Monday, November 16, 2009

Legality in the Law

Although the mainstream media will have you believe that the legal world has suffered only because of the recession, I contend that it has been dying a slow death since the bubble burst. I have had several opportunities to run away from the law and I ignored them. Of course, the first came when two grown women stood in my mother's nail salon and cried, literally wailed, about how being an attorney ruined their lives. The second time was when my first semester grades came in below par. I trekked on like a stampeding cow. I more than made up for my first semester--but it was too late by then. Eventually, I found myself working for a small law firm. I thought I jumped the hurdle and was ready to be a real attorney. I had no idea what I was in for.

Working at a small firm was eye opening at first. Then it was jaw dropping. The small firm that employed me was willing to pay me a decent wage. $50K at the time--about 10 years ago. I was ecstatic.

But as I worked there I noticed a few practices that were not legal. I was shocked at first, but then I came to understand that a small firm needs to cut corners to survive. If you show me an honest small practice, I will will show you a broke ass attorney.

My former employer was very inventive with the way he paid me. Let's say my take home, after taxes were deducted, was $1200. At first I received pay checks with FICA and federal/state tax taken out. I saw that I was contributing to my Social Security, or that of my parents. I doubt I'll ever get that money. I was fine. After a few months of a check, payday would come and I wasn't being paid on time. Pay Day was Friday. By the following Tuesday, being taught not to beg, I unwittingly approached my employer and said, "MMMM... where's my paycheck? Did you forget to pay me?"

"OHHHH... the paychecks were sent out late. Do you want to wait until Friday or should I just give you cash?"

Dilemma. I have bills to pay. A mortgage and student loans. "I'll just take the cash." The same thing kept happening week after week until I nearly never saw a paycheck. My reported income dropped from $36K to $11K in a couple of years. I suppose I wouldn't have minded much if I was given the GROSS pay, so I can deal with the taxes on my own. No. My boss would give me the $1200. I was being treated like a Mexican illegal.

That wasn't where it ended, either. Let's talk about Health Care.
I didn't have any. The Health Care Plan of the office was, if a worker gets sick--the boss will pay for the expenses. I guess it worked fine at the time. I was suffering from severe stomach problems and was diagnosed years later with IBS. But instead of seeing a gastro specialist, I saw the local pediatrician--the firm's client. He suggested I take Prozac because I had a nervous stomach.

I also suffered, like many women, from PMS. I woke up one day and I had horrible cramps. I felt trapped because I didn't feel right asking my Boss to pay for birth control pills to alleviate my pain. So, I called in sick. Some of my friends had given me a Percocet and few Vicodin that they had been prescribed for dental surgeries and sprained ankles. I self medicated and alternated between the bed and tub. My caring employer called me to see how I was.... every fucking hour. "Hey, Angel. How are you feeling? You want me to send somebody to come and pick you up? "

"No, I'm sick."

The phone rang again... probably the fifth time that day. I didn't answer. My boss left me a horrible message in an accusatory tone. "I'm calling to see how you're feeling. Where the hell are you? I thought you said you're home! Are you home? If you're not, you should come to work."

I called back after hearing the nasty message. And my boss YELLED at me about how I'm a liar and he just cares and wants to know how I'm feeling.
I lost it...
"I was on the SHITTER. That's why I didn't call you back. Can you leave me the hell alone or I'm never going to feel better! You're bothering me."

I hated him. But I knew that I made myself indispensable and that was the reason why he cared. My job was secure. His biggest fear was that I would claim to be ill, and interview elsewhere.

I have bad teeth. I don't have fangish or craggley teeth, but I feel that they are perpetually rotting away. You can imagine that I didn't have dental insurance. But I knew that things were going down hill in the four years that I spent at this firm. I told my boss that he needs to look into dental insurance for me and others in the office that need it. He told me to do the research and give it to him. I did. Then I bugged him about it bi-weekly.

About a year after I brought up the topic, I woke up one morning and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I tasted that something was a little bit off. I peered in my mouth, and to my HORROR, my wisdom tooth had caved in.

I went to the office and showed my tooth to my boss and chastised him for not getting me dental insurance. In accordance with the Health Care Policy, the boss paid for it.
He sent me to another of the firm's clients, a dentist, to give me about $6K worth of dental work.

I don't think my small firm experience is that different that that of others. I have several friends that were paid less than me, in cash. They were not permitted sick days. They lived without health insurance. They were lucky they didn't get pregnant or sick with cancer.

All of this, and I don't blame my former boss. I think that is what he needed to do to pay his attorneys a living wage. But I find it almost comical that my parents became citizens of this Great Nation to have their daughter treated like an illegal.


  1. More people need to be made aware of life in a small firm. I have known a few small law practitioners, and none of them had an insurance plan.

    These guys are usually the "starving lawyers" you hear so much about. You can spot them pretty easily - the guy in the back of the bus, wearing a cheap suit, worn-out shoes, stressed to the nines, frantically rifling through his briefcase.

    Looking at Angel's story, is it any wonder why small-law is referred to as shitlaw?

  2. Wow, I thought I had it bad until I read your story. I worked at a crappy plaintiff's PI firm in lower Manhattan for 10 years, but they at least provided decent health insurance (but no dental) and profit sharing plan (which eventually ended when I left). I left at the right time and rolled the vested money into a Roll over IRA. I consider myself lucky...

  3. This isn't news. Nearly 20 years ago, back in the good old days, I was working for a small firm with no bens. And with a wife and two kids. We prayed no one would get seriously sick. But in spite of that, and the incredible sleaziness of the practice, I felt lucky to have a job. I felt even luckier getting out before the boss got disbarred.

  4. They fixed your fish! They're back!

  5. I didn't realize they were sick or gone! Thank God they're back. I love those critters.



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