Maybe it was the casinos that saved us.
A sort of steady, monotonous equilibrium had settled over my buddies and me at the defense firm where we worked in the early 90s. We slogged through each day, then returned the next to slog through another. The sky could have been blue outside, it could have been overcast; whatever, we didn’t give it much thought. We were that busy.
But we couldn’t complain. We knew the deal going in. We knew about the stress, we knew about the demands the partners were going to place on us. We were smart, brash, confident, good at billing hours. And we billed a lot of hours.
It was one of the most prestigious firms in St. Louis, hundreds of lawyers, housed in the top floors of one of the city’s largest buildings. I’d worked there as a summer associate, then started up again after the bar exam. The firm was loosely divided into “corporate” lawyers and “litigation” lawyers. I was a litigator. Among the litigators, there was another loose division between “corporate” and “tort” litigation. I was one of the few associates lucky enough to work both sides of that second divide.
One day, the partners announced the firm was expanding. Some of my best buddies and I were moved to the southwest quarter of the 30th floor. In a major administrative oversight, the corner office was given to a senior associate instead of a partner. This meant there was no one around who cared enough to keep an eye on us. It was the first good thing that happened to us.
And the second? Riverboat gambling came to town.
When it came to games of chance, my liberal arts education was notably deficient. In the one trip I’d taken to Las Vegas, I hadn’t advanced much beyond pulling the levers of the slot machines. No one noticed when I added three paperbacks about casino gambling to the collection of books I kept at the office.
With the memorization skills I learned in law school, I quickly added blackjack and craps to my gambling repertoire. During evening trips to the casinos, I tested out my new skills. It was all coming together quite nicely. I even began to win a little money.
But what about my buddies? As a mid-level associate, I considered it my solemn duty to impart my new wisdom to those less experienced than myself, as well as to anyone more experienced who asked very politely. But evenings were for family, not gambling. It was going to be hard to find time to conduct my little symposium.
For lawyers as smart as we were, however, the solution wasn’t hard to figure out. Not long before, lunch had been a greasy trip to McDonald’s. Now it became a vacation. Suddenly there was plenty of time to complete my gambling instruction. Due to its importance, in fact, we made sure to take full advantage of the freedom that comes with being an associate in a firm of hundreds of lawyers. Since each associate worked for a number of different partners, it was easy to create the illusion that we were all busy working for someone else, when we were actually struggling to calculate 20x odds on our pass line bet while keeping an eye on all the inside numbers.
What a joy it was! The partners beckoned, the clients called--but it was simply impossible to hear them over the clinging and clanging of all those slot machines.
It took the partners months to discover what was happening. As long as an associate’s billable hours were acceptable each month, it didn’t matter what happened in any single afternoon. The first partner to spot us was trying to sneak past to a poker table. He wasn’t going to blow our cover. It seemed we were pretty safe from anyone who spotted us at the casino. Had Lady Luck been willing, in fact, it’s likely we could have retained our afternoon gambling habit until we were ready, many years later, to enter the ranks of the partnership.
But Lady Luck wasn’t willing. And so it happened: Not a huge loss, but a huge win. One day, one of the young associates hit it big, and arrived at the firm the next morning still-buzzing, disheveled, and very eager to display his gigantic wad of 60 hundred dollar bills to anyone who’d wait around long enough for him to extract it from his pocket. His enthusiasm to display his winnings was so intense, in fact, that it overshadowed whatever notion he had of rank or seniority within the firm. Once this young associate had flashed his wad to a senior partner or two (who didn’t return his exuberant grins, by the way), the jig was up.
As for me, I’d done all right. My initial stash of $200, hidden in the back of my middle desk drawer after beginning life as a cashed expense check, had lasted through a year of ups and downs more volatile than the Nasdaq. My billable hours remained among the best in the firm, partner or associate. No one had the slightest suspicion I was “one of the gamblers.”
As for that braggadocious young associate, his days at the firm were numbered. But it didn’t matter, because he was a business genius who had no use for the firm anyway. He went on to become a great friend of mine, and still is, something that’s also true of another gambling buddy from the old firm. In fact, the three of us were together just two weeks ago in a big city far from St. Louis (playing blackjack this time, not craps).
To be honest, despite all my bellyaching about the old firm, I suppose I owe it a lot. And the old firm, in turn, owes a lot to the riverboat casinos, which helped several of its young lawyers keep their heads together during at least one of their long, tough years as associates.
[Like this post? It's one of many included in my book How to Feed a Lawyer (And Other Irreverent Oberservations from the Legal Underground). Details here.]