Law Practice Part III – A Foot in the Door

All I needed was a foot in the door. 

I sent a cover letter and resume to every law firm in town that maintained a litigation practice, and came up empty.  Even before it started winning its spate of #1 City/Best Place to Live awards*, Charlottesville was a very popular place to be.  That fact, together with the presence of U.Va’s law school, has long made Charlottesville a buyers’ market for law firms looking to hire associates.  For a certain would-be young associate who had not gone to U.Va, and whose law school GPA reflected the fact that he had spent more time courting his future wife than he had studying in the library, prospects were starting to look a bit bleak.

So, for the first of what would turn out to be many times during the course of my legal career, I called on a family friend from church, who also happened to be one of the most highly respected attorneys in the state.  I was not asking him for a job; I knew from prior discussions that his firm was not hiring.  What I sought was a sympathetic and knowledgable ear, and that is what I received.  He took me to lunch on the downtown mall, and after I had finished laying out my plight, he asked, “Have you tried Mr. ____’s office?”

I told him that I had not, but that I remembered the firm’s profile in the attorney directory that I had virtually memorized.  Tax.  Estate Planning.  Real Estate.  Bankruptcy.  Sorry, not interested – I wanted to be a trial lawyer.

“It’s probably not going to be the place where you want to spend your career, but his firm is sort of an institution in town, and a lot of folks start out there.  It’d give you a foot in the door, at least.” 

A foot in the door.  What was that old saying about beggars and choosers?  I got a cover letter and resume in the mail that afternoon.

I arrived for my interview with Mr. ____ on a Saturday afternoon a week or so later, not knowing what to expect.  If I had known, I’m not sure I would have gone.  The firm’s office, as with many in Charlottesville’s Court Square area, was in a 19th-century building that had originally been a house.  Unlike most of the neighboring offices, this building had not had much in the way of upkeep since it was first built.  There were spots where mortar was falling out from between crumbling bricks, and the white trim on the windows was peeling.  This turn-of-the-century building didn’t look historic – it just looked old.

I went inside, and there was Mr. ____**, sitting at one of the secretaries’ desks.  His white hair and lined face made me wonder if he had been around for as long as the building itself.  With some effort, he stood up to greet me.  Despite his age and apparent weariness, I noted a twinkle in his eye as we shook hands, and I followed him down the hallway to his office. 

Every horizontal surface – desk, filing cabinets, credenza, tables, floor, and several chairs – was covered in stacks of paper, some measuring a foot high.  Some papers were client files in manila folders, but others appeared to be loose, random documents.  It appeared to be chaos, but I would soon learn that Mr. ____ knew where everything was.***    

Our meeting was more a conversation than an interview.  He never actually offered me a job, but it was clear from the outset that I had one if I wanted it.  A few days later, I called to confirm that I would like to join his office, and gave him a suggested start date.  “That would be satisfactory,” he replied, and with that I was once again employed.

I was one of nine associates in the firm – Mr. ____ had no partners.  Two others were, like me, only a year or so out of law school.  A few more had a bit more experience, and the others seemed to have settled into life at Mr. ____’s office as a career.  I was the only putative litigator in the bunch.  The rest were focused on the firm’s specialty areas of bankruptcy, tax, estate planning, and real estate.  Given the dearth of litigation work in the office, and my year of experience working for a bankruptcy trustee in North Carolina, I quickly gravitated toward bankruptcy work.  While not the trial practice to which I aspired, bankruptcy work did at least have a courtroom aspect.  And, as I reminded myself on a frequent if not daily basis, it was a foot in the door.

Truthfully, my time with Mr. ____ was a good experience, despite his idiosyncrasies, the decrepit building, and the low pay.  Mr. _____’s idiosyncrasies were mitigated by his remarkable intelligence and his giving nature.  Even at his advanced age, he reveled in matching wits with his opponent, be it the government in a tax matter, or opposing counsel in a bankruptcy case.  He was a mild-mannered man, but he did not like to lose. 

Mr. ____’s giving nature was apparent in the legion of Charlottesville attorneys who had passed through his offices.  His informal attorney alumni association, doubtless numbering a hundred or more after 50+ years of practice, boasted judges, politicians, and many of the most high-powered lawyers in town.  He prided himself in having fostered this talent.  I, like most of the rest, was and remain grateful for the opportunity that he provided. 

The decrepit building did take some getting used to.  I remember suggesting during a firm meeting one morning that we might organize a painting day to put a fresh coat on the scuffed and dirty interior walls.  Note that I wasn’t suggesting that he hire a painter to do the job, I was suggesting that we do it ourselves.  I couldn’t tell whether he was amused or annoyed at the prospect, but the idea died on the vine.  After a while I came to realize that most of Mr. ______’s client base fell into one of two categories.  Many of them were wealthy clients who had been with him for so long that they had become inured to the shabby surroundings, while many of the rest were bankruptcy clients on the brink of financial collapse, in which case the state of their lawyer’s office was not high on their worry list. 

The low pay was the most difficult aspect of my time with Mr. ____.   I believe that he found billing clients to be the most distasteful aspect of practice.  As a result, he did not do so on a regular basis, and when he did, the rates and hours reflected on the bills were considerably lower than they should have been.  That’s all well and good, but in order for the accounts payable part of any business to function, things need to be working on the accounts receivable end.  If you don’t bill clients, then you don’t have money to pay your staff.  So, my fellow associates and I would find ourselves comparing notes on the 1st and 15th of every month – “did you get paid today?”  Often the answer was “no”, or “only a partial”.  More than once on the 2nd, 3rd, 16th or 17th day of the month, I found myself in the rather surreal position of standing in the threshhold of Mr. ____’s office door, clearing my throat, and asking when I could expect my check.  I would typically couch the request in terms of my rent or a student loan payment being due, and it would inevitably prompt an embarrassed apology and a check being cut before the day was out.          

So why did I stay?  Again, it was a foot in the door.  I was living out my goal of practicing law in Charlottesville, albeit not exactly in the way that I had envisioned.  And, I was getting significant experience.  I think Mr. _____ got a kick out of my youthful enthusiasm, and he gave me a tremendous amount of latitude and responsibility.  He made it clear from our first conversation that he was not interested in establishing a litigation practice, but he also made sure that any bankruptcy or other matter that had a hint or prospect of litigation was funneled to me.   

So, I kept slogging along.  All the while, though, I was looking for my way out, and into a litigation (and regularly paying) firm.  I began to see a light at the end of the tunnel when a litigator in another firm sponsored me for membership in the local Inn of Court, a professional organization devoted to the trial bar.  As I met and networked with local litigators I was unapologetic about my association with Mr. ____’s firm, as I had come to appreciate his talents as a lawyer, and I realized as well how many local attorneys had paid their dues with a stint in his office.  Still, I made no bones about my desire to be a trial lawyer.  And, almost a year to the day after starting with Mr. ____, I was to get that chance.                     

Be careful what you wish for.

Previous: Part II

Stay tuned for Part IV.

*One of the worst things that can happen to a city, but that’s a topic for a future post.

**To this day, I have never heard anyone other than his wife refer to Mr. _____ by his first name.

***One of the many stories about Mr. ____ recounts the time when a well-meaning young associate took advantage of one of his rare absences to clean and organize his office.  When Mr. ____ got back into town and saw that his teetering piles of paper had been culled through, systematized, and filed away, he was livid.  He couldn’t find anything. 

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