Working class solutions work just fine for me.
To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my spouse (Mary Henderson) and I did something we had never done before: we booked a long overseas leisure trip. We got married in 1993 when I was a firefighter-paramedic for a suburban Cleveland fire department and Mary was a writer for an advertising/public relations firm. I was 30. Mary was 31. Because I changed my career path five years later, I spent too much of the next 20 years in catch-up mode.
The long marriage and the overseas trip connect to LegalZoom. But it will make more sense with some background information. This is Sunday longform, which occasionally tries to connect law with broader themes related to values and purpose. Let’s see if I can hit the mark here.
I’m in the majority
Mary occasionally reminds me what I told her before we got married. “You’re marrying a firefighter. That’s all I’ll ever be. I’m never going to finish college.” I dropped out of college in 1984 after my junior year abroad at the London School of Economics.
The short version of what happened is that it was the mid-1980s and the zeitgeist did not mix well with my idealism. I was a serious student who channeled all my energy into reading and thinking about how to solve the great challenges of our time. I also observed an attitude of careerism taking hold among my classmates; or at least that was my strong perception at the time. Having zero interest in being a Reagan revolutionary, I wanted to bond myself to a more virtuous path. Dropping out of school seemed like an effective way to do that. As I told a handful of friends at the time, “What respectable corporation would hire someone who couldn’t even finish college?”
From 1984 to 1989, I made a modest living running a small landscaping business. During this time, I can remember thinking to myself how I spent days upon days, weeks upon weeks, months upon months interacting only with people without college degrees. This is not to say that I wasn’t in regular contact with people of significant talent and character. Like the majority of life, it was a bell curve. I was also in the majority of the workforce that lacked a four-year degree. Yet, that was a very valuable insight — all around me there was no shortage of people better than me on one or more important life skills.
On the eastside of Cleveland, many landscapers got to know one another. We had the same lunch spots or stored our equipment near one another. One of my peers was Mitch S., who worked as a firefighter for a local fire department. Landscaping was his “B” job — a second job built around the 24 on / 48 off schedule.
Mitch was ten years older than me and earning a much better living. He had a house, a wife and a family. I asked Mitch about the fire department, the pay, and how someone got hired. It all sounded good. Thus, I began scanning the local community papers for notices of civil service exams.
As I started picking up applications, I noticed the large number of people who had the same bright idea. Before getting hired, I took nearly a dozen firefighter entrance exams. Never once were there fewer than 200 applicants, typically for one or two openings. Most of the exams assessed general intelligence with an emphasis on spatial and mechanical reasoning. After that came a physical agility test, a polygraph, a background investigation and a psychological assessment. I made it through this gauntlet and got offered a job. My first day was October 23, 1989 — definitely one of the happiest days of my life.
I met Mary about a year later at a fundraising event. As luck would have it, we attended the same church. We got engaged in December 1992 and got married in June 1993. We bought a house in Lyndhurst, Ohio, less than a mile from the firehouse.
Getting interested in law
In Post 068, I discussed how Jason Barnwell felt he was the “nerd” and “odd duck” within the Microsoft Legal Department. That would have been an apt description of me at the Lyndhurst Fire Department circa 1991. I came to work with copies of the New York Times, Scientific American, The Atlantic, and Harpers in my bag. In the radio room, I watched Booknotes on C-Span.
During the early part of my firefighter career, I was on “B” shift. The next most junior member had 14 years on the job. That person was also our union president, the late Bob B. I was very proud to be a member of the Lyndhurst Fire Department and IAFF-Local 1676 because my colleagues were very talented and reliable people with no shortage of practical wisdom. When we headed into collective bargaining in the fall of 1991, Bob asked me to attend the sessions as the official notetaker. I felt honored to be included and grateful for an opportunity to contribute.
I became interested in law by reviewing our prior collective bargaining agreements and reading old fact-finding and arbitration briefs from the 80s. I also dug into a book on the Ohio public employee collective bargaining law with annotations to relevant case law. My regular attendance at union meetings eventually got me elected Vice-President, which meant exactly nothing except for the fact that Bob B. had to retire early due to a work-related injury. Thus, for the next round of negotiations, I got to take the lead.
When people ask why I went to law school, I sometimes kid that it was “those bastard management attorneys.” The City’s go-to firm was Duvin Cahn & Hutton (now part of Littler). Duvin Cahn was well known–or notorious in the eyes of some–for busting the grocery store unions throughout Greater Cleveland. Suffice it to say, having thoroughly studied their tactics in prior negotiations, we were ready to press our side. It was intellectually challenging work that routinely kept me up until the late hours of the night. I had not been this engaged in something for a very long time.
In response to my newfound engagement, in the fall of 1994 I drove down to the campus of Case Western Reserve to make an inquiry about re-enrolling. I was informed that the person I needed to talk to was Dean Donald Laing in the Office of Collegiate Affairs. As evidence that some fateful purpose was at work, Dean Laing was the same person who, in August of 1984, summoned me to campus to explain why I was dropping out of college. He remembered that conversation. So did I.
I explained to Dean Laing that I was interested in going to law school, which required me to finish my degree. (It was good preparation for the conversation I had to have with Mary later that evening.) Dean Laing found the situation amusing. I did as well but in a way that was quite humbling. I was admitting that the strong conclusions I had made a decade earlier were, at a minimum, incomplete. In my own mind, I had crossed that bridge many months earlier. But now, in the presence of Dean Laing, I had to say it out loud. It is hard to overstate how valuable this was; not because it was humiliating (it wasn’t), but because I lost the fear of admitting I was wrong. Having done it once, I could do it again. This freed me up to just learn.
I re-enrolled in the spring of 1995 and graduated two years later. By that time, our daughter, Lauren, had been born. So we did the things that young married couples with kids do–we bought life insurance and hired a lawyer to draft a set of wills.
Use your talents
The original plan was to never finish college. Now, the revised plan was to finish college with a stellar academic record that could get me a scholarship to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, which had a long history of enrolling police and firefighters.
Yet, as I executed on the revised plan, I had moments that gave me pause. In particular, one night I was on an EMS call with two new recruits. The patient was having very bad seizures, making it very difficult to secure his airway through endotracheal intubation (one of the cornerstones of paramedic training). As the senior medic on duty, my solution was to drive fast to the ER. However, one of the new hires suggested a nasal intubation–i.e., use a smaller tube, lube it up, and enter through the nose into the trachea. I had read about this technique but had never seen it done; nor had I practiced it on a manikin. Yet, the new hire was sufficiently confident that we encouraged him to give it a try. And it worked.
I was impressed by my colleagues. But I also asked myself if I would ever react in the same way. The answer was no. Rather that improving my EMS skills, I was much more interested in union matters, my school work, or whatever arcane reading material was in my duffle bag. I reflected on the possibility that I was taking up a space for a new hire who would bring more intrinsic interest to the work.
Over the two years it took to finish my senior year at CWRU, I enrolled in several classes with Andy Morriss, who is now the Dean of the School of Innovation at Texas A&M and before that Dean of Texas A&M Law. But at the time he was a junior CWRU faculty member with a joint appointment at the law school and the business school.
After one of my classes, Andy said to me, “You’re a really good student. You ought to go to law school.”
“I am going to go to law school,” I replied. “At Cleveland-Marshall after I finish here.” Andy countered, “You should go to a really good law school.”
“Why would I do that? Do you know the schedule at the fire department?” That was my stock answer at the time, albeit with some self doubt creeping in. Although I was still on the revised plan, I began to wonder what would happen if I placed a much larger bet on work that better fit my talents. Moreover, the world was changing a lot in the mid-90s. I didn’t want to spend my life as a bystander to all the action. In 1998, with Mary’s support, I moved on to a revised revised plan, which included applying to University of Chicago Law School. Andy said if I got into Chicago, I should go.
To get off the “hold” list, I had to fly to Chicago to interview with Richard Badger, U of C’s longtime Dean of Admissions. Dean Badger said he had never interviewed a firefighter before. Out of curiosity, he asked, “How hard is it to get a job on a fire department?” I replied, “As a statistical matter, it is far more difficult to get hired as a firefighter than it is to get admitted into this law school.” I then explained the numbers. Dean Badger thought this was hilarious. A couple of weeks later, I got my ticket.
In late Sept. 1998, I started commuting to Chicago every week via Southwest airlines. After I landed, I took the 59th street bus from Midway to Hyde Park. This was the new routine.
The socialization of lawyers
I like stories, but I’m not a big fan of opaque writing. So I’ll deliver one of my core points here. Lawyers are hindered by some unhelpful baggage that starts to accumulate during law school.
In my observation and experience, law school tends to socialize students into a new way of thinking and, by extension, a new way of evaluating professional options that is broadly shared by one’s peers. There is no neutral way to put this — it’s a safety-in-herds dynamic. It starts with students competing with one another to gain access to positional goods that signal intellectual ability — admission into the highest ranked law schools, top grades, law review, callbacks, callbacks with the most prestigious firms, judicial clerkships, a hierarchy of clerkships with Supreme Court feeder judges at the top, and then a pecking order of prestige among the nine Supreme Court Justices. This socialization is more acute at higher ranked schools where the competition for positional goods tends to last longer. Cf. Zaring & Henderson, “Young Associates in Trouble,” 105 Mich. L. Rev. 1087, 1088-89 (2007) (reviewing two novels on associate life and observing, “By eliding hard choices, these young associates find themselves in unhappy, unfulfilling environments without really knowing how they got there, dis-empowered and alienated from their work. And, ironically, their wealth and prestige still make them the object of envy.”)
Granted, when I enrolled at University of Chicago in the fall of 1998, I didn’t understand any of this. However, I had been partially inoculated by 14 years of blue-collar work experience. (Note I said partially.) In December, at the end of my first quarter of law school, I started getting invitations to Holiday parties hosted by large Cleveland law firms trying to recruit 1Ls from national law schools. I accepted them all, hoping to land a job and contribute to the family budget.
Despite having only ten weeks of legal education, I received offers from several major firms in Cleveland at pay rates 40% to 80% higher than my very decent firefighter salary. Yet, what would have been my options if I had attended Cleveland-Marshall? It seemed like an absurd fixation on law school brand, especially when combined with such a superficial evaluation of people.
That impression deepened during the 1999 fall OCI recruiting season when twice as many employers showed up as U of C students available for hire. Having already lined up my summer 2000 employment in Cleveland, I was a mere spectator. Yet, what I observed among my classmates — the most intelligent people I had ever been around — was an obsession with obtaining offers from firms that, one year earlier, very few had ever heard of. Further, the firms were much more alike than they were different. What about career opportunities outside the OCI bubble? The need to win, or perhaps prove that one belonged, seemed to be crowding out balanced reflection.
Through observing this process, I got the idea of creating a law school course focused on law firms as businesses. It was obvious that we needed a counterweight to the enormous pull of positional competition — higher quality information on how the legal marketplace worked and critical distance to make important decisions related to values and purpose. That course was first offered at Indiana Law in the fall of 2004. Shortly thereafter, data and ideas from the course became the basis for several law review articles. By continuing to pull on this string, I created my tenure file and a career researching the legal market, including a recent landscape report for the State Bar of California. See Post 058 (providing link to report). So far, it’s been a good run.
All of this is a long way of saying that I owe an enormous debt to my working class life experience. But for that experience, I wouldn’t have seen what was right in front of me. I thought it was time to share this perspective as it might be helpful to others.
A couple of years ago, my original life insurance policy expired. I was very happy that the insurance company won that bet. Before it expired, I got a new policy that will get Mary (and hopefully me) safely into retirement.
It has been more than 20 years since Mary and I signed our original wills. In the intervening years, Lauren turned 21 and we moved to two different states. Thus, we agreed it was necessary to update our wills and execute other documents to deal with the possibility of physical and mental incapacity. When we made plans for a significant overseas leisure trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, Mary used our departure date as a hard deadline to get everything done.
We fit the simple default model. If one of us should predecease the other, 100% of our assets transfers to the surviving spouse. If Mary and I should perish together (e.g., on a transatlantic flight to Europe), Lauren would be our sole heir.
After a month or so of serious reflection, I gave the task to LegalZoom. Mary and I spent two hours on a Saturday working our way through the questionnaires. The total package included two wills, two powers of attorney, and two living wills. The total cost was $296.00. In terms of customer experience, I would give it a 9.5 out of 10. I am very satisfied.
The most interesting and important part of this story, however, is the fact that it took me over a month to make this decision. It took that long because the part of me socialized as a lawyer had to process feelings of shame and embarrassment.
These feelings were not rational because, rationally, I made a prudent decision based on considerations of cost, quality and convenience. LegalZoom is a expert system, which is ideal for the most common legal fact patterns. Forty years ago, an early version of this technology drove the storefront revolution, which sociologist Jerry Van Hoy concluded was great for consumers but bad for lawyers because selling the simple cases was profoundly tedious and unremunerative. See Post 059 (discussing rise and fall of storefront revolution). Today, Thomson Reuters sells very similar technology on a subscription basis to law firms that are trying to earn a living in a flat-fee world.
Although my legal market research influenced my decision to use LegalZoom, see, e.g., photo below, I only got to the other side when I started to channel the practical wisdom of the firehouse. My fellow firefighters would want an answer to the simple question, “why should I pay more?”
Lawyers and legal educators seldom discuss LegalZoom. But when they do, it is typically to denigrate what the company offers. My emotional makeup is not unique or special among lawyers. Thus, it is likely that other members of the legal profession, when faced with the prospect of using LegalZoom or a similar innovation not widely sanctioned by our peers, would also experience similar feelings of shame and embarrassment. These are powerful emotions that compromise our ability to process information in a balanced and objective way. I worry about the possibility of the legal profession getting stuck in this rut for another half generation. What a waste.
Some lawyers/readers might disagree with my conclusions. Indeed, some might relish the prospect of my estate being thrown into probate by a defect in a LegalZoom document. If so, you might want to bring that up with your therapist or your priest. You’re giving the topic more headspace than it deserves.