Why did I want to become a lawyer?
Most attorneys might spend an hour providing a response to this question. I could do the same but here I’m going to keep it brief. I recall dating back to elementary school that one of my best friends (from 4th grade through high school) had attorneys as parents. They were some of the hippest, most educated and politically savvy people I’d ever met up to that time and I certainly had a lot of respect for them and the work they did. So in the back of my mind at least since I was 12 or so I thought about maybe becoming a lawyer down the road.
I also admit that like many people, I was a huge fan of the show L.A. Law in the late 1980s to early 1990s. It made the profession seem cool (as legal dramas do), especially for an attorney practicing law in Los Angeles. Little did I know at the time that legal dramas on television are so unrealistic because if they showed what day to day life as an attorney is really like no one would watch because of how dull it would seem. That hit show spiked law school applications tremendously and I certainly became enamored with the idea of getting a law degree as I got hooked watching characters like Victor Sifuentes, Arnold Becker, Jonathan Rollins, Grace Van Owen and Michael Cusack (played respectively by Jimmy Smits, Corbin Bernsen, Blair Underwood, Susan Dey and Harry Hamlin) strut their stuff in sharp suits every Thursday night at 10:00 p.m.
Most importantly in terms of my career decision: during my senior year of high school, back at a prep school in Massachusetts, I took a class dealing with the U.S. Constitution and student’s rights and that was an epiphany for me. Reading case law, writing mini briefs and presenting arguments to an audience of peers in an adversarial format with your opponent within an arm's reach was such an adrenaline rush. Beyond that I seemed to be really adept at reading court decisions, picking out important aspects and applying them to new circumstance. This whole thing about interpreting and applying precedents just clicked with me.
In the midst of the reading I did for that class I had come up with an undeniably reason for wanting to become a lawyer: to create something greater than myself and make the larger community better off through my efforts. By that I mean to reason, figure out, come up with a better idea and the superior argument that can impact and improve people’s lives for decades to come. The legal accomplishments of Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall (school desegregation) and Abe Fortas (establishing right to have free counsel appointed for all indigent defendants in criminal trials) in the area of civil and individual rights are prime examples of making the world a better place for millions of other people by means of legal argument and persuasion.
Lastly, let's get to an elitist reason for my wanting to become a lawyer. I had an English teacher my junior year of high school who was also the squash team coach. He was discussing the intellectual satisfaction of winning a game of chess and remarked:
"It feels so satisfying because when you beat a man at chess, you've beaten him as a person. You match your wits and resourcefulness against his and best him in the end."
He went on to say that winning a squash match was similar. Though I can't quite agree that playing squash (similar to raquetball) is akin to the intellectual stimulus of chess, I felt that as an attorney, having the superior argument say in the course of a trial would leave one with that kind of satisfaction. Because I wanted that feeling on a regular basis and because there would inevitably be times when I would suffer the sting of so severe an intellectual loss (but learn from the experience), I knew my destiny was to become an attorney.
Why do I practice employment law exclusively on behalf of employees?
The summer after my sophomore year at Stanford I had been rejected for the second consecutive time for an internship with the ACLU in San Francisco. Having no employment or productive activity lined up in California I reluctantly flew home to the east coast and I spent a lot of time looking for something productive to do with myself (swearing I would NOT deliver pizzas again as I had done the two previous summers). Eventually I came across a fantastic internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”), it is the state anti-discrimination agency that receives, investigates and seeks to resolve discrimination claims in employment, housing and public accommodations.
For the first time in my life I was entrusted immediately with enormous responsibility and truly substantive work. I was an investigative intern and I took complaints of discrimination based on race, national origin, color, sex, age or disability and filed formal charges. What was great about it was that I was respected. People would come to me for intakes and call me "Mr. Jackson" not "hey college kid." I had much older adults and sometimes attorneys calling me asking for info. about the state and federal anti-discrimination laws. These people and professionals treated me as a peer. It was also great to wear a suit and tie nearly every day and feel important as I walked the hallways or the streets of downtown Springfield. The confidence boost I got from that internship has never subsided.
So to sum up the experience was so rewarding for two general reasons: allowing me to utilize my skill and education and giving me real world experience that would be very valuable later. As a college student one demeaning fact of life is that when people talk to you and are optimistic about what you can accomplish they always speak of great things down the line. You have the chance to do important work in the future, after you graduate, get a job, establish yourself and so on and so forth. I KNEW that there was quite a bit I had learned up to that point that could somehow be put to practical use. When I had women coming to me with harrowing stories of sexual harassment, or men old enough to be my father distraught over being terminated for suspicious reasons and coming to me for help, I dealt with the situations professionally and felt confident for having done so.
The experience taught me so much (mainly that there's something useful I could have done right then if I decided to quit school, there was a challenging though modestly paying job that I was qualified to perform well at twenty years of age) and helped me escape the commonly encountered young job seeker's plight: breaking the vicious catch 22 of needing a job, which you can only get with experience, which of course you can only gain from having had a job in a related field, which requires experience and repeat ad infinitum. The way to enter the fray is to devote one's energy to an unpaid internship. To this day I feel thankful that I had the chance to be an intern at the MCAD.
That learning experience continued when, during the fall of my senior year at Stanford, I went to Washington D.C. and interned at the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). After my experience at the MCAD two summers before, I decided I wanted to step up to the big boys (a.k.a. the federal government). The work was very similar to what I did back in Massachusetts, although this time I was only dealing with employment. I felt so prepared I was screening potential charging parties the first day. I never thought it would be possible but I actually worked harder there than I had at the MCAD. The EEOC is flooded with unresolved cases. I was told that even if they stopped taking new charges right away, it would take them over three years to resolve all of their pending matters. Seeing my enthusiasm, they were more than happy to dump the majority of screening interviews and telephone inquiries on my desk. On the whole it was another great learning experience. I got to feel useful again and this time when I spoke with such confidence and authority I was speaking on behalf of the United States government.
After that I went to law school, and having attended law school in the Silicon Valley I definitely was exposed to subjects like intellectual property litigation and law and technology practices that I had not considered before. Still, employment law was where my passion was and after working for two Plaintiff’s class action firms whose practice areas were in other subjects, I wound up finally getting into employee-side employment litigation in the fall of 2002. I have been devoted completely to this practice area ever since then.
So now, more than 18 years since I graduated law school, what motivates me on a daily basis?
Helping the little guy is a major motivation for any Plaintiffs lawyer. Beyond that general devotion to individuals (which is why I do not represent corporations, I sue them), in employment law I work with clients whose lives have been devastated by illegal actions on the job. There is a famous psychological study that says that for most people, second only to the death of a loved one, losing a job can be the most devastating experience they suffer.
This resonates with me. I’ve had my ups and down with past jobs. I know the sting of a termination (whether justified or not). I know that having a job is about much more than the paycheck. In fact it has to be because people at all levels (whether they earn minimum wage or well into the six figures) at times feel they aren’t being paid enough for the job they do. Stress and frustration are part of working. But being out of work imposes a unique type of anxiety. A job, beyond the paycheck, gives you a sense of purposes, a role to play in society and social sphere of people to interact with wherein you have some important status. When you are out of work you lose all of that, in addition to losing the earnings. There’s no worse feeling than sitting in front of a television for days or weeks at a time watching junk tv shows and seeing the constant barrage of advertisements for technical colleges, career counseling or adult educational programs and feeling like they are speaking directly to you, shaming you into getting off your rear end and becoming a productive member of society again.
When a person is put in this position of economic and emotional devastation because of the unlawful acts of a former employer their rights need to be vindicated. That is what motivates me on a daily basis in my career to keep doing what I do.