I graduated law school just as the credit-fueled booms were beginning. The fake money and artificial prosperity that came with debt and cheap credit was just a trickle then, not the tsunami that it would become. So in my law firm, although we freshly graduated attorneys were being paid well, it was just a fraction of what new law grads make today. And in those days law firms weren’t looking to squeeze every possible dollar out of the lives of the lawyers. We worked plenty hard, and under lots of stress, but the hours were reasonable and there was life outside of the office.
But there was one guy who was a few years older than us who seemed to never leave the office. He came in early and worked late. Every day. We used to joke that for him the only difference for him between a weekend day and any other day of the week is that on Saturdays and Sundays he didn’t need to wear a tie to the office. My pals and I joked about this workaholic, but I know we all pitied him too.
It didn’t happen immediately, but I eventually became that guy. Most of us did. As salaries skyrocketed, so did the demands on time. As law firms squeezed more and more profit from the lawyers, more and more of their time was required. And to meet the ever-increasing expectations of the partners, the associates worked harder and harder. When I began practicing law, making partner meant working less. By the time I made partner, that just meant you had to work harder than ever. Lawyers were making more money than ever before, and paying for it with their lives.
So for many years I worked seven days a week, often all day. I was an absentee husband and father. I had no patience with any lawyer would didn’t put job first and everything else second. As far as I was concerned, their priorities weren’t right. They had no business being lawyers. I dreamed of retiring someday, but it was a distant dream. My everyday reality was work, and little else. I had become the guy we used to make fun of.
A few years ago I finally had the good sense to get off the treadmill. I reoriented my priorities. I relinquished my partnership shares. I took a huge pay cut. I quit working weekends, and plenty of weekdays too. I started spending time at home. I started giving the farm the attention it deserved. I spent more time with Cherie. I got more involved at church. I enrolled in seminary. It was too late to get back all the years I’d squandered, but at least I hadn’t died at my desk. I would sometimes see that workaholic lawyer we made fun of. He’s not much older than me, but he’s totally gray and looks really old and usually unhappy. Fortunately, I wasn’t him anymore.
Then, and at a particularly inopportune time, I found myself tangled up in a big complex case. As it intensified, I’d occasionally have to work through the weekend. Then that became more and more frequent. Soon I wasn’t able to go home at all. And eventually it was back to 12+ hours a day, seven days a week, with no end in sight.
And unfortunately, that is where I am now.
I am him again.
This trial will be over someday. When it is, I’ll try to repair the damage it has caused. I’ll resolve to never let it happen again. And maybe this time it won’t.