As a new school year begins, I recall the time I tried to persuade impressionable young minds to enter the law.
I failed miserably, and for that I blame my son Bo.
It happened in early 2000, at Guy B. Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill. Bo had told his seventh-grade teacher Mrs. Short that sure, his dad would love to participate in Career Day. Of course he hadn’t consulted me. And as it turned out, he grossly misrepresented my qualifications.
“Bo tells me you’ve never lost a case,” said Mrs. Short.
“Oh, did he?”
“Now, do you defend criminals,” she said, writing on a little pad. “Or do you put them away? I’m not completely clear.”
I explained that I worked for an insurance company and hadn’t been inside a courtroom in years. And though she did her best to mask her disappointment – Mrs. Short was a wonderful teacher and kind human being – I couldn’t help feeling I had just flunked my first test.
The Pen is Not Mightier Than Candy
When I arrived at the gymnasium on Career Day, my suspicions were confirmed.
For starters, they’d stuck my table way over in the corner, practically behind the bleachers. Then there was the matter of props. Everyone else had brought some. The paramedic had a CPR dummy. The policeman had handcuffs. The dentist had wind-up chattering teeth.
All I had were some pens and post-it notes emblazoned with my company’s logo.
“It’s going to be a long day,” said the older gentleman at the next table.
I glanced at his name card and saw it was Max Steele, Writer. My spirits soared. Here was a famous novelist – “The Goblins Must Go Barefoot” won the 1950 Harper Prize – and he didn’t have any props either.
“It ends at noon,” I said. “How bad can it be?”
Little did I know.
From Barrister to Bean Counter
The doors opened and the first wave of students rushed in. They all raced to the policeman and the firefighter and even the realtor, who had brought a basket of candy.
“That’s cheating,” I said.
“No,” said Max Steele, Writer. “That’s smart.”
Eventually, a few lost souls drifted over to my lonely corner.
“What are you supposed to be?” said a confused little girl in pigtails, pointing at my name card.
I leaned forward to take a look and saw they’d misspelled “lawyer,” so that I was “Jay Reeves, Insurance Layer.” Luckily I had a hundred or so pens with which to correct the error. But the name card was laminated and after much gouging and scribbling, all I succeeded in doing was making it worse.
“Now it looks like Insurance Later,” said Max Steele, Writer.
Soon my son Bo’s class arrived. He dutifully trudged over and regarded my candy-less table and defaced name card with a look of pity.
“Don’t worry Dad,” he said. “You’ll probably still get some votes.”
That’s when I learned this was no ordinary Career Day. It was American Idol. Each student had been given a single dried bean. After visiting the tables, they were to vote for the career of their choice by dropping their bean in a corresponding jar by the exit.
This changed everything. These were no longer merely cute, innocent youth. Each was a mini-Simon Cowell with a Bean of Judgment clutched in their small fist.
“I’ll get all my friends to vote for you,” Bo said.
By “all my friends” he meant Mike and Rob. And so when Career Day ended, there were exactly three beans in my jar. Meanwhile, the cop’s jar was overflowing, and the realtor who cheated by bringing candy had two jars full. Even Max Steele, Writer had more beans than me.
“Sorry you lost, Dad,” said Bo.
“Wait until next year,” I said.
In truth, of course, I didn’t lose at all. I won big-time.
I got to hang out all day with middle schoolers – something that would make even crusty old Simon Cowell light up with joy.
Plus I came away with an autographed copy of “The Goblins Go Barefoot.” I’m looking at as I write this. It’s inscribed: “For Jay – an old book from an old man, but you’ve got to start somewhere. For instance, Career Day at Phillips. Best, Max Steele.”
In a few days, Bo and I are flying to Chicago to see the Cubs. I’ve always dreamed of going to Wrigley Field. Bo arranged the trip to coincide with his 30th birthday. I offered to pay him back, it being his special day and all. But he said no, this is a gift for him too.
Looking back, I realize the best part of Career Day was getting to play my favorite role – one I can’t say I’m very good at but, hey, I’ve given it my best shot – the role of Dad.
That role has changed now that my four children are grown and gone. I try to deal with it. But sometimes it catches me by surprise, especially this time of year, and I wake at night, eyes wide, feeling a tiny hole inside, an empty space no bigger than a bean.
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.