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.

 

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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.

 

Let’s get controversial.

Now I’m gonna talk about race.  Second post, why not?  Burn the place down.

Some bona fides:  I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit.  The only black kid I knew when I was young had been adopted by a white family-  his name was spelled Tyrone, but it was pronounced Byron.  So, fairly white area.

Complicating things, historically, is my grandfather.  He moved up to this area from Kentucky, started working in Henry Ford’s factories as part of that great migration northward for the $5 a day wage.  After some time in the factory, he decided that he wanted to sell real estate, and made a better than average living doing it.  Managed to join the heights of Dearborn society- joined Dearborn Country Club, rubbed shoulders with the elite of the time, including the incredibly racist mayor Orville Hubbard.  How, you ask, did Grandpa actually make his money?  By scaring working class white people.  He’d go into one of the white working class neighborhoods in the city, get the listing for a family that wanted to sell.  Then, he’d take a black family, and show them the house.  And, he’d be loud about it, if you will.  Then, he’d get the listings for the remainder of the neighborhood when the white families got scared.  Never one to miss a trick, he’d then sell the scared white family a nice house out in the suburbs.  So, he’d get the commissions on the suburb house, and also on the city house, both coming and going.  Neat trick if you can manage it.

I say all of this to illustrate that I’m not a babe in the woods when it comes to race relations.  I’m very well aware of the racial history of this area, and what many of the contributing factors are.  Further, in my own professional career, I’ve represented people who were horribly assaulted by the police, including a few who were actually killed by the police.  I have no illusions about how the police relate to civilians, particularly black civilians.  (Actually, a lot of it has to do with a socioeconomic class thing, but that’s for another day)

All of that said, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag activism?  That’s bullshit.  Know how I know?  Watch the local Detroit news.  It is readily abundant that all black lives don’t matter to large portions of the black populace of the city.  It’s not just that black people are killing each other on a seemingly daily basis, it’s that when there’s a shooting at a block party in the city, no one seems to be able to identify the shooter to the cops.  Don’t tell me that Black Lives Matter, when no one can seem to identify the guy who shoots into a crowd and kills a 4 year old.

Is this my white privilege talking?  Probably.  You know what else?  I’M ON YOUR SIDE.   I believe strongly in the impact of generations of discrimination, lesser services, inadequate education, etc.  I’m an ally.  When you lose people like me, you’re fucked.  Now do not misunderstand me-  there is an important conversation that needs to happen, and is happening in this country about whether or not it’s a good idea to have an occupying army in our cities, and how the police interact with the populace.  But, the message is just totally going to get lost when one sees a huge outcry about the death or injury of a young black male at the hands of the police, and then not a peep about the avalanche of young black males killed at each other’s hands.  It’s easy for Fox News, Nolan Finley, and other conservatives to discount black people as thugs.  Doesn’t make it right, just means that it’s reality.

 

Kim Davis

As with everyone else, I’ve got hot takes about the Kentucky clerk who’s decided that her belief system trumps the holding of the US Supreme Court with regard to gay marriage.  My focus is a little different, though, and it follows below.

Thing 1.  Do your goddamn job.  If you are a government employee, you don’t get to have personal beliefs that trump Federal law.  You can believe whatever nonsense you choose when you’re off hours, but on the clock?  Your job.  DO IT.

Thing 2.  The people who are screaming the loudest about her religious freedom would be the very first to burst a gasket if, say, she were Muslim and refused to issue a liquor license.  Or, frankly, if she were Muslim at all.

The irony of social conservatives wanting to pass anti-Sharia laws in the heartland, and then lining up behind this person is not lost on me.

Thing 3, the part that’s a bit different:  Ms. Davis is being led astray by her legal counsel.  Now, it is not uncommon for lawyers to push cases that they believe to be noteworthy- it’s a great way to get free advertising and push a cause you believe in.  BUT, and here’s the key- it’s ALWAYS the client’s case, and never yours.  When you forget this, you get into deep shit.  You have to offer the client advice.  The legal strategy seemingly employed by the folks from the Liberty Counsel (of course they’re from Orlando) does not seem to be designed to put the client’s interests first.  It seems like they’re giving her bad advice.  Then again, if the goal is to set her up for a GoFundMeJeebus account, then  I suppose it is good advice.  Ultimately, she’s not going to be hit with overly punitive sanctions-  she might lose her job, but she’ll be the recipient of a large pool of fundie money.

This is the problem with the intersection of faith and democracy-  one of the things that we see in the Middle East, too.  If you are a believer, and God is the highest authority, how can you submit to democracy?  It worked pretty well in the US when the vast majority of the population was all singing the same hymns.   Now that there’s some shwarma in the meatloaf of America, it gets complicated.

But it shouldn’t.  It doesn’t have to.  The line ought to be clear.  Once your religious beliefs interfere with someone else’s liberty?  Yours take a back seat.  This means, issue the licenses.  IT ALSO MEANS FILL THE BIRTH CONTROL PRESCRIPTIONS.  DO YOUR JOB.

About time I got off my tail and did something.

I’ve been threatening to start a blog for many years now-  like everyone else out there, I’m a frustrated lawyer whose talents are being wasted by the system.  So, I finally decided to pull the trigger today.

What will we be writing about?  Well, whatever comes to mind.  Sports, politics, corporate America, the law, beer, alcohol.

It’s an outlet to keep from going further insane.