A Quarter of a Century at the Bar
On a rainy afternoon 25 years ago, I graduated from Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia. The date was May 11, 1987.
Emory Law School
The soon-to-be graduates gathered on the front lawn of the law school beneath cloudy, angry skies. Rain began tumbling down as the associate dean called out the last names beginning with “C.” By the time I stepped forward to shake the dean’s hand and claim my prize, I was soaked. At one point, the tassel from my mortarboard ended up in my mouth. In the official graduation photograph, I look goofy — goofier than usual, for I am a “goofy-looking dude,” as my ex-stepdaughter would say — the dean looks tired, and a few raindrops have sneaked onto the camera lenses.
Perhaps the rain was a metaphor for my life and career since that time.
It is a cliché, I know, but it feels as though I stood on the lawn draped in my damp cap and gown clutching my sheepskin only yesterday, and yet a quarter of a century has elapsed since I shuffled off into the working world of my adulthood.
A quarter of a century — ugh. It boggles the mind.
It reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite old television programs, Rumpole of the Bailey, about a curmudgeonly old English barrister. In one episode, Rumpole presents his wife, Hilda, with a present.
“I bought you a geranium,” he tells her in a conciliatory tone. “I hope you like it.”
“Looks as though it’s seen better days,” she remarks.
Rumpole is philosophical. “Well, you could say that about all of us, couldn’t you?”
Rumpole of the Bailey
I commiserate with old Rumpole. It does indeed feel as if I, like the geranium, have seen better days.
I was 24 years old in 1987 when I departed from Emory University and headed back to Florence, South Carolina, my hometown.
Since I was nothing special — I graduated in the middle of my class with no honors or academic recognition of note and with no work experience except for mowing lawns, cutting down trees for the South Carolina Land Resource Commission as part of the Young Adult Conservation Corps, working in a convenience store, and locking up the gymnasium as part of a work-study job in college — I had struggled to find a job as a lawyer. I sat for the bar examination in both Georgia (February 1987) and South Carolina (July 1987) because I wasn’t sure where I would find work. As a small consolation, I passed both exams the first time I took them. Whew!
I landed a position at a small civil litigation firm in Florence. It was called Nettles & Nettles after the legendary South Carolina trial lawyer Jack Nettles and his son, Louis. Jack was the primary outside attorney for State Farm Insurance Company, where my mother worked at the time, and she had finagled an interview for me.
I will never forget that interview. It took place a few months before I graduated from law school.
With graduation looming in about 90 days, I was desperate to find a position as soon as possible. Most of my fellow students had already snagged a job and I was anxious not to be branded a “loser” who ended up working manual labor while sporting a newly-minted law degree.
I remember an Emory law student who posted the number of days remaining until we graduated on his law school locker each morning. When we first entered school, the number seemed depressingly large. Toward the end of the three-year program, the number appeared distressingly small.
Anyway, with my heart pounding in my chest, I arrived 20 minutes early for my Nettles & Nettles interview. The secretary ushered me into the firm conference room to wait.
The conference room once had been stately and elegant. The deep, rich, dark walnut table, positioned just so in the middle of the room, suggested an august firm brimming with lawyers of uncommonly good judgment and refinement but still able to insert a stiletto when the occasion required. The beadboard and royal blue wallpaper blended together, gently nestling the Currier & Ives prints in an aesthetically pleasing combination. The maroon chairs, overstuffed leather, were built to accommodate even the largest derriere comfortably. The expansive bay window overlooked a lovely maple tree that spread its leafy arms in a welcoming embrace. Everything suggested the majesty of the law — as long as that majesty was viewed through the prism of yesteryear. In its heyday, the room had been a bastion of good taste, a monument to a small law firm’s quiet dignity.
Those days were gone, and the years had not been kind. Virtually every corner of the table was hidden beneath large piles of papers and accordion-style file folders. Gem clips lay scattered across the tabletop like abandoned jeeps in a military junkyard. Scraps of paper were balled up and scattered indiscriminately around the piles. Law books, carelessly discarded face down, their pages dog-eared and folded, sat precariously atop skyscraper-wannabe piles of documents that wobbled as I entered the room. Whole forests had given their lives that these files might proliferate in this small corner of the world.
Rubbing his eyeglasses on the end of his necktie, old, white-haired, pot-bellied, rumpled Jack Nettles ambled into the room.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said as he gestured with a wave of his arm.
“How’s that, sir?” I struggled to get to my feet.
“I said, ‘I know what you’re thinking.’”
I waited for him to pontificate on what I was thinking. When I realized he did not intend to finish the thought, I extended my hand to shake his and thereby introduce myself. After he ignored this gesture, I thrust my hands into my pockets absently.
He picked up on my hesitation. “Move a pile if you need to.” He waved his hand. “Go on and sit back down.”
Nodding, I leaned over and lifted an armful of papers so I could see him across the table during our conversation. I glanced around. Not spying a vacant spot on the table, I kneeled and placed the burden on the floor. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Nettles replace the glasses on the bridge of his nose, remove a pile of books and legal papers from the table, and slide them into an unoccupied chair.
“That’s the life of a lawyer, you know.”
“Sir? I’m sorry?”
“I said, ‘that’s the life of a lawyer.’ You hard of hearing, are ya?”
“No, sir. Just trying to keep up.”
“A lawyer’s life involves moving piles of papers. That’s the life of a lawyer.”
“I’d offer you something, but Katherine has left for the day,” he said. I assumed Katherine was a secretary or assistant. I wasn’t sure if she was the woman who had ushered me into the conference room.
“No, thank you, sir. I’m fine.”
“Well, then,” he said as he collapsed into his chair with a grunt.
I settled in across from him.
Using his legs, he propelled his chair around the table in my direction. I saw that all of the conference room chairs sported wheels.
Our knees were almost touching. He leaned back and cocked his head, peering through the bottom of his eyeglasses.
He saw me smiling. “Goddamn bifocals,” he muttered.
I nodded. Reaching into my jacket, I pulled a piece of paper from my inside pocket. “I brought another copy of my resume.”
He waved it away. “Louis has it.”
I shrugged and slipped the page back into my pocket.
We considered each other wordlessly. As the silence dragged on, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. I tried to think of things to say, but he was supposed to interview me, after all.
He closed his eyes, and for a moment I thought he was asleep. I wasn’t sure of the protocol if the interviewer fell asleep. All the recruiting books recommended ways of impressing the potential boss, but they were silent on what to do if the hiring partner slipped in a nap during the initial session.
His head snapped up, his eyes flew open, and he looked as if he were seeing me for the first time. “Do you like catfish stew, Mark?”
I frowned. The non sequitur had thrown me off my game. “Well, sure. I like it okay.” I cleared my throat and said in a small voice, “it’s Mike, by the way.”
Wagging his finger, he nodded his head. “Never trust a man who doesn’t like catfish stew.”
“I love catfish stew. Good catfish stew, I mean. Not that crap in the supermarket.”
He leaned forwarded, so I mimicked his movement. Our foreheads were inches apart. We could have been posing as chess masters contemplating our next moves or we could have been Jedi warriors engaged in a mind meld.
“Charity Luck taught me that catfish stew is a lawyer’s best friend.”
“Is that right?” I had no idea who or what Charity Luck was. As I had told him, I was just trying to keep up.
He leaned back and gazed at the ceiling. “Oh, yes. He was quite the character, Charity was. Quite the character. A hell of a fisherman, too.”
“So, tell me, Mark. Why do you want to be a lawyer?”
I had anticipated this question. Finally, I felt my feet were planted on solid ground. Clearing my throat, I launched into my well-practiced recitation. “It’s Mike, by the way. Ever since I was a boy, I knew that if I had an opportunity to effect change in society, I should seize that opportunity. What better way than to work through the nation’s legal system — ”
Smiling, he snapped his fingers and leaned into my face. “No, no, let’s skip the blah, blah, blah. Tell me really. It’s not about the money, is it?”
“Because if it’s about the money, you can forget it. You can just turn around and walk right out the door. Even Charity wudn’t a rich man when he died.”
I nodded. “I’d be lying if I said money meant nothing to me. Still, money is not my prime motivator.”
He smiled again. “Well said, young man. Well said.” Leaning back in his chair, he stared at the ceiling. “The law is a calling — at least it should be. The same way that writing or medicine is a calling.”
“You never answered the question, Mark.”
“It’s Mike, by the way, sir. And what question is that?”
“Do you like catfish stew?”
And right then and there, I had a choice to make. Did I choose to be my own man and express my preference — I have no love for catfish stew — or did I play it safe and echo what I thought my possibly-soon-to-be-boss wanted to hear?
Clearing my throat, I muttered in a soft, indistinct voice.
“Say again? Speak up, Mark. Now you got me hard of hearing.”
“I love catfish stew. Good catfish stew, I mean. Not that crap in the supermarket.”
He laughed and slapped his thigh. “Well put, Mark. Well put. I love the way you think. It reminds me of me when I was your age. What is your age, anyhow?”
“Lord have mercy. I got cases older than you.” He slapped his thigh again, guffawing at his own witticism. “Sorry, there, Mark. I was just joshing with you. Anyhow, that’s good to hear about the catfish stew.”
“Yes, sir. I love catfish stew, or my name isn’t Mark.”
And so a quarter of a century has passed since the catfish-stew-loving-Mark started his legal career.
Working in my office at Nettles & Nettles, 1987
I hated practicing law, or at least practicing law at Nettles & Nettles. Don’t get me wrong — Jack and Louis Nettles treated me well. They were fine, honorable gentlemen. They strove to work hard, be honest, and serve as faithful stewards of the law. In particular, Jack’s reputation for being a workaholic and his prowess in the courtroom were the stuff of legend. If I ever need to hire a lawyer, I want someone exactly like Jack to represent me.
Aside from his legal skills, he was something of a character. Jack Nettles did not possess the verbal filter that many people use to censor their own comments. He subscribed to the ancient Latin maxim Fiat justitia ruat caelum, which means “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” If he felt something should be said, he said it seemingly without fear of the consequences. If he appeared silly, offended someone, or revealed his own ignorance, so what? He was an old curmudgeon and he just didn’t give a damn.
Once, about a month after he had hired me, as Jack and I hung around the courthouse waiting for our trial to begin, we found ourselves sitting in an anteroom with about a dozen other lawyers who were also waiting to see the judge. It was a small town, so everyone knew everyone else. For some reason I no longer recall, to pass the time we started swapping stories about our feelings of inadequacy. One lawyer mentioned that he was self-conscious about being bald. Another man said his high, squeaky voice made him a less-than-effective advocate. I said that my five-foot, five-inch frame made me self-conscious about being short. Interestingly, Jack did not mention any perceived deficiencies about himself.
A lawyer with a gigantic red nose said that he was always mortified about his appearance because his nose was so large and red that people thought he was perpetually drunk. He had even contemplated going under the knife for rhinoplasty.
The room fell silent after this incredibly personal revelation. Finally, Jack cocked his head so he could examine the man’s nose through his bifocals. “Oh my God,” he exclaimed. “It is right bulbous, ain’t it?”
On another occasion, State Farm Insurance Company asked Jack to defend a client in a civil case that was filed following a car wreck. The man was a Latino from New York City who had been involved in an automobile accident in Florence while he was passing through town. He was being sued and State Farm, as his insurance carrier, was obligated to defend him under the terms of the man’s insurance policy. The man’s first name was “Jesus” (pronounced Hay-soos).
Jack was not a worldly man. Apart from serving a stint in the military during World War II, he had not traveled a great deal outside of the South. The name Jesus is not common among native South Carolinians. As far as Jack was concerned, the name was pronounced Gee-zuss. Jesus was from Nazareth, not New York City, and he was the son of God crucified on a cross, not a Yankee Latino driving a suped-up Chrysler LeBaron and crashing into people on the streets of Florence.
One afternoon, Jack decided to phone the client, who had returned to New York, to discuss the case for the first time. Jack had a booming voice, and his office was right next to mine (we shared a wall), so I often overheard his part of a telephone conversation.
On this occasion, I heard his voice echo through the wall. “Hello,” he thundered. “Jesus, is that you?”
I did not know about the case or the man with the strange name. That’s unusual, I thought. Either Jack got that old time religion or he is having a breakdown of some sort.
“I'm trying to find Jesus.”
Maybe I should tell someone the old man finally snapped.
“Won’t someone put me in touch with Jesus?”
It’s worse than I thought.
“Hello, Jesus, this here’s Jack Nettles. I’m the lawyer handling your case for State Farm down here in South Carolina.”
Oh, okay. False alarm.
He paused apparently to hear what Jesus had to say.
Finally, Jack had heard enough. “Let me interrupt you right there,” he bellowed. “Before we go any further, I gotta ask you something that has been bothering me. Why’d your mama wanna name you Jesus, anyhow?”
It wasn’t Jack’s personality quirks that drove me to distraction, though. It was the terrible effect of personal injury law that became a problem for me.
Unlike Jack Nettles, I did not enjoy practicing law. To me, the work was sheer drudgery. We handled mostly automobile accident cases, and I discovered that one automobile accident is pretty much like another. I cared absolutely nothing about police and medical reports, skid marks, or accident reconstruction experts, yet my life was consumed by these things.
And our clients were tough to take. We saw people at their worst. When I started working at the firm in May 1987, I felt their pain. Every person who described his or her injuries and sorrows touched me so deeply that they became my injuries and sorrows. One client bit her tongue off in the impact. Another woman lost her beloved dog because he was sitting in her lap when the accident occurred and the airbag crushed his body. An elderly gentleman explained how his testicles were obliterated during the collision.
I soon found that I could not get through the day if I empathized with every person who limped through the door. By the time I left the firm in June 1988, I had become desensitized. Nothing seemed to faze me. I had swung so far in the other direction from empathy that a person bleeding profusely from a head wound would elicit little more than a yawn from me.
I did not like the person I had become.
One morning on my way to work, I came upon a car crash that had occurred just minutes earlier. I pulled my Toyota Tercel to the side of the road to lend assistance. (I know what you are thinking but, no, I was not an ambulance chaser. It never dawned on me to use the accident as a source of new client revenue. This lack of foresight probably doomed my legal career.)
The episode occurred in the era before cell phones, so I jogged over to a pay phone at a convenience store on the corner. Two other bystanders, one of whom was a nurse, were already tending to the injured motorists, which left me free to dial 911.
I waited around for the police and ambulance to arrive, and I gave a statement about what I had seen and heard.
I watched one man being loaded into the ambulance, and I thought, he’s so lucky! He gets to go to the emergency room, but I have to go to work.
That’s when it is time to leave. When you would rather be hurt in a car crash than go to work, you need to find another job.
Fortunately for me, out of the blue my old boss at the Southern States Energy Board near Atlanta called. A staffer had left, and the agency had a vacancy. Was I interested? Absolutely.
The next day, when I told Jack Nettles that I was leaving the firm, he grew angry. He had bargained for the catfish-loving-Mark to join his law firm and he had spent 13 months training the young man. Now, when the training was beginning to pay off, the fellow was departing. Nothing about me had been as advertised.
Furious but trying to appear nonchalant, Jack muttered one comment before he turned and walked away. It was our last extended conversation before I left the employ of Nettles & Nettles.
“Sometimes you back a winning horse and sometimes you back a losing horse,” he said. “And I guess I know which one I backed.”
The comment hurt me deeply, but perhaps that was a good thing. After more than a year anesthetizing myself, I was glad to feel something again. What does Warren Zevon say? “I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.”
Warren Zevon--Ain't That Pretty At All
And so I left Nettles & Nettles in search of greener pastures. I have experienced numerous ups and downs since that time — who hasn’t been through highs and lows over the years? — but I never regretted my decision to leave.
A quarter of a century has passed since I started on this journey in the legal profession. I am still not sure where it will end.
My life is a work in progress.