S. Lee Manning: The vacation that changed my life occurred years ago when I was a brand new law school graduate working as an associate at a well-known national law firm. To get your personal subscription to our blog, just click here.
Law had not been my first choice of a career. I had wanted to be a writer, but I feared I didn’t have it in me to be a novelist – and I didn’t like being poor.
After several years of working as an editor on a law enforcement trade magazine, single and broke in Manhattan, I started at Rutgers Law School.
I worked my butt off in law school, culminating in my becoming managing editor of the law review and graduating in the top ten percent, which landed me a job at a prestigious law firm.
While I was no longer either single or poor, I was driven. I was assigned to a large litigation, where I was one of twelve lawyers, the one on the bottom-most rung. We flew to California for the case and settled into temporary offices. The hours were long, and the work tedious, but I tried my best.
I wanted to do well, to prove myself and to become the best possible attorney, maybe even become a partner.
But everything seemed to go wrong. I took too long reviewing documents. A paralegal misinformed me, so I changed a document and it then had to be redone at the last minute, making our side late. I couldn’t blame the paralegal – I should have checked myself.
I’m getting to that vacation story, I really am.
Finally, the coup de grace. The senior partner on the case assigned me to insert citations from our opponent’s transcript of a meeting into an important brief we were preparing for court. It is critical that all statements of law or fact in a brief be supported by statutes, case law, transcripts, depositions, affidavits, etc. Our brief had made various statements of fact.
We had two sets of transcripts: one from our client, one from our opponent. The senior attorney on the case decided our case would be so much stronger if we relied on our opponent’s words, instead of the words of our client, to support our argument. I was to go through the brief, insert citations to the opponent’s transcript in support, and turn the finished product over to a junior partner.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the transcript from our opponent didn’t support statements in our brief, and that citing to it would be inaccurate. I trotted into the junior partner and explained the problem. His solution: I should cite to the closest approximation in our opponent’s transcript to our brief, even if it was inaccurate. I should also put in citations to our client’s transcript that would be accurate.
I did so.
The next day, all the attorneys on the case were called into the senior partner’s office, where he lambasted the shoddy work on the brief. To my horror, I realized that the junior partner had removed all the citations to our client’s transcript, leaving only the inaccurate citations to our opponent’s transcript. Everyone in the room, all twelve attorneys, looked at me. Everyone knew it was my assignment.
The junior partner looked at his hands and said nothing.
I could say nothing. I was the most junior person in the room. How could I say that I’d gone to the junior partner and that this was his fault? If I said something, I was screwed. If I said nothing, I was screwed.
Two days later, I flew home in disgrace – off the case. I was to be assigned a new partner and a new case. First, I took a week’s vacation.
I was a mess. I was humiliated, and disillusioned with the career I’d fought so hard to attain. I wanted to crawl under my bed and never come out.
My husband thought that a change of scenery would be better than my sulking under the bed. We both loved the country and had visited the Berkshires in Massachusetts several times. We decided to go a little farther north, into southern Vermont, where we could try cross country skiing. I had always loved snow – we rarely had it in Cincinnati when I was growing up – and it always seemed somehow magical.
Jim, our German Shepherd, Torts, and I piled into our Subaru and headed out.
We spent one night in a slightly shoddy older hotel that accepted pets.
After a dinner of carryout food in our room, we crunched on snow down a shoveled path. A full moon illuminated the way. Torts bounded ahead of us, plowing his own paths through foot deep drifts, and returned, white from snow clinging to his fur.
Our reservation for the next few days was in Manchester, at a hotel that did not allow pets, and we reluctantly left Torts at a kennel dedicated to German Shepherds for the balance of the trip. Visible from our window, a mountain rose cold and white with a fresh coating of snow, and we bought wood for the fireplace a few feet from the foot of our bed.
That day, we drove past Stratton mountain to a small cross country ski area.
We rented skies, received a basic lesson in maneuvering, and then headed for a trail through the woods. We glided past picture perfect trees in the silence of fresh snow. When we returned, we drank hot chocolate in front of a wood-burning stove in a former barn. A lop eared rabbit hopped through the room, pausing for a brief pet.
After dinner, we walked down a street where icicles hung from eaves as snowflakes slowly drifted from heavy skies. Then we returned to our hotel, built a fire, and watched the flames until they flickered and died. We snuggled down to sleep under a comforter.
We did this for four days, four perfect days.
What I remember from that vacation was not just the beauty but the overwhelming sensation of peace. I was not the ambitious young attorney who was failing miserably at her job. I was, as we would now say, in the moment. Nothing existed but the view of the mountain as the sun rose and the sky turned pink, the snow that clung to the bare branches of the trees, the golden flames dancing in the fireplace and my wonderful husband by my side.
Then, we picked up Torts and headed back to New York. The glow did not last when I returned to the job, although things did get better. After I turned a brief in to the new partner I had been assigned, he stopped me in the hall, not only to tell me how well-written it was but how pleasantly surprised he was at the quality of my work. I knew what it meant. I knew what he’d been told – and it felt good to have surpassed the low expectations he’d had of me. I worked for him for the balance of my time at the firm, and after I left, he wrote me a glowing recommendation.
But I was no longer basing my self-worth on whether or not I succeeded as an attorney. I had come to several realizations after the Vermont vacation: First, that I really loved Vermont and wanted to go back, and, if possible, live there. Second, that I really didn’t love being an attorney – and that somehow, at some point, I would return to writing, perhaps even writing about my experiences as an attorney.
It took much longer than I thought it would, but I’ve achieved both goals. I am now living in northern Vermont, always appreciative of the beauty and peace of my surroundings.
And I’m writing. I’m not writing about law, but about international espionage; however, my legal background crops up in my fiction. Alex Feinstein, one of my main characters in Trojan Horse, is an attorney, working on innocence projects. The backstory not discussed in Trojan Horse for Kolya Petrov, my protagonist and principal spy, is that he graduated from Columbia Law School but found he hated practicing law.
Would I be where I am if Jim and I had gone for a Caribbean vacation instead of a vacation to Vermont? Impossible to say. Two roads diverged in a wood….
What a wonderful description of the moment transformation begins, then the affirmation that one isn't crazy after all. One of the major problems with law firms is that too many eat their young, especially the best of them. You were a threat, S. Lee, and they got rid of you. As for the junior partner who had no cajones, I suspect he never found them. But you have something better — chops, brains, and big talent!
Great story, S. Lee — your experience at that law firm with the junior partner who obviously was such a jerk sounds like the basis for a pretty good novel….in addition to the great stories you already write about espionage and intrigue! Also it's wonderful that you found the place where you feel you truly "belong" there in Vermont — and how that wonderful vacation showed you the way! Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Karna and Gayle. Big law firms just grind up associates. I did use this law firm experience in the first novel I ever wrote. The novel wasn't very good, but I got it out of my system. I might revisit it at some time. Maybe not. I'm really happy where I am now, in Vermont, writing international espionage.
Ahh, this brought back memories of my own law firm experiences. Some were just as bad at this. Glad you got out and on to better things! Agree with Gayle above, I suspect that junior partner is still miserable as hell. Great post!
What an interesting post, Ms. Lee. We all certainly do have our up's and down's, don't we? If we are lucky and smart–as you are–then we learn from them and go on to a better way of living our lives. I am so glad that you have, and I must add that I have wondered how you got from NJ to VT, and now I know!
Beautifully written, by the way.
Jamie, aren't we lucky to be out of law, especially as practiced in the big law firms? KK – yes, life is interesting, isn't it, how our bad experiences form us into the people we become. I thought of you when I was writing about the rabbit.
Sandy, really beautiful story of how sometimes bad situations are actually opportunities for life-changing events. So happy you returned to your true passion…writing.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could sometimes just say what we want in the moment, to take out that Junior Partner so willing to leave you stranded on the rocks? Guess that's why we write. The pen is mightier than the sword.