the coincidental career track (part 4 of 4)

After my accident, I swore to myself that the minute I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, I would stop and find something else. And so, roughly 18 months after donning a prosthesis for the first time, and nearly 3 years after entering the world of insurance law, I started the search for The Next Great Thing.

Unlike my transition from college to law school and from law school to The Big Firm, this time I focused on finding something I found interesting. With the memories of a successful career as an imaginary trial lawyer while a member of Hofstra’s trial team still in my head, I looked for jobs that would get me into the courtroom. Eventually, this led me to a medium-sized medical malpractice defense firm.

I quickly found myself in courthouses in Queens or Brooklyn 2-3 times a week. While in these generally-decaying buildings, I learned some fundamental truths about practicing in the state court system. Fundamental Truth #1: the better the shoes a lawyer wears, the better he/she is. Lawyers wearing black shoes with velcro straps or beat-up shoes with huge rubber soles are the last people you want representing you. (Rule applies only to male attorneys.) Fundamental Truth #2: no matter what direction the elevator you’re waiting for is going, get on it. If you try to secure a courthouse elevator that both has enough space in it and that’s moving in the correct direction, you’ll get to where you’re going about 33 minutes after you press the elevator button. Fundamental Truth #3: discovery deadlines in New York State are about as meaningful as politicians’ calls for bipartisanship and cooperation. They’re a fiction. If you ever wonder why a case you’re involved with doesn’t progress as quickly as promised, remember FT3.

I also learned something about trial lawyers. Most of them had cut their teeth as young attorneys in various district attorneys’ offices, almost without exception. I, on the other hand, had spent my formative years sitting behind a desk 14 hours a day writing different versions of exactly the same advisory letter to our insurance company clients. Remarkably, it turned out that three years of analyzing one policy exclusion relating to intellectual property issues didn’t qualify me to take the lead in cases where people had died because of a hospital’s alleged failure to accurately diagnose a dissecting aortic aneurysm. This came, as many things do, as a revelation to me.

At least I had the good fortune to do most of my work with an experienced trial lawyer who liked me. Gordon would spend hours talking to me, more often than not at lunch at a bar down the street – at his own expense, no less – which I found especially gratifying. Since my previous firm looked at lunch outside the office as, at best, unusual, and at worst evidence of a decided lack of professional commitment to the almighty Billable Hour, leaving every day to eat out was like unexpectedly being upgraded from coach to first class. The fact that you needed to be almost completely drunk to enjoy the dishes that purported to be “food” at this bar – and I never drank anything there other than flat Coke in glasses that tasted like soap – didn’t make the experience any less enjoyable. Sitting in the dank pub eating awful food and drinking Palmolive-based soda made me feel like a real lawyer.

Gordon let me cultivate my writing skills, giving me most of his motions to draft. He also trusted me to take and defend depositions, a job that I found interesting and spent lots of time studying. My favorite deposition, incidentally, occurred when I got to interview a plaintiff who sued the hospital and doctors we represented for assault and battery. The deposition took place with a plastic window separating us in the basement of a detention center in Brooklyn, as he was being deported back to his native Ghana after trying to smuggle 50+ bags of heroin into the country. (The alleged “assault” arose out of the doctors’ successful effort to remove the leaking heroin bags from his insides, a procedure that he, in his infinite medical wisdom, believed unnecessary.)

Over time, however, I also learned why I didn’t want to become a trial lawyer. I watched Gordon and others in the firm go into seclusion multiple times a year as they prepared for and then litigated cases. The thought of spending weeks shuttered away from my wife and son while trying a case wasn’t attractive. In addition, while trial lawyers are wonderful creatures to hang out with occasionally at parties and dinners, working with them every day exposes the inherently egocentric nature of the profession. Good trial lawyers do not have low opinions of themselves. Ever. It’s a prerogative for the job. Given my already healthy ego, I saw trial work as a pathway towards becoming even more insufferable than I already was. Finally, when one of the lead partners at the firm billed 100 more hours in a month than I did – while he was on vacation outside the United States – I realized that I probably wasn’t prepared (i.e., creative enough) to do everything I needed to in order to make partner.

And so I began a new search for the next chapter in my professional life. I now had 6 years of professional experience. I now understood the principles of how insurance companies operated and how to interpret insurance contracts. I also could take complex medical issues and write about them in ways that the average person could easily understand. My time taking and defending depositions had taught me how to both extract information from people and listen to what they were saying. While I wasn’t sure what that qualified me to do, I knew that staying where I was wouldn’t work.

So when the opportunity to start a new prosthetic company providing care and treatment to amputees fell out of the sky, it was a no brainer. I was 32 years old. My skills and interests seemed a match for the job. I knew if it didn’t pan out, I could always go back to the drudgery of law firm life. And I feared that if I passed up the chance to do something that felt like such a risk, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

Fortunately, the business succeeded, and from there it was only a short hop to my current position. Didn’t it all unfold according to plan?

*   *   *

I began this series of posts by asserting that the path we take to get where we are today is rarely direct or pre-planned. While the road to the world of prosthetics where I now live looks logical in retrospect, it was nothing of the sort. My decision to go to law school was motivated primarily by my lack of direction and unwillingness to find a job out of college. I went to The Big Firm because it paid more than anything else at the time and I knew that having it on my resume would eventually help me. I took the gig with Gordon because I thought I wanted to be trial lawyer, but in fact, I didn’t.

I am where I am today not because of my planning, but in spite of it.

*   *   *

Three years ago, based solely upon a single, isolated event and my own healthy neuroses, I became convinced that I was about to be fired from my current position. (When you work remotely and you get off a leadership call without anyone saying goodbye to you and the phone line suddenly going dead, your mind can begin to work in funny ways.) I spent that weekend jotting down everything I had done and could do in the future. I didn’t even try to create a plan. That exercise taught me something critically important: while I can’t script out every contingency or control my future in anything other than an indirect way, I know that I’ll be ok.

Because when you lose a part of your body and come all the way back, everything else is just a minor detail.

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