From The Ridiculous To The Sublime
By Janet S. Kole
Have you ever been tempted to murder someone? Someone like one of your colleagues? Of course you’ve been tempted. Before I retired from the practice of law, I was tempted to murder some of my law partners. I believe they returned the favor. Living in a big firm is like being part of some incredibly dysfunctional family, and the passions aroused in the lawyer’s breast are not unlike those aroused in the heart of an abused spouse.
Most lawyers, however, don’t kill each other. Our weapons are usually words. And I think we can all attest to the fact that the old rubric about “sticks and stones” is wrong. Words can hurt you. But they are rarely fatal.
As I said to my son when he was a toddler, and angry, “don’t hit, use your words.” I discovered the transformative power of words to channel my frustrations with what the practice of law has become. I haven’t murdered anyone, and perhaps more importantly, I haven’t hit anyone either.
As a litigator, I have spent a lifetime telling stories. When I was practicing, it was the story my clients needed me to tell to the court and to the jury. Now, I tell stories for the sheer pleasure of it.
I transformed the angst I felt about the politics of the big law firm into something worthwhile. I kept notes of life in my various firms, and I have used and will continue to use these incidents in my fiction and in my books for young lawyers. For the young lawyers, my books, each focused on a portion of a litigator’s life (such as discovery or pleadings), have been upbeat and positive, using these examples of life as a lawyer as teaching moments. For my fiction, I have used these incidents as examples of bad behavior which, in my book, is duly punished, usually by death.
I put a minuscule portion of what really goes on in law firms, based on my own thirty years of experience, into my first murder mystery novel, Suggestion of Death. The goofy and the ugly things that have happened over the years will provide fodder for many more books.
That’s what we lawyers do—we use our words to persuade, to make changes, to undermine our rivals. You can lose your job, you can lose your law license, you can lose your mind, all because of the power of words.
Rather naively, when I started practicing law, I actually believed that lawyers on the same side should work together as a team. I also believed that people usually don’t lie. Both of these notions were blown out of the water by my actual experiences.
The rising young star who stabbed everyone in the back? He’s in my book. But here’s the funny thing—he’s a composite of all the rising young stars in all the firms I’ve been in. Colleagues of mine from these firms are convinced they know whom I’m writing about, and yet at least three people’s characteristics went into my rising young star character.
Although all of my writing is serious, I use humor to make my points. The ability to see the lighter side of even grim events made my life easier while I watched the legal profession change from a service to a business. As a former colleague of mine said, “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” It is definitely better to laugh.
Laughter is a great coping mechanism. It transforms tragedy into something you can live with. For example, I considered it a tragedy when a great Philadelphia law firm, a firm that had been a wonderful place to work, came apart at the seams. I was a partner there, and thought I would practice there until I retired. It was not to be. The firm dissolved after fifty-five years of success, because a divisive partner joined us and started to foment unrest. As a measure of how divisive he was, when I happened to meet his sister at the wedding of a mutual friend, she told me she felt sorry for me and the firm because, and I’m not making this up, her brother was “such an asshole.”
Many of us who loved the firm were flabbergasted when the divisive partner’s demands, completely outrageous in our view, were met. In an attempt to prevent the firm’s implosion, the management committee decided to—wait for it—hire a psychiatrist to talk to the lawyers in the firm. Why a psychiatrist? To determine what was causing our sudden dysfunction. Were we promised confidentiality in exchange for an honest assessment?
Of course not. We were damned no matter what we did. If we refused to speak in a meaningful and substantive way, the management committee said we weren’t team players. If we honestly expressed ourselves, we were traitors. The psychiatrist rendered a report that said we were schizophrenic as a firm; we couldn’t decide whether we wanted to be a good place to work or a very profitable business.
The psych evaluation fomented even more trauma for the firm. And of course, the firm dissolved. If I hadn’t laughed, I would have cried.
Luckily, I do have an expansive sense of humor. I have a heightened sense of the ridiculous. I also believe in laughing in the face of death—or at least, in the face of disaster. These are helpful traits to have while working in a law firm. Some of the things that happen in firms are too weird to be believable. And yet they occur, every day, somewhere in the legal profession.
In addition to the firm psychiatrist who precipitated the firm’s nervous breakdown, for example, there was the firm that left its good taste in its old offices. Many years ago, I worked at a national firm that made a move from a class B building to an A plus building. All of us got new furniture. I was appointed to the art committee, to choose paintings to grace the walls of our glorious new space. The chair of the committee, a well-known civil rights lawyer who became President of the ABA, enthusiastically launched into a buying spree. I discovered that my role was to be a “yes” woman. No problem, because I liked his choices.
After the artwork was hung, a group of senior partners went batshit. The paintings were disgusting. They were immoral. They were too sexual. The partners demanded that the art be removed and replaced. The offending paintings were a series of flowers by the great artist Georgia O’Keeffe. For those of you not familiar with her work, O’Keeffe painted giant, larger-than-life flowers that were so anatomically correct that they appeared to be something completely different. In fact, they appeared to be a woman’s vulva. They were, however, nothing but flowers.
I thought the entire kerfuffle was hilarious and ridiculous. I also thought the complainers were a bunch of dirty old men. But I did not laugh out loud or express these thoughts to anyone at the office. And yes, we did replace the paintings. Be sure to look for this incident in my next book.
I admit that some things cannot be turned into laughable moments. Some of the things that come to mind: the partner who committed suicide by jumping off the firm fire escape; the staff member murdered by her husband who then committed suicide. Real life can be hard and real life can be sad.
But short of tragic death, almost anything can be cause for risible reflection. How about the partner who left his wife for a secretary, then balked when the secretary wanted to marry him, and went back to his wife? How about the associate who was so distracted with the amount of work she had that she forgot to remove the price tags from her new clothes? Both of these situations call for a certain amount of understanding and a certain amount of cynicism. In other words, they are funny.
You can’t make this stuff up, as the saying goes: the litigation partner who lost his nerve every time an actual trial came up, forcing others to try the case; the office manager whose affair with the firm’s comptroller gave her unparalleled power over the firm’s finances; the lawyer whose wife and child were killed in a car accident who transformed himself within months from a chubby, spectacled nonentity into a slender, contact-wearing powerhouse. These things cry out to me to be incorporated into a story somehow.
I also have the desire to write about the way practicing law used to be. I’m not talking about the early part of the 20th century, when “To Kill A Mockingbird” is set. I’m talking about what it was like only as far back as the 1980s, when I started practicing. It was a more genteel life, which was both good and bad. The good included things like the break for afternoon tea, with real china cups and a wheeled tray full of cookies. The bad was the paternalism that is inherent in that sort of gentility, where senior lawyers opened doors for the influx of women lawyers, but only in the most literal sense. I often heard lawyers opine that none of the women working at the firm would last long, and that we’d all me married within a few years. They had a mindset that forced the first woman litigation partner to continue to write a brief in the hospital while she was in labor, sending a runner from the labor room to the firm with the pages as she finished them.
You might say that my purpose is broadly historical. I also am able to see the funny and the hysterical in the practice of law.
Apparently, there’s been talk among my former colleagues in the legal community, trying to figure out on whom my characters are based. The really great thing is that as an author, I can combine the evil traits of several different real life people, creating a fictional character who usually gets what’s due him—death. And if doing so gets under the skin of the flesh and blood people I used to practice with, I really don’t mind. Although George Herbert posited that living well is the best revenge, I think writing well about those who aggravate you is actually the best revenge.
My long-time, wonderful paralegal sent me a t-shirt recently that said “Watch out or you’ll be in my novel.” As for the lawyers who have ticked me off over the years, I can only say: you’ve been warned.