A Civil Action
As I look back on it I am not sure what made me go to law school.
I tell people that it was because I got hit by a drunk driver and broke my neck, and we had to hire a lawyer to sue my own insurance company because I had underinsured motorist coverage, but the insurance company claimed I was not ‘underinsured,’ and I thought my lawyer had a cool job and seemed like a great guy.
I think that’s all true.
It’s true about the drunk driver. It’s true about the broken neck. The rest is subject to speculation and possibly remembering the things I want to remember. For example: I say that I sued my insurance company but I cannot find a record of a lawsuit having actually been filed, and while online records going back to 1989 or 1990 are sketchy, there are records back that far. Sometimes I think I didn’t sue them at all, but if I did not, then how did I get $35,000 as a settlement just prior to my going to law school? That was well after the statute of limitations would have run. I know about statutes of limitations, now, sitting here 23 years after all that, and I look back and wonder what really happened, then. Did I file a lawsuit? Did my parents file a lawsuit? How could they? I was an adult, although I still lived at home. They hired my lawyer for me, though. I still remember him (and coincidentally have just been hired by someone whose opponent is represented by my old lawyer, the first time I have come across him in 17 years of practicing.)
I have to admit that I don’t really know how I came into the $35,000, which was a lot of money to me, but maybe not enough money, really, to compensate a 20-year-old whose neck was broken and who had to have his vertebrae fused in an operation and still has a lot of stiffness and soreness, all these years later. Who knows? I’m sure it was all handled properly.
That was not the only part of my life, my early 20s, where I left significant factors unexamined and just sort of barged headlong while assuming everything was okay because it was okay enough. I would repeat that sort of behavior about 20 years later, when I became a partner with a couple of other lawyers and for four years made less money each year, without ever seeing the books and ever understanding, really, why things were falling apart – this at the end of a 10-year period where I never made as much as I probably should have, but I made enough to not hate it, so I put up with it. Is it okay to go through life not demanding to know the truth about anything, if you are happy with how things seem to be?
Another reason I went to law school was that when I was thinking about going to law school I took a 6-month paralegal course from one of those schools that is almost certainly ripping everybody off, although I have to say I did learn quite a bit there, so while it was far far more expensive than it should have been, I did at least get some benefit from it. I graduated that program and got my (unpaid) internship at the Milwaukee Public Defender’s office, where I interned mostly for a lawyer whose name I think was Jeff. I remember him vaguely looking like a cross between Paul Rudd and (a younger) Dustin Hoffman. Jeff had me do some research on a motion to suppress some evidence. I did the research and then he asked me what I’d found. I gave him the cases and talked about them a bit and he nodded and said “Uh huh uh huh” and acted like I hadn’t really found anything at all. He let me go to court with him on that motion. As I watched him argue the issue, I sat at the table thinking I could do better. It was probably actually that moment that made me decide that yeah I would go to law school. Not only that I could do better but that I didn’t want to be the one sitting at the table taking notes. I wanted to be the guy standing and making arguments.
I’ve never understood why someone wouldn’t want to be the quarterback, the lead singer, the President as opposed to the Vice President. I have this weird sort of dynamic in that I want to be left alone and really don’t want people to bug me – I really do, most of the time, hate most people. Not even abstractly. I hate people actively, and personally – but at the same time I want people to know who I am and look at me and be amazed by me. Not talk to me, but to think that I’m awesome.
Remember that scene in Almost Famous where Jason Lee gets mad because the guitarist or whoever is popular and he says something like I’m only the lead singer. That is a sentiment I understand and endorse: Why are you caring about that person when I am here is one of the guiding principles of my life.
We had to read A Civil Action for I guess the beginning of probably the second year of law school. I am trying to guess at the timing because as I recall, Sweetie read it before I did, so we must have been dating already, and that means that it probably wasn’t maybe until the second semester of the second year of law school. Although that seems weird, because by then I’d taken all the classes on civil procedure that lawyers have to take. So maybe I read it before that and then she read it? That doesn’t seem right: I recall distinctly her beginning to read the book, possibly because she was just stuck hanging around my apartment or something and there wasn’t much else to do, back then: this was the mid-90s and there wasn’t an Internet to speak of. I didn’t subscribe to any magazines at the time. We had some sort of weird low-budget cable at the apartment I shared with my friend Dan, and got about 4 channels, one of which was Cinemax, which used to be about as dirty as things got, pre-Internet.
A Civil Action is about an environmental lawsuit, something to do with contaminated land, Erin Brockovich, et al. That is all I remember about it, that and the part where one of the lawyers in the book drafts up a “Rule 11” motion. “Rule 11” motions are motions alleging that part or all of a case is frivolous. I recall that part of the book, but whether I recall it independently, or whether I recall it now because so much of my identity as a lawyer is in one way or another staked on Rule 11-type issues is an open question. In my practice, I face a lot of Rule 11-type motions. I face them in part because I practice an area of law that is under used and not very well known. I face them also because I sue banks and law firms and insurance companies and corporations, and these defendants have jillions of dollars and hire giant law firms made up of lawyers who must keep up their billable hours and who drive Porsches and who wear suits to the office on Saturday – where they have to go, because they cannot not work on Saturdays -- and these lawyers are often trying desperately to find something, anything, to push back against me, so they argue that the case is frivolous. I find it annoying. I fight them (and win them) all the time, and I wish that lawyers would stop doing it, as it simply wastes time. But lawyer are terrible people. If you randomly selected 100 lawyers around the country, maybe one of them would be a decent person. Maybe.
That was true of law students, too. I think the only people worse than lawyers are the people who desperately want to be lawyers. I didn’t like many of the law students I knew in law school, any more than I liked many people I knew, anywhere. But law students seemed worse. I am, and was by that time, used to people knowing so much more than me about everything. Every thing. I can recall in 5th grade, one of my earliest memories, the whole class suddenly getting up and lining up. Where are we going? I remember thinking. What are we doing? Everybody else seemed to know. I didn’t. We walked to the gym or the presentation room or something, I don’t remember where we went or what we did, but I clearly recall the fact that everyone seemed to know what the plan was, except me.
Another time, we were going on a field trip to the Milwaukee Public Museum, and I didn’t remember that we were, and so I didn’t have a cold lunch with me. When I think about that memory, though, it seems hazy and indistinct, like the kind of memory I might have if I saw a movie of something and then later thought maybe the movie wasn’t a movie but was actually my life. So I am not sure if that happened to me, or not. But I remember it almost like it did.
Law students, though, not only knew more than anyone else, but wanted desperately to project how much more they knew than everyone else. It was like they were constantly pushing back against insecurity and had to shove it onto people around them to avoid suffocating. From the first day of law school, I was inundated with people talking about things like outlines. I didn’t know what they were, in the law school sense. I still don’t, really. I have gathered that outlines are just notes that were organized into better, post-class form, but still: outlines were a thing people talked about incessantly. They were always going to outline things, and work on their outlines, and meet in study groups to outline things, and meanwhile I was trying to figure out if this week my $20 for groceries would be able to buy me more than ground turkey, Jiffy baking mix, and oatmeal. That was my budget for groceries per week my first week of law school: twenty dollars. It was 1995. I just did an inflation calculation on the web, and found out that my $20 in 1995 dollars would have the same purchasing power as $31.23 in 2015 dollars.
My twenty dollars for grocery budget was so tight, and my understanding of society so slight, that one day, when I saw a flier for a grocery store, I thought it could get me free money. Shop at Cap Centre Foods and pay with your debit card, it said, And get up to $20 cash back. I interpreted that to mean that by shopping there I could actually be paid money. This was a thing I thought. I was 26 and in law school. I called the store on the phone. My phone back then had a long cord that stretched from one end of the studio apartment I’d rented to the other, and I couldn’t afford to talk long-distance very much because it cost me $0.10 per minute after 8 o’clock and something like 17 cents a minute before.
I got someone from the Cap Centre Foods on the phone.
“Hello?” they said.
“Hi I’m calling about the twenty dollars cash back for the debit purchase?” I said.
“Yes?” the person asked.
“How does that work, exactly?” I asked. How does it work that I could purchase groceries, use my debit card to pay, and get cash from you, free? I was wondering.
“Um.” The person said. There was a pause. “Um. You pay with your debit card and you can hit one of the buttons to get cash of 5 or 10 or 20 dollars at the register.” A pause. “From your bank account,” the person added, having apparently suddenly realized what I meant.
“Oh. Thanks,” I said, my hope for free money crushed. It would not be until 2015 that I would tell Sweetie that I had decided that there would never be a windfall, never be free money, never be an inheritance from any of my terrible relatives, never be a gift of money or a partner who would treat me fairly and be good at business. I will have to make any money I make on my own, I announced, having made it to 46 years old still believing in genies and possibility that I might win the lottery.
Law students talked about interviews and law review and blue books, and all sorts of things I didn’t understand. One thing to know about me is that I essentially sleepwalked through more or less the first 24 years of my life. I do not say this to brag but to apologize: I was smart enough for most of my life to never have to try. I breezed through school without any effort. In second grade they tried to skip me a grade to third grade but it didn’t take: I didn’t do well enough and was unhappy so they moved me back and from then on out school couldn’t have possibly been easier, really. I once got a 108, out of 100, on a high school British Lit test and I hadn’t read a single one of the stories or books. In high school, I couldn’t skip out so I went to class and just doodled and sort of listened enough to know what to say on tests and then said that. I got through algebra and geometry and trigonometry simply by brute force: I learned how to mimic math much the way I had, at 4 years old, memorized the eye chart at the doctor’s office so that for a brief moment they thought that somehow my legally-blind lazy eye had somehow developed 20/10 vision. I never understood math. What I understood was how to repeat the math well enough to get a B, or sometimes an A. I got only two C’s in my first 12 years of school, one in fourth grade for whatever, I don’t remember, and one in Chemistry as a junior in high school when I couldn’t fake my way through the final exam, which required us to figure out what kind of salt we’d been given by doing various tests on it.
In college, I learned, initially, how disastrous this was, to live this way and never learn anything more than how to fake having learned. It wasn’t that I was dumb: I read all the time and understood a lot about science and politics and literature. I just didn’t want to learn when I was forced to. So by the time I went to college I was used to the idea that everything would just be easy and I could continue to just fake my way through. Then I failed my calculus midterm – I was only in calculus because I thought I wanted to be pre-med, which was what my mom had told me I should want to be – and dropped the class. Then I began failing chemistry, and had to get an A on the final exam just to pass the class, period. I read 17 chapters of chemistry in the few days before the exam, desperately trying to learn enough to pass. I did: I got a 93 out of 100 and passed the class with a D-. My grades for my first semester of college in 1987. I only took four classes that semester, dropped one and nearly failed the second. When I returned home for Xmas, my family life, already not strong, deteriorated further: My parents insisted that I had to get better grades, I insisted it was y life, they said they wouldn’t pay for the next semester at college, and I dropped out. I drove up to the campus in my parent’s car the first day after spring break and packed up my dorm room. I listened to Led Zeppelin’s Fool In The Rain on cassette as I drove past the dorms for the last time that year.
When I went back to school, intermittently, in 1989 and 1990 and then 1991 and so on, it was easy again. I’d switched majors to political science, because I liked politics. Poli Sci was good, though, because it was back in the realm of subjects that don’t require me to actually learn anything. What I recall of my academics from the next 2 years, at UW-Waukesha’s 2-year satellite campus, was that I worked at the radio station, which was a cable radio station and I don’t think anyone listened to it. Who gets their radio through cable, even in 1990?
I also took fencing at UW-Waukesha, because fencing was something I had tried while at UW-Madison as a club sport back in 1987. I was pretty fat and unathletic, but that turned out not to matter too much in fencing, especially with the caliber of fencing I faced in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
So I drifted back through undergrad, with a semester where I took a paralegal certification course and some classes at UW-Milwaukee, and I went to Washington on an internship and to Morocco on a foreign study program, and other than the few things that I liked which kind of stuck with me all the way to today – a few words in Japanese, some Arabic, remembering where Cassiopeia is in the sky and what a red shift is – I learned nothing much else that I retain, all these years later, other than maybe some of the basic concepts from my logic class, and a sort of memory of how regression analysis works that I actually used in a deposition recently.
That was how I ended up at law school without really knowing anything about anything. To me, school had never been a place to learn anything. School was a way to get to the next thing. I had to go to high school because they made me. I had to get good grades in high school so that I could go to college. I didn’t need to learn to get to college; I just needed to get good grades. If I can do the latter without the former, my younger self thought, so much the better. In college, political science became a degree that would get me to law school.
It was in law school that I first began to try. When I first drove back to Madison to find an apartment, I walked to the bridge that leads from the library mall to Bascom Hill. This is a bridge you can see in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School; Bascom Hill is the place where they filmed the scene where Rodney told his son he was going back to school.
I stood on that bridge and looked up at the hill and back at library mall and down at the road. It was August, 1995. It was hot and sunny and still and heavy. I got scared. I thought what if I can’t do it?
That was the last time ever that I thought that, about anything. That was my last doubt about my ability to do anything.