If surf's up, they try waves, not cases
These guys aren't shy. They're lawyers.
They'll be in the courtroom, handling some proceeding, which is not proceeding fast enough for them, and they'll ask, "Your honor, can we move this along?!"
By now, everybody there who knows them, including the judge, understands that this means just one thing:
Lawyers who surf.
Yes, they know. It doesn't sound as normal as, say, lawyers who golf.
"It's almost incomprehensible to our partners that we have to get out here and do this," says Keith Kyle, a partner in the downtown Providence firm Hodosh, Spinella & Angelone. "It's not something that goes along with being a lawyer and wearing a suit."
At about noon on Wednesday, Kyle is standing on a sandy hillock overlooking Matunuck Beach, wearing shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a surfing magazine. As soon as his brethren arrive, he'll duck behind his Mercedes to change into his wet suit, then grab his board to devote a few pleasurable, if nonbillable, hours to his passion.
The swells from Hurricane Cindy are smaller today, but everyone has high hopes for "big sets" of waves from Hurricane Dennis to the south.
This will be the fourth straight day of surfing for Kyle and his lawyer friends - Kenneth Dolbashian, with whom he grew up in Newport, now an attorney with Chappell and Chappell, in Portsmouth, and Stephen T. Morrissey, whom he met while surfing and who has his own practice in Wakefield.
Morrissey and Dolbashian arrive straight from court, ties still knotted.
"Whatever you do, don't listen to these guys! They're lawyers!" teases a fellow surfer, Rick Moffitt, bounding up from the water. Moffitt is a physician's assistant who, it seems, divides his time between surfing and assisting at surgery.
Listening to the four professionals talk together, mentioning their wives, their children, one nearly forgets the popular image of surfers as driftless slackers who work menial jobs to pay for Doritos, dope and surfboard wax - people you certainly wouldn't want playing beach-blanket bingo with your trust fund.
Do their clients know they surf?
Yes, say the lawyers, and they either don't mind or else consider it very cool.
"I am a trial lawyer," pronounces Morrissey, with mock seriousness, as if issuing a manifesto. "However, I will have to go surfing."
"We're professionals. We're attorneys. We're responsible for our cases and our clients," says Kyle.
"So we're not going to jeopardize any of that," says Morrissey, who adds that surfing offers a "spiritual cleansing" and makes him a better lawyer.
The only trouble with the hobby is that good surf - unlike tee times - can't be scheduled. It happens when it happens, and when it does, one feels irresistibly beckoned.
But then, what with cell phones, pagers and laptop computers, the lawyers are never far from the office. After riding a few waves, they can jump from a wet suit into a business suit and into court as fast as you can say cowabunga.
Outside any courthouse, their cars are easy to spot: they're the ones with the surfboards strapped to the top.
Kyle, who lives in Narragansett, loads his car up every night with the things he'll need for both surfing and lawyering. Among the most important items are several juice containers full of water.
These are for taking a roadside "shower" before donning his lawyer clothes again.
"If you don't," explains Dolbashian, "you end up with salt in your eyebrows in court."
Equally undesirable is what Kyle calls "the nasal drip," the moment when one's sinuses release an unstoppable stream of seawater.
"We've all had that in court," says Kyle, who tries to be ready with a handkerchief.
" 'May I have a moment, your honor?' " says Morrissey, demonstrating how he turns discreetly away from the bench, his face in his hands.
But these are small irritations, says Kyle. All of it - the chafed skin; the wax pilling up on his legs; the increased need, with age, for apr ès-surf ibuprofen - is worth it.
Kyle looks with affection at his friends: "We should form our own firm right here and now."
Sure, he says, they're a little obsessed - especially with the weather - but it's a healthy thing, because surfing brings balance, perspective and peace to their otherwise frenetic lives.
After a few hours in the surf, says Kyle, "there's nothing like the sleep you get."
At his desk?
"No! At night!"
Surfing and lawyering are actually quite similar pursuits, he and his friends say. Both require mental discipline. Both are very solitary.
"When you do a trial," says Morrissey, "it's you and you alone. You've got nothing to rely on but yourself. No one's going to save you."
Just as you don't know what your client may come out with on the witness stand, you don't know where any given wave may take you. The key is to have confidence.
"I'd rather start a trial after three days of surfing than doing 300 depositions and running right in," says Kyle. "A lot of our work is preparing for trial. So do it at night! It's unconventional to do work at night, it doesn't fit in with the mold of being a lawyer, but it all gets done."
He thinks of the beautiful sunrises and sunsets he's seen while surfing. Other lawyers, he says, don't get to see that - at least "not the way we do. We see it coming up over the ocean. They see sunrises driving their BMWs to work."
Of the 5,000 or so lawyers in Rhode Island, Kyle estimates there are only 10 or 15 who surf, though there may be others who are "hiding."
"They're not going to come out of the closet," Kyle says. "They're supposed to be on the golf course."
It frightens the surfer-lawyers to think about how they could get: Worn out and miserable from competition, overwork, pressure to make money for the firm.
Just spending too long under the fluorescent lights of the courthouse, says Morrissey, makes people "shrivel up."
Nope. That's not for them.
They scrub wax onto the board, tether it to an ankle and paddle out to where the waves are.
The surf is now in session.