Am I better off now than I was 4 years ago? (Part 2)

Note: Begin with Part 1 first

Trial law in Aurora, Illinois (April 15 – October 13, 2007)

I had a college friend who grew up in Aurora, who was still in the area during the time before I went to Europe. Having not a real clear idea of what I wanted to do, I thought studying the law might be a practical next step. I took the LSAT in February, and as a History major it seemed like a solid career path to take. There seemed to be a chance at independence on the other side of school and a couple years work in a firm, as a sole practitioner. Lawyers to me seemed independent and least inclined to value the opinions of others. So anyways, I happened to watch the Bears-Colts Super Bowl with this friend and his dad, and his dad off-handed threw out some comment like “Yeah, come on out here if you ever want to learn about the law. I’ll teach you everything.” and this seemed like a decent option.

When I got back from the UK, I was completely broke. All that I had was one paycheck from work, which was very small since most of my money came from tips. This gave me about $150 in savings. I did have an old car as well, that was given to me by my mom when she got a newer one in 2005. The engine on this vehicle blew out in April when I was in Ohio for a few days, putting an end to that car. Still, I was optimistic. My friend was staying with his dad off-and-on (between trips to his mom’s house in Michigan), and his dad graciously offered to let me stay in his house. As on older man living alone, there was no issue with having space. I would be working on “contingency”, which I more than found out is the bane of every plaintiff’s attorney’s existence. There were a couple cases coming up with some promise and my friend and I would both be cut in on his take. In the meantime, room and food was free, so in one fell swoop most of my immediate problems were solved.

The lawyer’s name was John. He was 58 at that time and had been trying cases in Chicago for 30 years. I expected to be studying a lot of law, but not before he gave some very long speeches about the value of venue, connections, wits, and paranoia. In 30 years of practicing law he’d seen more people try to fuck him than he could count, and the judges were even worse. The first night we met he told me the story of a very successful trial lawyer from Chicago/Cook County (I saw his name since then downtown, they have an “Honorary Mr. So-and-so” street named after him) who almost never lost a case. He took on a very solid case in DuPage county (a more conservative suburban county) and lost to some hack, because the judge was so hostile to his cause that he had no chance. After that, he stuck to Cook County where he was hailed as a legal genius.

The first night out there was May 5th. I rode the train out with John’s son, and a couple of other college friends. The first night we drank a lot of beer and tequila, smoked marijuana, and he showed off his entire firearms collection when the time was right. The plan was for us to go to the gun range the next day. And go to the gun range we did. That Sunday morning, some of us smoked again, myself included, and we shot an M-1, an M-14, a .45 and a 9mm pistol, and several shotguns. In fact, after this first weekend I was beginning to think I had made a very good decision. The legal aspect went very well at first. We went to law libraries to do research. He showed me how to use Westlaw. My friend and I watched 6 hours of surveillance footage for a WWII veteran’s slip-and-fall case to make sure nothing was hidden. It was all very interesting, but he made sure we never forgot that the human element and political connections are often more important than the law itself when trying a case.

As the summer went on, we got deeply involved in a medical malpractice case, which had been delayed all the way since 1995. It involved a missing body, forged funeral home papers, questionable record-keeping, and so on. The defendants had some very distasteful lawyers, not the big city asshole types you see on TV. Rather they were more of the petty, small-town types who relied on political influence to win their cases. All three of us knew the odds were stacked, but pressed gamely on. John argued the hell out of the pre-trial motions, tried to catch the judge in logical contradictions that would allow him to introduce evidence, and so on. The judge was 100% hostile to our case, she was a Republican put on the bench by business interests, and through John’s connections he had it on believable testimony that he had slept with a couple of the powerful judges in 1980s Kane County, which certainly could have influenced her career progression.

John did so well in fact, that it appeared we might actually win the case. He had the funeral director saying live in front of the jury that his signature was forged on the body release papers, that he had never picked this woman up, and so on. John repeatedly rejected settlement offers from the defense, so determined was he to stick it to this hospital. And indeed from everything I could tell, he had more brains for breakfast than the three-person defense team had put together. In the end, it mattered for nothing. The jury found for the defense and we came away empty-handed.

Though my expenses were basically 0, I had no money saved up at all. After this case was lost it slowly became evident that John was running low on money as well. At the beginning of the summer, we went out to bars a lot, but this all stopped. It got to the point where we were bunkered into his house (which was not a large house) and the only way I could get out was to borrow his car or take walks. He began to talk of the money that the law firm owed him on some other cases. He started “putting the squeeze” on some recurring clients for money that they owed him. He got the firm to cut him a check for a few hundred dollars. That night we went out to a small party in a town called Sycamore, Illinois.

This night was a welcome reprieve from the rest of late-summer. It was early September, a Friday night the day after the NFL season began. We were hanging out with a couple young lawyers that John knew, they were about 28-30 years old. We had a few beers and some more people started to show up. They were all older than me, the youngest of them were 26-27. All of them were lawyers or law students. A lot of them were girls, which I was of course pleased to see. All of us were drinking, and I think I got this point across above but I should mention that John was a real drinker. Some of his stories from the old days are absolutely incredible. The only things he did when he was young was play baseball, drink, get laid, drop LSD, and read the Greek classics. I’ve never met any one with his combination of intellectualism, coarseness, insanity, and superiority. He was the type of guy who looks on 98% of society with disdain, and has the personality to back it up.

In any event, we go to a Karaoke bar, I think the only bar there is in this small town. I’m talking to some of these girls and one of them is actually pretty into me, I can tell. She had someone take a couple pictures of us. “Don’t smile in this one. I don’t want to feel like a pedophile” she told me. A little later she asked if I smoked marijuana, which of course the answer was yes.

An hour later we are back at her townhouse. There are still the same 12 people there including someone all the way from Spain. “You are getting a very interesting perspective of America” I told him. A lot of joints were passed around, because all 12 of these people smoked marijuana. John was the only guy over 35, and I was the only guy under 25. They mixed massive daiquiris or some tropical drink, and handed out glasses that were 32 oz. or something. Things went completely out of control at this point, someone fell over into the coffee table and a couple girls got mad and started screaming at each other. My heart was pounding so fast I could barely think, but I was all over this girl. We ended up in her bedroom, and suffice to say she had interesting preferences, which verged on the sadistic.

The next morning John and I split early, and had to walk a mile down Main Street to find his car, and damn if they weren’t setting up some kind of town parade, with American flags and civic boosters and all that stuff. “Those boys have no idea what happened in their town last night” John told me knowingly.

It was good this all happened, because everything else was a disaster. The city shut John’s water off, and we moved in with his girlfriend. I shared a basement room with her 22 year old son, who lived with her. I sat around her apartment all day, John had no real legal work going on. Mainly I was just pissed off all day. He had told me he had connections in Chicago and we spent a couple days visiting all of them, but it was obvious that they were not going to amount to much. It was clear that I had to leave and hustle on my own behalf.

Return to Chicago (October 13, 2007 – March 31, 2008)

My mom gifted me $1,000 to get re-established in the city. I found a sublet in the Avondale neighborhood with a recent graduate of Ohio Wesleyan. He was from Pakistan, unemployed, seeking jobs in finance. I had the back room in the first floor of a house, and immediately went about finding legal work. Fortunately I was contacted quickly and had a job within the first week. Unfortunately it was with an out-of-the-loop firm that paid legal assistants $9.50/hour. Still, it was a job in a field I was still interested in pursuing. And I was starting only a week after moving back to Chicago. This moment represents a shift as I have been gainfully employed at a 9-5, Monday-Friday job continuously since then, for better or for worse.

This work was unfortunately less interesting than the other work. In fact it was barely related to the law at all. Mainly it consisted of updating spreadsheets with settlement information as it came in. There were also phone calls from clients that I was supposed to answer. Since this was asbestos work and relied on a high volume of low value cases, none of these customers got much attention. I always tried to be somewhat honest, but people who had been there longer resorted to outright lies. “Oh yes ma’am, we’re expecting something in a few months. Nothing big, but a little check.” and shit like that. I soon learned to take their cue after having very long, unpleasant conversations with some customers when I said there wasn’t any more money coming. Truth be told nobody had any idea when money was coming, and for who. It was all a complete clusterfuck. The firm took 40-45% out of most of the checks. I could do the math when I saw that we’d get a $500 settlement for someone and send them a check for $280 (the widely accepted rate for a plaintiff’s attorney to charge is 33%).

I did learn a lot about the law, however, from talking to young lawyers and more experienced assistants there. They told me that most lawyers out of law school graduated with $60,000 or more of debt. To pay this off they mostly had to work at corporate law, even if they had ideals of working in other areas of law before law school. The hours were brutal, on the order of 60-70 hours a week, and even more when a big trial was approaching. The market was saturated with lawyers and it was difficult to get the top jobs without an outstanding law school record. Compared to John’s experience coming up in the 1970s this seemed like a pretty raw deal. I did my own research which largely correlated with these horror stories. If I went to law school, I would be consigning myself to 20 years or more of practicing the law with so much debt that I would have no option to quit. This seemed more like slavery than a viable career choice to me, so really I was back to square 1 when it came to figuring out the next steps. I really remember walking around feeling very lost then (early 2008), still broke with no idea what to do next.

America's cartoonish legal system

Around this time I was talking to an old friend from school who recommended I come work at her company. It was an online payday loan company, which struck me a little wrong at first. However, when they called and set up an interview, and were talking about me making $40,000/year, I very quickly lost my skepticism. I did well in the interview and was brought on to work in their Operations department. My first day was March 31, 2008.

The first months (March 31 – September 15, 2008)

I don’t really plan to write a lot about what I’m doing now. It is less interesting to me than the stuff that came before it. However, I can say that there was a real turning point in my attitude towards work that came in September 2008. A couple things happened that month that darkened the atmosphere substantially. First, one of my good friends from school killed himself in early September. This is one of the people I was living with in the summer and fall of 2006. There were a lot of issues not worth going into, but at least part of it stemmed from dissatisfaction and inability to adapt to the working world. A few people from his company made the drive to his home town for the viewing, and us as his friends knew he really hated his job. Yet there they were talking about how much he loved it, as if to honor his memory. But seriously, if you like your job, what are you doing killing yourself.

Then, not one week after the funeral, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, triggering a severe recession to the US economy. Where as previously, I viewed this job as a temporary solution, now my options were absolutely nil. I could either quit, go broke and live with my parents, or  I could work this job no matter what. Like a lot of people, I was extremely frustrated and pissed off by this sudden turn of events, given that I never invested a dime in real estate, always managed my finances responsibly, and carried no debt besides the student loans I was required to take. My own company did not lay off in the fall of 2008. However, I went from feeling like an autonomous person with options in life to an indentured servant, as it became more and more unlikely that another job could be found. On a spiritual level, this damaged my personality and for a time I became very bitter, depressed, and lost my sense of adventure and enthusiasm that hopefully shines through earlier parts of this narrative.

Lehman Brothers analysts getting the sack in 2008, after their moronic subprime investment strategy reaped its just rewards.

After the chaos (September 15, 2008 – Present)

In a very real sense, the past couple years have been a case of holding out, going in every day and getting a paycheck, and doing a good enough job to justify myself. I’ll go into even less detail about this, but suffice to say that I’ve concluded there is not a bright future in being employed in the United States of America. I’ve been diligently saving money and am beginning to look into business opportunities. A lot of jobs lost are not coming back, because they simply aren’t needed in our more technologically advanced society. I really do foresee a future where 20% of the country is chronically underemployed. This causes a chain reaction where a good 50% are employed, but strongly dislike their jobs. They are now stuck because the pace of hiring has declined substantially. I have concluded that my only hope of escaping this cycle is to create passive income systems that can support me outside of the employment spectrum. This is my long-term goal now, and though the odds are stacked I will pursue it aggressively.

Conclusion – Am I better off?

Having written almost 8,000 words on the previous 4 years of my life, I still can’t answer the question I set out to ask. Financially I have built up a lot of savings by living beneath my means and working hard. As a person, I was probably happier when I graduated college than I am now. I’m still in a position where I don’t particularly like what I do for a living. To be honest I still get quite depressed on Sunday night, trying to gear up for another 5 days. Even when I’m not at work, the job casts a shadow on my life. In theory, I can do whatever I want on Saturday and Sunday. In practice I’m more or less confined to the Chicago area. My chances of ever getting 6 weeks off to visit Europe or another part of the world are below zero as long as I have this job. A 1 week vacation to some European locale is hardly worth my time after what I’ve done before.

A lot of people say things like “that’s what happens when you’re an adult” and that kind of thing. I agree to a point, but trite statements should never be used as a justification for giving up in life. I’ve been seriously discussing business opportunities with friends my age who feel the same way. Right now we are working to put one into effect. I am fully prepared to give my all to this endeavor, but dream about a future when I can live life on my terms. Living life on my own terms is all I really want out of the world, and I don’t see any way to this in the long-term by working as an employee. In this sense, the past three years of full-time employment have given me the anger and determination to focus my efforts on something better, because I refuse to accept what I have now as a long-term life solution.

In conclusion, the only way I’m better off now is that I have saved enough money to earn the opportunity of pursuing a better life. Spiritually, emotionally, etc. I was definitely better off 4 years ago.

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