September 12, 2016
Deal MechanicThe writing on the door.
You can find my name on the door of my office building. It doesn’t say “attorney at law” or “lawyer”. It says “deal mechanic”. I made that choice. And it had little to do with what you might think. It had a lot to do with what I would see every day.
If there’s one person who keeps me going these days, keeps me sucking it up and doing the business, meeting standards that often make little or no sense in the moment, it’s my office building’s UPS guy.
Lithe as a panther. Maybe 40 or so. Professional and courteous, every time. Effortlessly personable and polite, every time. Never hands off a package in silence. Runs up two flights of stairs in an old building to bring me books and less defensible bullshit from Amazon. I think about him when I place an order. Works a hell of a lot harder than I do, that’s for damn sure. A black man in Oakland, working a job that shouldn’t be dangerous, hopefully isn’t, but quite possibly is, with a smile on his face, at least every time I see him.
When I was at The Big Law Firm, it was the office assistant. The firm had a policy—formal or informal, I don’t know—of hiring folks with developmental or other mental differences, like milder autism, to help out in their offices. Good policy. And this guy was gold. Not perfect—nobody is—but I’ll be damned if the paper in the printer outside my office ever ran low during business hours. I’ll be damned if anyone could walk the “break room” after an event with food and tell that food had been there. I’ll be damned if he ever complained in my presence. I’m sure he had plenty to complain about. Regardless, his responsibilities were clear, and to the extent they were clear, their prompt performance was a given.
For several admittedly provincial definitions of “elite”, I am elite. I went to college. I got the honors program degree. I studied abroad. Started a couple of graduate programs; finished one. Learned a language or two … for fun. Got into the fancy-pantsiest law school in town, though the town wasn’t much for fancy pants.
I milked those advantages for quite a lot. I got the Big Law gig right out of school. I had the chance to take those pennants all the way to the big social bank downtown, to hold myself out and work my way up under them. To look back for once and be proud of what I’d done, which looked a lot like what folks are supposed to do. But a reflex kicked in. I didn’t see it coming. I pulled for the ejector seat.
I wouldn’t change my choice, but not because I think it’s ideal. That I should proceed on one path so long, then make a sudden break … it’s some kind of defect at work. Maybe that’s the point where I screwed up. Maybe I finally choked. Maybe that was my family’s chance to really take off, earn in, graduate to a grander playing field. My grandfathers were soldiers, so my father could be a merchant, so I could be something patrician and heritable. But then I got romantic about folks who qualify for overtime.
I don’t pretend that the UPS guy or the office assistant does the same job I do. I can’t pretend that my responsibilities are well-defined, that my days are predictable, that success and failure in my work are discreet or even reliably discernible. I won’t pretend that doing everything work-related myself, by choice, is perfectly efficient. Perhaps the ideal lawyer only threatens to exist as a partner of some kind of law firm.
But I do understand the trap in letting myself believe that standards of hard, honest work are different from, rather than an important part of, the standards for practicing law. That everybody’s role, whether it’s marketed as piece labor or “bespoke brains work” involves a fair bit of day-to-day that can and should be performed to a workmanlike standard. Creativity and improvisation don’t excuse sloppy rudiments. I was developed for the brains work. But I’ve a lot to learn yet on those rudiments and how to perform them well. I have a lot to learn yet about how to enjoy performing them.
So “deal mechanic” it is. Because more of what I aspire to now, and more of what inspires me, presents alive and well in the trades, in working folks, and among those whose roles don’t come presoaked in heady fumes of Achievement and Social Station. Because, in the end, my duty as participant in a monopoly on essential services requires me to lop off as many aspects of my practice as are amenable to the hardworking, tradesmanlike standards we all understand and appreciate, and to make them workable that way.
If that project succeeds—and if it does, mine will have been a very small part of the solution—perhaps I’ll do my last deal in a country where folks who punch the clock can afford their rights. Where what’s left for lawyers to do is efficient, beautiful work people, and not just externally financed hierarchies of them, can afford.
Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.
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