Harvey becomes a pariah
by Harvey Gould
After I’d placed the call to my partner to tell her I was not capable of trying the upcoming case for her client, my role at my law firm changed. I no longer sought to bring in new cases and no partner any longer asked me to assume responsibility for new cases that were coming in. The change was a painful one. By the time I’d been removed from my office by paramedics some months earlier, which was the beginning of the process of multiple tests that five months later led to my diagnosis of PMF, I’d been a lawyer for thirty one years, twenty seven of them at my law firm.
Besides being a trial lawyer, I was actively engaged with others at the firm in a variety of capacities. I’d always made myself available to anyone who wanted to discuss some problem related to the firm, knowing that I’d respect their confidence. I’d mentored younger attorneys for years. I’d been an active member in administration of the firm, serving on its Administrative Committee, participating in major executive decisions, responsible for procuring life insurance and disability insurance for partners and health insurance for all at the office.
I was the Administrator for the firm’s 401k program, so employees routinely received emails from me on a variety of matters. I’d been the Chair of the firm’s trial department, conducting weekly meetings with all litigators in the firm, securing updates on the handling of cases, determining if work needed to be reassigned to more evenly balance workloads or if, on what we agreed were “major cases,” it made sense to assign an associate to assist in various aspects of preparation. And, of course, I was at the firm on a regular basis and when my cases were ready for trial, heading off for weeks, and sometime months at a time, to handle them. Suddenly, others took over my various roles.
One of my partners, thinking he was doing me a favor by protecting my privacy, sent a Memo to all personnel at the firm. In vague terms he explained that I was seriously ill, but that the partners would keep folks posted on how I was doing. Since a few months earlier I’d been removed from the office by paramedics, looking a whiter shade of pale (thank you, Moody Blues), had been hospitalized, hadn’t returned to the office for some time, and then was only coming in occasionally and not arriving at or remaining through standard hours, and most at the office were aware that I was continuing to be undergoing a series of medical tests, and had a grayish pallor, advice that I “was seriously ill” was less than a news flash.
Though he’d distributed the memo with the best of intentions, it isolated me and made me something of a pariah.
After they received the memo, people stopped coming to see me; some averted eye contact in the hallways. Though they’d known something serious was wrong, now they felt the stakes had been ratcheted up and they’d be intruding by even having any contact with me. I decided the situation was becoming unnecessarily tense, and my wife and I were going through enough pressure without adding more. So, I distributed my own Memo, advising all to feel free to stop by and that I’d be happy to explain what I knew was happening to me (which at the time wasn’t much because no diagnosis had yet been made).
A number of young attorneys and staff members took me up on my offer, each, in his or her way saying they hadn’t wanted to impose. I assured them that I had no hesitation in explaining as best as possible what had occurred to me so far, what I knew, and what I didn’t know. This helped to relieve much of the tension that had built up in the office around a general sense of a code of silence. Nothing helps to break tension like honesty.
At the same time I was concerned that word not get out into the general legal community that “Harvey is sick.. I still was unsure of the exact diagnosis, whether I’d recover reasonably soon, and be back to slugging it out in the rough and tumble of trial work. Most of us tend to circulate within comparatively small communities, whether of friends, families or business associates. Once word gets out to just a few within any particular community that one of its members is a wounded bird, soon the “wounded bird” is treated differently. In the case of a trial lawyer, among other things, that means that cases stop being referred as it becomes generally accepted that his or her career is ended.
The effect is akin to a panic run on a bank before the days of federal deposit insurance. Back then, when word would get around that a bank’s liquidity was at risk, whether true or not, depositors would start withdrawing their cash at a dazzlingly fast clip and soon, “the run” on the bank would lead to the institution having to shutter its doors. Out of the fear of a “panic run” away from a “sick” lawyer, and not knowing what was in store for me regarding my health, I tried to prevent information spreading to the local legal community that I was gravely ill.
It takes years for an attorney to build a reputation such that other lawyers trust sending their clients to that lawyer, when, for whatever reason, the referring attorney is unable to handle the case. It takes one rumor, running like wild fire throughout the community, undoing in an instant all those years of hard work of building a reputation and confidence. Suddenly, it is accepted that you’re no longer in the game, no longer fit and ready to take on the next arduous case. It proved an impossible task to prevent the spread of “the news” and soon I was receiving “condolence” calls from other practitioners, all wishing me well, code language for saying, “You know I love you, but you know I won’t be able to send you more cases.”
My workload was so heavy as of the time that my disease came knocking that it took years for me to finish up the necessary tasks on the many cases I was handling, and get them to a stage where they could be handed off to others, but effectively my career as a trial lawyer was over. Still, it took my brain the same number of years to accept that my body had slowed down, no longer had the stamina of just a few years earlier, and that, a nap in the middle of the day was not a bad thing, but often was even necessary.
The more I accepted that my body was not up to the challenge, the less I went to the office. I began working from home for the first time in my career. Beyond the physical challenges that lay ahead, my wife and I needed to start adjusting to a new and different life, one in which I no longer could expect to be practicing law fifteen years into the future. I either had to adjust and adapt—no—we had to adjust and adapt to the new life ahead of us, whatever that meant, or be crushed by the weight of the change.
I’d just seen the first of many “Caution Ahead” signs on the long and winding road
© Harvey Gould and MPNforum.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Harvey Gould and MPNforum.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.