Meanwhile, Back at the Day-Job


When I first limped back into Jack Murphy’s office on the heels of our exit from the community, I was relieved to find his door still open to me. So at the firm over the next few years, I kept my nose to the grindstone, trying to reassure my employers I still had what it took, professionally. I outlasted the jibes about searching for “higher authorities” and resumed the persona of the scholarly if eccentric legal analyst and writer. I got good results on some complex cases, published an article in the Loyola Law Journal and stood poised to reclaim my professional bona fides.

But some part of me, unrepentant of my past and still uncertain of my worldly direction, found it difficult to confine myself to the straight and narrow of law firm life. I was frankly frustrated by the limited occasion it was affording me for meaningful interaction with other human beings.

This may come as a surprise to anyone whose image of lawyers derives from some televised courtroom drama. The fact is, even “litigators” spend most of their time sequestered at their desks, poring over documents of one sort or another. There are scores of these solitary hours for each one spent in the lively cross-examination of a witness.

In addition, most lawyers tend toward emotional reticence. After all, it is our discretion (and unemotional aura of authority) that commend us to our clients. Nevertheless, while I hardly expected the kind of self-revealing processes that had been the staple of my interactive diet in the community, the sterility of what passes for communication among lawyers was the other end of the interpersonal spectrum.

The time came for me to be considered for partnership. This is, in law firm culture, what tenure is in academia. Partnership would thus place the firm’s and by extension, the legal community’s imprimatur on my professional achievements. And given the slow if scenic career path I had taken, I craved the recognition and sense of identity that “making partner” would finally afford me.

But my dissatisfaction with the interpersonal pedestrianism of law practice (and perhaps my inability to let things go too smoothly for too long) got the better of me. So it occurred to me I might be happier in the role of a judge than I had been as an attorney.

It also happened, just at that time, that there were an unusual number of openings on the Cook County Circuit Court. I had some political contacts in the Governor’s office, where those appointments would be made. But the current Governor was also nearing the end of his term.

This put me in a kind of “catch 22” situation. To be a viable judicial candidate, I would need the strong backing of my current employers, Jack Murphy and Jack Green. But this was hardly the time to be discussing with them my desire to be working somewhere else. If such candor were to cost me my partnership, it might dash, at the same stroke, any prospect I had for appointment to the bench.

As I ruminated on this dilemma, it struck me that this was the same moment (another layer of the onion) I had faced when applying for the job at Murphy & Green in the first place. Would I share any more of myself with them now than I had then? Or would I be hearing Jack Murphy say, down the road, “Of course we’ll support you for judge; but had you told us two years ago that you aspired to the bench, we would gladly have supported you then.”?

Thus determined to practice what I had preached in the letter to my brother Fred, I concluded that making partner was of little value if it required me to stifle my legitimate conflicts and ambitions. So I requested a meeting with Jack Murphy, Jack Green and the head of the firm’s litigation section, Kevin O’Reilly.

They did in fact question my commitment to the firm in the light of my interest in the bench. But the discussion was fair, frank and healthy. Afterwards, I tried to capture the essence of our conversation in the following:



 TO:      JLM, JJG and KMO


 DATE:  June 16, 1989

                   RE:     Partnership and “Commitment”


Just a few more thoughts about the meaning of partnership and the commitment to the firm that my judicial aspiration has apparently called into question. As a starting point, I think we can all agree that our present, employer-employee relationship has kept plenty of food on our respective tables. Having tested each other to that extent, I see the partnership decision as now upping the ante for all of us, precisely by moving the discussion beyond the breadwinning per se.

As an applicant for this enhanced status, what I’m about to say may be the height of presumptuousness. But the partnership I seek, far from a mere honorific, is also much more than the financial opportunity (and responsibility) the term legalistically implies. So when Jack M. says he needs partners “who will be there to share the load with him,” the potential partner in me hears a deeper statement.

“Financial commitment” is an oxymoron. We all have financial obligations; but I’ve always thought of the commitment between partners as something more personal: a heartfelt desire to work for the other’s highest good, in the broadest sense and as an end in itself. To be sure, such an alliance should not come at any one partner’s financial expense; but neither, in my view, need it compromise any partner’s non-monetary aspirations.

People who are with you for economic advantage alone, however mutual, will be gone the moment their financial self-interest so dictates. So if Jack ever is left holding the bag, it will be because he had “partners” who were obligated to him financially but, when push came to shove, not personally committed.

This isn’t just semantics. I believe that loyalty is a function of relationship in a way that promises and even performance can never be. And that perspective has made promoting myself as the productive equal (or better) of this or that other candidate for partnership not just off-putting, but off-point. For while such zero-sum competitiveness may get you a good assortment of brilliant lawyers, trial lawyers, rainmakers and worker bees, in the end, it doesn’t engender loyalty. Once the rainmaker convinces himself just how good a rainmaker he really is, why should he stay here and make rain for you?

Jack G. was right. Our discussion was less about my desire to be a judge than my need to share these thoughts with you three. Relationship and prosperity aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’ve got no bone to pick with financial security. (As Jack M. aptly put it, we wouldn’t be beating our brains out together, day in and day out, if we were all rich instead of argumentative.)

But just as you say you need partners who will be there for your bottom line, I need partners whose success cannot but grow with mine. What that means in this precise context is still a bit muddled for me, but perhaps the above will provide a backdrop for its further clarification.

I probably expended 30 non-billable hours on this effort to articulate, in the seemingly unreceptive environment of a busy law practice, ideals that had become part of me in the community. Kevin O’Reilley, who was valedictorian of his law school class, claimed not to understand a word of my memo. Nevertheless, he canceled a planned trip that would have absented him from the partners’ meeting at which my fate was to be decided. And spearheaded the effort in my behalf.

I did simultaneously apply for the bench. But the commission that vets judicial candidates for the Governor could not get past my recent stint as a spiritual communist. The second time I applied, my interview seemed to go much smoother (the community never even came up).

“Yeah,” Jack Murphy quipped when I still didn’t make the cut. “They must have powwowed before you got there: ‘Here comes the nut case . . . let’s not rile him!’”