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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 Hartman 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.
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.