While I’m 17 years out of law school and have recently passed the point at which I have spent as many years out of law practice as I did in it, I still often refer to myself as a “recovering lawyer”. I am not sure why I feel compelled to do this. By using this label I am simultaneously distancing myself from my lawyer self and embracing it. If my first career path had been in publishing and I had then become a lawyer, would I refer to myself as a “recovering publisher”? Somehow I doubt it. For good or ill, three years of law school and learning to “think like a lawyer” , followed by the several-month ordeal of studying for and then taking the bar exam, leaves its mark.
And then there’s law practice.
A few of my law school classmates joined a law firm directly out of school and have remained with the same firm ever since. Most have moved around a bit, though, and a substantial number have left the practice entirely. Regardless, I’d be willing to bet that few have had the variety of law practice experiences that I have.
My first position as a lawyer was with a solo practitioner who was extremely bright and extremely burned out. He had recently split off from his law firm under circumstances that were somewhat less than amicable, and the baggage that he carried around from that was second only to the baggage that he carried around from his divorce, which had been nothing close to amicable. Still, he was a good lawyer and a nice guy, and he basically gave me the keys to the store. In some respects, it was an ideal situation for a newly-minted attorney who was still bubbling over with energy and idealism. My boss paid the office rent and my salary (such as it was), and I had free rein to take on the world – as long as I didn’t expect him to share in my enthusiasm. He made it quite clear that he would rather be doing something other than practicing law. His cynicism and disillusionment would soon start to take their toll.
One thing that he did enjoy, but hadn’t been able to turn into a full-time career, was teaching. He was an adjunct professor at the local university’s business school, teaching business law. On a couple of occasions he had a conflict with class, and turned things over to me – his first-year associate and designated substitute. I was woefully underqualified to step in front of a classroom of 80 MBA students, most of whom were older and smarter than I was, and all of whom had more real-world business experience, and teach them anything – but it was great fun. Thanks to a good course outline and more than a little bit of luck, I managed to stay a step ahead of them.
I did have some memorable law practice experiences as well. Notably, though, I have very few memories of working at my desk – the office just wasn’t an inspiring atmosphere. Instead, the experiences that made an impression on me took place outside of the office. For instance, I vividly recall the sights, sounds and smells of my first jailhouse interview, talking to my client through a grate in the thick plexiglass window that separated visitor from inmate, and struggling to hear him over the yells and catcalls coming from inside.
I also remember a trip to the state mental institution to meet with a woman for whom I had been appointed guardian ad litem. I don’t recall too much about my client. What I remember instead was almost jumping out of my skin when another patient who had been quietly shuffling down the hallway, shoulders slumped and head down, suddenly looked up, locked her eyes with mine, pointed straight at me and started laughing maniacally. I don’t know what she saw, or what she thought she saw, but it wasn’t the same thing that I saw when I looked in the mirror.
Another memorable field trip was to a restaurant that had suddenly gone out of business. My job was to inspect the premises to see what assets would be available for sale to satisfy the claims of its many creditors. I went armed with a key and a flashlight – the key was to the padlock on the front door, and the flashlight was to find my way around, since the power had been cut off. The owners had left in a hurry – the cash registers were empty, but the freezers weren’t. Imagine, if you will, the sights and smells that awaited me upon entering a walk-in freezer after the power had been cut off for a couple of weeks….
These are the sorts of memories that I have from my first year in practice. Quite different from those of many of my law school classmates, some of whom wouldn’t even meet a client during their first year or two of practice. I wasn’t yet a slave to the billable hour (that would come later), and I knew and appreciated that fact. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to be in a practice where I was being encouraged and mentored to look forward to something other than being out of practice.
So, after about a year, I thanked my boss for the opportunity and the experiences that he had made available to me, and told him that my wife and I had decided to move back to my hometown. He took it personally, I’m afraid, and I’ve always regretted that.
Next: Part II