Finding Your Place, or Getting Yelled At for Fun and Profit

Courtroom in Worcester, Massachusetts

I stood in court like I had so many times before, impatient and slightly annoyed. All I wanted to do was resolve my cases and return to my office and the mountain of paperwork I had waiting on my desk.

Standing between me and freedom, however, was the magistrate, red-faced and yelling at the top of his lungs. At me.

Hey! You can’t do this in my courtroom! You don’t get to make the rules! I make the rules!

He was normally a patient, easy-going man, but had undergone a stunning transformation, standing up and jabbing his manila folder in my direction. Why was he so mad at me? What did I do to spark this reaction?

Simple. He was mad because I had interrupted the defendant mid-tirade. Interruption is a big no-no in court etiquette (unless a judge or a magistrate does it).

I’ll bet now you’re asking, “Why did you interrupt the defendant?” I’ll tell you:

Because the defendant had, in open court, called me a liar.

If there’s one thing about me you need to know, it’s that you don’t call me a liar. It’s like calling Marty McFly a chicken: Unless you want to make an enemy for life, you just don’t do it.

So now you’re probably asking: “Why did this defendant call you a liar, anyway?”

Good question. The answer is simple: I had caught him in a lie and called him on it. You’ve been on the Internet long enough to know that people do not like that.

As I stood there laughing on the inside, dealing with a lying defendant on one side and an angry magistrate on the other, I started to have an existential crisis. I could only ask myself, with a sort of internal shake of my head, How did I end up here?

Why am I doing this for a living?

Will I ever find a job I like?

A huge part of workplace happiness comes from your environment. Like Scott Adams says in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, surrounding yourself with people who are where you want to be has the amazing ability to unconsciously push you to adopt their habits and be more successful.

I’m living proof that this is true.

It’s no secret that I wasn’t born with a burning passion to practice law. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of law school, sure, but the subject matter never grabbed me the way that, say, music did, or history, or languages.

My first job after law school was at one of those dreaded multi-state collection firms. You know, those people who file thousands of small-claims suits, primarily to obtain default judgments and collect money on credit card debts.

(A default judgment is when the defendant just doesn’t show up to court and loses as a matter of course. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that collection firms use a lot of, let’s say, unsavory tactics to increase the likelihood of the defendant not showing up to court.)

About half the time, these debts were held by the original creditors. The rest were sold in great big portfolios of debt, which is a perfectly legal transaction where a creditor bundles together hundreds, thousands, or sometimes tens of thousands of delinquent accounts and sells them for pennies on the dollar to a third-party debt collector who has the legal right to then collect on the full amount.

Debt collector
A collections attorney in his natural habitat.

I’m not going to get into the legal weeds of what exactly rubbed me the wrong way about this kind of work–you don’t care about the legal mumbo-jumbo, trust me–but suffice it to say I had a really hard time reconciling the slimy tactics with my own values and beliefs.

A year or so after I passed the bar and tried to set up a law firm with my best friend, I became one of these sharks, shaking down people, most of them unemployed, for their last few dollars, all so MegaBank, Inc. or whomever could recover money it had lent, with interest.

All perfectly legal. All perfectly necessary to keep our financial and economic system afloat. And all enough to make me hate nearly every minute of my waking life.

Does this sound like a positive environment to you?

The people I worked with were mostly great, and I am still friends with several of them, but the work was pure drudgery that left me feeling cold and a little bit dirty. I also didn’t see much opportunity for professional development in this line of work.

The pay was also, let’s say, only slightly more than I could have made with just my undergraduate degree. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Explore alternatives to college.

But let’s look at the positives from those years I spent as a well-educated debt-collector:

  • Skills. While trial law was never what I wanted to do, the skills I gained from litigating have helped me in every other aspect of my life, professional and otherwise.
  • Perseverance. I learned how to persevere and learn to enjoy something–albeit marginally–that I otherwise would never have chosen to do.
  • Connections. I met some great people who continue to be friends and some valuable business and professional contacts. You’re never going to make any deep connections unless you’re out there in the arena.
  • Experiences. And most importantly, I have some great stories, such as getting yelled at by a magistrate in open court. Someday I’ll share more of them.

Now I’m in a position that is much more akin to what I had been seeking out of law school in the first place: in-house work that is mostly transactional. I am helping people complete business deals, I never set foot in court, and yet I still get to interact with clients, solve problems, and use those skills I learned litigating cases and dealing with, shall we say, touchy situations.

And as strange as it sounds for me to say this about a job in the legal profession . . . I kind of like it.

Everybody who knows me well nearly falls out of their seat when they hear me say that. But like I said, I’m living proof that there is a positive situation–life events notwithstanding–for all of us.

That’s the power of environment. That’s the power of putting yourself in the right position to succeed.

The practice of law is nothing like Perry Mason or L.A. Law, and there certainly isn’t any Mike Post music piped in through the loudspeakers, but I seem to have found my niche, and it’s working out pretty good.

You can find yours, too. Maybe you don’t need a college degree to do what works for you. Maybe you do.

Maybe it’s not your profession that’s bringing you down. Maybe it’s your job. That’s the key difference.

Whatever you do, hang in there and keep looking. The more that you actively seek opportunities, the more the opportunities will find you.

And no matter what happens, never, ever, ever let anybody call you a liar.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here.

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