“I’m sorry, I have to let you go.”
The head of the firm managed to look sad. I had started working for the firm less than a year before. I had been brought in at 60 years old because the firm wanted an older, experienced attorney to mentor the younger employees in the firm.
I flattered myself in believing I had done this, sharing my trial experience, my voir dire questions, my knowledge of search and seizure case law, and my real-world understanding of what made clients tick.
“Can you tell me why?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“My lawyer told me not to say anything,” he said. The old dodge: Blame the lawyers.
“For what it’s worth,” he said, giving me a tiny sheepish smile, “I think you’re a good guy.”
I felt as if the floor underneath me had disappeared. I saw myself falling and falling and falling with no end in sight.
“I don’t like doing this,” the boss said. “You’re the first lawyer in ten years I’ve had to terminate.”
“Why does that not make me feel better?” I asked sickly.
I was 61 now. What the hell was I going to do?
My son would be getting married in two months. Fortunately, I had already purchased my airline tickets to the wedding in Indiana. The firm gave me enough in severance to get me through to then. But what would happen when I returned?
I half-jokingly told myself that maybe I would get lucky and the plane would crash on the way back. Financial problem solved.
I could look for another job, but I couldn’t indulge in the fantasy that I would find one. At my age, no one would seriously consider me, though they would all make a great show of doing so to avoid a discrimination claim.
Falling, falling, falling…
“What do you think I should do?” I said to my boss. He shook his head.
“Could you at least give me a recommendation letter?” I asked, grasping at the last tiny shred of dignity.
“My lawyer recommends we stay out of that,” he said.
When a lawyer loses a job, it’s different from when a real person loses a job. Most lawyers go through their lives with one or two firms, rarely facing the prospect of unemployment. To be fired would be an eternal black mark on my career.
I staggered out the door, boxes of my personal accouterment awkwardly in my hands. I was surprised there was still solid ground beneath my feet.
Two of my colleagues helped me get the boxes into the car and then stood outside with me telling me how much this sucked. I knew what they were thinking: What if this was me?
Finally, I drove off. I tried to pay attention to the road even though I was having an out of body experience.
I was untethered. It felt like my career was in my rear view mirror.
The silence after you are fired is earthquake-like: eerie and foreboding.
I drove home dazed, worrying I may not capably focus on the pavement unfurling in front of my empty eyes. I thought briefly about stopping for a late breakfast but quickly reminded myself that every penny would now be husbanded toward my survival for the next few months. Or years. Or forever.
Before I slid from the firm’s office, I had agreed to sign a liability release in exchange for two weeks’ pay. They seemed surprised I would agree to it so readily. But I was an at-will employee. Unless a firm insider went rogue and revealed some illegal reason for my termination—that I was too old and too expensive, for example—I would have no case. Better to squirrel away a few thousand now and extend my resources, right?
My final check and my severance paycheck sat on the passenger seat like unwilling children. They seemed to brood with every glance I stole at them. They totaled $5,000. About a month’s wages at the firm.
I walked into my apartment and slumped into the couch. At $1,400 per month, the rent would be crippling for an unemployed lawyer. I’d need to plot my exit before Halloween.
I looked around at my books, my television, the pictures on the walls. They were so frivolous, weren’t they? How much would they fetch in a yard sale?
It was strange sitting on that dark green couch I bought when I first arrived in Sacramento for the job. The couch and my Queen-sized bed set me back a cool $2,500 when I’d first moved in. I paid them off in three payments, sure that money was no issue for a gainfully-employed lawyer.
Now it mocked me: ‘”What a fool! Trusting your employer to keep his word!?!”
When hired, I’d explained that this needed to be my last job. I would work for until I hit 70 and would retire in honor. They readily agreed.
Now I was out on my ear, with no real explanation why. That, in my considered and pained and brutalized judgment, meant the explanation was probably an illegal one. My boss had even said, “My lawyers say I can’t tell you why.” It was hard to suppress the anger threatening to overwhelm my heart.
It’s like that old chestnut about the difference between a dead lawyer and a dead skunk in the road: there are skid marks in front of the skunk. Well, I could relate. I couldn’t find a damned skid mark in front of me. No one even tried to stop this demise.
I called my friends. My brother. Some old public defender contacts in San Bernardino.
And I stared at the walls, at my pictures, at my books. I didn’t turn on the television—I knew the rattle of inane comedy would only manifest my tragedy.
I felt like I was still falling, falling. I had a little money in savings, but it wouldn’t last into November. One month. Beyond that, chaos. I had a vision of myself standing on a street corner in a ragged three-piece suit with a tattered “Will Sue for Food” sign. Would passers-by be amused enough to spare a few bucks?
As the numbness retreated, however, my ego slowly began to reassert itself. “You’ve been in tough spots like this before,” it said. “Let yourself grieve for a few days, then decide how you’ll spend the rest of your life,” it said.
It was a good plan. But my anger and my grief would last a long time. I felt conned. I told them who and what I was. I had been radically honest. They had not. It kept coming back to me, on a loop like a bad song the D.J. couldn’t quit.
Slowly, my shock was lifting. My ego was right. I had been in tough spots, both before and after I passed the bar. This was just one more. This was the Universe untethering me from a questionable job with a questionable employer.
Defiance was my best response. I grabbed my car keys and headed out my apartment door. I was going for dinner. And a movie.
Screw those guys. I was still alive.
The day after I’m fired is Saturday. Part of me wants to lounge on the couch and watch bad TV all day, drink diet iced tea and feel sorry for myself. This is something I need to do, I told myself, so that I can feel better, ready to revise and change my life Monday morning.
But I know better.
Oh, I tried it. But after I watched a stupid situation comedy which not only insulted my intelligence but made me worry about the survival of Western Civilization, I got off the couch and pounce on my cell phone.
It was time to call in the troops.
Specifically, friends and family who might be able to help me find another job. Or, at least, who could lend me money until I can start bringing in an income.
You truly find out whether your friends and family love you or think you’re a schlump when you lose your job. In this case, I was in for a pleasant surprise.
The first person I called was my friend Shelby, who has worked for the Public Defender in a Southern California county for 25 years. After I explained to him what had happened, he laughed.
“Knew it was gonna go South for you,” he says cheerfully. “Just had that feeling.”
“You’re a great comfort,” I said. I resisted the urge to climb through the telephone line and strangle him. After all, I couldn’t afford to alienate someone who might get me back to gainful employment, even if he’s being a jerk.
“I’ll ask around the office to see if they might want you back,” he said. Rude comment forgiven.
I called my friend Jerome, who is a little more sympathetic.
“How could they do that to you?” he asked. Jerome is one of those guys whom everyone likes. He’s never been fired, never will be, despite jumping around in his legal career. He now worked for the same PD’s office as Scott.
“I’m not sure how they could, but they did,” I say.
“I’ll talk to the head of the office. Maybe they want you back.”
As I said, everyone likes Jerome.
I’m feeling a little better now. I’m thinking I can return to Southern California and go back to work for the old office, the one I left voluntarily for the job I’ve just lost. Not exactly as a conquering hero, but at least intact.
I called my brother, my older sister, and a 30-years-long friend of mine to let them know the awful news. All three offered to lend me a thousand or so to keep me from being on the street. Since I am still flush with severance pay, I thanked them all and told them I might call on them in the future.
As I hang up the phone, I realized that I am far too good at dealing with disaster. I’ve been through this before, both as a civilian and as an attorney. I always managed to muddle through. I’m not sure how I do it. After I’m out of danger, I always seem to look back and marvel that I am not buried under a smoking pile of rubble along some lonely freeway.
As a lawyer I should have been embarrassed to call these folks and tell them that I’d been fired. Termination of employment is not normal in the legal profession. Usually one gets fired from a law firm or a public agency for some heinous crime, such as leaving a comma out of a pleading that leads to the motion being denied. Or sleeping with a client. Were I to choose my sin, I would go for the sin of commission, not the one of omission. It seems more fun. Alas, the reason I was terminated is still a mystery to me. All I knew was that I couldn’t talk my way back into the job.
I go online and begin applying for any Public Defender job I could find. Despite my ugly experience with the firm, I am convinced that I am a good PD. My clients told me so. My colleagues told me so. Even the judges told me so. In fact, in a roundabout way, the prosecutors told me so—they would give me a hard time about filing too many motions, announcing ready for too many trials. In other words, I was making them work. How dare I?
So I am not embarrassed. I am irked. I am scared. I am puzzled. But not embarrassed.
That comes later.