A male voice with a different accent, from somewhere up north, replied, "Yes, Mr. Mack Stafford, please."
The voice was too polished and too far away to worry him, so he replied, "This is Mack."
"Mr. Mack Stafford, the attorney?"
"Correct. Who's calling?"
"My name is Marty Rosenberg, and I'm with the Durban & Lang firm in New York."
"New York City?" Mack asked, and much too quickly. Of course it was New York City. Though his practice had never taken him anywhere near the big city, he certainly knew of Durban & Lang. Every lawyer in America had at least heard of the firm.
"That's correct. May I call you Mack?" The voice was quick but polite, and Mack suddenly had a visual of Mr. Rosenberg sit' ting in a splendid office with art on the walls and associates and secretaries scurrying about tending to his needs. Yet in the midst of such power he wanted to be friendly. A wave of insecurity swept over Mack as he looked around his dingy little room and wondered if Mr. Rosenberg had already decided he was just an-other small-town loser because he answered his own phone.
"Sure. And I'll just call you Marty."
"Sorry, Marty, to grab the phone, but my secretary stepped out for lunch." It was important for Mack to clear the air and let this guy know that he was a real lawyer with a real secretary.
"Yes, well, I forgot that you're an hour behind us," Marty said with a trace of contempt, the first hint that perhaps they were separated by far more than just a simple hour.
"What can I do for you?" Mack said, seizing control of the conversation. Enough of the small talk. Both were busy, important attorneys. His mind was in overdrive as he tried to think of any case, any file, any legal matter that could conceivably merit interest from such a large and prestigious law firm.
"Well, we represent a Swiss company that recently purchased most of the Tinz,o group out of South Korea. You're familiar with Tinz,o?"
"Of course," Mack replied quickly, while his mind racked its memory for some recollection of Tinzo. It did indeed ring a bell, though a very distant one.
"And according to some old Tinzo records, you at one time represented some loggers who claimed to have been injured by defective chain saws manufactured by a Tinzo division in the Philippines."
Oh, that Tinzo! Now Mack was in the game. Now he remembered, though the details were still not at his fingertips. The cases were old, stale, and almost forgotten because Mack had tried his best to forget them.
"Terrible injuries," he said anyway. Terrible as they might have been, they had never been so grievous as to prompt Mack to actually file suit. He'd signed them up years earlier but lost interest when he couldn't bluff a quick settlement. His theory of liability was shaky at best. The Tinzo chain saws in question actually had an impressive safety record. And, most important, product liability litigation was complicated, expensive, way over his head, and usually involved jury trials, which Mack had always tried to avoid. There was comfort in filing divorces and personal bankruptcies and doing an occasional will or deed. Little in the way of fees, but he and most of the other lawyers in Clanton could eke out a living while avoiding almost all risk.
"We have no record of any lawsuits being filed down there," Marty was saying.
"Not yet," Mack said with as much bluster as he could manage.
"How many of these cases do you have, Mack?"
"Four," he said, though he wasn't certain of the exact number.
"Yes, that's what our records show. We have the four letters you sent to the company sometime back. However, there doesn't seem to have been much activity since the original correspondence."
"The cases are active," Mack said, and for the most part it was a lie. The office files were still open, technically, but he hadn't touched them in years. Fish files, he called them. The longer they sit there untouched, the more they stink. "We have a six-year statute of limitations," he said, somewhat smugly, as if he just might crank up things tomorrow and commence all manner of hardball litigation.
"Kind of unusual, if I must say so," Marty mused. "Not a thing in the files in over four years."
In an effort to steer the conversation away from his own procrastination, Mack decided to get to the point. "Where is this going, Marty?"
"Well, our Swiss client wants to clean up the books and get rid of as much potential liability as possible. They're European, of course, and they don't understand our tort system. Frankly, they're terrified of it."
"With good reason," Mack jumped in, as if he routinely extracted huge sums of money from corporate wrongdoers.
"They want these things off the books, and they've instructed me to explore the possibility of settlement."
Mack was on his feet, phone wedged between his jaw and shoulder, his pulse racing, his hands scrambling for a fish file in a pile of debris on the sagging credenza behind his desk, a frantic search for the names of his clients who'd been maimed years ago by the sloppy design and production of Tinzo chain saws. Say what? Settlement? As in money changing hands from the rich to the poor? Mack couldn't believe what he was hearing.
"Are you there, Mack?" Marty asked.
"Oh yes, just flipping through a file here. Let's see, the chain saws were all the same, a model 58X, twenty-four-inch with the nickname of LazerCut, a heavy-duty pro model that for some reason had a chain guard that was defective and dangerous."
"You got it, Mack. I'm not calling to argue about what might have been defective, that's what trials are for. I'm talking about settlement, Mack. Are you with me?"
Damned right I am, Mack almost blurted. "Certainly. I'm happy to talk settlement. You obviously have something in mind. Let's hear it." He was seated again, tearing through the file, looking for dates, praying that the six-year statute of limitations had not expired on any of these now critically important cases.
"Yes, Mack, I have some money to offer, but I must caution you up front that my client has instructed me not to negotiate. If we can settle these matters quickly, and very quietly, then we'll write the checks. But when the dickering starts, the money disappears. Are we clear on this, Mack?"
Oh yes. Crystal clear. Mr. Marty Rosenberg in his fancy office high above Manhattan had no idea how quickly and quietly and cheaply he could make the fish files disappear. Mack would take anything. His badly injured clients had long since stopped calling. "Agreed," Mack said.
Marty shifted gears, and his words became even crisper. "We figure it would cost a hundred thousand to defend these cases in federal court down there, assuming we could lump them together and have just one trial. This is obviously a stretch since the cases have not been filed, and, frankly, litigation seems unlikely, given the thinness of the file. Add another hundred thousand for the injuries, none of which have been documented, mind you, but we understand some fingers and hands have been lost. Anyway, we'll pay a hundred thousand per claim, throw in the cost of defense, and the total on the table comes to half a million bucks."
Mack's jaw dropped, and he almost swallowed the phone. He was prepared to demand at least three times any amount Marty first mentioned, the usual lawyer's routine, but for a few seconds he could neither speak nor breathe.
Marty went on: "All up-front money, confidential, no admission of liability, with the offer good for thirty days, until March 10."