Whatever your area of practice, you have at least one thing in common with me: You know what it is to endure an office move. Our recent move was a sort of minuet — a precise and delicate dance, only one involving thousands of pounds of furniture and equipment, and some cursing.
The dancers included movers (Boyer Moving, the best), our computer tech support guy, a telephone and Internet service provider, a telephone programmer, building management and our employees. The move forced an examination and purge of much ... stuff.
I write of the stuff that hides, silent, unnoticed, while it accumulates down the years. To deal with it all, we made lists. We ordered up from housekeeping a big plastic Dumpster. Into it went long-dormant paper files. We’re “almost paperless.” What an oxymoron. We called Father Joe Carroll. He got our no-longer-needed furniture; I got a tax deduction for next year.
That night as I drove home on Interstate 5, I felt sentimental about our old office. Some good memories; some great cases. Some tears; some joy. The song that came on the radio fit the moment. I had never heard it before: “Too Much Stuff” by Delbert McClinton.
I don’t know much about McClinton, but I sure liked the song, a rollicking fast blues with a boogie-woogie beat and a “shout” chorus:
Big house, big car, back seat, full bar.
Houseboat won't float. Bank won't tote the note.
Too much stuff. There's just too much stuff.
It'll hang you up dealing with too much stuff.
Driving downtown the next morning, I had “Too Much Stuff” in my head. In a quiet moment I shut my office door. I felt like a museum curator ordered to review the exhibits by management. Got to keep the place relevant to the public, and not let the exhibits get stale. I started opening drawers and cabinets, looking at . . . stuff. Time to purge. But what? I had to choose between these: Needful stuff. Useless stuff. Inspirational stuff. Humbling stuff.
Law students and young lawyers, take note.
I inventory here the things you must have close at hand. Forget obvious things like telephones, practice guides, The Bluebook, and photos of family — duh.
• A Plantronics headset so you can talk on the telephone while retrieving a file or walking down the hall.
• A laminated 8½ x 11” calendar so you can find dates and calculate deadlines without needing to open up Outlook on your computer screen.
• A pocket calculator so you can do fast arithmetic on damages and settlements.
• Black’s Law Dictionary and a plain English dictionary — I have to use both almost every day.
• A box of thank-you cards, so you can hand-write thank you notes instead of just sending emails.
• Binoculars, if you have a nice view.
• Basic tools — hammer, Swiss Army knife, tape measure — so you don’t have to borrow them.
• A small shaving kit — deodorant, razor, toothpaste, etc.
• A small towel or rag for cleaning up coffee spills.
Boring? I’m sorry. Let me inventory some other things I found.
Each is a petty embarrassment in its own right:
• Spare styluses for a Palm Pilot — remember Graffiti?
• A Luce Forward internal telephone directory circa 1995, with names and extensions of all lawyers and staff.
• Multiple floppy disks.
• A miniature red, Anaheim Angels baseball cap emblazoned with Garret Anderson’s statistics for 2003.
• A purple-and-gold Lakers noisemaker shaped like a pair of hands.
• Multiple Christmas gifts distributed by my former landlord to all tenants each holiday season — a coaster, a paddle-and-rubber-ball toy.
• A set of HeatWorks™ air-activated “hand, pocket & glove warmers” with “up to 8 hours of air activated heat!” Hello, I live in Southern California, where the average temperature hovers around 70 degrees.
• An expired passport, issued in 1987.
• A 7-year-old Clif bar, cola flavor.
• A photograph of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with a big toothy grin.
• A Rocket Shower Jet Pack™ Showerless Clean-up Kit.
• A CD containing “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Rogue Spear™” computer game, circa 1999.
• A 349-page Sprint “Guide to Activating and Using Your Phone,” the Treo 650, circa 2004.
• Multiple computer mice, cables, headsets, adapters and plugs to God knows what.
McClinton was right. My desk told the truth. I had given over too much space to too much stuff. It wasn’t even a desk. It was a time capsule — something curious townsfolk might pry open on the centennial of its burial, then murmur, “Who was this loser?”
Still, I found a couple of inspirational things. If you’re like me, you need something inspirational close at hand — something uplifting that you can look at when you are feeling down. Mine are no model for anyone else.
One is an identification card I got at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. At the beginning of the tour, they give you the card. It has the photo and name of a real person who suffered during the Holocaust. Mine belonged to Janos Geroe of Hungary. His photo showed a serious young man with a nice head of brilliantined hair. At the end of the day, they hand you a small pamphlet that matches the card. It tells you if that person lived or died during the Holocaust. Janos made it. The Red Army liberated him and the others at his camp in 1945. Later he immigrated to America with his family. Good for him.
Another is a small laminated card. It reads: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. . . . Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.” They are the words of Saint Francis. Since he wrote them, has anyone expressed a better aspiration for us, lawyers or not? And yet to say these words silently — then compare them against what I have done that day in my litigation practice — is more often cause for shame than for inspiration.
Last, there ought to be at least one thing that is there to force you to laugh at yourself and at how small you really are.
Mine is a check, never cashed, mailed to me by the San Diego Padres Baseball Club in 2006. I had done some legal work for the Padres that year, and earned some fees. But their accounting department was like any other company’s. And so, in October 2006, their controller drew the club’s check no. 91116 on a Bank of America account, and mailed it to my office. The check listed the amount they were paying me that month: “Zero and 39/100 dollars.” Thirty-nine cents.
I had asked the accounting department of the San Diego Padres what I was worth to the club at that time. And the San Diego Padres had answered, “Thirty-nine cents.” They had sure put their money where their mouth was.
And so whenever I feel a little too proud, a little too big, I try to remember to look at check no. 91116. It sits safely under the glass top of my desk, right next to the phone. And the feeling always passes.
Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in San Diego. He specializes in intellectual property litigation and appellate litigation.