Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Globe Trotting Lawyer

Running into an attorney colleague at court is not unusual. But whenever I hear one particular solo practitioner friend’s distinct voice coming from somewhere within a crowded court hallway, I smile and think, I wonder what part of the world she’s just returned from. 

I met Elaine early in my solo career when she posted an ad for some independent contract work, or court coverage as we call it in the industry. She was going on an exotic vacation with her husband and children and needed an attorney to manage her court appearances while she was gone. If memory serves me right, it was a 2-week bicycling trip across Cambodia. 

Now further advanced in my career, with employees of my own, I have the means to travel too. So our annual encounters are not simply limited to me hearing about a sea cruise to the Antarctic or an ice hotel stay in Scandanavia. I get to share my adventures too. This time I had just returned from Paris. Amateur hour for a seasoned traveler like my colleague, but still a respectable trip. “I’m trying to make a point to take one minor and one major trip each year,” I explained. “Oh, was Paris the minor trip?” Ah, yes. I was quickly reminded that I am still a beginner at this globe trotting lawyer lifestyle. No, the minor trip was a conference in Las Vegas that doubled as a work expense. 

Later, over cocktails, another attorney friend asked me about my travels. “If you could live in any of the places you have been to, which one would you pick?” Exhausted from a grueling 6-day work week I had only completed moments earlier, I replied “I don’t know. I hate them all.” As soon as the words were spoken, I realized I sounded like a spoiled brat. My dear friend had to invest more planning into work scheduling and child care arrangements in order to meet me for drinks than I had spent booking my upcoming trip to the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan. 

In the past few years, I have ridden in lake boats and prayed in Buddhist temples in China. I have driven a car in rush hour traffic in Tokyo and tied a handwritten wish on a wooden block to a tree branch at a Shinto shrine. I have sipped absinthe in historic bars and discussed literature (in French) with Parisians while exploring Le Marais. I discovered I can fake my way through Dutch language proficiency adequately enough to not only catch a train to Amsterdam but even give directions to confused Italian tourists. I have climbed pyramids in Mexico and bar hopped in South Beach and Vegas. I dove off a cliff into the Pacific and swam under a waterfall in Hawaii. Further back, I enjoyed cocktails in Hemingway’s favorite hangouts in Havana. I traveled to countries in Eastern Europe that no longer exist, watching street names change daily and statues of former heroes pulled down to be replaced by McDonald’s and Starbucks signs. Why do I hate these places?

The simple answer is that as attorneys, we are never expected to take vacations. Tell a judge you need to reschedule a court date because a vacation? You’re not going to get any sympathy. Not “good cause,” counselor. Your assistant explains to your client that you’re out of the office and not going to return their call today because you are on a beach? That client is convinced you’ve embezzled their money and neglected their case. Expect a negative online review, a request for investigation from the Attorney Grievance Commission, an email firing you and demanding an immediate refund, and a condescending call from another lawyer who claims he’s just been hired to replace you. 

So here is how I vacation. I never take a trip longer than 4 days. 2 of those days will be a Saturday and Sunday. I keep a cell phone on me as much as possible (the FAA does impose some limits on use) and try to find wifi whenever and wherever I can. This helps a little in juggling the average 500 incoming emails I have to respond to each day. Scott is not “on vacation.” He is “out of the office.” 

One night, around 3:00 a.m. Tokyo time, I found a rental cell phone (American SIM cards don’t work in Japan) and managed to stop an illegal eviction of my client’s business from his commercial property. Court officers had stormed the shop and were pulling merchandise from the shelves to throw into a dumpster. Calling my office, the court, opposing counsel, the court officer’s cell phone, and my client, I got it to stop. But no one knew I was doing all of this from one day in the future in Asia, forfeiting my sleep for the benefit of the client. These events happen each time I travel. As a result, my pleasant travel experience memories seem to get blurred by my memories of remote resolution of one crisis after another. I have gotten better at contingency planning for everything from client emergencies to volcanic eruptions and swine flu pandemics. 

So you may think it’s boring that my favorite cities are Chicago and Montreal. Well, that’s probably as much to do with my love of each place as it is with the fact they have reliable wifi and cellular service and are easy to return from in a premature rush when the shit hits the fan back at the office. Next stop: Tulum. 






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Surviving law school

Two things happened this past month to make me reminisce about my law school days. First, my law clerk has earned his Juris Doctor and begun studying for the Bar Exam. Second, I moved to a new home for the first time in over a decade and spent some time going through boxes of old photos and mementos.

Friends describe my venture into Detroit in the 90’s as being an urban pioneer of sorts. White people fled the city en masse about 30 years earlier after the race riots. Middle class minority families followed in the 70’s and 80’s. Once the epicenter of technological innovation and the American dream, Detroit had become the nation’s murder capital and lost over 50% of its population to the suburbs and to other states. The violence in the city was pathological at times. A week before I became a Detroiter, a woman was pulled from her car, beaten and chased by another driver until she jumped into the Detroit River and drowned after being involved in a minor traffic accident on the bridge to Belle Isle Park.

But, wait. I was from the mean streets of Flint, Michigan. Home of Michael Moore of Roger & Me fame. Another murderous, violent, down and out city. I had lived in a lower income, diverse neighborhood. I had survived. Certainly I was tough enough for Detroit, right?

There are plenty of challenges your first year of law school – some academic, some cultural. During orientation, the dean asked students in my entering class to raise their hand if they have at least one family member who is an attorney. “Keep your hand raised if you have 2…” And so on. I was amazed how long my classmates held their hands up, as I sat in my alphabetically-assigned space in the back row, a hopeful first generation lawyer in the making. These people had first-hand accounts from parents, siblings, and cousins of what to expect in law school. I was clueless and about to have my ego knocked down substantially. I would learn I was never as smart as my confidence levels in high school and undergraduate classrooms previously led me to believe.

I was equally astonished that no one seemed to use the financial aid office. While I piled on loans that would follow me for decades in order to finance books and tuition, my classmates transferred payments from their trust funds. I arrived for class driving what we called a hoopty in the 90’s. A broken down Oldsmobile with missing hubcaps. My fellow students roared into the parking lot in gleaming new BMW’s and Mercedes.

A trip to the bookstore felt more like a trip to Uhaul. You got loaded up with boxes of books. Far more than you ever thought you could possibly read in 3 months. The books were full of musty old cases decided by long-dead justices whose opinions were written in the dry, exhausting prose of the 19th century.

And then at night, I went home. Home was a modest, one-bedroom apartment in a historic high-rise on Detroit’s west side. As an outsider, I misunderstood that its location within a mile or two from major landmarks meant it must be safe. Henry Ford Hospital, the GM Headquarters (GM would later abandon the neighborhood and move downtown), and the Motown Museum were all relatively close. During the daytime, the neighborhood bustled with traffic.

But at nighttime… at nighttime all hell broke loose. Police car and ambulance sirens interrupted the noise of car alarms, breaking glass, screaming, gun shots and helicopters. Looking out my window, I could see the flames and smoke shooting up so high from the homes in the surrounding neighborhood when they burned. I had moved into a war zone.

The homeless men who lived in and scavenged through our garbage dumpsters would appear seemingly out of nowhere, like ghosts or zombies, and disappear again. Above me, I routinely heard the fights of my upstairs neighbors. A woman being beaten, furniture crashing, the sound of a body being dragged kicking and thrashing across wood floors. From the hallway, my giant nextdoor neighbor would bellow out loud shouts and slurred songs sometime after 2am, arriving home drunk more often than not. Sometimes he would pause in front of my door, screaming nonsense. Once he vomited there, pounding the wall as he wretched in agony and yelled. You could hear the rats in the stairwells and see their droppings in the morning, but you never saw them. I heard stories of cats and small dogs being torn to pieces by Detroit’s apartment-dwelling rats. The cockroaches were everywhere too, scuttling away when you open a cabinet door. Further down the hall, a zealot neighbor stayed up until all hours of the night screaming in tongues, clapping and shouting with her tv set full blast to a station preaching salvation. Around me, music pulsed and throbbed so loud that the walls and windows shook. A glass on the table would bounce from the vibrations.

And just when sun began to rise, and life quieted down, it was time to go to school and experience the Socratic method of getting your ass handed to you while you attempt to explain the Rule Against Perpetuities.




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