Heroes or Janitors, A Matter of Survival

A call from a lawyer with whom I was working on a case came in while I was on the phone with another lawyer. I told him I would have to call him back, the other call being about a criminal defense lawyer, a good person and good lawyer, having a breakdown. Later, when I called back, the first lawyer asked me an interesting question: why? Why did a lawyer who was in extremis, questioning whether he could face another day in the trenches, call me.

My answer was off-the-cuff, that people recognize me as an “honest broker,” that I won’t lie to them, give them some platitudinous tummy rubs about how they’re heroes of the cause and doing God’s work by defending the Constitution. We’ve all heard that tripe, even as the law students and baby lawyers repeat it back and forth because they’re young, naive and foolish.

But was that really why people would call an old curmudgeon, a lawyer who isn’t exactly know for being all touchy-feely, filled with empathy and inclined to gently rub their tummy with the soothing words that will make them feel that they haven’t squandered their life on a wasted delusion?

I see too many law students and young lawyers, and their sycophants, who extol their virtues as if passionate beliefs in whatever they feel constitutes justice at any given moment under any given scenario makes them brave, strong and fierce.

They call themselves heroes. They get called heroes by their adoring fans. These are the people who won’t survive, because it creates a mindset that they’re doing this work because they’re saving the world. They want to save the world, whatever that means, and gird their loins every morning with an affirmation that the world will be a better place for their showing up.

How many times can a hero fail? How many times can you pretend to wear a cape while cutting a plea for someone you believe is innocent, or at least not nearly as guilty as they say, and not let it seep into your head that you’re no hero, but just a cog in the machine that grinds out misery? Who are you kidding?

What distinguishes an old guy like me is that I’m still here. It’s not been more than thirty-five years since I walked into the well to get beaten to a pulp, and yet I kept coming back. Sure, there are the big wins, the huge successes, the people I saved. But there are the losses too, the ones who should never have gone down but did. And yet, I awoke the next morning and did it all over again.

Am I just that tough? Do I have no feelings, no empathy, no sense of justice to be crushed by the injustice?

I’m not a hero. I’m a janitor. That’s why I haven’t lost it, and that’s why I can answer the phone and talk a law student, a young lawyer, off the edge when they can’t take it anymore. Heroes do heroic things. Janitors clean up the mess humanity leaves behind. Heroes prevail because they are on the side of justice. Janitors clean up the best they can, knowing damn well there will be another mess tomorrow.

But you don’t want to be a janitor. You want to be a hero. You want to serve justice and save society. You want to change the world for the better. You’re in the wrong job. You won’t survive the misery of spending your life cleaning up other people’s messes as best you can. No one wants to deliver the unpleasant message anymore, as it’s rarely well received. The kids want to hear that they’ll all be special. As each day goes by when they’re not, they can’t deal with it. Eventually, it crushes their soul to come to the realization that they’re no hero.

Society needs us, but not as heroes no matter how your passionate friends implore you to stay strong and serve the cause of justice. Society needs janitors because messes get made and someone has to clean them up. It’s a worthy purpose.

After some reflection, I have a better answer to why people call me rather than someone more inclined to tell them sweet lies that it will get better, they will be heroes. As an old lawyer, I’ve survived what is killing them, breaking their hearts and spirits. They call me to find out how I’ve done what they feel they can’t. It’s because I never expected to be a hero, and I’m not ashamed to be the janitor. Society needs janitors too, maybe more than it needs heroes.

And then there are those days when you win, and maybe, for just a day, you are a hero. Enjoy it, as tomorrow you go back to the well to clean up the mess again as best you can.

18 thoughts on “Heroes or Janitors, A Matter of Survival

  1. Skink

    With you, brother. I was never a young lawyer. I was a few years behind in giving up fun. So I walked into it with a completely different brain than my contemporaries. From the beginning, I figured I was just a plumber with a different license. People call both of us when the shit is coming out of the sink.

    This job, on either the criminal or civil side of the courthouse, will eat those that don’t recognize it as just a job. Everyone has a piece of us–clients, clients-to-be, judges, bosses, underlings, firms, families, families of clients, families of underlings. I sometimes wonder if any piece of me is really mine.

    So I’m in the office on Saturday. I was here at 7, just like usual. I’m here because the shit is coming from the sink. I’m alone.

    The issue you pose has never been asked of me–how do you cope with shit in the sink when shit is always in the sink? I guess it’s because no one, including many lawyers, recognize that this is a job. Then again, I’m sure to have asked some plumber how he puts up with dealing in shit everyday. Most people, again including many lawyers, see lawyerin’ as glamorous. It ain’t. It’s pollution control.

    Long ago, I found a different way of maintaining perspective: I don’t wear the uniform unless I must. I sit here as always in golf shirt, jeans and boat shoes. Sometimes, it’s shorts and flip-flops. The blue, brown, grey wool is saved for times when judges are present. No one encountering me would guess that I did oral argument on constitutional issues this week in a federal circuit or that I’ve done it a couple dozen times. As often as possible, that ignorance includes me. Those times make all the difference.

    For those thinking lawyerin’ is a holy cause or a world changing mission, I have a suggestion: get a plumbing license.

    1. SHG Post author

      I tried reading the comic, but it was too blurry for my old eyes to see clearly. Maybe it’s only a comic for younger eyes.

      1. MelK

        Through breaking the image out on a page of its own, and using my browser’s “Zoom this page up” ability, I managed to make it … large and blurry. Still unreadable, but not quite unguessable.

        If you think it might work for you and I’ve not provided enough clues, feel free to ask me more directly. Happy to help.

  2. Richard Kopf


    What concerns me are those lawyers, mostly the young I would guess, who fail to call you.

    Knowing you aren’t a therapist, but only a janitor, the non-callers are disinclined to listen. If they did listen, they would learn that janitors cowboy up each and every day so as to be able to mop the floor even though it will never sparkle and few, if any, will notice the effort it took. Most often, jainitors don’t get rich either. It is enough for them that, at the end of their shift, they have put in a good day’s work. That is, the floor is partially free of vomit and shit. While it will never shine like the terrazo in the entrance to the CIA building, it is better than the alternative.

    No, the ones who don’t call you are the ones who refuse to confront reality. They don’t realize it but they are just one more janitor in a long line of janitors. That realization bites–once heard it impossible to unhear. For them, a role definition of relative insignificance is not good enough because fairies in the halls of academe have sprinkled pixie dust on them. That is exactly what the self-obsessed demanded too.

    However, jainitors don’t dispense pixie dust. At their very best, jainitors provide mops, pails, rubber gloves and most especially harsh cleaning solvents. These nondescript laborers say, gently or not, get back to work. Clean that fucking floor as best you can, and quit whining. After all, the floor will be covered in puke and shit once again tomorrow, and you must clean it up all over again as best you can. In truth, buddy boy (girl) that’s exactly what you signed up for.

    All hail the janitor–actually, the anti-hero–of New York. We desperately need more of them.


    1. SHG Post author

      In truth, buddy boy (girl) that’s exactly what you signed up.

      That’s the hole they fall into. They did, but they are told (and believe) they signed up to be heroes. When they realize they’re just janitors, they can’t deal with what they perceive to be failure.

    2. Nemo

      The Honorable Judge Kopf was more eloquent and covered more ground, but I’d like to add that I suspect those who call you recognize that you’ve come up through a very hard, demanding school, one that leaves you very little patience for illusions and delusions, yet having run that gauntlet you have retained your humanity. The machinery must be kept working, but you never forget that the machinery must serve people, or it’s a useless hazard.

      You might be surprised at how many want and/or need to hear that message.


  3. Carolyn Elefant

    Sorry Scott – going to disagree with you. You are a hero because lawyers know they can call you and you will help them fix it. You talked me through the Rakofsky madness which was a ludicrous case that still made me nervous and you probably don’t even remember but I called you when my husband was sick and you talked to me then too. I don’t even remember what you said but you didn’t shirk and you took the time and it made a big difference to me. Thank you. Still a hero in my book.

  4. Angrychiatty

    Dong anything for the primary purpose of external validation almost guarantees failure. Practicing law, learning an instrument, learning chess, whatever. It’s too hard and requires too many solitary hours learning and mastering the craft, and not enough adulation during the process. If external validation is what one seeks, stick to taking righteous positions on social media and calling people out on things. It’s so much easier and doesn’t require any real work.

  5. B. McLeod

    Lawyer mid-life crises are ugly. In some random decade when our colleagues pause and look around, they find their parents gone, and the friends and companions of their youth also largely gone, or simply lost track of. Typically, many of them are also still pining over some number of former spouses who grew tired of competing with the demands of law practice. Then it sets in. The system, which was broken and random before they arrived, is still broken and random (and will be so long after they are gone). They haven’t become famous. They didn’t fix the law or save the world, and it finally dawns on them that they never will. They are not The Chosen One after all.

    So, they are left depressed and derelict after their years of faithfully crusading. They are condemned to suffer on, with “only” the millions of dollars accumulated in their practice, the expansive house with spa and swimming pool, multiple vehicles, their RV and personal watercraft. (All the more horrible because the 99.9999999% of the people on the planet who have to manage with less have no sympathy whatsoever for their plight).

    The problem does indeed seem to be one of unrealistic initial expectations, or perhaps a misunderstanding of what the profession is about. Perhaps, like Private Benjamin, our colleagues intended to sign up for that OTHER legal profession, the one with the tennis courts and the condominiums.

    It is mid-June of 2019. Our legal system is as random and as broken as it ever has been. Our country is highly unstable, led by maniacs, and could become a banana republic or balkanized collection of squabbling states at any moment. Our fellow citizens have largely forgotten civics, do not understand what nations are about, and hate, above any foreigner, their fellow citizens who do not agree with their personal opinions.

    But my lawn was getting too shabby, so today, I mowed it. Then I set out 18.2 pounds of blackberries to thaw, so that tomorrow, I can begin brewing them into a fine dessert wine. Now, I am going to go out and play in my pool, and after that, I will have a few cold beers and play some guitar. I could get all bent out of shape and have a breakdown instead, but there is no point. There are things one may repair, and things one may not repair, and it is a great blessing to know the difference.

    1. SHG Post author

      Take away the millions. They’re no longer a given, leaving the heroes not merely failures as the Chosen One, but failures without a McMansion in which to console themselves.

  6. andrews

    I do mostly civil. In fact, mostly civil defense. And you know what I found? No one shows up in my office because they are happy.

    Mostly they are not going to be happy when they leave, either. Sure, by proper defense they avoid greater unhappiness, but avoidance of greater sadness is not exactly most folks’ goal in life.

    In the mean time, it is summer. I am in jeans and t-shirt. My windows are open, the A/C is turned off because I do not care for A/C. I am happy. I have plenty to do, I am not bored, and and [local area] is probably slightly better for what I do.

    So, yes, I may be a janitor. But isn’t it nice that someone out there provides that there may be cleaner floors tomorrow morning?

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