Let’s get personal, shall we?

Given my background, and family experience, I seem to specialize in gallows humor.  I guess that’s about the best way to deal with a, well, tumultuous childhood and youth.  So, starting from the end and working backwards, here’s a story about my mom.

My mother’s posthumous three-way.

Mom and I had a very contentious, difficult relationship. She didn’t ever understand me, and didn’t ever really get my motivations in life.  Mom was a “go along to get along” kind of person, who wanted to adhere to the social norms.  And me, I was an abnormally smart kid who wanted to change the world.  I think that she would have been happy if I’d have stayed perpetually 12 years old, and lived at home. Once I got past that point, she didn’t know what to do with me.

My dad killed himself when I was 10.  (More on that later).  So, in addition to our odd relationship because of me being me, because of my dad’s premature death, I got thrust into the role of being a substitute parent for my brother, which wasn’t healthy for anyone.  Additionally, mom’s dating relationship was…. checkered.  I started high school when I was 13. By the time it came for me to consider high schools, Mom and her second husband, Bob, had gotten serious enough that they were looking at houses in Detroit, where Bob had to live because of the residency requirements for City of Detroit employees. Mind you, there were enough “new dudes” between my dad’s death and when she met Bob for me to distinctly remember around 6 or 7 others, very distinctly.  Anyway, she thought Bob was the one, and instead of sending me to a Detroit public high school, I went to Catholic school.

After I graduated from law school, mom and Bob moved to Arizona. I didn’t go out there very often, because I didn’t like him, didn’t get along with her, and didn’t consider Arizona home, for holidays.  Arizona was not the place where I grew up-  I had no family there, save her, and really no memory of the place. Ultimately, mom got diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage 4, and I did go out and visit her at that point.   If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think I only ever visited her 2-3 times during her life in Arizona, which lasted from 1997-2011.  Thankfully, mom did recover from the ovarian cancer, and had around 5 more years of pretty good health after. She ultimately died in what I’d consider a pretty decent way- she was at the casino at 2 in the morning, won a small jackpot, celebrated, stood up, and dropped from a massive heart attack. There are worse ways to go.

Following her funeral, my brother and I were trying to decide what to do with her cremains. Ultimately, I got a third, my brother got a third, and Bob also got a third. I decided that I wanted to put my portion of her cremains near my dad’s grave.  This goes over extremely poorly with my brother, because he still resents our dad for killing himself.  Whatever, those are the only two parents I will ever have, so that was my decision about what to do with the cremains.

So, one day I get a smallish box in the mail. Contents: 1/3 dead mother. Kind of unceremonious, but whatever.

I go to the cemetery, to see what there is to see. I evaluate the plot where dad is, and decide to go to the nearest garden store to get a nice plant that’ll come back yearly. I go and get the plant, and come back to the gravesite to take care of things. After cleaning up the site, and digging the hole, it’s time to get the cremains out of the box.

I look at the box.  It’s about 4 inches by 4 inches by 8 inches, to give you a sense of size.  Your average cardboard box, containing 1/3 of the mortal remains of my mother, with whom I’ve had a troubled relationship.  NBD.  I peel the sticker off of the box that says “mom, XXXX-yyyy”. There’s another sticker underneath, that says, “Steve Jones, XXXX-yyyy.” Inside the box is a bag of cremains. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen cremains, but they’re really just grey powder with an occasional bit of bone within. As they say in Spinal Tap, “you can’t really dust for vomit [or cremains]”. I have no idea who’s in the bag. But it’s what I’ve got.

So, I open the bag, stand upwind of the hole, and say, “Dad? Mom? Steve? I hope the three of you will be very happy together.”

There are times when all you can do is laugh.

Another tale from a previous life

This was the only time, to date, that I was ever accused of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Before moving back to Michigan, I was a public defender in Keene, NH (home of the Pumpkin Fest). While you might think that Keene was an idyllic small town, there were still a fair amount of crimes, and indigent people, requiring my services.  There was a fair amount of DWI, some domestic assaults, and a large share of heroin possession/trafficking-  in large part because of the proximity to Interstate 91, which was the north-south conduit from Montreal to New York City.  Additionally, the impact of Oxycontin on the rural population (about which more in a different post) contributed to the drug problems.   We covered 2 counties, and were fairly busy.

One particular day I get a call to go meet with a client who’d been charged on very serious charges, and was a guest of the state.  I roll up to the jail, zip into my usual meeting room, and meet my client, Mr. C. He’s a 20 something kid, who’s facing 14-16 serious felonies. He’s looking at the rest of his life behind bars if this goes badly.

The story is this:
My client is a “nonconformist”. NH gets a lot of over the top libertarian types- guys who trust the government not one whit. On the date in question, he’s at home. Not far away, across the border in Massachusetts. in the town of Winchendon, a murder’s been committed. The Winchendon cops think they know who did it, and they think they know where the person is. They think that the shooter is at my client’s house. So, Winchendon PD calls Keene PD, and says, “we’re looking for John Brown, for this murder.” The Keene cops go and get a warrant to find this alleged shooter.

The warrant says that they’re looking for “the person of John Brown.” That’s it. This will be important later. The warrant is for Mr. C’s address.

So, the Keene cops go to Mr. C’s house, knock on the door. After a while, Mr. C comes out, with his hands up. He sits by the cop car. When the cops ask him about John Brown, Mr. C says “I’m not resisting, I’m not hindering, but I won’t help you. I’m a nonconformist.”

The cops have the place surrounded, all staked out.

Before anything else can happen, a guy comes out of the house, pulls the door shut behind him, puts his hands up, and says, “I’m John Brown.” He shows ID confirming that he is, in fact, John Brown. The Keene police now have John Brown in custody, and Mr. C is sitting quietly next to the cop car with his hands on his head.

Now, remember the language of the warrant? “the person of John Brown”? Keep that in mind.

What the cops SHOULD have done:
told Mr. C that he was free to go, and left the property.

What the cops COULD have done:
had a warrant for “the person of John Brown, and a gun”.

What the cops DID do:
Went into the house to “secure the premises”.

What did they find in there? The largest seizure of drugs that had ever occurred in Cheshire County to that point. Multiple pounds of cocaine, and heroin, and I think 50-60 giant marijuana plants, plus multiple illegal guns, and a couple of bombs, for good measure. This is a BIG story out there- it’s the biggest bust in forever.

They’re happy. REALLY FUCKING HAPPY.

That’s when I get involved.
So, after meeting with Mr. C, and getting the details and the documents from the cops, I realize that they screwed the pooch. BAD. This was all an illegal search.
Once John Brown comes out of the house, the purpose of the warrant is fulfilled. Anything else they do is beyond the scope of the warrant. It’s all illegal, and it isn’t really close under NH law.

I spend the entire night writing the best fucking suppression motion of my career, and file it with the court the next day. I hand deliver it to the prosecutor, because I’m an asshole like that. We’re scheduled for hearing at the end of the week, and I go to my client in jail, and tell him to be cool, because I really like our chances for getting him out.

While waiting for the hearing, I get a call from the prosecutor, who suggests I come visit him in his office. He sounds really, really happy.

I go and visit the prosecutor in his office, and he tells me that I have a problem with Mr. C’s case. I say, “what?”

He says that it’s probably true that I’ll win the suppression motion. Unfortunately for me, Mr. C has expressed his displeasure with his confinement in an unproductive manner.
How’s that?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It seems he jammed one foot in the toilet, and another over the drain. He then started flushing the toilet, and the sink, flooding his cell.
When the guard came down the hall to see what the fuck was going on, Mr. C reacted poorly.

Apparently, telling the guard that “my lawyer’s going to get me out, and I’m going to come back here and cut your fucking head off and use it to play soccer up and down the hall of the jail cell” was frowned upon in that establishment.

In addition to making one a poor guest, it also makes one susceptible to felony “threatening a law official” charge. Particularly when one repeats it to the second guard who came down the hall afterward. So now we have multiple counts, with witnesses.

Whoopsie.

It’s “let’s make a deal” time. I wind up working out a really great deal for the guy- the prosecutor wants him to plead to some of the possession charges, but the ultimate deal is time served, and probation. He had to plead to 2 felonies, but all in all this is a SWEETHEART deal.  This guy will be getting time served.  This is excellent lawyering on my part.

Here’s where things go off the rails.
In NH, as with many other jurisdictions, there’s a gap between a plea and sentencing, so that probation can do an investigation and issue a report. We do the plea, and during the colloquy I ask him if anyone is coercing his plea, and if he’s satisfied with my representation, and if he understands the consequences of the plea. Yup, yup, yup.
Now all he has to do is wait 3 weeks, and he’ll be sentenced and out of jail.

Anyone wanna bet on how well this is going to go?

In the meantime, Mr. C is mostly being cool. I visit him a couple of times, to make sure he’s staying cool. He’s so thankful for the job I did for him

Then his father visits him in jail. His fucking father.

Daddy dearest convinces him that “a real lawyer” could do better than his public defender, who’s a tool of the state, man. Daddy dearest thinks that I’ve sold him down the fucking river.

Problem: the only way to vacate the plea? To allege that I’ve provided ineffective assistance of counsel. At the time of the plea, he acknowledged it was knowing and voluntary. So, he’s gotta throw me under the bus.

Fine, whatever. I withdraw, and one of the private attorneys gets appointed. The plea is withdrawn, and because new attorney doesn’t know the case, everything is pushed back like 3 months. While Mr. C sits in jail. I show up at his ultimate sentencing, at which time he gets a deal that’s worse than what I got for him (including the extra three months of custody).

I TOLD YOU SO, FUCKO.

There’s a coda;

Like 6-8 months later, I’m in court, and I see that he’s in custody on a probation violation. Now the Keene District Court at that time was on the second floor of a multi-use facility building- the kind that has those folding walls so that the room can be multiple sizes. It’s not a secure facility. Anyway, I can’t represent him on the probation violation, because of the prior ineffective claim. So I say, hey, Mr. C, what’s up? and then leave.

I get a call from Pat, the clerk of court, as soon as I get back to my office. Keene is a classic New England town- there’s a white steepled church, and a public square. The church is at 12 o’clock on the dial, the court is at, say 2 o’clock, and my office is at 8 o’clock across the square.

Pat says, “JASON. GO TO THE FRONT WINDOW OF YOUR OFFICE, NOW.” And promptly hangs up.

What do I see when I get to the window? Mr. C, dressed in his orange detainee jumpsuit, shackled at the wrist and at the ankles, trying to run across the square, his feet going as fast as they’ll go. In hot pursuit was Smitty, the bailiff, who was about 5’9″, 320 lbs. Smitty would get closer and closer to Mr. C, and just when he was gonna jump, Mr. C would zig. Smitty’d go down, and then the process would repeat itself. Finally, they caught Mr. C.

Last I heard, he was in state prison.

/fin

The Smell

Another tale of client meetings and woe, aka a Smell named Arthur.

I get an intake sheet from the intake department, and was told by the intake partner that it was “a good case, and a hot one- need to make contact asap.” I’m nothing if not a team player, so to the batphone I go.

I call the prospective client, and she sounds intoxicated. She says that she doesn’t drive, and can’t take the bus to our office. (of course not). She tells me a bit about the case, and I agree, against my better judgment, to visit her at her home in what can only be described as a “festive” neighborhood in the fair city of Detroit. Note- I confirm her phone number, and address during this call. She sounds kinda drunk, but it’s 11:00 am on a Thursday, so who isn’t?

So, I go to the address that is given, turn right at the wig shop, then left at the other wig shop, and then right down the road in question. There are no houses on this road. None. Like, it’s an alley on steroids- there are houses, or burned out hulks on the cross streets, but here? Nada. So, I look around, drive around the block (all the while I’ve got my head on a fucking swivel- blanx no want carjacking), and figure that it was just a crank call.

I call my office, and ask them to call her to confirm where she lives (I do not want to call her directly, because I do not want her to have my cell phone number).

So, I call my office, and ask them to call the client. I’m driving back towards the office, to get stuff done. My assistant manages to conference in the client, who says, my address is XXXX Street- the same street that I was on, with no houses. I ask her to spell the name of the street, she spells that same street.

Now, being not a rookie to the city of Detroit, I ask her what the crossroads are. She says, between Couzens and Livernois (two roads that don’t really cross- I mean, they do, kinda, but those directions didn’t make sense.) She then says, and I shit you not: “I’m right across the street from the Uptown BBQ”. What I should do is go back to the office and reschedule, but that ain’t what I’m going to do. I’m on a mission, and I’m curious (two traits what will kill me, eventually). I google the Uptown BBQ, and find that it’s not terribly far from where I was, but that it’s across the street from a similarly named street to the one she gave me previously. Let’s say- Brown St, vs. Braun St. (not actual streets, but you get the idea.)

So, I go back to this area, and find Braun St. Sure as shit, it’s right across from the Uptown BBQ.

I roll up to the house. It’s a dilapidated Detroit house- there’s a blue tarp on the roof, and the spitting image of Zelda Rubinstein in the doorway, waiting for me to come up. I email my staff that I made it (mostly to let them know to contact the authorities if I don’t check in in an hour).

Zelda waves at me, and I exit my car, walk up the steps (dodging the loose boards), and open the door.

I am greeted by a smell. I am greeted by THE Smell. All other smells pale in comparison to the Smell. All of a sudden, I looked like the Nazi who opened the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones.  This guy- giphy

the Smell staggered me backwards.

This Smell has heft. It has weight. It smells like someone had taken the oldest, nastiest kitty litter box imaginable, and then made it into Latakia pipe tobacco. It smelled like someone was smoking the tiger cage at the zoo on a hookah. The Smell’s name was Arthur. Why Arthur? Because that’s what the Smell told me its name was.

Blinking my eyes, I looked around the front room. The couch (please, please don’t make me sit on the couch) was full of Kewpie dolls, all staring at me while I adjusted to the Smell.

I then fully see my client. She’s in her late 50’s, white, under 4 foot tall, and her eyebrows are shaved in an inexplicable pattern. They’re mesmerizing- they kinda look like someone’s shaved out the inside of her eyebrows, and has let a ring around the outside grow. She is clearly mentally challenged, which is fine- I’ve represented the mentally challenged before, everyone needs access to lawyers.

I’m directed to take a seat at the table.

From the “kitchen” area, comes a dude. Dude’s in his 40’s, average height/build, and looks like a gainfully employable member of society.  Your absolutely average looking white dude. He introduces himself as my putative client’s fiance. I’m flabbergasted. My gast is truly flabbered. There are questions, and concerns roiling in my mind, along with the experience of my brain processing the Smell. Then I start to look around the dining room, and that’s where things get weird.

You know how you can adjust to smells? Like, they’re still bad, but your brain gets accustomed to them? I’m not sure that was what was happening here, precisely, but I’m starting to be able to allow my senses to perceive things other than the Smell. F’rinstance, I notice that I’m sitting on just the edge of a chair, praying that whatever’s on the cushion is confined merely to my overcoat. (I’ve given up on the overcoat).

I also start to take in the decor- there’s an ironing board to my left, that has 5 or 6 plastic mechanized fountains on it, all of which have no water, and are coated in a thick layer of dust. There’s a set of weights on the floor by my left foot, covered in cobwebs and rust, that haven’t been moved in months. Across the room from me is a velvet picture of the crucified Jesus, and what I can only describe as a mechanical Taiwanese cuckoo clock- it has dolphins, and whales on it. The clock is not plugged in, and currently reports that it’s 6:34 am. It is not 6:34 am.

There’s an enormous cobweb dangling down from the light fixture, almost touching the top of the table I’m seated at. As we talk, the cobweb sways in the breezes.

On another wall, there’s a cabinet, which ought to be used for storing dishes. It was not. On top, there were a host of woodworking tools, which was, shall we say, worrisome. Inside the cabinet, there were 25 or 30 different figurines from the He-Man Universe, all posed in a neat row, silently observing the proceedings and silently judging me with their plastic eyes. From the corner of my eye, I can see the bathroom. The less said about what I see there, the better.  I still can’t talk about what I can see of the bathroom.

I can see the kitchen door, leading outside, with the rusty scratch marks from some long- forgotten dog. Finally, I can see a cardboard sign indicating that we’re at the North Pole, and that this is Santa’s workshop.

Christmas is now dead to me.

The first thing that the dude says to me after introducing himself as [Zelda’s] fiance is “we want justice for [dead sister]. She was the only source of income for all three of us.”

Uh…..

They then want to sue the city because there were no streetlights where the hit and run occurred. I explain to them that there’s no liability for this, based upon case law.

I ask [Zelda] to tell me about her sister, and she said “we were twins. She lived alone, and was on disability. She had mental problems.”

Indeed.

So, we discuss the facts of the hit and run, all the while I know that the Smell is permeating deeper and deeper into my very soul. I’ve written off my overcoat, and am wondering where I can get a Karen Silkwood shower.

The dude brings up the streetlights again, and asks me “Isn’t there some other angle you got to get us some money?” I got nothing, other than the desire to flee.

At this point, [Zelda] offers me something to drink. Yeah, no. I’m good.

I answer their other questions, and get ready to leave.

I stand, and pass back by the gauntlet of Kewpie dolls, and head for the freedom of the open air.

When I get outside, I take off my overcoat, and put it in the trunk. I don’t want the Smell anywhere near me. I pull away from the house, roll the windows down, and open the moonroof, hoping to air out the car. The Smell is still in my mouth, and nose, and mouth, and hair.

I call my staff, and report that I’m still alive, for certain values of alive, but that I’m not going to be coming back to the office, as I must go shower. I head home, leave my overcoat in the garage, change clothes, and shower.

While I’m in the shower, it hits me. When the water hits my hair, the Smell is revived. I almost retch, and shampooed 2 times, to get the smell out.

As I’m drying off, one thing occurs to me.

I know what the smell of cat urine is like. Part of the Smell was the odor of cat urine. For a smell this strong, there should be cats. Lots of cats.

Yet-

Even though I could see into multiple rooms, I NEVER SAW ANY CATS. EVER.

WHERE WERE THE CATS?

I returned to my office a few days later, and my assistant said that the paperwork we filled out still stank of the Smell.

By request, a tale from a previous life

This is a more fully edited version of a tale I told elsewhere about one day in the life of my previous job.  To set the scene, in order to have a successful plaintiff’s personal injury firm, you have to wade through a whole lot of possible calls.  You have to be willing to go and visit clients, no matter where they might be, just on the off  chance that there’s gonna be some gold in the story.  Who knows-  the home visit you take might be the multi-million dollar case that lets you retire.  More than likely, it isn’t, but there is that one chance that keeps you going.  That means you visit people after hours, you visit them far away, and yes, you visit them on Saturdays.

This particular Saturday started at the crack of dawn, on the road to rural northern Michigan for a new client meeting. I was up past where the cell phones work.  This is way up there, near Alpena, out in the woods.  Out past civilization, past where there’s any stores.  You’re in the middle of old CCC land-  scrub pine, and sand dune. Got to the client’s house, which was off the grid. Wood stove, multiple out-buildings of various and sundry purpose, in various states of disrepair- this was Carcosa North.  There’s a deer feeding stand in the middle of the yard, and I would bet anything that they just pick off deer from their front porch.

Before getting out of my car, I check my cell phone.  Nada.  No service.  It’s a brick.  Well, it’s been a good run.

I go to the client’s door, and enter the house. There’s a nice couch, a nice TV, and a giant fucking gun safe, in the living room.  Seriously, you could put a couple of bodies in there.  Also.  Many dead deer heads looking down at me. I particularly like the two deer heads which bracketed a copy of the Serenity Prayer. “God give me the serenity to kill many, many deer, and mount their lifeless heads on the wall to stare down at people creepily, amen.”

Client interaction relatively normal, but then she says “you know, the Holy Spirit talked to me in the middle of the night, and told me to call [redacted] firm.”   The fact that I didn’t burst out into laughter at that time speaks well of my poker face. Also, the sheer terror when someone says that the Holy Spirit spoke to them, and you realize you are DEEP IN THE FUCKING WOODS, without cell phone coverage.  Without a way to call for help.  There’s nothing quite like the realization that these people are going to gut you, and turn you into sausage, and no one will ever find your body.  This is a bracing realization before noon on your average Saturday.

They were guilty of white people festive spelling.  To wit: son, Nolan. Spelled? Knolan. Just, no.

But, that wasn’t the horrifying client visit. That came next.

I leave the (moderately) far north, and head to Saginaw. (I say moderately, because in reality, I’m only about 1/2 of the way to the top of the state.  There’s a lot more weird up there to go)

Find the house, knock on the door, go in. The house is chock full of junk, and I’m directed to go around the corner, where my client is apparently resting. I can’t see her.

I turn the corner, and see her.
She’s one of the larger human beings I’ve ever seen. Now I’m not one to cast aspersions about how much someone weighs, but her size was just, well, shocking. She’s sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner, wearing sweatpants, with her legs spread wide apart, her left leg on the arm of the chair.  She’s completely engulfed this recliner.  She’s sitting 4 feet, tops, from a bigscreen TV, the shades to the whole house are drawn (remember this point), and she directs me to sit on the other recliner, across a small stool, serving as an end table for her pills, coffee, etc.  I take a seat on the recliner. (only at the edge).

In the other room, what turns out to be her boyfriend is silently cataloging all of the top songs of the past 50 years which are available on Youtube. He’s not listening to them, he’s just looking them up on Youtube, and putting them in his notebook, for later.  I can’t imagine what later will be like.

The client tells me she’s allergic to sunlight. Well, then. Then, to make it worse, the boyfriend lights up a menthol cigar, and the whole house smells even worse than it did before.

I start talking to her about the case, and then there’s a knock at the door. Who is it? It’s her home health nurse, there to change the dressing on her wound. So, picture this: lady, stool, me. The nurse sits on the stool, rolls up the client’s pantleg, and proceeds to remove the wound vac, and the dressing over the suppurating leg wound. There is NO WHERE for me to look while this process is ongoing. NOWHERE. NO-WHERE. The wound is way closer to me than I would want any wound to be.

What’s a wound vac, you ask?  It’s a machine that has been designed to pump fluids out of an open wound, to facilitate healing.  Ponder that on the tree of woe.

All I can say to myself in my head is “please don’t smell, please, please, please don’t smell.”

The nurse seems to be drawing the process out- I can’t leave, I can’t finish my conversation, I can only make small talk while a parade of horribles is going on, right under my very nose. I’m trying to stay professional, and focused, but in my head I’m running around, screaming.

Somehow I don’t throw up, and I complete the visit.  The nurse leaves, I finish interviewing the client.  The boyfriend continues work cataloging the 50 greatest songs on YouTube, for later.  I go back to my car, take off my coat, and sweater, and open all the windows, and stop for a soda to wash the taste out of my mouth, while preparing for the hour and a half drive back to the office.

And that was an average Saturday.

 

And I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about today

But then I got this in the old email machine:  15 Reasons You Shouldn’t Quit the Practice of Law.

Oh Ho.  OH HO HO HO.

I can’t pass up a meatball like that, you realize.

1. You Went to Law School for a Reason

That’s what they led with?  One is taught, in of all places, law school, that one wants to start an argument with one’s strongest evidence.  And you come out of the gate with “you did this for a reason”?  I mean…

The honest truth is that many many people went to law school because they didn’t quite know what to do with themselves, and didn’t really understand what it meant to be a lawyer.  It looked good on TV, seemed prestigious, and they weren’t good enough at math to be scientists.

2. You Put a Lot of Effort into Being an Attorney (and Know More than You Think You Do) and a New Job May Force You to Start at the Bottom

Well.  I seem to remember a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”  Yes, becoming an attorney was hard, and took effort.  But life is also hard, and requires effort.  You spend the vast portion of your waking life at work-  shouldn’t you enjoy it?  At least not actively hate it?  So you have to start at the bottom at a new job.  Is that the worst thing?

3. You Can Get Paid to Write, Argue and Think

I’m starting to feel bad now.  Fisking this article is like kicking a puppy.

If such a job exists, please do let me know of it.  It seems the vast majority of what I do, and have done, is quibble over minutiae and try to justify my working life in 6 minute increments.  But maybe that’s just me?

4. Being an Attorney Has Good Earning Potential in Relation to Other Professions

Ok, that feeling bad thing?  Gone now.  That’s like saying that playing professional baseball has good earning potential in relation to other professions, or buying lottery tickets has good earning potential.  I could refer you to the Michigan practice survey on what attorneys actually make, but I’ll ask you to take it on faith.  Plus, let’s talk about return on investment-  if you go to law school, and pass up 3 years of income in exchange for $150,000 in loans, unless you make around $100,000 when you come out, it doesn’t make economic sense in the long run.

5. Being an Attorney is Prestigious

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6. Working as an Attorney is Intellectually Challenging

Figuring out which client to bill the time you take a dump to can be a puzzle solving exercise, it’s true.  And, in fairness, occasionally, very occasionally, you can have an interesting problem to solve.  But that is far and away not what the day to day life is like.

7. You Can Genuinely Help Others and Advance Social Change With Your Degree

You can.  But if you do this, you’re doing it pro bono, which is Latin for “I still live on my parents’ couch.”  You want to eat, and own things?  You’re representing Satan, Inc.

8. Being an Attorney Offers Flexibility

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHA.  I’ll refer you to the Yale Billable Hour study I cited in a previous post.

9.       You Have a Ton of Options You Likely Have Not Even Considered

Like bankruptcy.  Not doing it, declaring it.

10.   Being an Attorney Requires You to Constantly be Learning

Occasionally true.  You do have to keep up with how the legislature has changed the playing field.

11.   Being an Attorney is Competitive

Not always a feature, chief.  While the trial process is competitive, and that’s fun, you know what else is competitive?  The struggle for clients, both within the firm, and without.  Ain’t no one as competitive as two associates being considered for partner in the same firm, with one open slot.  Someone’s winding up missing a kidney, let me tell you.

12.   There is a Huge Variety of Work

There’s document review, the review of documents, discovery, issuing discovery, reviewing discovery, arguing with insurance companies…

13.   There are Constant Opportunities to Interact With Other Lawyers and (in Some Cases) Clients

Not the selling point I think he was thinking it’d be.

14.   Being an Attorney Gives You a Sense of Purpose

Oh, c’mon.  Stop. I’m dying here.

15.   Being an Attorney Makes You Accountable

That’s a selling point?  “Sure, let’s be accountable, but let’s not get any of the control that might make accountability worthwhile.”  Also, let’s get blamed for stuff that’s way out of your control.  SIGN ME UP.

I know this was a spam email written by the guy who runs a legal placement search firm, so he’s gotta try to sell to those who are considering leaving the practice, but man, that was one GIANT heap of shit.

Something funny, for a Friday.

This is the story of my trip to a Cambodian brothel.

Long ago, when I was in law school, instead of the traditional summer clerkship, I decided to volunteer to work with Legal Aid of Cambodia.  This was back in 1996, and practically no one had ever heard of Cambodia, other than the Dead Kennedys song.

A bit of history, before we go further.  Back in 1970, the King, Norodom Sihanouk, was deposed and the Khmer Republic was established.  This was done at the behest of the US, because Sihanouk had allowed the Khmer Rouge to run supply lines in Cambodia-  the Ho Chi Minh Trail, if you will.  Anyway, from 1970-1975 the Khmer Republic limped along, and then the Khmer Rouge took over the place in 1975.  This was not a good thing for the Cambodian people.  The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, killed somewhere around 2 million people in Cambodia.  By the way, 2 million people is 1/4 of the total population of Cambodia at the time.  This is the time of the Killing Fields.  Basically anyone with any level of education was killed, or driven from the cities into the fields to work, or starve.  If you had glasses, they would have killed you.  I can point you towards a number of resources, but this story isn’t about the Killing Fields.

In 1978, fed up with the bullshit from their neighbors, and done with the US, the Vietnamese turned on their former protege, Pol Pot, and invaded Cambodia.  The Vietnamese established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which was effectively a Vietnamese puppet state in Cambodia in 1978-79.  A government in exile was established in 1981, and ultimately the UN helped broker a peace deal in 1991.  Elections were held in 1993, and the monarchy was restored under King Sihanouk.  But, things in the country were a shambles.  The country was basically getting back on its feet.

Flash forward to 1996, when I hit the country.  I had, by this point, completed 3 semesters of law school.  But, because of the history of the place, I was damn near one of the foremost legal scholars in the country.  Almost no one had any legal training whatsoever.  So, 3 semesters of an elite American law school?  I’m Earl fucking Warren.  Also, at 5’10”, I was one of the tallest people in the country, and being, well, Midwestern, (@225 lbs at the time) I was for damn sure one of the biggest.  Basically, I was a fucking ent among the hobbits.  There’s a picture of me somewhere with 12 Cambodian orphans hanging off of me, like a jungle gym.  I was able to use my white skin, foreign stature, and size as a club to get stuff done.

There were a couple other interns with me that summer, but we were all sent, individually, to the various provincial offices, and then rotated.  I was out there operating without a net, or a script.  No provincial governor, nor judge, could fail to see the farang (foreigner) with the blue eyes.  It also helps that I already spoke French, and that I have a facility for languages and so picked up a fair amount of Khmer while I was there.  Can’t read it, but I can speak it, or at least I could then.  I bullied my way into judges chambers, into governmental meetings, and tried to make the system more fair.  Basically, I tried to teach the staff counsel and the judges about the rule of law, and the rules of evidence.  Why hearsay is bad, etc.  If you were in the Cambodian legal system in 1996 or later, I had some effect on you.  It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life, and one I’ll be sure to write more about later on in here.  There’s nothing quite like the feeling of helping someone get out of jail that shouldn’t be there, and knowing that if you weren’t there, they’d very likely die in jail.

Anyway, one of the cases we handled involved theft.  As I recall, one family was claiming that somebody had stolen a bunch of stuff from their house, and then sold it at the market, and spent the money at the brothel.  So, one of the witnesses that we needed to interview was the prostitute.  Off I, the lawyer I was working with, and the investigator, went to the brothel.

While I’m no prude, and was not a monk while I was overseas, one thing I was never gonna do was have sex with a prostitute in Cambodia.  You need to remember that AIDS was still rampant, and there were no real drugs to manage it.  Plus, prostitution, yuck.  I’m not going to pay for it.  No prostitution, no way, no how.  No sir.

Anyway, we got to the brothel around 11 in the morning.  It being a primarily nocturnal profession, things were slow.  I remember walking in the front door, and being hit with a cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke.  It smelled like, well, a brothel.  Or a strip club.  You get the idea.  The whole place was painted Pepto-Bismol pink, and full of chairs and pillows to lounge upon.  We spoke to the madam, and then sat around a table, while she went and got the prostitute who’d apparently been the recipient of the funds from the ill-gotten loot.  After interviewing the girl for about an hour, and finding out what she knew about the customer in question, and where he got his money, it was time to leave.  We all stood up, and made for the door, another job having been done.

But.

My curiosity got the better of me.  I had to know.  While all of the previous conversations had occurred in Khmer, I asked the attorney to translate for me, so there was no misunderstanding.  This is what I said:

“Please don’t misunderstand me, but I have a question.  I am curious how much is charged for your services.  I do not want to hire you, I just want to know how much you charge your customers.”

The girl looked me over, from head to toe and back again, and said, “Well, for local men I get $2.  But for you?  $3.”

Well, then.

Hey, I took it as a compliment.  Still do. I’ve been judged as 50% more freaky than an average Cambodian guy, by someone who would absolutely know.

NEVER GO TO LAW SCHOOL

I’m a lawyer by training, and experience.  I’ve been licensed since 1999, and I’ve done a whole crapload of different jobs in the law, from criminal defense, to commercial litigation, to personal injury over the years.  I have practiced in a big firm setting, a non-profit setting, and now I work for myself.   I think that it’s fair to say that there are few people who’ve gotten as wide an exposure to the practice of law as I have.  And I’m here to report back:

It sucks.  It all really sucks.  I wish I’d never ever gone to law school.  I wish there were literally any other job that I could do, instead.

Why does it suck? Many reasons, but let’s discuss the most prevalent:

  1. The billable hour.  Let’s review some basic economics, shall we?  There are certain fixed costs associated with being a lawyer-  the cost of rent, the cost of one’s cut of employer-funded health care, the cost of malpractice insurance, the cost of research (more or less, but for this purpose assume it’s fixed).  There are a couple of variable costs, but not many-  the cost of fuel to and from court or depreciation of a vehicle, filing fees, maybe.  And that’s about it for variable costs.  So, every additional hour billed by the attorney is almost 100% pure profit.  As you might imagine, there is INCREDIBLE pressure on attorneys to bill more hours, as, again, it’s ALL PURE PROFIT.  Please examine the attached link from Yale Law School about what the billable hour actually means, and what certain levels of productivity actually require. Yale on the Billable Hour  So, when they say “2000 hours “, that’s not even remotely what they mean.
  2. The sheer volume of lawyers:  It’s not just that there’s a ton of competition, which there is, but it’s also what the volume of lawyers does to the practice.  When I started out, I did criminal defense in rural New Hampshire.  I dealt with the same opposing counsel every day of the week.  So, I rapidly developed a rapport with them, and more importantly I developed a reputation with them.  I had goodwill to trade upon, and they knew that if I said something, it was reliable.  This happened quickly.  Now?  I might not see the same opposing counsel for years.  There’s no cost to burning an opponent, because you can play the numbers game.  Also, because there are so many lawyers, and so few (relatively speaking) clients, lawyers will try to poach your clients.  It happens. All that does is wind up creating unrealistic expectations on the part of the clients, because they’ve been promised all sorts of bullshit.
  3. Judges who’ve never really practiced law:  If you go from law school, to a clerkship, to the bench, you have no freaking idea what actually being a lawyer is like.  You don’t know what it’s like to have clients, or manage a docket, or what the daily experience is like.  So invariably, you’re not going to understand the practical implication of your decisions upon the practice of law.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the backgrounds of the current members of the Supreme Court.
  4. Elected judges.  Man, Andrew Jackson shit the bed on this.  People have no idea how to choose judges.  Worse yet, all that money gets into judicial races, and the judges are then beholden to special interests.  Judges should be appointed.  I can elaborate on this if you like.
  5. Insurance Companies:  Ponzi schemes, one and all.  They’re pretty insistent upon you paying premiums, but they’ll spend a shitload of money avoiding legitimate claims.
  6. Greed:   Specifically, greedy doctors and lawyers.  I can’t tell you how many attorneys are hooked in with “treaters” on the plaintiff’s side, and how they create an amazing feedback loop of graft.
  7. The death of collegiality:  Even in my career, I’ve seen that the ability to work things out between colleagues has declined.  Everything is a fight, and many things that shouldn’t be fights are fights.  When I was a defense attorney, even when I was representing insurance carriers, there was a willingness and an interest in working this out.  That seems to be gone, now.  The practice is set up as a disincentive to work things out.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good fight, but I don’t need to fight about everything, for no reason.

    I’ve spoken with a whole host of my colleagues recently, from many different practice areas, and multiple different states, and to a man, we’re all fed up.  Everyone hates this, and would do something else if we could.

Thankfully, my debt load is relatively manageable.  I owe less than $40,000, and I’ve stretched it out over time at a super low interest rate.  I cannot imagine coming out of school now, and owing over $150,000.  At least, for me, I could do something else relatively easily (all things considered).  For those poor dupes coming out now?  They’re REALLY fucked.