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The Lemon Lawyer

Bumper to Bumper in the Daley Center's 25th floor courtrooms



By Ben Joravsky

The lemon lawyer's day begins with court call at nine in one of the brown and white courtrooms stashed between the 20th and 25th floors of the Daley Center.

His name is Adam Krohn, and at the tender age of 28 he knows more than anyone should have to about the legal intricacies of fighting fraud in the car-selling game. You bought a new car with a leaky engine? An old one with more miles on it than the odometer registers? Paying more in monthly interest than you thought you had agreed to? Chances are you'll wind up complaining to Krohn or his partner, Gregory Moss.

They are, Krohn swears, two of a kind--the only lawyers in a city crawling with lawyers who handle nothing but lemon-law cases. "No other lawyers would be so nuts," Krohn jokes.

He stops outside a courtroom on the 22nd floor to adjust his tie, straighten his jacket, and brush back his hair. His eyes are circled with deep shadows--"I've been up late every night writing responses to motions," he mumbles. "They keep you running like a rat in a cage. But I won't let them wear me out."

He enters a small, windowless room with white walls and a grayish-brown carpet. There are lawyers everywhere, filling the seats, clogging the aisle. "This is Judge [David] Lichtenstein's room," he explains. "He's fair but kind of tough. You'll see what I mean."

As if on cue, Lichtenstein races in, his black robe flowing behind. He calls the first case and looks up to behold seven lawyers clustered before him.

"Hello," says the judge.

"Hello," the lawyers respond in unison.

Lichtenstein turns his attention to one of the lawyers in front of him, a mousy little guy with big eyes and slumped shoulders. The judge asks a question, and the lawyer launches into a long-winded response. I can't hear exactly what they're saying, but a frown crosses Lichtenstein's face.

He cuts off the lawyer. "I'm asking specific questions," the judge says.

"I understand, judge."

"These are not trick questions."

"Yes, well, you see--"

"I only asked you a question. I'm not trying to start an argument."

"Yes, judge."

"It's like asking, 'Is the light on?'"

"Yes, judge."

"It's either on or it isn't on."

"Yes, judge."

"Either way I don't care--just answer the question."

"Yes, your honor."

"This is not some existential debate in law school."

"Yes, your honor."

"All these people want to get out of here."

"Yes, your honor."

"I have a trial to run."

The lawyer hangs his head; his ears turn red. Krohn and I exchange a look. "I told you he was tough," Krohn whispers.

The case is continued, and then Krohn's case is called. He takes a breath, nervously fiddles with his tie, and approaches the bench, where he's met by the opposing lawyer, a woman in a pink outfit. "Hello," says the judge.

"Hello," they respond before launching into arguments.

Lichtenstein cuts them off merely by raising his eyebrows.

"What are your names? Who are your clients? And do you have business cards?"

Krohn's client sued Ford Motor Credit Company over an interest-rate dispute, but they are here on a spin-off issue. The opposing lawyer's client filed for dismissal, arguing that Krohn had not filed an answer to her counterclaim. So Krohn is introducing a motion saying he did indeed respond to the counterclaim. The judge scours the paper, schedules a hearing on the matter in a few days, and moves on to the next case.

With that Krohn gathers his briefcase and darts for the elevator. "It's all crap," he says. "They knew I filed a response to their counterclaim. They just want to bury me under paper, keep me up all night writing responses to their responses. That's what these morning hearings are all about: motions to motions to motions. They're running up billable hours, suffocating me with paper. You know how many dollars in billable hours were in that courtroom? Thousands."

He gets off on the 23rd floor and dashes into a courtroom that's almost identical to the one we just left. At the center sits the judge, a soft-spoken man who bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Ross Perot.

Krohn nervously clicks his pen as he waits for his case to be called. Another lawyer yawns. The clock on the wall ticks away 45 minutes before the judge calls Krohn to the bench.

There's a motion to transfer the case to DuPage County by the other lawyer, who represents a suburban car dealership. Krohn says something, the opposing lawyer responds, and documents are placed before the judge. The request is denied--saving Krohn hours of travel--and a court date is set. It's over in a matter of seconds.

By now it's after 11. He leaves the courthouse and walks along LaSalle Street to his office, where a dozen or so messages wait on his desk. He reads the first and shakes his head. "This is about a classic lemon-laundering case," he says. "My client buys a brand-new Jetta with 1,400 miles on it. She asks the dealer, 'Why does it have these miles?' The dealer says, 'Don't worry, it was a demo--some execs drove it.' Big deal, right? It turns out the engine light comes on. The first three weeks she has the car she's in five times for the light. She's only put on 600 extra miles. So she calls me, and I run a search; it turns out that the car used to belong to some guy in Michigan who had it serviced for--guess what?--the engine light."

"I don't get it," I say.

He offers me a Judge Lichtenstein frown of impatience. "It's simple," he explains. "The guy in Michigan returns the car; they clean it up, kick back some miles on the odometer, and run it across the state line to Illinois, where it gets sold to my client. That's why they call it lemon laundering--because they wash away the title. Get it?"

He picks up another message. It's from an opposing lawyer, regarding the case of the leaking oil. He dials the number. "I think he wants to settle," he says as the sound of a ringing phone comes over the speaker phone.

"Hello?" answers the other lawyer.

"Hello," says Krohn.

"Who's this?"

Krohn rolls his eyes. "Who do you think it is?" he asks.

"What do you want?"

"What did you want?"

"You called me."

"You called me first."

"What are you looking for?"

"I want you to take the car back. We want a new one."

The other lawyer chuckles. "If I had your money. Fax me the file. I'll see what we can do."

Krohn hangs up. "He gives me a hard time, but he's not a bad guy. How they treat you varies from company to company. Ford's the worst--they take everything to trial and try to bury me with paper. GM's middle ground; they settle some, fight others. GMC's the greatest. They'll give the customer a brand-new car if it keeps them with GMC. I don't know why GMC's different than GM, but that's the way it is.

"Overall the opposing lawyers have the advantage. They're getting paid by the manufacturers; they can just run up the bill. Me? The only fees I get are ordered by the court. So I have to wait months to settle the case or take it to trial, and then I have to wait months for the judge to order the other side to pay me. That's why they try to bury me in paper. They want me to break. They want me to run away.

"On top of that, the law in Illinois stinks. It says the company can deduct wear and tear, and you have to bring the car in four times before you sue. So let's see, if your car's stalling in traffic, you have to stall four times before you get relief? Come on. I got a client with a '97 that keeps leaking; she brings it in, the dealer puts putty on it. It leaks again, so she brings it in again, and they put more putty on it. I call the lawyer. I say, 'Give her a new car,' and he starts in about the wear and tear. I said, 'Look, if you didn't keep slapping putty on it, maybe it wouldn't have so much wear and tear.'"

For lunch he warms a bagel and fills his cup with coffee. He has a dozen clients to call, and the phone's still ringing. After six he'll turn off the phone and start on motions. "They want to bury me, but I won't be buried," he says. "For every paper they file, I'll file a response. And I'll have it done in time for tomorrow's nine o'clock call."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Adam Krohn photo by Randy Tunnell.

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