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.