At a seminar I was told I could discover my true passion by asking myself what I would choose to do even if I didn’t get paid for it.
And yet – while there have been long stretches in my 35 years as a lawyer when I worked without getting paid – I cannot say passion was always the motivation. Rather, it was usually the result of my poor billing and collection skills.
But there was a time in the early 1980s when I practiced law in the South Carolina low country with a soaring heart and leaping enthusiasm, even as my career was slipping into what appeared to be a permanent pro bono puddle.
I was a staff attorney at Neighborhood Legal Assistance Program, then located on upper King Street in Charleston. This was before the great Downtown Revival brought glittering Godiva and Gucci outlets to the cobblestone streets, back when the 400 block was dotted with pawn shops and boarded storefronts, a place best avoided after dark.
Pac-Man Meets Darth Vader
NLAP was in an old, two-story building that leaned dangerously to one side. I began working there when Ronald Reagan was president. These days, the Reagan years are looked upon as an almost mythical age of prosperity and Pac-Man and Duran Duran.
But if you happened to be working for legal aid, those were dark days indeed. Of all the many big-government, budget-busting programs the president loathed, legal help for the poor topped the list. One of his first acts in office was to push for elimination of the Legal Services Corporation. His dislike was so great Time magazine called him Darth Vader.
So it was with slumped shoulders that the dozen or so employees of NLAP trudged up the slanting stairs to a hastily-called staff meeting.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” said our director, a wonderful attorney who wrote novels in her off-hours. “The bad news is we’ve been defunded.”
“And the good news?”
“We’ve got enough money to make it through this month.”
Which was small comfort, considering it was already the nineteenth.
Bring Out Your Resumes
Needless to say, my morale dipped. I had only been there a few months and wasn’t paid a lot to start with. Now the tap was likely to be turned off altogether. With the ink barely dry on my resume, here I was having to pull it out again.
Next door to my office was a paralegal named Bernice, who had been at NLAP since it started in the ‘70s. Bernice was amazing. She worked on Social Security appeals and could write briefs that made you weep with compassion for the aggrieved claimant.
“So,” I said to Bernice, as I trudged into her office, bent over in self-pity. “What are you planning to do?”
“I’m planning to finish Mrs. Jackson’s brief,” she said, looking up from the file on her desk.
“What? How can you think of work when we might be losing our jobs?”
Bernice smiled her patient smile. “That’s why it’s important to finish Mrs. Jackson’s case.”
There were three things that made Bernice special. One was her calm demeanor, and another was her dedication to her clients. The third was her sweet tea.
“Here,” she said to me, as she unscrewed the top off her thermos. “Sit down and have some tea.”
Rising Like A Flock of Seagulls
It wasn’t just Bernice. Everybody in the office – all of whom had been there longer than I had – began showing up earlier and staying later. And they weren’t just putting in hours. They were on a mission. They were determined to help as many clients as possible before the ship went down.
Samuel Johnson said knowing you are to be hanged in the morning tends to wonderfully concentrate the mind. And so it did at NLAP. We began working on cases like there was no tomorrow – which there very well might not be.
An air of giddy abandon prevailed. We abandoned our cubicles to gather in hallways. We brainstormed how to best help the men and women and children who lived and breathed inside the manila folders. Marvin from the migrant division brought a boombox and cranked the volume on A Flock of Seagulls.
In the end, funding was preserved and NLAP survived. I stayed another two years before moving on to a solo practice.
But often I think back to my days in that weathered old building in a rough part of town.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt a greater sense of professional purpose – nor had more fun – than when Darth Vader cast his dark shadow. Money was removed from the equation. We were working for our clients. We showed up because we had made a commitment, because Mrs. Jackson was old and sick and deserved our best efforts.
And oh, for one more taste of that sweet tea from Bernice, so sweet and wonderful it made your teeth ache.
Jay Reeves has practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He enjoys snow days, seagulls, and spinning records from the 80s. These days he helps lawyers and firms put more mojo in their practice through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations. Contact him at email@example.com or 919-619-2441.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.