The Lawyer

Here’s John­ny!

My wife was the dri­ving force behind my deci­sion to become a lawyer, but John­ny Car­son actu­al­ly clinched the deal. My wife and I were school teach­ers at the time. We thought we couldn’t sup­port a fam­i­ly on our salaries, so we looked around for alter­na­tives.

Why don’t you go to law school?” she said.

Too much tedious detail, por­ing over com­pli­cat­ed doc­u­ments, wrestling with bor­ing rules and reg­u­la­tions.”     

I bet you’d like it.”

I don’t think so.”

Over the next few months, she sug­gest­ed law school again and again. I brushed her off each time with­out telling her the real rea­son. I thought I wasn’t smart enough. My G.P.A in col­lege was a lack­lus­ter B-/C+. I didn’t think I could sur­vive a law school cur­ricu­lum, but my wife believed I could do it and I’d learned to trust her judg­ment.   

Melvin Bel­li

Her gen­tle prod­ding had almost over­come my lack of con­fi­dence by the time John­ny Car­son got into the act. I was watch­ing The Tonight Show when he intro­duced F. Lee Bai­ley, Richard “Race­horse” Haynes, and Melvin Bel­li as the best lawyers in the coun­try. They sparred with one anoth­er. Bai­ley was impres­sive, but the oth­er two came across as com­plete duds. Years lat­er I learned they were both great lawyers, but that night Race­horse was slow­er than a crip­pled mule and old Mel was almost comatose. If those two guys could rise to the top of the legal pro­fes­sion, I thought I’d be able to scratch out a mod­est liv­ing at it.

Richard “Race­horse” Haynes

UVA’s law school, one of the best in the nation, was right down the road, but I fig­ured my G.P.A. would dis­qual­i­fy me. My wife’s friend worked for the Dean of Admis­sions. She said the law school was required to take half its stu­dents from Vir­ginia res­i­dents and the appli­cant pool for that group was thin. She thought I would make the cut.

I applied. UVA turned me down. They put me on a wait­ing list, but the call nev­er came. Our friend thought I should try again. “Com­ing off this year’s wait­ing list,” she said, “they’ll give you pri­or­i­ty.” I took her advice, taught for anoth­er year, and reap­plied. As she pre­dict­ed, UVA accept­ed me.

We pen­ciled out a bud­get. My wife’s salary and the small amount we had saved up would cov­er tuition and liv­ing expens­es if we pinched pen­nies. That sum­mer, to cut costs, we moved from our house in Crozet to an effi­cien­cy apart­ment in Char­lottesville.

Clark Hall, home of the UVA Law School in 1972

At law school ori­en­ta­tion in the fall, every­one I met was an Ivy League School Phi Beta Kap­pa, a vet­er­an who had served as an offi­cer in Viet­nam, or an M.B.A. grad­u­ate. I had been reject­ed on my first try for admis­sion, and I seemed to be the least qual­i­fied stu­dent in the incom­ing class. I fig­ured I stood a good chance of flunk­ing out even if I gave it every­thing I had.

Abject fear proved to be a great moti­va­tor. My wife dropped me off at the law school every morn­ing at eight and picked me up at five. I sat in the back of my class­es, kept my mouth shut, and took copi­ous notes. The rest of the day, I stud­ied in the library. At night, I manned the desk in our bed­room until eleven.

Clark Hall Library

One three-hour exam at the end of the semes­ter deter­mined the entire grade for each course. Five exams would decide whether I would sink or swim.

In Jan­u­ary, the results of the exams were post­ed on bul­letin boards, social secu­ri­ty num­bers on the left of the page, grades on the right. I was a dead man walk­ing when I approached the first board. My eyes ran across the page from my num­ber to the grade. I froze. It had to be a mis­take. The grades post­ed on each suc­ces­sive board pro­voked the same reac­tion: This could not be hap­pen­ing.    

I sat my wife down and broke the news to her. “We’re going to be okay,” I said. When I told her my grades, she jumped up and down and cheered.   

The fol­low­ing semes­ters went just as well. Doors opened that we nev­er dreamed we could walk through. Law firms recruit­ed us lav­ish­ly. On our first inter­view­ing trip, a firm put us up in a fan­cy hotel in Atlanta. Glass ele­va­tors zipped up and down a col­umn inside the sky­scraper. We rode to the top, stared wide-eyed at the lob­by way below us, then rode down, and up and down again, like kids in a roller coast­er park.

Those heady days passed quick­ly; grad­u­a­tion approached; and we had to decide what to do with our lives. In almost every firm I’d inter­viewed I’d met a weak link, and I used the Racehorse/old Mel ratio­nale to reas­sure myself: “If that lawyer can suc­ceed here, I can too.”

ARCO Plaza, home of Lath­am in 1975

Lath­am & Watkins in Los Ange­les was the sole excep­tion. I’d met thir­ty attor­neys. They were all great lawyers. No weak links.

I lev­eled with my wife. “I don’t know if I’m good enough to make it there.” The rea­sons not to accept Latham’s offer were daunt­ing: Nei­ther of us had been west of the Rock­ies until we inter­viewed Lath­am. Los Ange­les was 3000 miles away from our fam­i­lies and every­one and every­thing we knew. We’d spent only six days in the city, not enough time to know if we’d like liv­ing there. And I might fail.

On the oth­er side of the ledger stood a sin­gle, stark fact: I was con­vinced Lath­am was the best law firm in the coun­try.

I was fifty-fifty on the deci­sion. My wife tipped the bal­ance.

View from Afton Moun­tain

After grad­u­a­tion, we wres­tled our five cats into a cage, loaded it into our Pin­to sta­tion wag­on, and set out for Los Ange­les. At the top of Afton Moun­tain, we stopped and looked back at the val­ley, not know­ing if we’d ever return to this place we had loved so much. And we cried.

Six days lat­er, we arrived in Los Ange­les. After a week of argu­ing with land­lords about our cats, I did what I had to do. I com­mit­ted fraud. I signed a No-Pets lease and we smug­gled the cats into an apart­ment on Gret­na Green Way in San­ta Mon­i­ca, three doors down from the court­yard where O. J. Simp­son would slash Nicole’s throat and stab Ron Gold­man to death nine­teen years lat­er.

I went to work at Lath­am in June. In July, I took the Cal­i­for­nia Bar Exam, the most dif­fi­cult bar in the coun­try with a fail­ure rate of fifty per­cent. At that time, no attor­ney at Lath­am had ever failed it, and I assumed they would fire me if I washed out.

I entered an audi­to­ri­um the morn­ing of the exam ner­vous and over­wrought and left three days lat­er, feel­ing no bet­ter.

While we wait­ed anx­ious­ly for the results, a para­le­gal who worked at Lath­am told me he’d failed the bar exam eight times. At a cof­fee shop, I met a Har­vard Law School grad­u­ate who’d failed it twice. As the months dragged on, I met a small army of impres­sive grad­u­ates from good law schools who had failed the exam once or more.

2018 Cal­i­for­nia Bar Exam vic­tims, 60% failed

I was on the verge of a ner­vous break­down when the bar final­ly released the results to the press in Decem­ber. My hands shook when I paid the old guy at the news­stand.  I swal­lowed hard and found the page with the O’s on it.

Back at the apart­ment, I showed my wife the news­pa­per. She cheered again, but being eight months’ preg­nant, she had the good sense not to jump up and down this time.

I prac­ticed law at Lath­am for eigh­teen years. I did okay, and I liked it a lot.   

John­ny and The Tonight Show gave me the last shove across the line, but my auburn-haired blind date is the one who called the shot and got it right. She knows me bet­ter than I know myself.