Human Nature Lesson. The Bad Kind.

I was a lawyer for six years. I understood too late the true balance between the noble, academic side of the law and the administration of justice on one hand — which I revered —  and the business side of working in a law firm on the other, which I detested. So I left. My good fortune and success since have all but erased any misgivings about leaving a career so expensively bought, both in money and toil.

I might have been better off just using the gavel to beat myself....

I might have been better off just using the gavel to beat myself….

Actually, I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I learned a lot of skills in law school, and in law firms, that have served me well. Not all of the lessons were strictly academic. Or pleasant.

My first job out of law school was for a very successful, respected, and utterly tyrannical lawyer in his mid-50s. He was a martinet, and the atmosphere in the office was crushing. I worked hard, but had little time to develop the coping skills I would need. I washed out in a year. But I found a job pretty quickly, largely because the tyrant made a number of phone calls for me. Never mind that he was probably persuaded to do so by his kinder partner; strings were pulled. It reached me later that I was represented as promising, but not a good fit with Tyrant & Co.

In my new firm, even the senior partners were closer to my age — in their 40s, which was a relief. For awhile. The chief partner was a very good lawyer; he had the touch everywhere from the courtroom to the boardroom. I worked with him a lot. Like many young lawyers, I had some successes and I made some mistakes. I cared about every client; my brow was always furrowed. When I did screw up, my boss got annoyed and said, “You give the impression that you know what you’re doing…and then this happens.”

Here I thought I was just being confident and forthright, as I had been trained to be. Despite my best efforts, the situation deteriorated. Successes went unacknowledged; mishaps took on immense lives of their own in my boss’s mind. For a long time, I suspected that I was being oversensitive. He didn’t have it in for me. These were just lawyer growing pains. But then I learned.

In those days, our scheduling was still almost completely manual. The daily legal journal came in about 4 p.m.; it contained the call lists for court dates in the coming weeks. It was the job of our receptionist to scan the lists for trials, motions, arbitration hearings and the like. We younger lawyers relied on her to make sure we got our arbitration dates; most of us were assigned to handle these small-scale trials.

The nice young woman we had working for us at the time missed a date, and as a result, I never knew about a pending arbitration. The date came, I didn’t show, judgment was entered against us. Technically, malpractice. My boss grimaced, made a settlement with our client, and life went on. Sort of. He came into my office late one afternoon shortly after the fiasco and closed the door. He sighed deeply and looked out my 23rd-floor window at the Monongehela River below.

“Of course, it wasn’t your fault,” he began — but his tone did not match that conclusion. “But the fact is, bad luck or not, you’re responsible. You make your own luck. This cost us big, in reputation and money, even though it was just an arbitration. Should we have had more than one person check the lists? Maybe. We’ll think about that. But it’s your case. Like I said, you make your own luck. I’m holding you responsible. I’m very disappointed.”

At that stage of my life, I was always very quick to defend myself. But I was so utterly dumbfounded by what he said that I couldn’t speak. Before I got it into my head to point out the embarrassingly obvious inconsistencies in his statements, he was out the door and down the hall.

I was wounded — I bruised easily in my 20s, at least professionally — but I took it like an adult. Then, some weeks later, it happened again — not to me, but to the young lawyer in the office next to mine. He was a good kid, a year behind me, well-liked in the firm and owner of a bright future if he wanted it. Same deal; receptionist missed the date, my colleague felt awful, settlement with the client. Receptionist fired. It felt a little better not being the only one, but I really empathized with my colleague.

Until one day when, as we sometimes did, this colleague and I grabbed a sandwich together for lunch. I asked him how he was holding up under the fallout from his missed arbitration episode, then bit into my sandwich as he began his reply.

“That? Oh, it hasn’t been a problem,” he said cheerily. “Senior Partner took me aside after; said it was completely not my fault and that I shouldn’t worry about a thing. So glad he did that; I felt a ton better. He said the partners all talked and that this wouldn’t affect my position in the firm at all.”

Never have I had a more challenging decision about what to do with a mouthful of roast beef and bread. Fortunately, I paused, mentally gathered myself, and chewed down the bite of sandwich. “That’s great,” I said, and tried to turn the conversation to baseball. But I now knew something I needed to know, even if I didn’t particularly want to. Not the last time that happened.

And that’s probably why I’m so grateful that I can still find reasons to be optimistic about people. Warily. But still.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr


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One thought on “Human Nature Lesson. The Bad Kind.

  1. k8efitz says:

    so AB…when are you writing your book??? 🙂

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