April 16, 2020

The Tote Bagremembering the Great Recession

Of all the law firm swag I got in law school, I kept only this:

tote bag

It faded, as cheap tote bags tend to do. But once it proudly read, in bright knockout type:

Dewey & LeBouef

dl.com/careers

Go to dl.com today, you will find … nothing. No careers.

I graduated from law school in May of 2013, part of a doggedly competitive cohort that crawled into law school during the throes of the Great Recession. A year shy of graduation, in May of 2012, like an aftershock, the august firm of Dewey and LeBouef teetered, toppled, went bankrupt, and shut down.

The fall from grace at a great height fascinated the legal trade press, shivered the spine of a recently traumatized industry, and snapped the notion of Big Law impregnability, which we all desperately wanted to believe in after 2008, like a dry twig. Dewey was a fancy, top-tier, New York law firm. And then it was dog meat.

Sic transit gloria.

As a result, crucial, career-starting job offers to law students soon to graduate were rescinded. Partners who managed to flee brought some along with them, but not all partners, and not all offers.

I was nearly one of those law students. Coming through the hiring pipeline, I had two major opportunities for the critical summer clerkship season. One with a firm in Austin and Palo Alto. The other with Dewey in Houston. An embarrassment of riches at the time! A choice? I didn’t choose Dewey. But I might have. I dodged the bullet without ever hearing the gun.

In ictu oculi.

You can learn these things from the ancients. You can learn them from the vanitas painters. But I’m reminded mostly by a tote bag. So I keep it around. To be reminded.

Glory fades. The eye blinks. Towering heights. Dog meat.

I was living in Russia when the economy tanked in 2008, learning the language and conducting research on software copyright for my final year of undergraduate work. I missed graduation, and didn’t attend with my class. So much the better, in a way. The financial collapse scattered us to the winds, more so than classes before. What stories I did hear weren’t good. Smooth landings were hard to come by. Most of us landed in trees, in lakes, or down wells, rather than on our feet. We threw ourselves into scrounging up whatever we could, or finding someplace new to hide. I hid in graduate school. Others weren’t so lucky.

Job offers to new graduates are being rescinded again. My friends are being furloughed, reduced, and laid off. Once busy colleagues are gnawing their hands away in sudden idleness. There is good news, too. Inspiring stuff from health workers, biologists, the art community, neighbors. I trust our experts are weighing costs as well as benefits. But I doubt we’ve seen and felt the real costs yet, health-wise or otherwise.

I will take my lumps. But I won’t be the hardest hit by what’s to come. My stomach still turns, remembering that damn tote bag I’ve moved across two states and half a dozen apartments, the time and place that put all that heavy meaning in its frail, faded fibers.

But I’m also, at once, strangely comforted by its shabby, illegible state. I remember ‘08 and what followed. I remember financial decimation with no apparent rhyme, reason, or justice. But the memories do feel distant. Of course, it’s easy enough to forget what’s unpleasant to remember in the first place, after the shock is through. Which is exactly where tools and symbols—and tote bags—come in. Until a time like now. Who needs tote bags with the daily news these days?

I follow what’s happening now, as I can. I don’t know what’s coming next. How will 2021 compare to 2009? Will it compare at all?

A thought:

It is said an eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.”

And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us, and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

— Lincoln, to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, 1859, recalling an old Persian adage

Glory passes. So does hardship. All the while, we learn, push, discover, build. Or at least we can. We should.

The stoics saw grief, hardship, even sickness as opportunities to demonstrate virtue. Virtue matters little when fortune alone provides. Many are dealing with troubles far too pressing to entertain pre-Christian philosophy, Latin zingers, and secondhand Persian mysticism from pointy Kentucky farm-boy lawyers right now. Of those of us who still can, I hope as many as possible are cultivating a world where more can join us, when next the wheel turns.

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