Sunday, July 16, 2017
“Come see me in my office when we get back,” Mr. Becker said to me at my first lunch with him. “I’ve got some work for you.”
“Yes, sir.” I was thrilled because I had been hunting these invitations. I’d been with that century-old firm for just a week, chomping at the bit for a chance to prove myself anew after a long rookie year of discouragement and failure.
I’d fled my first Big Law firm when they and I came to the clear, mutual, finally explicit realization that we were a bad fit. I thought they’d hired me under false pretenses then followed through with poor management. They thought I was immature, out of my depth, and not worth their investment. We both may have been right, but for sure I wanted to be in a courtroom and out in the world. For sure, they weren’t letting me out of my office or the Federal Register.
So I was on the market again too soon. I put on a brave face and some false confidence to convince other firms that it made perfect sense for me to be seeking a new job eighteen months out of law school at the ripe old age of twenty-five.
A couple of firms bought my ruse, and one, Watkins & Eager in my home state of Mississippi, welcomed me warmly. They taught me how to be a lawyer. At the interview, I told them I most wanted to litigate and hadn’t even been able to attend a single deposition since I passed the bar, much less take one. Rebecca Wiggs, a partner in the firm, laughed at me, “What are you doing this afternoon? I can make your dreams come true.”
They also explained - to my undying relief - that they had no billable hour quotas and hadn’t since 1895. “Do the work on your desk. Everything else will take care of itself.” The associates did the work for clients and the cases, not for their own desperate billable hour salvation. That just seemed right.
Thus it was that my new firm hired me to do exactly what I declared that I wanted to do. Now I had to do it, but that brave face and false confidence were rooted in the brutally real pain of being asked to leave my first job. That’s not how careers are supposed to start, even if I had already been sending out resumes for months.
My new office overlooked the governor’s mansion in Jackson, and it was next door to Mr. Goodman, the grandson of the firm’s founder, our chief, who was then in his seventies. The family firm had over sixty lawyers, and I was the newest and youngest.
He and Mr. Becker, the patriarchs, took me to lunch. These were Southern gentlemen lawyers of a fading era: genteel, unfailingly polite, honest, practical, charming, ambitious, erudite, attentive, and calm. They were progressive in their ways. Mr. Goodman’s aunt had been one of the first women admitted to the Mississippi Bar. (I found her penciled notes around a paragraph I needed in the firm library one day, in a reporter from the Thirties that still smelled like her cigarette smoke.)
Mr. Becker had been with the firm nearly as long as Mr. Goodman, and he’d been one of Mississippi’s preeminent trial lawyers for forty years before he called me in for my new matter. His office was a gallery, and half the art was his own work. He’d taken up folk painting in his sixties, but he’d been a collector for far longer. I’d heard tales that the firm had been alarmed at the furniture he’d had shipped back from Europe to decorate at the firm’s expense. My wife and I have an original Becker on our wall to this day. He painted it after giving us a tour of his grand gallery of a house with more Spanish wine that we realized we were drinking until he ushered out to prepare for a dinner party.
Ultimately, I would spend long hours with Mr. Becker over those years in the firm. I tried my very first case with him, which we lost. He might have expected that result in advance, which might be why he made me first chair, but that’s a story for another day. That first visit to his office is the one I remember best.
He handed me a file and told me about the case. It was a medical malpractice case, and we represented the doctor. He had a summary judgment hearing coming up and wanted me to argue it.
Honestly, my young professional dream was coming true. But don’t forget that brave face, false confidence, and painful failure. “Mr. Becker, I’m happy to handle this, but I feel like I should tell you that I haven’t done this before, in case you need someone who knows what they’re doing.”
He was already looking at another letter or his calendar and glanced up at me with a little irritation. “Go do it, lad.”
With that vote of confidence, I wandered out into the hallway with my first hearing in my hands. Rule 56 rushed back into my mind: no genuine issue of material fact, entitled to judgment as a matter of law. I knew I’d need to learn the standards for professional liability in Mississippi, and I knew where to research and how to write my argument. I knew the theory, the procedure, and the stakes. I had a gilded brain educated at fine institutions. But I was beating back panic about appearing alone in court for the first time.
I stood in the hall, a little dazed. Then Ms. Wiggs walked by, she who couldn’t wait to send me to her depositions. “Hey, Jeff, how are you doing? Getting settled in?”
“Yes. Thanks. But Becker just have me a summary judgment motion, and I don’t know where the courthouse is.”
She laughed at me again and glanced at her watch. “Do you have time for a walk?”
“Let’s go.” She didn’t literally take my hand, but nearly. We walked the five or six blocks to the Hinds County Courthouse. She greeted the bailiffs and deputies and introduced me. She pointed at the clerk’s office and asked me who had my case. I told her the judge, and she pointed me up the stairs. She pushed open the door to the empty courtroom, walked around the bar to counsels’ table on the left, and put her hands on the back of the first chair.
“You sit here.” She pointed at the lectern in the well. “When it’s your turn, you stand there.”
It was a beautiful, generous act of mercy.
I don’t remember what came of the hearing or the case. I remember having tunnel vision. I was keenly aware of a judge and an opponent. I’m sure I argued from my notes on a legal pad, but that’s about it. Probably there were clerks and bailiffs, other parties and clients, but my brain couldn’t process them. No one came to see my debut, but that’s probably for the best. I did just fine and didn’t act, look, or feel too stupid, after it was over.
Whatever the outcome, those conversations gave me more applied legal education than I ever had in a single day.
“Go do it, lad.” Becker gave me a shot of encouragement, a dose of professional confidence, a reminder of humility, and a proper dose of fear. He trusted me with his work.
“You sit here.” Wiggs gave me the great gift of orientation. I could focus on my argument and my preparation without worrying about literally being lost or looking like an outright fool. She told me that she always tried to visit a new courtroom and watch a new judge before having to argue there. It’s basic, brilliant, wise lawyering.
Like many of our students now, I graduated with great credentials and deep knowledge of the law but without the practical ability to do much with it. Watkins & Eager taught me how to be a lawyer, by inviting me to practice law.
I carry these lessons with me in clinical teaching. It was excellent pedagogy. An empowering supervising attorney trusted me with an assignment that he knew I could handle, even if I didn’t, and it was non-directive to an extreme. Another empowering attorney caught me in the fall and helped me prepare and understand my role, always instilling wisdom and knowledge, answering my questions, without taking the work away from me. With grace and generosity, she prepared me to be a better lawyer the next day and the next day after that, without embarrassment or condescension.
They taught me how to practice. They also taught me how to teach rookie professionals how to practice. They trusted and taught me then, like I trust and teach my clinical students now. From Jackson to Los Angeles, those fundamental lawyer lessons ring true. These are great outlines for experiential learning: Sit here. Stand there. Go do it.