Reflections on Being Fired as a 60-Year Old Lawyer

2019-11-01: Updated with parts two and three.

One

“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.

Two

I am invited into an office with a window view. A round table sits near the door. Bookshelves line the outer wall. Pictures of an indeterminate theme dot the walls.

This is my first interview since being “resigned” at the old law firm. I wish I was more nervous than I am. Sad to say, I’ve been through a lot of interviews in my career.

The man who greets me is tall, about six foot two. He has sandy hair and startling blue eyes. He would be perfectly cast as a Southern Lawyer defending some unjustly charged young teenager in a melodrama about racism. 

He is, in fact, from the South—Tennessee, he tells me. How he got to California is a labyrinthian story to which I listen respectfully.  He’s about forty, twenty-one years my junior. He’s the head of the local Public Defender’s Office.

“I’m trying to build this office,” he says. “It was a mess when I was appointed.” I don’t ask him why it was a mess. You never know where the sore spots are.

“I have a lot of experience in Public Defender Offices,” I say, hoping it’s a strong point and does not advertise the fact that my career has been a checkered one. Checkers? More like Parcheesi. 

We talk about what it means to be a Public Defender and how different it is from any other kind of job in the law. The difference between your typical private defense attorney and a Public Defender is that PDs have ethics, they have rules, they have 30 cases a day. A PD makes about a quarter of what a good private defense lawyer pulls in, though there are private lawyers that make ten times what a “line” PD makes—into seven figures. 

(So, you are asking, why don’t I go that way? Well, to get to the seven-figure private lawyer world, you must start as a solo practitioner when you are fresh out of law school and carefully build your practice over twenty years. Then you need a bit of luck—landing a case with lots of publicity. It doesn’t matter if you win. So long as you’re on TV and in the newspapers, people will remember your name. At 61, I’m a bit too long in the tooth to try to build such a practice.)

But there’s more to being a PD than just a lot of cases and too little money. To be a Public Defender is a mindset—you fight, you work for your clients, you remember why you’re there. The best Public Defenders know how to work hard for their clients without alienating the prosecutors. You get good deals from them because they know how hard you’re going to make them work at trial, even on a slam-dunk case; and because they get along with you. 

We talk about all these ideas. We feel pretty good about ourselves when it’s over. Our interview was scheduled for thirty minutes, but we’ve been going for nearly an hour.

He likes me, he really likes me. We have an easy conversation and agree on pretty much everything. I tell him that I can help him rebuild his office because I have the experience to help the younger lawyers. He nods his head.

“That sounds really good,” he says in his Southern accent. “I could use the help.”

I don’t spread my arms and say, “Here I am,” though I want to. 

I walk out of the office feeling good about my chances. I change into more comfortable shoes with my car door open in the parking lot just as my interviewer runs out, rushing to court. I smile sheepishly at him and he says, “I’ve had to do that myself.” Another connection.

On the way out of town, I check out apartment and home rentals. They’re much cheaper than Sacramento—about half so. This is looking better and better. 

I drive the hours back to Sacramento thinking I should start boxing everything up. I might get hired before the end of October when I will fly to Indiana for my son’s wedding. I’ve already bought the tickets. I’m pretty sure my new employers won’t have a problem with my disappearing for a week to see my only son get married.

I wait for the call to be hired. It never comes. To this day I haven’t even received a letter from that Public Defender’s office telling me thanks but no thanks. I guess rebuilding a PD’s office is so time-consuming you can’t dredge up the grace to say “no.”

Three

I have agreed to make an appearance for another lawyer in Dept 30 of the Superior Court. This is my first time back in court since the untimely demise of my career.

It is a misdemeanor court, so I will not see any of my former felony teammates. However, there will be others from the firm roaming the courtroom.

I see the woman who supervises misdemeanors for the firm. She is standing outside the doors talking to a tall man with a bad haircut. She is chastising him for some transgression.

I avoid her and sit in the audience. I contemplate my ruin while waiting for the doors to open. You know your career is near rock bottom when you start snapping up $50 to make brief appearances for other lawyers. You’re not even a pinch hitter. More like a stand-in for the movies. You are a non-entity, a nothing, a fool.

At 1 p.m. precisely, the bailiff opens the doors to Dept. 30.

The courtroom is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. It looks like every courtroom in which I’ve spent thirty years: Long row of chairs for the audience, a wooden “bar” at the front, a pair of pine-topped tables pushed together, the clerk off to the side in her little enclave and the bailiff at a small desk near the bar. At the head of the room, elevated so that one will be cowed by the majesty of the law, the judge’s bench. Mounted on the wall behind the bench is the Seal of the Great State of California. The goddess Minerva sits in the seal with her ill-fitting war helmet, a spear, and an impassive expression.

I sit in the audience, too embarrassed to sit in the jury box like I used to do when I was a person with a real job. The supervisor for the misdemeanors begins asking each person about their case.

“Which case are you here on?” she asks me. Then she looks closer.

“Oh, it’s you!” she says. I nod. Then she looks concerned. “Do you have a case in here today?” She’s thinking I committed a crime after I got fired. 

“I’m appearing on the Smith matter,” I say, “for another lawyer.”

“Oh, the bail matter,” she says, and moves on.

No other attorney from the firm acknowledges my existence. One, a burly ex-Marine with whom I had engaged in discussions about the military, the law, and being a public defender, slides his gaze over me. 

Another lawyer, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair whom I had helped with thorny legal issues, searches for his clients in every part of the courtroom except where I sit.

I get up and walk past the bar. I check in with the clerk, handing her one of my new business cards. Then I talk to a young woman from the DA’s office who is wearing matching purple jacket and pants, a daring look for a prosecutor.

I sit in the jury box, thinking that now my former office mates will recognize me and say hello. But they studiously avoid me.

I should be shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn them that I am contagious and if they dare talk to me, they may be infected with the termination virus. How frightened they look. How cowardly. 

I am Banquo’s ghost, the unwelcome guest at the feast. To talk to me would be to acknowledge that they, too, might someday find themselves out of a job. Nothing has been officially disseminated in the firm about my termination, though it’s been implied by the higher-ups that some “emergency” required my firing. 

Judge Evans, who sometimes was friendly to me, takes the bench. He peers at me.

“What did you say your name was?” he asks.

I say my name and spell it.

I tell him I’m appearing for another lawyer and that we need the bail exonerated. There is a written motion, which he carefully reviews. He grants the motion. Then he’s on to the next matter.

As I turn to leave a young woman, dark-haired and brown-eyed, says to me, “Mark, I didn’t recognize you! How are you?”

She is also from the firm but she seems to be unafraid of my unclean status.

“I’m doing fine,” I said. She puts her arm around my shoulders. 

“This is my last appearance in Placer,” I say. “I’m moving to Southern California soon.”

“Good luck to you,” she smiles. We say goodbye and I walk out of the courtroom. I am contemplating why the big burly men were afraid of me but this young woman was not. 

As for myself, I shake the dust of the county from my feet. In a week, I am going to my son’s wedding. Then I’m moving back to Southern California, where I have a place to rent and friends in the court system. 

After my unfortunate adventure up North, I’m going home.

Mark Bruce