyer Project, and had low-income clients scheduled every half hour from 1 p.m. through the balance of the afternoon. Consequently I had no time to eat lunch. In a rush, I arrived at the shabby offices located off West Burnside Street where the clinic was being held, and my first client, an elderly lady, was already waiting nervously. I settled myself in to the makeshift office that had been provided and ushered her in. She looked at me and, to my surprise, said, “Young man, you look hungry.” (It should be noted that I was much slimmer in those days.) Somewhat taken aback by this personal and very astute observation, I responded that I actually was somewhat hungry, not having had time to eat lunch. She scolded me as only a mother might, and I could almost hear the soft burr of my Scottish mother’s stern voice of rebuke floating from her lips.

I showed her to a seat and we began our interview. She lived in one of the down-in-the-dumps studio apartments in Old Town and her only source of income was a modest monthly Social Security allotment. The payments had stopped about two months earlier and she had not been successful in learning why or how to get them started again. As a result she was desperate. She had no money to live on, her utilities were in arrears and about to be shut off, her rent was overdue, and she was being threatened with eviction. She had no relatives and no other place to turn. I made some telephone calls on her behalf and learned that there had been a glitch in her address at the apartment building, which was why her checks were being returned to the Social Security Administration. With updated information they said checks would be sent to her immediately. I also contacted her landlord and the electric company to explain her circumstances and they both agreed to withhold further action. The problem resolved, she thanked me profusely and left.

My next client was waiting and I ushered him in and began my second interview of the afternoon. About 15 minutes into the interview there was a sudden knock on the office door. Somewhat perturbed at being interrupted in the middle of a consultation, I went to the door and opened it. There was my elderly client, a small brown paper sack clutched in her hand.

“Here,” she said, thrusting the bag into my hands. “I found a quarter on the street.” I must have looked bewildered.

“It’s a donut,” she added. “It’s day-old but should still be good.”

Before I could say a word of thanks or protest her generosity she was gone. In all my years of law practice, I can’t recall ever receiving a more generous fee, or enjoying a more nourishing lunch.


Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of five books of poems. He has also published a juvenile mystery novel, as well as numerous articles and essays.

© 2010 Ronald Talney

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