Monday, February 13, 2012

Memoir Monday: How I Spent Wolf Block's Last Summer

The day after WolfBlock announced its dissolution, I was stopped at the corner of 17th and Market by a young man who was soliciting donations for underprivileged children somewhere in the world. I've gotten used to this kind of thing; I evidently appear extremely caring to these kind of people and since I never have the heart to cut off their spiel with a time-saving, "No, thank you", they've got my number. That day, however, I was feeling a bit light-headed over the prospect of impending joblessness in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, so when the young man approached me I was less kind than usual.

"Do you have a minute for children in poverty?" he opened. People soliciting for charitable donations always start off with this line or something like it. Any answer other than, "Why, yes I do!" is an admission that the suffering of humanity's future is less important than getting to your Diet Cherry Coke thirty seconds sooner.

At the time I was not hankering for a Diet Cherry Coke, so I stopped. "Well, I'll tell you," I said, trying not to seem confrontational. "I have the minute, but if you'll turn around and look at that newsstand behind you, you'll see why I don't have the money." He turned and there, emblazoned across the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, were the words, "WolfBlock Law Firm Will Dissolve."

He turned back to me. "Is that where you work?"

"For now."

"Dude," he said reflectively. "Maybe I should be collecting for you instead."

***

WolfBlock had been a decent employer, don't get me wrong, but it was not exactly the place I longed to work. I joined the venerable law firm in 2008, almost a year to the day before the announcement of the dissolution, mainly out of a need for a paycheck and health insurance paid for by someone else. The job I applied for, and was eventually given, was "conflicts specialist", although at the time I was desperate enough to have accepted "experimental drug test subject."

A word here about conflict specialists, folks who work at nearly every law office who have a devil of a time explaining to non-legal-folk just what it is they do. Let's say John Q. Lawyer decides to represent Person A in a personal injury case against Person B, but it turns out that his colleague Jane Q. Lawyer in the next office already represents Person B in an unrelated matter. That's known as a conflict of interest, and if you are an attorney that's very, very bad. As in getting-sued, losing-your-license-to-practice bad. Conflict specialists, therefore, spend their time examining every new case a firm brings in to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest with existing cases. I was always good at it, and it sounds complicated and demanding, but in truth the job requires only a modicum of judgment, vision and the ability to type.

I'd worked in conflicts years previously before leaving to pursue a career in communications. Over the next eight years I learned that communications jobs are highly competitive, low-paying, and rarely yield much success. So I switched to stand-up comedy, which was much the same in that you competeed even more fiercely for less pay and at a lower success rate, only in stand-up your failure is even more public. I was instantly hooked. I needed something to pay the bills, however, and when I heard WolfBlock was looking for a conflicts specialist, I jumped. The pay was decent and the hours would permit me to work during the day and continue to perform at night. Since the position was with a firm that had soldiered along for more than a century, I couldn't have asked for a more stable job.

Twelve months later, however, I was in a large conference room with the rest of WolfBlock's Philadelphia staff, listening to soon-to-be-former Chairman Mark Alderman say how sorry he was to announce that, after 106 years of operation, the firm would close its doors at the end of May. There was shock, disbelief, anger, and more than a few tears, but to be honest I felt only a vague sense of relief. The last two times I had been unemployed were by my own choice, so I couldn't collect unemployment insurance. This would be a genuine layoff, and faced with the prospect of receiving a regular check for not working...well, it would be the softest landing I'd ever had. Besides, when you've told jokes to a drunken crowd at 1 am on a Monday morning, the prospect of unemployment loses some of its bite.

The reactions of the staff varied. Mona, whose cubicle abutted mine, expressed sympathy for Alderman, who was taking the blame (unjustly, in her opinion) for the firm's collapse. Given that three days after the announcement Alderman was comfortably ensconced at a new firm whereas Mona was losing her health insurance at age 63, I thought she should have saved that pity for herself. Katie, a legal secretary on the same floor, was less forgiving; in fact, she expressed publicly her wish for Alderman's children to die. I couldn't figure out how the man's children were to blame, but that fine distinction escaped Katie, who put her disgruntlement into action by detaching the ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights from their sockets, leaving the elevator lobby in shadow. No one was quite sure how she managed to reach the bulbs in their recessed sockets, and I thought that feat was worthy of inclusion on a resume. Not a transferable skill, true, but it demonstrated ingenuity and initiative.

The attorneys were generally tight-lipped, and most of them had cleared out to other firms within two weeks, leaving them little time for editorial comment. A few were more verbose, and felt free enough to express their opinions via firm-wide email. One of those emails opined that the firm's leadership was "grossly incompetent" and had engaged in "financial insanity." Another blamed the dissolution on an "abysmal failure of leadership" and "a few greedy lawyers unwilling to cut back on high compensation." A third, in an ecstasy of disgruntlement, declared that she was relieved that the attorneys were now free to "find new places with better leadership and management that makes better efforts to harness the talents of their lawyers, with compensation that better resembles a meritocracy than the Ponzi scheme that ultimately developed at Wolf Block." Needless to say, someone promptly forwarded those emails outside the office, and when questioned by the press the authors were forced to "clarify" their statements. "Well, when I said 'grossly incompetent' I meant that in the most complimentary sense..."

Immediately after the announcement of dissolution, attorneys and staff predictably began looting the firm. The partners had wisely taken down all of the artwork even before voting to dissolve, but they left plenty of swag. Pens, pencils, paper, tape, packets of coffee and sweetener from the kitchenettes...all of these thefts were to be expected. I was baffled, however, when within two days every single plastic coffee stirrer had vanished like smoke. There wasn't one stirrer to be had anywhere in the firm. Was someone using these at home in lieu of spoons? Or did they have street value like heroin?

***

The firm's official last day was June 1, but a few of the staff, me included, were asked to stay on through the summer to begin the monumental task of clearing out literally tens of thousands of boxes of files that had accumulated over WolfBlock's one-hundred-year lifetime. At first I was reluctant to commit my summer to a business that was breathing its last, but the remuneration offered plus the ability to stay out of the job market for three months was too tempting and I signed on. Floor by empty floor we moved, emptying desk drawers and file cabinets, checking shelves and offices for anything that seemed client-related and worth saving. Lots of it was neither, and I learned anew the immutable truth that the more space people are given, the more useless stuff they will put there. We found boxes of unsent invitations to events years past, stacks of catalogs for continuing education courses that were never taught, and untold cartons of extra copies of pleadings, depositions and other documents for clients dead before Carter was president. Most of it was shredded or went into the trash, but whatever was valuable was bar-coded, boxed and stacked in offices now bereft of attorneys, awaiting transport to more fortunate firms. We also came upon cartons of miscellaneous items like mugs, hats, shirts, pens and other paraphernalia – even a kite, if you can believe it – all pathetically emblazoned with the WolfBlock logo. While working, my coworkers and I entertained ourselves by envisioning ourselves at the helm of a new company that would rise from the ashes of WolfBlock, one that would specialize in the practice of closing down dying organizations. We even made up mottoes like, "Winding down your future", "When your dream ends, we're there", and my personal favorite, "You fail, we bail."

More surprising than the case materials were the personal items that had been left behind. Coats, gloves, shoes, makeup, radios, and CDs...all of there were among the non-work-related items we came upon in desks and atop file cabinets. They seemed somehow sad, as if they'd done their best to serve their erstwhile owners but had been carelessly discarded because of anger at the firm. They seemed to gaze reproachfully at me from the trash bins into which we'd tossed them, and I soon made a habit of not looking at anything once I'd thrown it away. The worst were the family pictures, abandoned for reasons I couldn't fathom. Surely if Mark Alderman's children were not to blame for the firm's dissolution, Mark Alderman's secretary's children were even less culpable, yet their images found their way nonetheless to the bottom of a large, wheeled plastic dumpster. When discarding an attorney's mousepad, personalized with a picture of his children, I imagined little Bobby or Suzie asking, "Dad, what ever happened to that mouse-pad we saved for a month to make for you?" Glad I didn't have to answer for him.

In between trash runs, I sometimes aimlessly wandered the corridors, looking into offices and conference rooms that in better times had housed movers and shakers who made deals involving millions of dollars. How many dreams and ambitions had been born, or slain, in these now-forgotten places? How many clients had been rescued from financial ruin, how many divorces negotiated, properties bought and sold? Corner offices, once so coveted, were now home only to boxes of old records. How many associates had broken their backs to make partner and get into those offices? How many had broken their backs and failed? I was reminded of Shelley's Ozymandias. Like the works of that great king, nothing of WolfBlock beside remained, except some empty rooms and a few dazed employees who wandered amidst the colossal wreck.

***

At the end of that summer nearly one hundred thousand boxes remained, awaiting either rescue by their owners or their last journey to the paper shredder. I remained as well, along with those unfortunate enough not to find other work. I didn't regret the summer; truth be told, with the attorneys gone that was actually quite an enjoyable job. Of course it couldn't last forever, but as I learned over those three months, nothing ever does. That's easy to forget even though we're reminded every day, by news reports of failed companies and bankruptcies and other corporation misfortunes. Working as a stand-up comic isn't exactly stable employment, but whenever someone points this out to me I think of my WolfBlock kite, rescued from the wreckage of the firm, and ask myself, "Is anything?"

2 Comments:

Anonymous Jim said...

These posts have been great. I particularly enjoyed this one.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Maura said...

Great post. It's fascinating to get your perspective on that whole thing.

1:24 PM  

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