Harry Hindenberg: A Regrettable Misunderstanding

The latest column from acclaimed Papakura lawyer Harry Hindenberg

Readers, you may be wondering why I haven’t written for a few weeks. My absence from these pages is the result of a mishap I suffered last month. Let me explain what happened.

I was sitting at my desk pondering a problem. I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but I do recall that the one thing vexing me above all others at the time was the money question. The question was this: where was I to put all those wads of cash in my possession? I have so much money stuffed in the ceiling cavity that if my landlord ever gets the air-conditioning serviced he’s going to have some very happy contractors.

You may be wondering why on Earth a suburban solicitor should be stuffing bundles of money in the ceiling cavity of his law offices. But let me assure you that I’m a respectable businessman, and I have a perfectly reasonable explanation for what may to you seem like strange behaviour.

You see, I provide a range of services for my valued clients. Sometimes they get themselves into difficulty and need to call on the services of a trusted legal adviser to handle their affairs. My clients are often being persecuted by the police, who more often than not take an unreasonably tough line on these people. Even if I were to accept that not all of my clients are saints, I cannot accept that their being charged with minor drug offences (e.g. possession of barely five kilograms of cocaine for the purposes of supply) should lead police to assume that all their assets are ill-gotten gains. There could be any number of legitimate reasons why paper bags filled with hundred dollar notes are stuffed under various mattresses, along with firearms and fake passports.

I tell my clients that the police, being naturally suspicious types, will never believe them when they try to explain how they came into their money. So I insist they leave their cash with me. It’s not dishonest, because I have no way of knowing where the money came from. And a good lawyer never asks.

I take only a modest fee for my troubles. Twenty percent really isn’t a lot, considering the specialised services I offer. To the best of my knowledge, nobody else in the legal profession in this country is doing anything similar.

Oh, sure, other lawyers will claim they’re doing wonderful things for their clients. They will try to convince prospective clients that being a great lawyer is all about knowing the law and being able to find legal solutions to difficult problems. However, the narrow framework of the law is so limiting for creative problem solvers like myself.

I’ve always believed that petty regulation shouldn’t get in the way of doing business. I don’t mean to argue that we should be able to do exactly as we please, without any kind of laws to constrain our behaviour, because I can see how in some limited circumstances it might be useful to impose criminal sanctions on things like homicide.

But the humourless bureaucrats who run the Law Society don’t see it that way. Their petty rules concerning professional conduct are in my opinion stifling the creativity of the legal profession and preventing innovation. For example, if I decide to withdraw fifty thousand dollars of client funds from my firm’s trust account and blow it on an overseas holiday, soaking in all the fleshy delights of Bangkok, shouldn’t that be a matter between me and my clients? “Theft” is such an emotionally-loaded term.

All this is to say that I’ve had my share of run-ins with the Law Society, almost always over trivial transgressions.  Like the day I threatened to kill one of my clients after she asked why I had billed her thirty thousand dollars for a routine property transaction. Naturally, I had no intention of killing the poor woman:  I was just trying to frighten her into paying me. It’s ridiculous that the Law Society would poke their long noses  into such an insignificant matter. When the IRD are on your case they’ll threaten you with all manner of legal consequences if you don’t pay up on time. But the moment I threaten to attack one little old wheelchair-bound grandmother if she doesn’t cough up I’m treated like a common criminal. It’s political correctness gone mad.

I’m still angry that the incident almost cost me my career. I’m just grateful that the building where all the Law Society’s files were held mysteriously burned down the day before my misconduct hearing.

So the Law Society is no friend to me. Whenever I receive one of their letters I feel a moment of anxiety. And whenever I hear that the organisation’s resources are going to be tied up for a while on another misconduct investigation, naturally I breathe a sigh of relief.

Anyway, back to my story. I remember picking up the newspaper on the day in question, only to read that Barry Hart, the high-flying criminal barrister, had become the subject of a disciplinary hearing. You can imagine my joy at learning that the Law Society had their eyes off me for once, and so I downed an entire bottle of vodka (a gift from a Russian client) on the spot in celebration.

When I awoke, four hours later, I was covered in my own vomit and had soiled my pants. It was a near thing, as my 4:00 pm appointment was waiting at reception for me. The woman’s husband had just died and she wanted to see me about his will. What a delightful woman! If she was at all concerned about the state of my dress or the odour coming from my clothing she was kind enough to say nothing. The lady was not unattractive to look at, so I immediately offered her my standard alternative billing arrangement, but she declined my offer and told me to put my trousers back on.

I don’t recall exactly what we discussed, though she was surprised to discover that her late and beloved husband had changed his will on his deathbed, excluding her entirely and leaving everything to his trusted family solicitor. She was especially surprised because she claimed he’d been in an induced coma on the day he was meant to have signed the document.

I do recall something being mentioned about getting the police involved, and I managed to finally calm the poor grieving woman by threatening her family. Sometimes you just need to be firm when someone’s being hysterical and making all sorts of wild allegations.  But I’m a fair and honourable man, so I said I’d give her two weeks to sign over her share of the house to me.

I had just enough time to get to the TAB before my next meeting, but that’s when it all went wrong. I knew something was up the moment I stepped out the front door and saw the police car outside my office, but I didn’t have time to get back inside and start burning papers. The next thing I knew I was being jammed into the back of a police car and taken down the road. It turns out that the ungrateful widow went straight to the cops.

Naturally, this was all a huge misunderstanding, but it took me a few weeks to sort things out. The poor woman just went missing. She’s not been seen for a couple of weeks now, and without her evidence they don’t have enough to make the charges stick. I of course know nothing about any of this.

But it’s been a useful reminder to me to be more careful in the future, because this law business is a dangerous one to be in, and one must stay constantly on one’s toes. For example, I didn’t know until I’d became a lawyer that they have an entire Crimes Act!

Even thinking about some of the things described in that legislation as criminal brings me out in a sweat. Or is that because of the three pies and half-bottle of scotch I had for lunch?