October is the month we celebrate our worst nightmares.
We masquerade as monsters. We play dirty tricks. We go around scaring people – and expect to be rewarded for it.
All in a day’s work for us lawyers.
Back in the early ‘80s when I was practicing in Charleston, SC there was a divorce lawyer affectionately known among the local bar as Vlad the Impaler. His nastiness was legendary. Stories of Vlad’s antics in depositions and in court – and even on the sidewalk, where he once punched another lawyer for no apparent reason – could have come from Bram Stoker himself.
Staring into the Eyes of Evil
Straight out of law school I went to work for a general practice firm on Broad Street, where I was assigned to the family law department. The department consisted of one person. Me. I did a name change, a separation agreement, an adoption. Things were going fine.
Then one day a client came in after being served with divorce papers. My boss sat in on the interview. But when he looked at the pleadings he grew pale and handed them to me and said I could take it from there.
The opposing counsel was Vlad the Impaler.
My first meeting with Vlad took place on a sweltering day in July – and if you haven’t been to Charleston in the summer, you have no idea. I was 25 years old, from the small town of Kingstree, SC. I had never flown in a plane or been north of College Park, Maryland my entire life.
And there I sat, in the lobby of the vampire’s lair, thumbing through outdated issues of Guns & Ammo and sweating like a madman with my file folder and Bic pen. My boss had given me two instructions: don’t agree to anything and don’t look Vlad in the eye.
I was kept waiting for half an hour before being ushered into the crypt. Vlad’s office was dank and gloomy. Files were piled everywhere. Sickly light seeped through the blinds.
Vlad sat behind his cluttered desk scowling. With relief I saw there was no way to look him in the eye, even accidentally, because he was wearing shades, the kind that clip onto your regular glasses.
He did all the talking. He told me how tough he was. He told me he’d handled a million cases like mine and won all of them. He told me what he wanted and warned me that bad things would happen if I didn’t give it to him.
Then he was done and it was my turn. But I had nothing. Truth was, I was not feeling too well. Not to mention the fact that I lacked authority to do or say anything.
So I stood and said Thank you, sir and that I would get back with him after speaking to my client.
This took him by surprise. He was obviously expecting some sort of rebuttal.
He flipped up his shades, as if to get a better look at me. Then it happened. We made eye contact. And the thing was, he didn’t look like Dracula at all. He looked middle-aged and joyless and very tired.
Embracing Our Inner Vampire
The Spirituality of Imperfection says we are all part angel and part beast: “[W]e are not either-or, not one-or-the-other. We are both. Both saint and sinner, both good and bad, both less and more-than. In some strange ways, our failures are our successes, our suffering is our joy, and our imperfections prove to be the very source of our longing for perfection.”
Years after I had moved away from Charleston and begun a new chapter in my life, I heard that Vlad – whose real name was Walter – had died. It happened not long after he was disbarred for professional misconduct.
I suppose it was inevitable. Still, the news saddened me. Walter had taught me some valuable lessons. First, you can learn a lot about a person by looking them in the eye. Second, I was not cut out for divorce law.
And this, too: when we locked eyes I saw more of myself in Walter than I cared to admit. I saw my striving, grasping, controlling self. My needy self that wants so badly to win. My bullying self that emerges when I don’t get my way.
Deep down, I think Walter and I were a lot alike. We just wore different masks. He was Dracula. I was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I think it’s important to get to know our inner monsters. That’s the only way to tame them, by walking up and introducing ourselves, by looking them in the eye, by taking them out into the clear sunlight, where they shrink and disappear like dew on a rose.
Having a dark side, I have come to understand, doesn’t make me sick or evil or beyond redemption. It makes me human.
Source: The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham (Bantam Books 1992)
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.