Dear Mr. Schaeffer:
This week on Legal Underground, you said you doubted that rich lawyers could ever be miserable. You were wrong, Mr. Schaeffer. Such things can happen, and I’m living proof. Let me tell you my story. After doing very well in law school, I went to work for one of the country’s largest civil defense firms. Even though I knew it wouldn’t be much fun, I told myself so what, I’d be a millionaire by age 35. Once that happened, I planned to retire.
I was right that my job wasn't much fun. Mostly, it consisted of delivering large checks to plaintiffs’ lawyers every time they settled a case with my firm. But I’m no dummy. That’s why after only two years, I switched sides and became a plaintiffs’ lawyer. Even though I knew it wouldn’t be much fun, I told myself so what, I’d be a millionaire by age 30. All I needed to do was hit the “big one.” Once that happened, I planned to retire.
Well, Mr. Schaeffer, it happened. Last month, I hit the big one. Now I’m a millionaire at age 28. Although I know it’s completely unreasonable for me to be upset about it, that’s exactly how I feel. You see, I seem unable to retire as I had planned. Instead, I paid an architect to design a three-story office building. It’s going up right next door. I also hired six new lawyers and fifteen paralegals.
In two months, we’re all moving into the new building. It seems like only yesterday that I was planning to retire. What can I do to stop this madness?
Signed, Rich and Miserable in Montgomery
Dear Rich and Miserable:
This is an easy one for me to answer. You are what is commonly called an “empire builder,” which is a lawyer who has an uncontrollable urge to build empires. Since the condition is incurable, you will spend the rest of your life accumulating wealth, then plowing it back into ever-more-risky business investments. The good news is that you might die very rich. The bad news is that you might die very poor. Normally in the case of empire-builders, there is no middle ground.
Whether rich or poor, however, you will find that as soon as you are dying, you will want your life back, that is, the one you neglected to live as you were building your empires. That sounds bad, I know, but it seems you have an even bigger problem. In your desire to build empires, you are already overextended. You say you are a “millionaire,” but a million dollars just doesn’t buy very much these days. After the government takes its half and you buy a couple of cars, what do you have left? Enough for a year’s worth of living expenses, but only if you stop going to the movies.
Though you are nearly broke, you still insist on hiring lawyers and paralegals and moving into a new building. What are you going to do when it comes time to plow advertising dollars into the next big mass tort? You can’t live off lines of credit forever. You seem to have fallen into the trap that many young millionaire-lawyers fall into, that is, the trap of believing that once you’ve made a million, it is exceptionally easy to make another, then another. In truth, it’s just not so.
The blind spot in your thinking makes it obvious that you’ll fail as an empire builder just as you’re getting started. That’s why I recommend you find a hobby to distract you from building empires. Though it's true your condition is incurable, it can sometimes be sublimated into a passion for other pursuits. I suggest you begin collecting either fine wine or Gibson Flying V guitars. If either of these hobbies takes hold, you'll soon find yourself spending more and more time away from the office. Eventually you'll have no choice but to allow some other lawyer to buy your law practice. Only then will you finally be free like the rest of us. You won’t have an empire, but you will have a life. If you’re extremely lucky, you may even have a weblog.
Your friend, Evan Schaeffer*
*Author’s Note: This post is dedicated to Professor Reynolds and Professor Bainbridge, two empire-builders who escaped the practice of law early in their careers and now have both lives and weblogs. That I would slant this post toward their point of view is a concession to those readers who said I shouldn't have been so quick to doubt their statements that they are happier as law professors than they were as practicing lawyers. I admit that in this earlier post, I might have been wrong. If so, I apologize. To be honest, I probably need to take my own advice and start a collection, perhaps of stamps or butterflies, rather than starting up a new empire. Maybe you don't care, but the fourth one is beginning to wear me out. Thinking about the fifth already makes me want to gag.