LC died on Christmas day two years ago. He was the smartest lawyer I have ever known. I met him after getting fired from a general practice firm outside Jackson. It was a two-person partnership, similar in size to the office Matt and I run today, but these guys were toxic together and the working environment they created was claustrophobic to me. They broke up a few years after I left, and I have tried to do the exact opposite of them as I have advanced in my professional career.
Frankly, I was fortunate to finish law school when most graduates easily got jobs, before mass tort reform swept through Mississippi and put many attorneys out of work. I think I was initially hired because I was on the baseball team at Mississippi State. You can read some recent writings about my baseball days here and here.
I was miserable the first nine months of my legal career. The day I got fired, everyone disappeared during lunch, which was odd for that particular work environment. It was a Monday. About fifteen minutes before the office was to close, I was paged into one of my boss’s office. His partner was already seated in a guest chair, and I obliviously plopped down in the other. Neither made immediate eye contact. The boss sitting behind the desk turned his eyes from the carpet to me and said, “We are letting you go. Please gather your personal things right now and go ahead and leave.” He then handed me a check equivalent to a half month’s pay.
I wanted to say something, but my voice was trembling and I stumbled for words – so with little protest, I just stood up, nodded my head, and retreated to my little workspace to take my newly framed law license from the wall. As I gathered my things, the partner who did the talking brought me a banker’s box and offered to help carry my personal things to my 1999 Chevrolet Beretta. The other partner sat in his office and stared at his computer screen for a while before finally disappearing.
Right before I walked out with my last load, I put a poem I had written a few weeks before in the chair of everyone who worked in the office. You obviously know your job sucks when you are sitting around writing poetry about it. This act of defiance was energizing for a few seconds until the feeling was replaced by terror. Here is what I wrote:
the red digits on the nightstand blinks
the alarms sound early so we feel as if we are sleeping in a little
time will not slow down
we cannot stop the hollow boredom of today
but we can get so busy we don’t notice it at all
is that the answer
so we sit in the office staring out the window if we have one
or the computer screen, our digital window to the world
or we bury ourselves in paper so we do not have time to stare out the window
I want to go outside and lay in the grass
but I don’t want to get my work clothes dirty
dry cleaning is so expensiveCraig Robertson (2000)
After a visit to my parent’s house, a mini breakdown and the most time in prayer I had spent since my days in the youth group at Oak Forest Baptist Church, the next day I sat down with a staffing agency for legal professionals. The office was downtown on the fifth floor of a building past its prime. I took the stairs because the elevator was not working. I walked into the large, one room office breathing heavily. The owner greeted me warmly and offered me a seat. I told her I had become a lawyer to be my own boss and control my own future. I explained my dad had always worked for other people and he encouraged me to make my own way. I even read her the poem I left in the chairs of my former coworkers. When I finally took a breath or she had heard enough, she looked me in the eyes and said these words I have never forgotten,
“Craig, I don’t think you need a job, you just need a place to work.”
I was puzzled. She obviously did not hear me. I did need a job. I had a mortgage I could not afford and a law license that did not come with a set of instructions. She continued, “I know a few attorneys who have extra offices who may give you a little contract work to get you on your feet. You can call around and see if they have any openings.”
“Contract work. Some attorneys don’t really have associates; they have people work with them on different projects and pay them based on the project.”
I began to understand.
“You should call Elsie James.”
She scribbled down the number and gave me a few more ideas before we ended our meeting. I envisioned Elsie as a gray-haired female attorney who probably did social security disability or something, but I didn’t care. I needed a job, or at least a place to work. I thanked my new friend for the information and told her I would follow up and let her know how it goes. I called Elsie when I got home. This was before I owned a mobile phone.
“Law office,” said the voice on the other end of the line in a matter-of-fact way.
“May I speak to Elsie James?”, I said with less confidence than I intended.
“One moment please.”
And with that, the phone rang as I was being connected. I was not asked for my name —I was just connected. My heart sank when I heard a musical, deep voice on the other end of the line.
“LC James speaking.”
Obviously, Elsie was a man and did not share the spelling of his name with a cow. I explained how I heard he may have some extra offices and possibly some overflow work and I was interested in coming in and talking to him about it.
“How about tomorrow at 1:30?”
“That would be great!” I yelled in his ear with too much enthusiasm for a serious lawyer. He gave me brief instructions and suggested I bring a resume. I felt enough accomplishment to wipe away some of the tears I had shed the day before and marked it down as my first job interview, post poetic exit. I tried a few more numbers without success before calling it a day.
Wednesday morning, I made sure I put on the only suit I owned for my meeting with LC. His office was located on State Street near the Old Capital Museum. There was nowhere to park on the street, so I found a spot under the Pearl Street Bridge, which is accessible from the Hal & Mal’s parking lot. When I stepped under the green awning and through the door of LC’s office, I felt a sense of peace – like I was in the right place. I assertively approached the sliding window at the front, but the receptionist was toward the back of the open room behind the glass and didn’t notice me until I cleared my throat.
“I’m here to see Mr. James.”
“What’s your name?” She asked in a friendly but professional tone.
“I’m Craig Robertson.”
“Okay, have a seat and I’ll let him know you’re here.” And with that, she turned away and picked up the telephone.
I turned and looked for a place to sit. After quickly surveying the waiting room, I spotted several green, leather chairs with wooden arms. I made my way toward the closest one. The floors were adorned with several ornate rugs of varying sizes covering the parquet hardwood. It turns out; what looked like leather was actually vinyl, which made me slip a little when I sat. Next to me was a large, ceramic figurine of a Japanese woman holding a basket painted in soft, pastel colors. I scanned the room and realized there were other ceramic ladies keeping watch and a dragon with a gold tip on its tail next to an unused ashtray. There were at least twenty paintings on the walls, mostly of objects like pears, walnuts, and tangerines, but there were also a few landscapes. After a few more minutes of rehearsing my interview talking points in my head, I heard footsteps coming down a set of stairs behind the door to my right. The stained wooden door flung open.
“Are you Craig?”
“Yes sir.” I said as I hopped to my feet.
“I’m LC –glad you found us. May I offer you some spring water?”
“That would be great,” I replied.
LC appeared to be in his mid-fifties, and like me, he had poor posture. His receding hairline had silver tips and he smiled like he knew something I didn’t. He was wearing a blue shirt and a yellow tie, and his shoes had little tassels adorning the top. He had the biggest watch I had ever seen. It was a diver’s Rolex, silver with a black dial. I figured it probably cost more than my car. LC walked over to a water cooler and picked up a small, styrofoam coffee cup he filled from the water cooler before he handed it to me.
“Follow me,” he sang in a musical tone with extra emphasis on the “M.”
I nodded and walked up the same staircase I heard LC bound down. The stairs were covered in faded, blue commercial carpet and the lighting was dim. We turned the corner and to my right, was a windowless room with lots of books and a table surrounded by more of the green chairs I had become familiar with from downstairs. We moved across the wide, short hallway to an office on the left about halfway down. When I stepped inside, my eyes got a little wider at the stacks of paper everywhere. There was a couch on the left covered in boxes and accordion folders stuffed to their capacity with paper. The ceilings were probably fourteen feet high. His desk had reams of documents scattered about, piled like Jenga blocks in some places. There was a huge, bronze statue of the blind lady justice behind him on a credenza. It was at least three feet tall. I noticed in his ergonomic office chair there were several loose sheets of paper in the seat. He sat on the documents as if he didn’t notice and if he did, he didn’t care.
I handed LC my pitiful resume and expected our encounter to be amusing but brief. He read the document in front of me, which was only one page so it did not take long.
LC tossed my resume carelessly onto the other documents on his desk and looked straight at me with one eye and past me with the other. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he had very few questions, mostly giving me a narrative about his practice. He explained his work was mostly family and criminal law, and it was the one and only occasion he informed me he finished first in his class at Ole Miss the year before I was born. He did not say what I learned a few weeks later —he was the prominent divorce attorney mentioned in the news for months who negotiated First Lady Pat Fordice’s settlement.
He rounded third base of our meeting by saying ,“I can give you an office and someone to answer your phone and pay you per hour for the cases you work with me. You are also free to develop your own business as you are able, and you can use my office resources to that end. If you are interested, think about it and let me know.”
In my fire, aim, ready life modality I reacted with the following words: “LC, I don’t really need to think about it. If you will have me, I would like to give it a shot.”
“You can start Monday,” he said with a smile.
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 24 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. You will want him in your corner because he knows the things you care about deeply are at stake, and he will counsel you about wholistic modalities to foster health and wellbeing. He was a contract attorney for Honorable LC James for eight years.
Be on the lookout for Part 2 dropping next week