I was in a hotel room in Ohio. I think it was Cleveland. I’m pretty sure it was not Cincinnati, but to this day, I’m not one hundred percent on that. I had been up for two days, so just getting Ohio correct is worthy of scientific notice.
I was working as a roadie for a rock and roll outfit from San Diego who were in the midwest swing of a North American tour. I was a drum tech, which meant that each evening when we arrived at the venue, I would unload the equipment with the band, set up the drums, and hang by the side of the stage during the gig to re-string guitars, fetch new drum sticks and make enthusiastic use of whatever liberal drinking privileges were extended to the band. After the show, I would pack up the drums, load them into the van and then pursue activities more consonant with a rock and roll lifestyle. Next morning, off to the next show. Rinse and repeat.
The thing is, I only did this for a week at a time, a couple times a year. It was how I spent my vacation time from my real job. Some people choose sun-drenched beaches or historic faraway lands for their paid time off, but not me. I’m a rock and roller at heart. Whether or not I’m playing music is immaterial- I bleed fat E chords, long sweaty pentatonic solos and the machine-gun snap of double kicks. So wherever and whenever I could get my fix, I took it.
Oh, my full time job? Attorney-at-law. And Lord, did I hate my job…
In fact, it was in the aforesaid (how’s that for a lawyerly word?) hotel room that I put an end to my law career. I had staggered into my hotel room that afternoon to finally crash, and walking to the window to draw the blinds seemed a hellaciously unreasonable task. Therefore when I awoke only a couple hours later, the room was blindingly bright from the sun that was roasting me like a putrid, alcohol-soaked tamale.
It was from that dingy bed, still wearing my clothing from the night before (actually two nights before), that I picked up the phone, called one of the senior partners at my law firm, and said that while I understood the tackiness of resigning over the phone, I was simply done with the legal profession. Adios, muchachos.
To be fair, although they were completely surprised by the call, I have to think that they were somewhat relieved. While the senior partners of my little law firm viewed my employment there as an otherworldly gift that they had channeled to me, I had regarded it more as an agony to endure. My only bright spot in the day had been in the mornings, feasting on breakfast sandwiches and gallons of coffee while reading the morning newspaper at my desk. I am quite sure that my professional malaise was apparent in a host of colorful ways.
I know, I know- “if you hated it so much, ‘Mr. Rock and Roll Guy,’ why even go to law school?”
Oh, so it’s like that, eh?
Well, if you must know, while law school is a most hallowed stepping stone towards a noble vocation for most attorneys, for people like me, it is a respectable place to regroup while evaluating mistakes made during the undergraduate years. It is also a socially acceptable way to extend the party another three years.
Now, I am eminently aware that I have a bit of the gift of gab, so I took to law school like the Vatican takes to a good cover-up. I enjoyed both public speaking and the challenges of persuasive writing. The rugby-playing slacker who graduated college in the bottom hundred of his class was the same guy who finished near the top in law school. Bizarrely, when I actually tried, I got results. Who knew?
The thing was, while I enjoyed the flashy stuff, I loathed the intensive research and the myriad of detailed procedural regulations that governed all legal action. I basically wanted to perform only the fun and sexy roles that lawyers play on television, while avoiding the other 95% of the legal practice, which is neither fun nor sexy on any level. Hey, I’m an optimist- what can I say? Still, having clerked at a small firm throughout all of law school, I was well prepared to take on my new career.
After passing the bar, I ended up at a small spin-off firm where the senior partners tried to haze me like a college freshman and where my salary was somewhere between that of the maintenance man in my apartment building and the guy who reported to him. They believed that it was their divine right to impose a never-ending stream of demeaning administration on me, with very little in the way of personal or professional encouragement. In fact, my first role as a new lawyer in the firm was taking over as the new law clerk, while the old law clerk studied for the bar. And so I began my professional career being the office errand boy, while at the same time, trying to work on my own files. I felt emasculated.
I still remember one Friday afternoon, sitting at my desk and getting ready to cut out a little early for the weekend. Both senior partners walked into my office on their way out the door, grinning smugly. The woman threw a file on my desk and scoffed, “[h]ope you don’t have any plans for the weekend. Here’s a new case. I want to see a memo on this on Monday.”
I looked at the front of the file and immediately noted that it had been prepared on Monday and assigned to me on Tuesday. But rather than let me get started then, they held onto it until Friday afternoon to give it to me. I was apparently supposed to ruefully accept the assignment and show them that I could rise to the challenge by spending all weekend in the office, and presenting a world class case assessment on Monday morning.
However, in what would surely have been a career-limiting move (had I cared much for my career), I replied, “I’ve already been through college and law school. I worked thirty hours a week clerking at my old firm while going full time to school. I don’t think I need to prove anything to you guys.”
If I could crystallize the look on their faces, I would crush it into a fine dust and snort it. It was that satisfying.
“Excuse me?” the woman said with considerable offense.
“Look, we got this case on Tuesday. I get it. You want me to show you what I’ve got. But if you weren’t sure if I was up the the challenge, why even hire me in the first place? I mean, haven’t I already shown you that I can do this?”
They both stammered and stared uncomfortably at each other. While I knew the last word would not be mine, I nonetheless relished this fleeting moment in the sun.
“Look, Joe,” said the man, getting a little feisty, “this is how it is. This is your assignment and I don’t care how you do it, I want this done by Monday.”
“Cool, I’ll have it to you on Monday.”
“Monday morning,” the woman clarified with considerable agitation.
“OK, I’ll get this to you on Monday,” I replied, implying that I would both begin and complete this task on the same day.
The partners stormed out. I sat at my desk with my heart racing at a much faster pace than my demeanor might have revealed. I knew I was done. The clock had begun to tick.
I had found myself depressed at the prospect of a lifetime in law. That I needed to leave this law firm was obvious. But it was hard to see a true solution in simply moving to some other small firm with more of the same. I had become burnt out after only two years. In all fairness, my dim outlook was mainly due to my own inability to accept many of the realities of the profession. It was only compounded by my unpleasant experiences at my little firm.
But it wasn’t just my character defects that led me to my professional unhappiness. I had also become disheartened by what I perceived to be a systematic abuse of the legal system. I saw plaintiffs exaggerating and sometimes fabricating injuries in order to get more money. I saw their lawyers abuse rules of procedure to attempt to pressure insurance companies into paying them off. I saw insurance companies try to use sleazy exclusions to get out of defending people who had paid them for the right to a defense. And I saw a court system full of poorly-compensated clerks who rarely engaged in a transaction without letting you know how much they were looking forward to their day ending.
I was depressed, jaded, and entirely unhappy with my vision of the next thirty years. I wanted out. Thankfully, out arrived a couple of months after “The Friday Afternoon Unpleasantness.” My out arrived in the form of a technical writing gig for a start up telecommunications company. The job had nothing to do with the law. Not only that, but it paid better and most importantly, it allowed me to reclaim my self-esteem and a long lost sense of dignity. I accepted the new job immediately. It was one of the best decisions of my life (next to buying a Gretsch Silver Jet).
After giving notice from my dingy little hotel room, the weight was lifted. I felt empowered for the first time in years. I was driving my own ship now and I was thrilled at the possibilities before me.
I returned from my roadie vacation and worked on my files for two more weeks, preparing memos on my cases and handing them off to the different lawyers in my firm to whom they would be re-assigned. I mainly got the cold shoulder from the other attorneys, except for the one guy who had become one of my best friends and a much-needed ally during those two harrowing years. He was happy for me, and having him as a confidante helped get me through those two final weeks.
On the last day of my legal career, I arrived in the office at around nine a.m. and had a breakfast sandwich at my desk while I read the morning newspaper. I worked until about noon and then my attorney buddy and I absconded to a watering hole, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. I strolled back into the office at around 4 p.m. reeking of alcohol. I was triumphant in my ambivalence. The senior partners were standing in front of their corner offices on the other side of the floor, glaring at me. I walked into my office, threw a couple of my books into a cardboard box, and emerged. With my box under one arm, I waved to the partners and walked out the door.