This week a Facebook friend posted something about death care nurses commenting about things that dying people have expressed to them as regrets over the years. It was pretty typical stuff, things that most of us might regret. Having done something; not doing something; losing track of family or friends. I’m guilty of all of those. What I regret most of all, though, is having gone to law school.
No offense to my school, they were great. Getting in was easy, because I did very well on the LSAT and had a pretty good undergrad index. They were looking for age diversity, and I had it! I even got a 25% ride on the tuition, from the school! Law school itself was actually fun. I mean after getting my first semester grades it was fun, up to that first hurdle no one is sure that it’s going to work out. They do scare you that first year, and work you hard. I wouldn’t say that school was easy, but it went fine. I even finished exactly where I set out to finish: the middle of the class. I was number 147 out of 290 graduates, the very top of the bottom half of the class! I figured that if I could beat out half of those hot shots I’d be doing fine.
Practicing law though, that was not a good fit for me. To thrive at it, you need skin that’s thicker than a rhino’s and you need to have your empathy turned way down low. I didn’t bring either of those skills to the enterprise.
When I started out I was hardly drinking at all and I was functioning pretty well as a husband, father and friend. After a few years all of those outcomes were in doubt. Law work is brutally stressful, and it takes a toll.
How stressful was it, Johnny? You spend most of every day under intense time pressure, and everything that you do is under a microscope. If any of your clients are unsatisfied with the result that you got for them, they are liable to visit another lawyer for a free consultation. The other lawyer is almost certain to tell them, “yup, he fucked it up, let’s sue the bastard!” Judges are a mixed bag of tricks, and the lawyer’s experience of them will vary mostly from bad to worse. Even the good judges used to be lawyers themselves, so they are all sitting up there assuming that all the lawyers are lying to them, everyday. Plus, there’s the driving. People have no idea how much driving lawyers do, especially in a place like Los Angeles. I frequently did over two hundred miles in a day.
And the other lawyers! “Opposing counsel!” They live to make your life difficult, and in every court appearance they will try to paint you as a numbskull who is wasting the court’s time. God forbid you should have a big firm on the other side. I was a solo practitioner, so I was doing everything by my lonesome. There’s nothing like hearing your fax machine light up at 4:45 pm, delivering some forty page brief and a notice for an ex parte hearing the very next morning at 9:00 am. The notice includes a recitation of what they did to try to contact you before going ex parte, little or none of which actually happened. You go back to your desk and you need to write a response on the spot so you can send it to them before you go home. The usual ten hour days can stretch out.
Nor did I appreciate getting “confirming letters” for telephone calls that had never happened, the letter confirming that I had agreed to something. Or the postdated letters, back dated so they wouldn’t blow a response date for discovery or something. You can change the dates on those Pitney Bowes machines, you know.
If you’re lucky, you’re in twenty or more fights at the same time. When one fight ends, you’re lucky if you get into a new fight within a day or so. That’s called making a living.
After days like that, most people are in the mood for a cocktail. I even started smoking again.
The law ended up ruining my relationships with my wife, my friends, and my children, and it could still turn out to have assisted in the ruination of my health. For twelve years I did it, and most of the work came out okay, but I don't know if I'll ever get over the experience. I mean, I cooperated in those ruinations, but I can offer an explanation: my temperament was just not able to manage the stress.
(“I have no excuse, your honor, but I can offer an explanation.” Good joke: guy’s at a family party; he’s talking with his brother in law, a lawyer, and the lawyer is always correcting him; guy says, “why are lawyers so exact all the time?” lawyer says, “not exact, we are precise.”)
Why would anybody go to law school? Why did I, of all people, go to law school?
At the time, I wanted to go to grad school and get myself a career. At the time, I was forty years old and I had had an extensive collection of nowhere jobs, a list that sounds like something out of a Preston Sturgess screwball comedy.
As a concession to the brevity of life, I will dispense with a recitation of my entire education history. But I had finally achieved a BA at the age of thirty-six. It was a pretty good one, too, in Art History, from Queens College of the City University of New York, with department honors. I thought that I had finally figured out the school thing and maybe I should go to grad school. I seriously considered the Ph.D. route to university teaching and writing scholarly articles and books, but I could see that the politics of that were just murder and you had to spend years teaching survey classes in Nebraska or something. Finally I got the bright idea: what about law school?
I liked the idea for several reasons:
1. I thought that I could do it. I had become a very well organized student, almost all A's. (Two B+'s in tough German courses.) I could handle ambiguity and I could argue pretty well already, and I was a good writer. I’d always been verbally adept. Plus, I had spent a week on a jury in my early thirties. It was a terrible armed robbery case, with a lot of witnesses and evidence. I looked around the courtroom and thought, “I could do any of this.” I didn’t see anybody who seemed particularly smart, much less a genius;
2. I thought that it would all be interesting. And it was, too! School, practice, clients, everything, it was all very interesting; and
3. The law is a bright-line credential. You have a JD? It’s a fact. You have a law license? It’s a fact. There’s nothing vague about it, like having a Ph.D in Anthropology, or even an MBA.
So I did it, I did it to myself.
It was such a relief to leave the practice of law. My wife and I joined the Peace Corps and had the great luck to be sent to Thailand for two years (and three months). I enjoyed that time immensely. Pleasant work, fascinating surroundings, nice people treating me with respect, lots of travel and beauty. The damage had been done, though. Not long after we got home it became apparent to my wife that living with me wasn’t working for her anymore. It seems to be happening to lots of people these days. Even Al isn’t married to Tipper anymore. Sometimes, what goes around does, indeed, come around.
So, the law, that’s my biggest regret, in a lifetime that was no stranger to regret. For me though, things always do seem to work out. I'm a lucky guy. Sometimes it seems that I live in the eye of a huge vortex of negativity. I can see the cars, the roofs, the cattle, and the trees, swinging around me in the vortex, but where I am it is strangely calm. For the last eight years I’ve been teaching law at a big university in Thailand. The subject matter varies, but mostly I concentrate on teaching our students vocabulary and strategies for talking about the law in English. They all want to be lawyers, and these days they’ll have to learn to discuss such things with lawyers from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and beyond. I feel very grateful to have this job, and I feel like I am being useful. It is my briar patch, and I am satisfied.
My calm spot. Good luck out there in the vortex.
Okay! That’s enough work for one Saturday! Where’s my cocktail?