In This Sadness

The rain came down on the courthouse windows as I sat staring at the empty bench. The jury had been deliberating for hours. I stood up and started pacing, wishing I hadn’t quit smoking years ago… a smoke would be great right now.

“Jordan, you look nervous” the client said to me.
“I’m just thinking. I’ve been out of the office for a week now. That’s all…”

Truth be told I was nervous as all hell. But a good nervous. I felt alive.

Just as the client was about to say something, the chamber doors opened and Judge Shemlin walked out. Here comes our verdict…

At that moment, I thought back to 2009 and the first case I had ever tried. I was an associate at Wolf Rebman, a small suburban Pennsylvania law firm. I second chaired a case with my boss, James, and we had won against all odds. James had tried hundreds of jury trials in his career. He was a man of few words, and never showed even the slightest bit of emotion. I remembered the jury deliberations in that case, and asking James if he was nervous…

“Honestly, Jordan, I’m nervous as hell” James told me, still looking cool as ice, with a slight grin on his face. “The day I’m not nervous is the day I retire from law. Even after 30 years of practice, it never gets any less nerve racking. It just doesn’t. But man, when you win, it’s the best feeling in the world. There is nothing better than winning a jury trial, nothing in the entire world…”

James had spent his career trying cases, and mostly winning them. He started his practice very shortly after law school, and then spent a lifetime building it up. After 30 years of practice, James had many boats, several vacation houses, and he never needed to work again. He was the consummate trial lawyer. Cool, calculated, and someone who was prepared for every situation.

Ever since I worked for him, I always wanted to be James.

Now in 2011, James was officially going to retire with his wife in Florida. God bless him. He earned it.

“All rise!” the crier yelled, shocking me back into reality. The jury marched out, and the judge announced that a verdict had been reached. I could hardly breathe. 

“We, the members of the jury, find in favor of the Defendant, and against the Plaintiff.”‘

Victory was mine.

At that second in time, I think it was the happiest I had ever been. Months of preparation, rehashing arguments, and nights spent in the office. All of it cumulated in what I can only describe as the best feeling in the world. I hadn’t seen daylight in almost a month, but suddenly it was all worth it.

Once the jury was discharged I hugged my client. Then I damn near fell down in the hallway.

I was alive. So fucking alive. Nothing else in the world mattered.

I needed to make a phone call…

“James, it’s Jordan.”
“Yes?” James was always a man of few words.
“I’m in the area. Do you mind if I drop by? I just finished a major jury trial, and I couldn’t help but remember the Weiermach case we tried in 2009…” I couldn’t stop grinning.
“Sure. I’m here.” James sounded a bit down.
“You okay? You sound like you’re sick or something.”
“…I’m just great. Thanks.”

I hadn’t seen James in about a year, but I thought about what he taught me a lot. Hard work, preparation, and more hard work. James always managed to outwork the other side, no matter what. I think that’s what made him great. James was always the hardest working lawyer in the courtroom.

I braved the rain to James’s building, and walked into his office like a conquering champion, grinning from ear to ear…

There he was, sitting behind his desk.

“Hey old man! Didn’t you retire?”
“Nope. I’m still here. Just plugging away.”

James’s office looked the same, but it was so… quiet. He was sitting behind his desk, pouring over a client file as usual. But today his hair seemed a little grayer, the lines in his face a bit finer. Maybe it was the weather…

I pulled up a chair and started telling him about my trial. The cross-examination, the opening statement, and then the absolute exhilaration of the jury verdict.

Just talking about it made me feel alive.

“…so then the jury deliberated for hours. When they came out and asked for further instruction on causation I thought we had lost it, but man… they found in our favor. It was great. I can’t wait to try the next one…”

James didn’t say anything. He looked at me:

“When is the last time you’ve been home?” he asked.
“I dunno. Weeks ago? Who cares? I think this paid off. I am still shocked we got an outright win on liability, though”
“Good job.” James said, looking out the window.
“You liked my cross right? Do have any other advice for me?”
“I do” he said.
“Then do tell.”
“There are more important things in life than trying cases. That’s my advice. Anyway, I have to finish up what I’m doing. Congrats again on the win.”

Not quite what I had expected. Usually war stories and trial amped James up. But not today.

As I was walking out the door I bumped into James’s partner, Bruce, who I pulled aside…

“Hey Bruce, everything okay with James? He seems a bit down today.”
“Oh, you didn’t hear?”
“No, what’s up?”
“James’s wife passed away unexpectedly about six months ago. He hasn’t been the same since.”

I was floored…

“Wow. I’m so sorry. I wish someone would have told me. I would have written him a card. How is the old man holding up?”

“Honestly, not well.”

Bruce looked at me, and put his hand on my shoulder…

“You’re still young. But James spent his entire career working. I don’t think he got see his kids grow up. Last year he was supposed to retire to Florida, quit the practice of law, and make it right to Emily. Then, well, this happened.”
“I feel like I should say something…”
“Don’t. James will be here long into the night. If you want to make James happy, go home…”

As I walked out of the office it was dark now and the rain poured down harder. There was just one light on – the one in James’s office. I could see his silhouette as he stared out the window, watching a world that had fallen apart…

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5 Responses to In This Sadness

  1. Keith Lee says:

    A very sad, but very true story. So easy to get caught up in race. I hope your friend was able to eventually find peace.

  2. shg says:

    Posts like these are important reminders, but they’re also dangerous reminders. It’s not an either/or proposition, work too hard or do not work hard enough.

    Now that you’ve written this, Jordan, you need to make sense of it. It’s very moving, but could lead to a great many interpretations.

    • An excellent point. The moral was not supposed to be “don’t work hard, because if you do, you will have a terrible family life.” That’s not my point at all. In addition, at 32 years old, sometimes it feels like there is no greater thing in life like winning at trial. This is all so new and thrilling, kind of like like when you meet a new girlfriend. I forget that sometimes.

      Do I think you can work hard and have a great family life? Absolutely.

      Does everyone manage both? No.

      It can be a struggle to balance it.

      • mrspkr says:

        From a twelve year practitioner in Texas – you’re on the right track. Prioritize your life. Decide what is important, what is not. Things that are important must include your wife and your children. If they aren’t, you will lose them. I saw that repeated over and over again during my first stint as an associate with BigLaw, P.C.

        If they are important, your schedule must work around them. Must. Kids have an important school activity? Calendar it and get vacation letters out if it will require your presence during the day. Wife wants to go out to dinner and just have a date? Do it — the work will still be there the next day. If you need to, you can catch things up.

        Time with those you love, however, can never be regained once it has passed.

        It took me a few years to learn this — almost cost me my marriage; certainly impacted my relationship with my two oldest children. It probably also cut down the amount of time I could spend with my father before his untimely death in 2011.

  3. […] As to this last point, I would direct you to a post today from Jordan Rushie entitled In This Sadness: […]

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