KNOW WHEN TO FOLD THEM

It is not politically correct to say: “When at first you don’t succeed, quit,” and I certainly experienced approbation whenever I suggested such a thing to my children. However, I intend to tell a story illustrating how valuable, even enjoyable, such an act can be.
In March of 1982, my first job as a lawyer was everything I feared it would be. I was hired as an “associate” at a small, but exclusive law firm in a wealthy New Jersey town where the term “old money” might have been invented. All nine of the lawyers at the firm boasted Ivy League degrees. Notwithstanding the carefully crafted gloss I showed on my resume, it was clear to the discerning eye my law school career was undistinguished. The closest I came to the honored Law Review at George Washington University was when I played shortstop, as a ringer, on their softball team. But for reasons he never articulated –-perhaps he felt a kinship as the only other non-WASP — Josh Berman was a senior partner who championed me through the interview process and, after convincing his skeptical partners to hire me, served as my mentor.
Josh was a bushy-bearded former member of the counter-culture who, by 1982, was fully signed on to the life of the bourgeoisie – except for that beard, of course. He had a big house, a big mortgage, a wife who enjoyed expensive furnishings and the expertise to advise the firm’s largest client, Apex Bank. Though an institution of utmost conservatism in our prosperous town, the powers-that-be at Apex accepted Josh’s subversive appearance in exchange for his keen insights. It was unusual, apparently, for a “big-city” lawyer like Josh to have forsaken the bright lights and stunning salaries of Manhattan to labor in suburbia.
My job was to conduct legal research and write memos. My days passed in the library where I prospected for nuggets of legal gold from the veins of dusty tomes. From movies and a Broadway show I knew the low man on a nine-man totem pole had to arrive at the office first everyday and stay until everyone else departed. If nothing else, if it is true that nine-tenths of life is “being there,” I fulfilled the vast majority of my requirements.
Any of the five senior lawyers at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman could assign me a research topic, but only if I was available. Josh dominated my time to the exclusion of everyone else and, considering how unapproachable the other lawyers seemed to me, I considered this to be a good thing.
“What have you got for me?” Josh would ask on a typical morning, when I poked my head into his wood-paneled office.
“I’ve nearly finished the Glass-Steagall memo,” I might have said, referring to a prominent banking regulation that held near-sacred importance in the field.
“And?” Josh would persist.
“I think Apex can market the product,” I might have ventured.
“You think, or you know?” Josh would prod, peering through his horn-rimmed glasses.
Scrunching my face and with my voice rising involuntarily, I might have said: “I think I know?”
Josh would then patiently explain how I needed to nail down the definite answer. Essentially, he was rewarding my dogged, if uninspired, persistence with compassion. This sort of relationship had an unspoken quid-pro-quo; if I kept myself almost exclusively available for Josh’s research needs, he would save me from what he hinted were the merciless projects and mercurial critiques of the other partners.
The catch at a small-town firm was the starting salary, only $20,000. The senior secretaries made more than I did, and none of them had student loans to re-pay.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Josh said, on numerous occasions. “We’ll make it up to you with the year-end bonus.”
The “BONUS” sustained me throughout the spring and summer as I dressed dutifully in three-piece suits and spent eight to ten “billable hours” each day reading and writing on subjects with the intellectual nutritional value of sawdust.
“How does the bonus get calculated?” I asked once.
“It all depends on how valuable you make yourself,” said Josh. “We bill your time out at fifty dollars an hour and we pay you around ten, so it’s a good deal for us. At the end of the year, you will be rewarded.”
“More like eight dollars an hour, so far,” I thought to myself.
“Given your persistence, which I will make abundantly clear to the other partners,” continued Josh, “you stand to make a bundle.”
Work proceeded apace throughout the fall. I learned from Josh how to write a point-by-point letter with all creative impulses scrubbed. I learned to proofread the products of my secretary, Cyndi Buffuno, whose spelling creativity made her name seem appropriate. I learned to laugh at certain partners’ jokes and not to speak in front of others. Basically, Josh was my guide in a world I did not really choose, but agreed to inhabit, so long as the pot of bonus gold was waiting at the end of the year.
As the holiday party at the Beacon Ridge Club loomed, where the checks were distributed, bonus anticipation began to build. I pictured opening an envelope like a star at the Oscar’s: “And the winner is, Stuart, with a check in the amount of $3,000.” Once, when I calculated I’d worked over sixty hours in a particular week, I allowed myself to imagine a check for $5,000.
“Almost at the finish line,” said Josh, a week before the party. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
I smiled and hunkered down at my desk with even greater determination to parse the fine print for a new Apex checking account promotion. The work almost seemed meaningful to me. I was part of the world economy, soon to be a bigger part.
Finally, the day of the event arrived, the Friday before Christmas. Yes, it was nice to share holiday cheer with co-workers, and nice to be a guest at another wood-paneled establishment with deep green carpet and pictures of hunting scenes on the walls. One of the partners who rarely spoke to me offered a slap on the back and a handshake: “Excellent start, young man,” he said. Another, who never seemed certain of my name, interrupted a conversation to speak to me like a family member: “Son, Josh tells me you are invaluable. Good work.”
Could it be $7,000?” I asked myself. I was almost giddy amidst the mistletoe and holly wreaths, eggnog and punch, when Josh emerged from a crowd brandishing an envelope.
“Congratulations!” he said, handing it to me. Always my teacher, he added, in a whisper, before walking away: “Open it in private.”
The thin envelope was finally in hand. Nearly a year of mind-numbing labor was to be rewarded. After a few more minutes of meaningless banter with co-workers, I stole into a vestibule. Surrounded only by an over-laden coat rack and several wreaths, I carefully revealed the check. I could not believe my eyes: “$250.” I looked again. Perhaps, I thought, the written number was a typo and the written part of the check read “Two thousand five hundred.” No, it did not.
I was crestfallen; I was crushed. The holiday week was ruined. Too ashamed to tell my family, I confided only in a law school classmate who also happened to work in North Jersey.
“What should I do?” I asked Gina on the telephone.
“I know someone who might help,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“My uncle was just saying at Christmas dinner he’s overwhelmed and could use an associate in his divorce practice in Fort Lee. It’s not classy like Yardley, Grinnell & Berman, but it’s not boring, either,” she said.
“Divorce law?” I said, frowning.
“Well, he calls it ‘family law,’” she said.
“Oh, that’s MUCH better,” I said.
“The money’s still green,” she said.
“Good point,” I said. “I’ll call him.”

Ralph DiPierro answered the phone himself. When I explained who I was and why I was calling, he said: “Can you start next week?”
“Don’t you want to interview me?” I asked.
“Nah, if you’re a friend of Gina’s you’re probably okay. It’s not rocket science, you know,” said Ralph.
“Can I get back to you after I talk to my boss?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Oh, and I can pay you $30,000 to start. Is that enough?” Ralph asked.
I was stunned. Without even an interview, I had a job offer with a fifty percent raise. I thanked Ralph and prepared to talk to Josh.
On the first workday following the holiday, I hovered outside Josh’s office as though preparing an ambush. While he was still taking off his coat, I entered and asked: “Do you have a moment?”
“Sure,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Did you have a chance to speak to the other partners about me before the party last week?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, sitting down behind his desk. “They know you’ve been doing good work.”
“Is there any chance I will, maybe, be getting a raise?” I asked, trembling inside, but trying to sound composed.
“Absolutely,” said Josh. “I think that by the end of this coming year we should be able to move you up several thousand dollars.”
I paused for a moment while his words reverberated in my head: “at the END of this coming year… the END…SEVERAL…COMING…END.” I felt a surprising surge of relief, not anger. My way forward was clear. No doubt.
“Please consider this my two weeks notice,” I said, as measured as possible. “I have a more favorable job offer.”
Josh looked shocked. He stared at me, unspeaking, and appeared to shake his head involuntarily, like he was doing a double take. His beard appeared to twitch. “You’re quitting?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, feeling more control of my life than I’d felt in months.
I expected Josh to ask me about my new position and try to convince me family law was undignified. I thought he would, at least, ask me where I was going. Instead, he said: “Okay, then. Finish up whatever you were working on and then you can go. Two weeks won’t be necessary.” He looked down at his desk, indicating our discussion was over.
Walking out of Yardley, Grinnell & Berman several days later was a joyous event for me. Two secretaries took me out for lunch on the last day and one of the younger attorneys wished me well. Divorce law proved to be a short and bizarre detour in my career (probably worth a story or two in the future) but working for Ralph opened up other opportunities that proved even more valuable.
I called Josh several times over the next couple of years, thinking he might be interested in how I was doing. But he asked no questions and he never reciprocated. Finally, I quit doing that, too.

Advertisements