Normally, I give these types of commentaries to people who deserve a lot of nitpicking, but don't take it that way. Overall, I liked this story, although there were a few small details that I'd like to freshen up:
The man slumped, tired, into the third chair from the left [This detail really doesn't seem necessary].
The usual bustle of the law firm’s waiting room was withdrawing for the night, until its return at seven o’clock sharp the next morning, always stylishly prompt.
He sighed and ran two fingers [Interesting quirk, and I think it adds character, although as with the chair example, I don't think it's necessary. However, you managed to stay under the word limit nevertheless, so it doesn't matter that much. What you manage to do here is create a casual enough tone in the story that prevents it from sounding rushed, which is more than what I can say for myself.] through his dark hair. It had been a long day. The next [The use of this word doesn't fit, and I just wouldn't put anything here.] employer had fired him, just like the last two. Can’t take money from me, Mike, he’d said. I don’t care how many mouths you’ve got to feed [Both here and in the last quotation, use quotation marks.]. And then he was out of work yet again. And so the pattern of misfortune would continue like it had.
The faded tan of his coat contrasted the deep red of his shirt [The color of his clothes don't need to be mentioned. Describing visual appearance works in other stories, especially when a character comes up for more than on scene, in which case they're recurring and you might want a signature appearance or visual trait, such as solors, to help identify them with, but on a short, one-shot story like this, I'm not interested in the appearance of Michael. You've already described that he has dark hair, which is good enough for me. Just describe that he had to replace the coat. Although it's strange, because I have a $1 suit that I've worn for a long while and it has yet to wear out. Visually I guess this helps get a message across, altough it's something that has always struck me as odd once I thought about it.], bought only last week, after his previous one had been too threadbare to tolerate. His denim jeans were headed down the same path, an obvious [This adjective obviously doesn't need to be used.] conclusion upon taking a single look.
At last the door opened and the man stood up, straightened his coat and the already-straight-enough [I see what you did here. Or at least, I think I do. This technically cuts down the word limit. I use this too. Anyway, the characterization makes sense...] tie, made a half-hearted effort to tuck in his shirt [This does not, though. I'd figure that if his tie was already straight enough, he'd also have his shirt tucked in. Outside of rock bands, who wears ties with untucked shirts, anyway? You don't have to have money to know how to tuck your shirt in. You could have actually saved space by not including this detail, too.], and walked into the office.
The lawyer sat there, left arm placed on the corresponding armrest of his large office chair, the brown leather pleasantly [Unnecessary adverb. I have a whole rant reserved for these.] reminding the visitor of an elderly man’s worn face.
The pen click-tapped on the wooden desk and then alighted [Interesting word choice. don't think it works, especially not for this story, although it does fit the style you have going to some extent, where I think you manage to capture just enough of a casual tone mixed with the more dynamic and creative voice of a narrator. I still would have used a different word, though, because this stands out just a little too much.] on the lawyer’s ear, both arms now up on the desk, his right hand supporting his chin. “So,” he asked, “what brings you here tonight, Michael [I see that you reveal his name now. Maybe you should have just referred to him as Michael from the start, although I understand that you didn't. Someties the judgment on whether or not is a tough call, because in a sense I know you want to "show" and not "tell" by creating a scene with a man you don't quite know yet and gradually let the reader get more familiar with him as the story progresses. Putting his name out at the beginning is still something I'm throwing out for consideration, although for this story it doesn't really matter too much, especially given your style throughout.]?” and smiled emptily as if he didn’t already know.
Playing along with this charade of obliviousness, the visitor [Call him by his name by this point. It's fewer words and it's clearer, unless you didn't want to give the impression that you're pulling off a reveal, and there's also the matter of repeating his name in such a short moment and keeping the tone of the story as one more like an anonymous viewer from describing what he's seeing as if he could watch it like a movie. I fully understand how you wanted this to read, though. Again, as was the case when you first mentioned his name, there's nothing necessarily wrong with the way you did things here, although do stop and consider whether or not I would have preferred seeing the name handled in a different fashion.] replied, “Looking for a job.”
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you,” the lawyer winced with false sympathy, “I don’t run a hiring agency, and I’ve already got a secretary. Oh, and a janitor, too.”
“Yes, I know. Are you sure there isn’t any small way I could help a very competitive man like yourself in his endeavors [This does not sound natural.]?”
[What's this break doing here? Similarly, there need to be tabs in front of each paragraph, just to make this a little bit easier to read.]
“Now that you mention it, the Burton - Graham case is getting a little out of hand. Of course that simpleton isn’t innocent, but he did hire me and now I’ve gotta clear him.”
Michael looked across the mahogany desk at the lawyer. He knew that it’d be like this before he had entered. That didn’t make it any easier to accept; but when you were as close to broke as you can be, you had to do some things you wouldn’t want to otherwise.
The system was his scapegoat, the target of his blame; the judiciaries were the ones responsible for his troubles. If only the defendant hadn’t hired the best lawyer in the state, he’d be fine. Of course, the best lawyer in the state was, and had been [I think I know what you were trying to do here by referring to the end of the story, but any way read it, this injection is confusing and just doesn't sound right.], Jason Nichols. But there was nothing Michael could do now, really.
“Then how would you like me to help? [Yes, this is exactly what I was wondering over the last few paragraphs, because it escaped me how a person who apparently has no marketable skills can help a lawyer with something big and urgent. I'm pleased to say that you came up with a natural turn in the story that answered my question and surprised me as well.]” he grudgingly asked.
The lawyer eyed Michael from across the desk, and sighed as he spun his pen between two fingers. “Well let me see…” the lawyer trailed off, looking at the bland grey ceiling while mumbling to himself. “Ah, that’s it- here.” So saying, he handed a small round pill bottle to his visitor [At this point, though, I definitely think you should call him Michael.]. The white cylinder was unmarked save for three carefully made green dots on the lid. “Graham’s lawyer, rival of mine, takes regular medication for a minor liver condition. Perhaps there would be unexpected side effects if, say, his prescription were to be changed?” As he said this he reached into his desk and removed a pair of perfectly smooth, crisp fifty-dollar bills, then handed them to Michael.
The visitor nodded and sighed. Pocketing the cash and the blank bottle, he stood up and bowed his head. When he next spoke Michael’s voice was choked by a sudden biting resentfulness. “You know I wouldn’t be doing this, Nichols…”
“Of course,” replied the lawyer who had taken apart Michael’s life, arguing against an innocent man, five years before. His mock sympathy had returned. “I know just why you’re doing this, and of course, you have my sympathy.” Jason grinned coldly. And Michael noiselessly left, hands in his pockets.
[This break makes more sense.]
Four days later Jason Nichols was dead. The scene of the crime- his office- was sealed off in accordance with police protocol. The old leather chair had recently acquired a red-rimmed hole from which leaked sickly yellow cotton. On the desk there was a bullet shell, a scorch mark, and fifty dollars, forlorn and crumpled. Under it there was an empty pill bottle with three green dots on the lid. Michael hadn’t wanted to do it- he wasn’t one for revenge- but Graham’s lawyer had paid him four hundred. That would be enough to feed his family for a month or so. It would be fine, for a while at least.
Some say that in a time of crisis the need outweighs the guilt. And at the end of the day, are we only human after all?
I liked this story, It wasn't rushed, and it was just the right type of story for this length of fiction. All the while, you also did a very good job of not sounding like you were rushed, which is great. I kept on imagining Jason Nichols being played by Jack Nicholson, which made it even more entertaining. The beginning was a good setup and the natural place to start, and the ending was both satisfying and a good image and plot twist to conclude with. Things took me by surprise, but nothing seemed out of place. The only thing I will comment on is that being "only human" isn't really an excuse for Michael, and I'm sure my good buddy Clark Kent wouldn't do that. But then again, apparently people don't believe in the Clark Kents of the world anymore.
Those sure are violent lawyers, by the way. I didn't mind, though, because when I first read the theme of "Settlement", this is exactly the type of story that comes to mind, and between the story, the pacing, the writing style, and how your entry fits with the theme, I think that this might be the best story for this particular contest round.