How Did I Get Here? Part 2 of 3
“If there was a strategy it was BILL, BILL, BILL!”
In Part I of Jason Pyrz’s story, he had just finished taking the California bar exam and is ready to dive into the practice of law! What could go wrong?
And rough those years were – for multiple reasons. In hindsight, I can clearly see that the universe was trying to tell me to run far, far away.
During my third year of law school, I was a law clerk for the Orange County office of a San Francisco-based AmLaw 100 firm that recently went the way of the dodo. I was doing work for a partner who promised me that as soon as I passed the bar, I’d make the transition to associate on his environmental litigation team. I had a good feeling that I’d passed the bar. Of course, I had friends who told me that people “with that feeling” typically failed (thanks for the vote of confidence). Regardless, based on that feeling and the settled fact that I was about to start pulling in $130,0001 as a first-year associate, we went out and signed a lease on a brand new townhouse and started making all sorts of plans for the future.
In California, the results of the July bar exam aren’t released until mid-November.2 As I (at least) expected, I passed and immediately told the partner for whom I’d been slaving away. The following days were filled with a number of closed-door meetings between that partner, the office managing partner, and the rest of the team members on the environmental litigation team. I was a little flattered, but had a sinking feeling that all this fuss wasn’t over me joining the firm as an honest-to-goodness associate. Toward the end of that post-bar-results week, an all-hands meeting was called by the managing partner. I showed up along with everyone else in the office – with the exception of the environmental litigation team. Why? Well, as we were all about to find out, the partner who had promised me the job, had decided to take a new one of his own – at a slightly-higher-ranked firm down the street, and I wasn’t quite as indispensable as the rest of his established team to warrant any serious negotiation when the new firm balked at bringing on a brand-new first year associate.
So ended my first experience with “BigLaw.”
In that partner’s defense3, he did set me up with a friend of his who worked at a small firm, even farther down the street, where I started my high-flying lawyer days at $80,000. About $15,000 more than I was making before I had incurred over $200,000 worth of law school loans. Thankfully, the property manager at that new development let us out of our lease before it was set to begin.
For the rest of my time in Orange County, I split my time between that firm and an even smaller firm and quickly learned that absolutely nothing from my prior professional life would transfer over. I was pointed in a direction and told to just go – there was no such thing as a plan. The partners for whom I worked cared absolutely nothing for efficiency. On the contrary, I once had a partner tell me that we were just trying to rack up the bill because the client was probably going to be a one-time client, so he wasn’t worried about keeping the billing in check. If there was a strategy, it was BILL, BILL, BILL! I was slowly dying inside. At least my next firm, the even smaller firm, let me bring my dog into work – but he immediately peed on the carpet just outside my office so that was the end of that benefit.
We finally decided to pull up the stakes and move back to the Chicago area after about three years of livin’ that L.A. Law lifestyle. We had just celebrated our daughter’s first birthday and realized we were doing her a disservice by raising her a few thousand miles away from all of her grandparents, cousins, and so on. We moved back in October, and by December I was starting with my second AmLaw 100 firm – my first as an associate – and about to be introduced to a whole new level of frustration.
As it turned out, my brother’s wife’s brother-in-law was a partner in the Chicago office of the firm, and when I moved back from California I met with him just for the purpose of networking – I had no intention of making my way back into the AmLaw 100 after spending time in a seven-lawyer firm where dogs roamed the halls. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when he wanted to schedule a follow-up with some of the other partners, and they ended up creating a new position for me.
I was placed in the “loan enforcement” group within the firm. That’s fancy lawyer speak for high-value, non-residential foreclosures. I had done a little of that work in California, which was fine out there because the only thing we had to do in California was generally getting receivers appointed to collect the rents while the title companies pursued the foreclosures. In Illinois however, there is no such thing as a non-judicial foreclosure and, because both residential and non-residential foreclosures shared the same courtrooms, I had a front-row seat to the pain and suffering of the late-naughts housing implosion. Back in the office, I was suffering through my own special pain.
Even though I was joining a team of three other lawyers in the Chicago office who did the same work, they put my office on the complete opposite side of the floor, and refused to share their secretary with me. Instead, I was assigned a corporate secretary who had zero experience with litigation, and made it explicitly known that she wasn’t a fan. In the three years I was with the firm, I would actually be assigned six different secretaries. They kept passing me off from one to the other, because none of them wanted to handle litigation matters. When I finally did get a secretary who knew litigation, she was forced out because of the way she was treated by one of the partners whom she also assisted4. Regardless, it was not an atmosphere conducive to success.
After a year or so with the firm, my workload had never grown very much. Because the three lawyers with whom I technically worked weren’t very keen on sharing their workload, I started asking around and picking up work from partners who were more than glad to have my help. I was doing a ton of IP litigation work for a new partner, and actually liking it to some extent. He must have liked what I was doing as well, because he lobbied to have me transferred from the loan enforcement team, which was technically under financial services, to the litigation practice.
Things started going great, until I received a visit from the loan enforcement practice group leader who was based in the firm’s main office. He blew into town just to tell me, and I quote “the Chicago team doesn’t like you, why is that?” And that was his opener. He goes on to tell me that I need to realize “who butters [my] bread,” and that he’s not going to allow my transfer to the litigation practice. I was able to survive another year, but that meant turning down the work I had been picking up from the other practice groups – and still not getting any work from my own. I was laid off two weeks before Christmas.
In a somewhat satisfying turn of events, the partner who wanted to hire me is now a multimillionaire, many times over, after having left that firm a few years later to help start a medical marijuana lab, while the practice group leader who actively blocked my transfer to the litigation group is still getting his jollies as a small-time debt collector.
Three months later, just as the severance was running out from my latest AmLaw 100 experience, I joined a small, two-office firm that wanted to pay me just as much as the BigLaw firm was paying me. I thought that was too good to be true, and it turns out I should have trusted my instincts.
I was brought on board to clean up the mess left by an associate who went unsupervised for an entire year. During that year, the associate attended approximately zero hearings for which he was scheduled to appear, and responded to approximately zero discovery requests. I was able to get things back on track in every single case the previous associate neglected, and the day after I obtained a victory for a client in one of the last remaining cases, I was told by the managing partner that they had to let me go. This was two weeks before Christmas5. I was starting to develop a complex.
I’d lost two jobs in two years, two weeks before Christmas each time. I’d gone from BigLaw to small-time law, and was about to go back to tiny law. Fast forward six months, through a series of document review and contract gigs, and I’m moving back to Orange County to take a position that would be my last ever as a practicing lawyer. My family had an absolute blast when they moved out, a month later. They got to go to Disneyland or the pool every day, while I had fun of my own, getting in my car during my lunch break to break down and cry. Oh, she truly was a special person, that last boss of mine. I’m trying to keep this light, so I’m not going to go into all of the gory details of why this was the worst job I’ve ever had – and remember, I’ve gone trash swimming with furry woodland creatures for a paycheck. We’ll just leave this chapter of my life by saying that I got myself fired one day when my boss called me and asked me to come see her, and I told her I couldn’t just yet because I was sitting at O’Hare on my way back to California after a job interview back in Chicago. Funny thing about that – she didn’t take it so well.
I was at my absolute lowest. I’d gone from an AmLaw 100 associate with a posh office on the top floors of a gleaming skyscraper, to getting canned from a sole practitioner who rented space in a shared office filled with marriage counselors and psychiatrists, directly across from the airport and sharing a parking lot with a bank and a gas station. Thankfully, this is when my wife asked the question I didn’t realize I desperately needed to hear.
“If you could go back and do it all over, what would you do?”
1It was the mid-naughts, a more innocent time before “BigLaw” first-years demanded nearly $200,000 to perform work that most clients wouldn’t pay for anyway.
2I’m convinced that the reason most jurisdictions require mental health continuing education credits, is due to the trauma they put you through while waiting months for the results of a test that will determine the rest of your life.
3Sarcasm quotes are appropriate here.
4This partner is now a state court judge. Use this space to formulate your own jokes: __.
5If you’ve ever seen the movie Gremlins, you might see how I was beginning to relate with Phoebe Cates’ character on her views toward Christmas. Either that, or the little kid from Polar Express – you know the one, “Christmas just doesn’t work out for [him].”