How Did I Get Here? Part 1 of 3

 
 
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Dumpster jumping, legal fiction, AMLaw 100—this story has it all

We met Jason Pyrz where we meet all our favorite people, at the paella pan of a conference cocktail event. Jason is the current Global Project Management Operations Director for Mayer Brown, and author of a novel that currently has an astounding 4.75 star rating on Goodreads. When we heard about Jason’s legal career path, we had to ask him to write it all down and share it with our network of legal luminaries. Enjoy.

Unlike David Byrne suggests, I’ve never asked this of myself 1 . I know exactly how I got here. It was a long, interesting, winding route, and I had to back up a few times, but I did eventually get here. After all, no matter where you go, there you are, right? But how did I go from playing with wet raccoons (more on that in a bit) to leading the legal project management operations, globally, at a firm that historically holds one of the top 20 spots in the AmLaw 100? To answer that question, let’s start at the obvious place–the beginning.

Most people, when asked about their first employer, will tell you they were busy crafting Big Macs and Quarter Pounders. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so my first job was as the back-room boy at an Italian beef and hot dog joint. We won’t spend much time lingering on this one though, because aside from the all-you-could-eat free-food benefit, the only thing I really remember about that job was being ordered to go out back, and jump in the dumpster when it started getting too full. This wouldn’t have really been considered pleasant on nice days, so it was unfortunate that the only times I was charged with this task were during the frequent Midwest summer thunderstorms. The cherry on top was that I got to share this time with some sassy little trash pandas, as our strip mall backed up to a county forest preserve. All in all, it was a pretty good job even if it has nothing to do with the rest of my story.

On second thought–maybe there’s a not-so-subtle metaphor there for some of my subsequent roles?

Encased meats and OSHA violations aside, the actual beginning of my story is probably not all that different from those of most of you reading this. Like most people who ended up going to law school, I grew up thinking I was going to be either a doctor or a lawyer. Of course I went through the requisite astronaut phase when I was young, however, once I reached the point in my life where I stopped believing in various holiday and dental-themed philanthropists, I knew I was going to be a lawyer.

My lawyerly plans were solidified during my ninth-grade honors world history class, where I was handed the role of lead defense attorney in the trial of Napoléon Bonaparte’s suspected assassin 2 . My client was exonerated, and one of the moms who attended the trial, a paralegal, told me I was a natural lawyer, so that was that of course–my future was settled. I told everyone I was going to be a lawyer and then went into undergrad as a political science major, a path from which I never strayed… until the Internet blew up and lured me away with promises of Pets.com-style riches. So before I conquered the LSAT, I had to conquer some HTML.

In the halcyon days of the early Worldwide Web, even before people were making millions by selling ad space for a dollar per pixel 3 , a group of friends and I decided we would get in on the ground floor and start a web design company. I’ve always been a bit of a computer geek, and when I realized my university provided each student with space on its web servers, I started dabbling in web design. We had a few customers and made enough money to buy one of those fancy mobile phones with the walkie-talkie feature 4 for our sales guy, but not enough to buy a second phone to actually make use of the walkie-talkie feature. We shuttered the company after we graduated, but it wasn’t a complete waste of time. That silly little web design firm landed me my first real job on my way to becoming a Global LPM Operations Manager for an elite international law firm based in Chicago–as a webmaster for a tiny software standards organization located in Boston.

So I packed up my apartment, loaded it all into an eighteen-foot U-Haul moving truck, and drove from Chicago to Boston – where I would stay for the next eight months, learning the skills I needed to pad my Monster.com 5 resume and get recruited by a very large corporation to work as a project manager in a new e-commerce division within their healthcare unit.

It was this job, the e-Creative Project Manager position, where I received my first taste of doing work that I actually, thoroughly enjoyed. It wasn’t quite on par with dumpster diving with raccoons, but it taught me the ins and outs of the corporate world while still being relatively autonomous.

For almost two years, I managed a number of e-commerce projects for the x-ray and marketing groups within the company. The “law school thing,” as I would call it, crossed my mind on occasion, but I was having too much fun, making too much money (for a 24-year old with only a bachelor’s degree), and eating up the company’s propaganda to think seriously about chucking it all to go spend three more years in school. Besides, I thought if I could make it work, I could make a comfortable life moving up through the ranks where I was. One of the highlights was the Six Sigma Green Belt certification program I was offered. After going through forty hours of classes and leading a certification project for my Green Belt, I even toyed with the idea of staying on and becoming one of their Black Belts and then, who knew, maybe even a Master Black Belt! I had a new house, a new wife, and was ready to settle into a life of corporate anonymity. But then the honeymoon ended. 9/11 happened, the country became a bit more serious, and people started thinking that maybe the Internet thing wasn’t quite the gold rush they’d been told it was going to be. Whatever the reason, our entire group was shut down and about twenty of us in total–project managers, web designers, web developers, and management–were unceremoniously let go. I say “unceremoniously,” but we were able to go out with a bang by talking the one remaining manager into using his corporate card to host a party at the expensive steakhouse across the street from the office. I ended up driving him home after he tumbled down the stairs and broke his ankle. You know, like totally sober people tend to do.

Thankfully though, as a project manager who spanned multiple departments and won a number of fans across the company, I was soon brought back on in another business unit for a year-long contract. In all, I spent just under three years with that company. Having seen the writing on the wall after that first layoff, I knew I should finally make good on my plans take the LSAT to at least see how I’d do. I remember having a conversation about that time with my wife’s cousin–who was a then 3L. He was going on and on about how great law school was, and how he looked down on his high school and college classmates who uttered the apparently forbidden phrase, “I thought about going to law school.” This, in his mind, was sacrilegious. Thinking about doing something was one thing, actually doing it was another.

That may or may not have been the conversation that finally prodded me to plunk down the cash to take the test. I certainly didn’t want to be one of those kids you run into at the local bar near where you went to high school, when you’re home for Thanksgiving, who talks about all the things they thought about doing. Or a sad has-been in a Bruce Springsteen song. 6

I cruised through the LSAT, got accepted to a bunch of schools, and took the opportunity to pull up the roots to move someplace with winters that didn’t make your face hurt. Because I was intimately familiar with Southern California, having played volleyball in college and spending so much time out there on road trips, I ended up in Los Angeles for law school. I hated every minute of it (law school, that is, not Los Angeles 7 ).

Most people hate law school, I get it. But I seriously toyed with the idea of not going back for my second year. The only reason I did, was because I thought I would feel extremely stupid about dropping over $40k on something from which I wasn’t going to ever benefit. So I stuck with it, disliking most of my classes and a good number of my classmates 8 . When it came to preparing for the dreaded California bar exam however, I actually liked that process. “What? That’s crazy talk!”

Crazy it may be, but the key word there is “process.” I can look back now and realize I enjoyed the bar exam experience because it really was a process. Unlike a traditional law school class where you futzed around reading obscure cases to glean obscure rules only to apply them on an obscure test, the bar exam process was very rigid. You showed up to the bar review courses for a few hours every morning, followed by a few hours of multi-state practice questions, followed by some essay questions. Every minute of every day was planned out from the time I walked across the stage to get my diploma, until the afternoon of the last Thursday in July, when I finished the last question on the last day of the three-day California bar exam.

California, like most states, follows the pattern where they work you through a performance exam in the afternoons on your non-multistate day. I finished that final section a little early, as I had most of the sections, but rather than leave as I could have, I sat there and popped my earplugs so I could enjoy crossing the finish line with everyone else. The sound was amazing. What was actually a thousand nervous wannabe lawyers, frantically typing away for the final fifteen minutes of the most important test of their lives, sounded exactly like a thundering waterfall.

Time was called, the waterfall stopped, and the convention hall erupted in applause. The book closed on three years of the bizarro world of legal education. Having spent the three years before that, focused solely on structure, process, and efficiency, I should have realized that the years to come were going to be rough.

Tune in for the second part of the story next week.

1 Taking a risk by dating myself with this reference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IsSpAOD6K8

2 It was the early 90’s, a kinder, gentler, more innocent time when people were still convinced Napoléon was poisoned by a person – not wallpaper. https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/poison-what-killed-napoleon

3 http://www.milliondollarhomepage.com/

4 Kudos to those of you bold enough to admit to remembering those: https://vimeo.com/82099666

5 Think, LinkedIn, but without all the humblebragging and motivational-speaker-quote reposts.

6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vQpW9XRiyM

7 Actually, I guess I wasn’t that big of a Los Angeles fan, either. Which is probably why, after 6 months in LA, we broke our lease and moved to Irvine, down in Orange County.

8 I’m not alone on that one. Just about every “what to expect in law school” book contains a section about the, shall we say, difficult, students you’ll meet – the most infamous being known as “the gunner.” https://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com/10/six-misguided-law-students-youll-encounter/