The Shock of Reality (Untethered, Part 2)

Read Mark Bruce‘s piece “Untethered,” the first installment of his reflections on being terminated from his law firm as a 60-year-old lawyer.

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.

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