Why I Became a Lawyer by James W. Korman

Jim KormanI was always good at arguing. And I enjoyed it. If I wanted to, even when I was a kid, I could switch sides and argue the other side of any dispute. Some of my masterpieces you may have heard about: Bill Russell is better than Wilt Chamberlain; Willie Mays is better than Mickey Mantle; my Mom is prettier than yours; and, of course, the never-to-be-forgotten: there is no way Stanley Bagan could tackle Jim Brown.

The truth is, I could argue the other side of these weighty issues, but I didn’t want to. This proclivity for, not to mention sheer enjoyment of, polemic was a big part of it. But a lot of things contributed.

Oh, sure, my father was a lawyer. He was in the office of the Corporation Counsel, which is what they called the attorney for the city in Washington, D.C. He was my hero, but more because he played football and basketball than for any legal prowess. He never really tried to direct me into the law, and he never talked shop at home.

When I was nine years old, he actually argued the school segregation cases before the Supreme Court of the United States, and I attended. But the only recollection I have of the experience is that I had to wear a tie, and sit still for a really long time in incredibly boring circumstances. Oh, and my Dad was up front wearing a morning suit. (Or was it “mourning suit”?)

I have a book which has some of the transcripts of the historic arguments. In it, my father is having exchanges with Justice Felix Frankfurter, Justice Hugo Black, and Justice William O. Douglas.

Anyway, if you had asked me when I was nine years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, fireman, football player, and cowboy were my top three. A profession where I had to wear a suit every day and had to drive a Buick was out of the question.

If we move the time machine ahead a few years, I had lost interest in cow punching (Dale Evans was not in the same league as Sophia Loren), my ectomorphic body seemed to lend itself more to basketball than football, and Billy Heiman was the worst waiter in the history of Camp Saginaw. The last of these turned out to be the most significant. Camp Saginaw is located near Oxford, the “Garden Spot of Pennsylvania”. They say “Garden Spot” because they grow a whole lot of mushrooms around Oxford. They grow mushrooms in cow poo, so Oxford didn’t smell like any garden spot, and “Cow Poo Spot of Pennsylvania” lacked that “je ne sais quoi”.

Anyway, I had been a camper at Camp Saginaw from the time I was 6 years old. It was a two month sleep-away camp. By the time you reached age 16 and 17, you became a waiter in the camp mess hall. This was supposed to be a privilege. You got to compete in the athletics, creep over and try to see the teenage girl campers in their bras and panties, and wait tables for 6 meals a day in an un-airconditioned mess hall. But they paid you – sort of. There was a fairly large pool of cash tips that was divided up at the end of the summer.

But Billy Heiman was a little bit the dweeb. He had pretty thick glasses, actually yukked when he laughed, and had the athletic ability of an escargot. Billy repeatedly showed up late at the mess hall, and had broken 60 plates, 40 at one time in a massive kitchen cart tipover maneuver.

The other waiters saw an opportunity. The kind of opportunity that tigers see when a guy walks in wearing pork chop underwear. If Billy Heiman lost his tips, there would be all the more cash for the other waiters to divide among themselves. Let’s indict Billy and put him on trial.

So they did. And Billy asked me if I would defend him. The prosecutor was none other than the same Stanley Bagan whose high school football coach had taught him such an effective method of tackling that he could bring down Jim Brown (in his dreams). The judge was the head waiter, who also shared in the tip pool. His physical bulk precluded any question of possible bias. The Sergeant-at-Arms was another waiter we called “Animal”. So many years have passed that I cannot specifically recall if Animal had an opposing thumb.

The jury was three camp counselors. This could possibly work to my and Billy’s advantage. There was at least a possibility of objectivity.

The big trial was very well attended. I brilliantly cross-examined the prosecution witnesses, including Animal and the Judge/Headwaiter. I was able to establish that other waiters had broken plates without penalty, and that Billy’s tardiness was measured by the big mess hall clock, and no one could vouch for its accuracy.

I spellbindingly argued that Billy was being persecuted and prosecuted for his dweebininity. The jury deliberated. And ... Acquittal on all counts! Against all odds. There was up to maybe $160 at stake. Billy was ecstatic. The other waiters were chagrined. Animal continued his search for the secret of fire. I was a sudden celebrity.

And at age 17, my career path was pretty much set.

Then to top it all off, I read that summer in the Washington Post that the American Bar Association recommended that lawyers charge $50 per hour. I did some quick math. Or rather, I went to my younger brother, who was (and is) a math genius, and he did some quick math. Astounding. Mind boggling. Forty hours a week. Fifty dollars an hour. Why, that’s, that’s ----- a lot of money.

Of course, I had no idea at all about overhead. My father was a government lawyer. You mean you have to pay your secretary? You have to pay rent for your office?

So I made my career decision based in part on a false financial pretext.

But I did in fact join the second best profession (after Ben and Jerry’s taste tester) on the planet. I do charge more than $50 per hour, but both my secretary and my landlord get pretty cranky if they don’t get paid.

I am still really enjoying myself, and I think I’m doing okay financially. I’ll have to check with my brother.

© 2009 James W. Korman, Esq.

Jim Korman has been practicing law for over 40 years with Bean, Kinney & Korman in Arlington, Virginia where he specializes in family law and personal injury matters. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and is Past-President of the Arlington Bar Association. He has never been employed by Ben and Jerry’s.

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Updated: Aug 31, 2009