Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

on right work and purpose

Today I found myself impressed by the way that peace comes to troubled waters through careful attention. Also, I found myself eating lunch with colleagues in Hubbard's Cubbard. Hubbard's Cubbard is located in downtown Garland. It's an old-fashioned chicken-fried steak place, although I can attest that they do a healthy sauteed chicken just as capably.

Five years ago, on a pleasant February day, I first visited Hubbard's Cubbard. I first experienced its luxuries and appurtenances--huge home-made biscuits, paper towel rolls decoratively placed where napkins otherwise might be, and waitresses apparently chosen for their ability to exude a kind of "I'm a healthy Texas girl with an unpretentious attitude--isn't everyone, really?" charm I find home-like.
I first met with my current law partner about the possibility of doing business in Garland, Texas as attorneys at law.

In my memory now, I had sketched out figures and plans on the back of an envelope or perhaps on a steno pad. But in fact, I think I had been a bit more systematic than that. I am actually a mildly systematic person in my thinking, though nobody examining this weblog nor the stray papers in my spare room would accept this premise. A more rational part of my mind seems to recall that I had actually worked up some budget and revenue projections. Certainly, before too long I used this curious Microsoft "Works" primitive spreadsheet form to build proper "does the math for you" spreadsheets. I am a Corel WordPerfect user by preference, and hence destined for Rivendell and Heaven, though I do speak the alien and odd tongues of Word and Excel at necessity, so the use of an odd non-business-like primitive Gates spreadsheet had a rightness about it, a kind of half-foot-in feel I liked.

I had actually come to Dallas for a job interview. Although I had reached the point in my career in which one largely must own one's own practice or work for an agency or corporation, a rather neat resume I had drawn had gotten some nibbles. I interviewed that weekend at a firm in downtown Dallas in one of those tall, cool buildings which looked like a Pei or a Phillip Johnson, the kind of downtown life I had lived for some fifteen years. This new international style Dallas is a good place in many ways. It's got its own tenor and breath about it, as if the face of the Word moves across the skyscrapers and breathed life into it. This Dallas was the kind of place in which people rode elevators from ground level to the four star restaurant Dakota, where a steam that could have been steam or could have been dry ice seemed to rise, and the presentation was always divine.

I remember once experiencing as a law firm associate in downtown Dallas, when the entire legal community rallied around to save the ballet. I had never then (and for that matter, have never yet) seen a live ballet (I am much more inclined to go to modern dance). But the word went round our law firm, spread by telephone like a wildfire in a dry forest from other participating law firms, that the Dallas Ballet would crash and burn without immediate funding, and we all pulled out our credit cards and phoned in and pledged the money required to keep the wolves from its door for another pirouette (as often happens, years later it fell in mid-pas-de-deux, and did not arise again, but at least we fought the darkness for a day). That was the kind of mood things had in the mid-1980s, a time when music was new and rich, and anything was possible. I have an incipient fondness for downtown Dallas, a place, like all downtowns, in which I do not at all belong, but in which I can be quite at home.

As it happened, my 2000 Dallas interview proved unilluminating, as the firm, while very nice, obviously had already filled the need for which I was interviewing. But my other mission, to discuss starting a law firm, germinated on that day, and soon blossomed. My friend and I discussed a vision thing. We had both been trial lawyers by inclination for all our careers, although each of us had, due to the particular abstruse specialties we pursued, also done a lot of fairly sophisticated transactional work.
We both had worked with fine lawyers, but were ready to work for ourselves. We each of us wished to find a path other than the "downtown" path we both knew well, had profited from, and yet had perhaps moved beyond.

Our "vision thing" was that we could, if we did it right, run a law firm in which we were able to pursue more of the things we went to law school to do. Although we were not blind to the importance of profit and earning a living, we did not wish to engage in the single-minded pursuit of money at all costs, an outlook we encountered sometimes in our past lives from other kind but excessively material souls we knew. We did want to use our skills to earn livings, and to work full and vivid days, but neither of us really wished to see if we could work ourselves "into the ground", as we had learned a simple faith, as yet unsupported by works, that health and balance make for better lawyers and better people, than did the path of total workaholic effort. We wanted to be part of a community, and to do the things that old-fashioned lawyers do for real folks who are their clients. Call us a bit lost in the land of dreamy dreams, but, after all, my partner's now-grown elder son is named Atticus.

We began our firm in late June 2000, and the firm was a success before July 31. Yesterday we added another attorney, bringing us to five full-time attorneys and one part-time attorney. We do a mix of business which involves both sophisticated far-flung matters and very small home-town matters. We now have a third limited liability partner, an old friend whom we have known for years upon years.

I get chances to do a wide range of things now in a way and to an extent that I never did in the old days. I can handle pro bono cases more often than in prior times. I can be in a courtroom arguing over seventy five hundred dollars on Monday, and in another courtroom arguing over one hundred million dollars on Friday. Within the civil context, I handle a wide variety of matters, although I am still quite at home in the complex insurance company insolvencies and intricate commercial litigations in which I best thrive. I do not think about things in blinkered "I am this kind of lawyer" as rigidly as once I did. I handle commercial transactional work without blinking, in court or out, but I also handle consumer transactions for "real people" with real little problems. It's a mix of business not granted to many.

I am not saying, of course, that I do anything. I do not handle criminal work, unless a court requires me to do so. I tend to avoid highly specialized civil work outside my fields of interest. I do not suffer from hubris about what I can and cannot do well. I know what I do not do or wish to do, and am quick with a referral when I do not wish to take a case.

I get a great deal of satisfaction from a lot of what I do. For example, I love to handle ERISA cases for claimants. ERISA is the federal statute for government pensions and health plans. When I was a young lawyer, I used to help defend ERISA plans from claims by health plan claimants, seeking coverage.
Now I often handle ERISA claims for consumers whose health plan claims have been denied, or who have been taken off disability by their health plans. ERISA is a complex scheme, which many lawyers won't touch because the damages are typically not impressive and in some instances the burdens of proof are misaligned in favor of the health plan. But I have enjoyed finding the cases that can be tried, and setting out to help deserving sick and disabled people.

I like about my practice that I usually represent the "white hat" client (indeed, as the old joke goes, I always represent the client who is right, but sometimes the Court does not see the color of the hat clearly in the harsh courtroom glare and fails to do justice). But I am not one of those ideologues who can only do plaintiff work or regulator work or debtor work or consumer work. I can and do represent defendants and folks against the regulator. I think it's important that lawyers be available to folks whether those folks are pristine or not. I am not into "only the little guy" thinking, either. I enjoy my large corporate clients, working with great house counsel on worthy cases. I like that I can be on either side of the table--debtor or creditor, plaintiff or defendant, regulator or claimant against the insolvent being regulated.

I had been a part-owner of law firms since I was 31 or so, but this new and current Garland, Texas law firm was something different. The two of us were our own marketers, our own business operators, and our own idea men. We had spent all our careers working in firms in which other people "made rain", bringing in the clients. We had been "worker bees", and somehow always felt a bit out of the honey. Although we each brought some clientele to our new firm, we each had to learn the day to day realities of marketing a business. In point of fact, though, it proved remarkably easy and incredibly free of banality.

Our formula was simple. We kept our initial expenses as low as we could and still have a nice office and professional trappings. We took on clients from the local area, we advertised a bit, and we built on prior contacts. A few old clients from past lives brought business to us. We attracted new clients, because we were this curious suburban firm which could do "downtown" work. We typically did not spend money we did not earn, and we stayed out of debt. We had great help from our accountant, and a lot of local support from well-wishers. We ended up with a practice not that far removed from "the good old days".

I do not wish to make this all sound less real than it was and has been. It's still a rather stressful life. We have to focus on making the machine work, and we have to do our work. Working in a service profession has its own challenges--and it never ceases to amaze me that sometimes the best work one does is the work for which one gets the least credit. I still don't take as many vacations as my spouse would favor, and sometimes my life is ruled by the calendar. But it's a workable life, and one I can workably live.

We don't have firm politics to any real extent. We have success as we define it, but we are not "luxurious lawyers". My office is in a small suburban office plaza, single-story and with its "back" facing a roadway. It's not quaint in the way our very first office was, which was adjacent to a hip coffee shop. I like the way, though, that our firm name has Texas stars between the surname where the asterisks should be, and the way our walls have sketches of historical scenes from the Alamo hanging on the wall. Yet it's not at all the luxury of a downtown law firm, and we live lives fairly notoriously free of such finery. We tend to donate our dollars to local things and not the ballet these days. My walls do not have any Chagalls on them, but instead framed sets of stamps depicting American nature scenes, and a letter of appreciation for my chess poems from a Cleveland library chess collection curator.

I wish I could say that having "right work" makes all problems go away. But I awake to find myself within my skin, and each life has its own neuroses and challenges. I do recognize that each day I am fortunate to come to my office and have my great clients who give me fascinating work for which I am incredibly grateful. My work keeps my mind alive, and I am constantly focused on an interesting problem. I love the thrill of an intricate problem.

I like to say that my work is funny mostly to me, because I can render the average dinner party catatonic with a description of the most mundane issue I tackle. Some people handle the kind of cases which appear on Court TV, while others of us make our escape through more elaborate tunnels. My partners and I, long accustomed to each other, speak of what we do with shared outlooks and shorthand vocabulary. I do have a bit of that "coyote among the rabbits" sensation, though, when I am in trial and a cross-examination goes particularly well. I seem have had a strong run in my last few trials of "blowing up" a few expert witnesses. I love watching the mushroom cloud rise when the witness is undermined. There's something fun about trapping the witness on a primrose path in which the witness must answer the question a certain way or be humiliated with a past sworn statement, and especially when the witness, being brighter than I am, or believing him or herself so to be, suddenly realizes that the question line leads the witness inexorably to doom.

There are shadows in cross-examination which do not lead to Mordor but to truth. I love the feeling when I have caught a witness in an apples v. oranges accounting assumption "error", or gotten the witness to admit that no matter what the witness just said, that x, y and z are true (and demolish the witness' main point in testifying) and demonstrating to the witness that there's no way around it. I have had that rare thrill of metaphorically, carefully, and with well-timed irony shoving a sworn deposition statement down a witness' throat, after the witness altered his story in mid-stream. I have felt the delight in shaking the hand of a witness I have just demolished, and feeling in my heart nothing but compassion and a "we have been through this together" fellow feeling, because it is not the witness I am after, but only to show the truth the witness sought to obscure. I find, to my interest but not surprise, that if I allow myself to show my irritation with a dishonest witness I am not as good at cross-examination as when I allow my mild amusement to show.

Cross-examination is a tricky thing. Sometimes a truthful witness can evade the barbs and still avoid admitting to the negatives in the case. But even then, all is not lost. I won a nice jury verdict some years ago despite facing a capable expert who, unruffled, withstood my worst. The jury accepted, as I ultimately did, that the witness was too smooth, and I scored point after point in closing argument by arguing to the jury the math points the opposing expert had suavely dismissed. Charm is often a persuasive thing, but in this case, I think the expert's very nonchalant likability cut against the seriouness nature of the math. Don't let anyone tell you that the smartest person always wins. It's the person who can find the way to the truth that wins. We're all gasping for truth and reality, and we hunt with our lanterns for any witness or advocate who will deliver it.

We watched tonight on television a wonderful documentary about the late Pope. I have not spent a lot of time in this weblog speaking of his passing, for this reason or that. But this film, strongly "pro-" as to this complex, intriguing and yet to me in some ways puzzling life, served as a stark and workable reminder of the horrors that the 20th Century inflicted upon Poland's people, and the importance of courage by unarmed individuals, including the late pope, in facing it. These images were such a welcome respite from the History Channel "dig out the Nazi archives and see what cool footage of great battles we find" approach. I thought to myself of the wonder of people who played Chopin, put on Polish plays, and wrote poetry in Polish in hiding from the persecution of the Nazis, and of a people who dealt with Stalinism in its most virulent forms. My life has been free of these challenges and these virtues. The struggles I face seem so paltry by comparison.

Our own time offers its own struggles, both large and small. I find very symbolic a local "mid-cities" suburb that quietly voted in a property tax rollback, even though this meant its library and senior center would close their doors. Judges are hunted down and killed by madmen. Elected representatives
threaten retaliation against lifetime judicial appointees for making decisions which, while difficult, are indisputably (and rather obviously) within the rule of law. Our military disregards the Geneva convention, perhaps the signal achievement of the 20th C. in trying to define the rules of war in a civilized way. Even our friends in France, long more tolerant than we in so many ways, sought to insist that teens abandon the teachings of their faith, in pursuit of school uniform uniformity. Our time faces different challenges, but the need for social justice and tolerance stand out more than ever.

So tonight I am swimming in a sea of nostalgia and purpose, thinking of ways to live my life more mythically, as if the story has a plot. I have given up chocolate and channeled the anxiety that made me eat it into chess. My chess has improved only marginally--I rose to 1400 on FICS tonight--but I feel a sense of focus overtaking me. I want to lose the bloating, and try to live a good life.

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