The Lawyer in Wet Pajamas

This is a story about a young lawyer who slipped on a rain-slicked curb, rolled into the path of an oncoming car, and saw the end rapidly approaching.

As it turned out, it was actually the beginning.

The car braked in time and screeched to a halt, the tires stopping not far from his nose.

“It was a miracle,” the lawyer said later, shaking his head. “I thought I was going to die.”

The driver hopped from her car and recognized him, naturally. They were neighbors. He lived across the street and she’d been pulling out of her driveway.

“Oh my God, I could have killed you,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

He got to his feet in the drizzling rain and struggled to cinch his bathrobe while holding onto an armful of slippery, bagged newspapers that he had collected from front lawns in the neighborhood.

“Oh,” she said. “You have my paper. You have lots of papers.”

The Cosmos Connects Us

There stood the sad young lawyer—who within a matter of days would become my client—soaking wet in pajamas in the middle of his cul-de-sac with a painfully twisted ankle, babbling some nonsense about wanting to be a good neighbor which was why he was out there gathering papers in the rain.

He could tell she didn’t believe him for a minute.

“At that point, I was so wet and tired,” he told me later. “I didn’t care anymore.”

This admission—that he had reached a point of not caring—was a small step in what would be a journey to well-being for my client.

Life is Not a Solo Trip

All this happened around the turn of the century when I was still practicing law in a little red building in Chapel Hill, representing lawyers in licensing, ethics, and disciplinary matters.

A few days after his near-collision on the cul-de-sac, the young lawyer hobbled in to see me wearing a walking boot. He also arrived with a raft of professional and ethical troubles, some of which had spilled out into the public, which was why he’d been racing around swiping copies of the local weekly so his neighbors wouldn’t see his name in the police blotter.

Otherwise, he was smart, considerate, and well-spoken. I could tell he’d probably been successful at most things in his life. I could also tell he was unhappy.

Not that anyone is doing cartwheels when they’re facing the possibility of losing their law license. But his unhappiness seemed to go deeper.

“Have you talked with anyone about what’s going on?” I asked.

“Oh no, I could never tell anyone.”

This surprised me. I didn’t expect him to go around sharing his woes with the world. But I knew he came from a tight-knit family. He was active in his church and community. Perhaps a loved one would want to know and help?

“Oh, I’d be too embarrassed. They’d just worry. Besides, there’s nothing they can do anyway.”

Connecting the Dots

The conference room in my office in Chapel Hill looked directly out onto Franklin Street. Happy motorists would stream by on their merry way to a UNC basketball game or a show at the Cat’s Cradle, while inside I chatted with people on their worst days.

In a way it was funny. My client’s greatest fear was facing the people who knew him best and loved him most. He was scared he’d lose their respect and approval if they knew the truth. Which they probably knew anyway.

“A professional, then,” I suggested. “Would you talk to a professional?”

This idea appealed to him.

“Sure,” he said, as I reached for the contact information for the North Carolina Lawyers Assistance Program.

With the help of a skilled therapist, my client realized he’d spent much of his life being a people-pleaser. He cared too much about what others thought of him. He hid those parts of himself he thought they wouldn’t like.

He learned other ways he’d been unconsciously sabotaging his law life. He began working on building connections that were authentic and trusting. The state bar matter was resolved, but he continued seeing his counselor and being more intentional about having a healthy, authentic law life.

We’re All in This Together

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly, said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If the past year has taught us anything, it is the truth of those words.

Another takeaway from 2020 is to cherish, nurture, and hang onto the connections that bring depth and meaning to our lives. This starts with our family, friends, and communities. It radiates outward to our clients, colleagues, and profession at large.

We’ve all found ourselves staring into the face of disaster. We’ve all looked back in grief and loss. All we can do is keep moving forward and pray for the strength to meet the circumstances.

About the Author

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina for 35 years. His writing has twice won the NC State Bar Journal’s Fiction Contest. His articles have previously appeared in Law Practice Today. He is the author of the book, “The Most Powerful Attorney in the World.” He is founder and owner of Your Law Life LLC.

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