Absence Makes the The Heart Go Yonder

Have you ever woken up one morning and said “Who have I become?”

It was Saturday and and my wife were about a quarter of the way through a drive to Pittsburgh. Someone in her family had died and we had to attend the funeral.

Unfortunately, I had a hearing on Monday, a hearing on Tuesday, depositions on Wednesday, and client meetings on Thursday and Friday. With such a full week ahead of me, I couldn’t waste an entire 6 hours sitting in the car doing nothing. So I came equipped – smartphone, laptop, some yellow pads, lawyer books, and research memos to digest for the long drive.

The first few hours of the drive were spent on the phone and emailing. Technology has come so far – you can do work from anywhere at just about any time. Today my office was my wife’s 2008 Nissan Rogue. And man, it felt good. Responding to emails, setting up meetings, calling other lawyers who I knew were working – this was a productive couple of hours.

Suddenly a lawyer friend sent me a text message: “Call me ASAP. Referral.” Unfortunately, crisis dawned upon me – my phone was about to die. I turned to my wife:

“Hey Steph… where is the phone charger?”, I asked.
“I don’t know” she replied.
“I need it really bad…”

I swore I brought the phone charger with me. There was no way I would take a six hour trip without a phone charger. Why wasn’t it in the cigarette lighter thing where I had put it?

“I need the charger right this second. Pull over. This is very important.”

Steph didn’t look happy. She glared at me:

“Can’t we just, I don’t know… talk? Do you need to be doing work all the time?” she asked.

Good question. When did my life get so wrapped up with work, anyway? It didn’t used to be like this.

I met my wife, Steph, during my sophomore year at Villanova University at a party. We hit it off pretty well and I wanted to keep the conversation going. We both were from the Philly burbs, liked punk rock music, and talking philosophy. I wasn’t quite bold enough to walk up to her and say “Can I have your number? I’m going to call you”, so I did the next best (kind of creepy) thing – I saw her typing on AOL Instant Messenger and stole her screen name. The next day:

Jordan: Hey, I know this is kind of creepy, but I was that dude at the party from last night. Do you maybe wanna catch a show or some coffee?
Steph:  Okay, sounds good.

So that’s what we did. We caught a few punk shows, had some coffee, and went to some parties. We would stay up late arguing about philosophy and politics on AOL Instant Messenger, because there was a time Facebook didn’t exist. Then we did that a lot, and eventually we were a couple. These were fun times. Two young, happy go lucky kids who liked to go to punk shows and parties. There were nights when I would visit her at Bryn Mawr College (about two miles from Villanova) and then need to borrow $5 just to get home. We spent our college years together having fun – going to parties, shows, coffee houses, and even a goat race or two.

I had never taken college too seriously and eventually graduated with a 2.8ish GPA. Good enough to graduate. One night  in college my girlfriend (now wife) remarked, “Wow, you guys sure drink a lot during finals.” I smiled and quipped: “Studying at the last minute means you only have to study for one minute.”

After college, I lucked into a position doing human resources for a large corporation. The job was easy, it paid a relatively nice salary, and I had good benefits. It was boring, though – I’d show up at 9ish, leave at 5ish, do some stuff in the middle. I had a cubicle decorated in Eagles memorabilia, and the highlight of each day was going out to lunch with a few co-workers or perhaps a Friday happy hour. Although I didn’t hate my job, I didn’t love it either. I guess I was kind of bored, and it felt like I was living in the movie “Office Space“. On the other hand, the job allowed me to continue to slack my way through life – although I probably wouldn’t become a millionaire, I had enough time and money to do the stuff I wanted to do.  I would joke with people that I was a “fake adult” – I had a credit card, a job, and a car, but I was still a kid. Now I was just a kid with my own apartment and a little bit of money. Life was good.

Growing up, I watched all kinds of legal drama and read John Grisham novels. Law & Order, A Civil Action, and anything else dealing with lawyers was interesting. So I decided to go to law school. I had no idea what it entailed, but I knew I wanted to do it. I figured law would provide me with an interesting, fulfilling, and hopefully lucrative job…

Law school was like nothing I had ever experienced before. From day 1, the importance of good grades were stressed. Gotta get good grades, grades come above everything. The guy to your left and to your right wasn’t your friend – he was your competitor. So I focused all my energy on getting good grades. This took many long hours in the library, meetings with professors, and schmoozing with upperclassmen to get good outlines. Law school encompassed my life, and I was constantly worried about my grades and finding a job. Thankfully, my hard work paid off – I ended up near the top of my class after 1L. I also found legal work with a solo practitioner, Mark Everheart. The summer after 1L I spent working in a law clerk job and waiting tables at Ruby Tuesday on the weekends to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, this came at the expense of my college friends and my girlfriend. My girlfriend appreciated it, though, because this was just temporary. I kept up my pace, and managed to find jobs clerking in law school. I juggled my time between keeping up with school and working, because I figured these part time jobs would eventually turn into a real lawyer job.

Once I get done law school everything will go back to normal…

Once again, my hard work had paid off. At graduation, I found myself with a few job offers and eventually I took a full time job with the Wolf Rebman law firm. Although I graduated knowing I had a full time job, graduation wasn’t much of a celebration. While studying for the bar exam, my boss James said in no  uncertain terms, “If you fail the bar exam, we can’t keep you on. I need to be able to bill you out at an attorney rate.” Fail the bar exam, lose your job. And jobs were difficult enough to come by as is, so this was a test I absolutely had to pass or else. All of my time and effort went into passing the bar exam.

I took the bar exam in July of 2008 and then had about four months to worry about whether or not I failed and would be unemployed. It was the worst summer of my life, and I was in constant fear, miserable to be around. Thankfully, I passed.

With the bar exam and law school out of the way, things were gonna go back to normal, right…?

While working at Wolf Rebman I quickly learned that law school had left me utterly unqualified to practice law. My head had been filled with theory but little else. And theory wasn’t enough to competently cross-examine a witness, take a deposition, voir dire a jury, or manage a law practice. The partners at Wolf Rebman were good to me, though. They let me bring in my own clients and made sure to take the time to mentor me. The downside is I spent almost every night working past 7:30pm, and then the weekends on the phone with clients or the partners at the firm. Three years of this and I was beginning to feel burnt out, especially considering that if I were paid by the hour, I would probably be making less than minimum wage.

One night while sleeping, my wife tried to roll me over. “You’re snoring, she said.” Apparently I replied, “Look, I’ll have him sign the affidavit in the morning. The statute is tolled so don’t worry about it.” My wife tells me that when I sleep, I constantly blurt out legal jargon.

After a couple years, I learned why Wolf Rebman hired an associate: my boss, James Wolf , had a heart attack at a relatively young age. Looking his own mortality in the eye, James decided it was time to slow down a bit. Instead of working 70 – 80 hours a week, James wanted to scale back and start enjoying himself, something he had never been able to do in almost 30 years of practice.

Even though Steph and I had been together since my sophomore year of college, I finally managed to save enough money to get married in October 2011. Oddly enough, I was making less money now than I was working human resources. Had I stayed with the corporation, I would probably be in middle management by now, making more money and working less hours. But at this point, there was simply no turning back.

After four years of working for other people, I decided to start my own practice. Part of the reason is I wanted to be closer to home, and I wanted to run things “my way.” However, I quickly learned that starting my own firm was even more time intensive than working for Wolf Rebman. At the firm, at least they managed the Client Trust Account, payroll, taxes, telephone system, and supplies. Now I was on the hook for every single thing that happened in the office – right down to the toilet paper. Running my own practice was even more time intensive than working for someone else. Now my days usually ended closer to 10:00pm, and I slept on the couch a lot. To borrow a line from Brian Tannebaum, you’re not going to find clients sitting in your office, so time spent not working gets allocated to going out and networking. Despite what Rachel Rodgers might to and tell sell you, starting a practice is a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy.

So here we were today, driving to Pittsburgh, with me trying to run my office out of the car. Apparently Steph wanted to talk.

Okay, I can do that… right?

I turned to my wife and started to talk about this judge at the hearing, how much opposing counsel annoys me, and about how I was worried I was about some dates. She looked at me:

“Do you remember that time in college you and Graz got paintball guns, shot up all the traffic signs on campus, and then very narrowly avoided getting arrested? You hid under that car for almost two hours while the police looked for you guys. I still can’t believe you guys got away.”

I used to be a lot more interesting.

Though college was not all that long ago, those were simpler times. Had we been caught that night, it probably would have been a fine and a stern talkin’ to. I had spent college pulling notorious pranks and avoiding work.

Pulling a stunt like that today would probably cause me to get disciplined and humiliated in front of the entire Pennsylvania bar. Dangerous pranks were from another lifetime. Even if I wanted to play pranks on people, I didn’t have the time. I had a hearing tomorrow, Tuesday, and depositions Wednesday. That’s what mattered.

Only about seven years out of college, I had become a much more serious person. There were a few gray hairs on my head at the age of 30. I now analyze every possible scenario from a “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” scenario. Disbarment? Could we lose our house? The wonderful world of law had opened my eyes to be able to analyze every scenario for the worst case. I had seen people lose their houses, other attorneys get disciplined, under-insured people with otherwise good credit have to declare bankruptcy due to a freak personal injury accident or a bad business transaction. My job was to try and lessen the damage, and often for people whose lives were similar to my own. I was no longer a “fake adult.” I had come to accept that I was a real adult now, and my actions could have very real consequences.

“You didn’t used to be so troubled all the time”, she trailed off.
“Yeah… I know. It’s kind of hard to explain…” I worried constantly now. About deadlines, cash flow, practice management, ethical rules, malpractice, and everything else. Come to think of it, since enrolling in law school, I spent most of my time worrying or working. Usually both. And it’s not that I don’t like the practice of law, it just consumes my life.

It’s been such a haze since law school. Take the LSAT, get into law school, get good grades, pass the bar, find a job, learn how to practice. Since I enrolled in 2005, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to think about it. The last seven years of my life have been dedicated first and foremost to law.

Is life ever going to go back to normal? Am I okay with that?

Steph turned to me and said: “Let’s play a game. I have a riddle for you. There is a man found naked, dead, and clutching a straw in the middle of the desert. Why is he there? You can only ask yes or no questions.”
“Steph, I’m going to suck at this. I’m a litigator. I am trained to ask broad questions like ‘Tell me about how he got there’. Yes and no questions are the worst way to get information in a deposition.”
“Can you be a human being instead of a lawyer for an hour? Please?”

Could I? My mind started to wander a little. Did Joe Client pay his bill this month? Is that hearing on Monday or Tuesday?

But I played her game. A few hours later and we had arrived in Pittsburgh. I didn’t notice. When I got out of the car, I saw the phone charger sticking out of Steph’s purse.

I pretended not to see it. Let the damn phone stay dead…

6 Responses to Absence Makes the The Heart Go Yonder

  1. shg says:

    I have a really awesome story about what happened to me when I was a young lawyer and my wife told me to come home for dinner or find a new wife. But since this is your blog, and your story, and no one wants to come here to read about my story, I will only say listen to your wife. She’s right.

  2. Shawn says:

    You have an audience of people who like Law Stories, and you tell a story that mentions a riddle, but you do not tell the riddle… I think you are a very mean person!!!! (kidding!)

    Seeing you went out as an adult (even a fake one) between college and Law School makes me want to ask for advice. I am almost 30, and love the Law, but never had the burning drive to go to law school. Do you think it’s too late to get into the game now?

    • I would be doing you a disservice if I said anything except “it depends.” I know that is such a typical lawyer answer, but it depends on you, your expectations, your financial situation, family situation, tolerance for risk, ability to network, and a whole myriad of things.

      Law is an extremely tough profession. It beats you down, mentally and physically. It changes you, too, and I hope I got that point across in this piece. There is no guarantee you’ll make money (as in, enough to pay your bills) no matter how hard you work. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not anything like what you see on television.

      But it’s got its upsides. I generally like what I do.

      If given the choice all over again, I would still have become a lawyer. Perhaps that’s a poor reflection on me, though, because part of it is that I’m not creative enough to think of doing something else. I just always wanted to be a lawyer “just because.”

      If you have specific questions, feel free to ask.

      • Joe says:

        I went to law school at age 32 after a decade working in sales. I agree with much of what Jordan has said, though I confess that there have been times when I’ve questioned my decision to go back to school.

        The only thing I’ll say is that if you don’t have a burning to drive to go to law school then it may not be the right decision. First, going to law school trains you to be a lawyer. Nothing more. If you’ve heard, as I used to hear, that you “can do anything with a law degree” you should probably ignore that. It’s not that a law degree necessarily gets in the way of anything else, but it doesn’t really help, either. And why waste three years, a couple hundred thousand dollars, and a ton of stress to not help? Also, as Jordan pointed out, doing well in law school is important. It’s a grind. It’s pretty hard. So, you have to have the drive to do it ahead of time, or you might not finish.

        Finally, there are a lot of lawyers graduating right now, and many are not finding jobs. The good part of being a lawyer is you can always start your own firm, but if you’re thinking you’ll get out of school and start making $120K a year, you should probably reconsider. But there are a lot of great law jobs out there than can be very rewarding and interesting.

        With that being said, though, if you want to go, you can do it. And you won’t be the oldest person in your class, either.

        Good luck.

  3. RTK says:

    I’ve been snipping at my wife since I got home from work today because I have a Reply to an MSJ Response due tomorrow and I can’t get it focused. Then, I stopped working on it and ate dinner that she made me. We talked about as many non-law things as she could think of. Now, I’m working on my Reply again (and stalling by reading your ridiculously good blog). I wish I could say that eating dinner and ignoring my Reply led to some great revelation. It didn’t. But, I’m glad I stopped thinking about it. Somehow, it makes my work better. You have to stop sometimes.

  4. kmom14 says:

    When you have your own business, it is a tightrope act between business and family, but ultimately, you have to realize why you are in business for yourself and what your real priorities are.

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