How I quit the greatest job I've ever had

Posted by jdg | Monday, July 17, 2006 | ,

I am a lawyer. At least, I have been, and will be for the next few weeks or so of my life. This is something that I haven't written much about, primarily because it's boring. Despite hundreds of hours of television research over the course of my life telling me that lawyering is exciting and dramatic, in reality the only exciting thing about being a lawyer is the indigestion you get from the 17 cans of diet coke you consume every day. It's a grand illusion, television lawyering. I wonder if the same is true for detectives and surgeons: the only other two professions with at least 4-5 prime time shows devoted to them each network season.

"When kids apply to law school promising to do public interest, the admissions officers just laugh," writes one of our readers. And it's probably true. Everyone enters this game ready to pursue justice, to defend the weak, and to change the motherfucking world. Everyone envisions themselves the next Clarence Darrow, but the vast majority will end up like me, sitting in an Aeron chair in a nice office overlooking some big city somewhere trying to look busy while wondering why a voice inside them begs them to quit, begs them to do something else; eventually some suppress and even laugh at that voice, because it, unlike the law firm lords and masters, can't provide the security of a six figure salary. Occasionally you meet a law student in an interview who tells you some bullshit like, "I'm really interested in mergers and acquisitions," or "I've always found corporate transactions fascinating" and you stare at him like he just told you that he's really interested in licking mud-encrusted emu testicles, and so you say, "Don't bullshit me, Keanu. You're just here for the money."

I made a lot of money as a lawyer but I could never really figure out why. What was I doing that was so valuable? Defending some company that got sued, I guess. Some other lawyer decided to sue that company so that company came to me to defend it, and we lawyers all huff and puff a lot and the company pays me and then eventually gets sick of paying me so it pays the lawyer who sued less money that it was sued for and then we all shake hands. It strikes me that this whole industry is little more than sanctioned racketeering.

Last Friday my mentor and the partner who has assigned the bulk of my work took me out for lunch, and after some talk, while picking at a cool hunk of salmon draped on a bed of potato-crab hash I told him I had to resign. My voice sounded hollow, dull and distant when I spoke, he sat there stunned and silent, and I went on and explained, saying the things that anyone who reads this blog already knows. There was a tremendous pressure in the front of my face, between my eyes, and I felt tears in those eyes, and I rubbed my cheek. The partner reached across the table and gripped my hand, and he looked at me with tear-filled eyes and said, "James, you know I care about you. You know that, right?"

For four years I have been "James" at work. That's not what Wood calls me, or what my parents call me, but it's what my resume said when I applied and it's what everyone has called me when they saw me in the law firm's halls for the last four years. I know when I'm at home and someone calls my cell phone asking for James, it's about work, and my head goes straight to where it needs to be to talk about work, because when I'm home and spending time with my baby, I don't want to be James. I don't want to think like "James" at all when I'm home.

There is that famous quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne: "No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." I looked at the partner, who has been a father figure to me trapped out here on this coast so far from my family, and we gushed on and on about how much we've enjoyed working together and all the good we thought of one another. I realized this man was one of the truly great people I would meet over the course of my life, and I held him in a reverence I'd always saved for my most dazzling and brilliant college professors. Had I been lying to him all this time, or had I become truly bewildered as to who I was? We spoke of a future that I pretended, for his sake, to want: a future much like the path he had taken, or as close to such a future as I could get, having just that hour forsaken the path that would have led to exactly where he was.

I have never been good at quitting jobs. Even the Russ job. I never really give a damn about the company, or the job itself, but what I care about are the people who have come to depend on me. In some ways my entire life feels like a desperate effort not to disappoint anyone.

When I got back to work I just stood in the empty elevator bank with my back against the wall and I listened to the whistling of air and elevator hauling people up and down 28 stories. I've worked a thousand days here. Six thousand times or more those elevators whistled me up and down. How could I let myself become such a duplicitous fuck? I sat there and listened to those elevators long and long. I went back to my office and looked at the pictures of Juniper, my engravings of John Brown and Walt Whitman, my photos of Clarence Darrow and Charlie Chaplin on the wall. My feelings towards myself softened. In the end, it is good that what I will miss about this place are the people, and not just the paychecks. Some other sap will come along and get my office and my Aeron chair and he'll bill hours and realize that these are good people and this is a good place to work. And maybe he'll stay, and maybe he won't.

And I'll be somewhere else. With Juniper. Change isn't always easy, but it is necessary if you can't suppress the yearnings deep inside you, if you haven't yet fooled yourself into thinking you know exactly who you are. All I'm really sure of now is that I'm not James.