Articles of Frustration: Epilogue – I

this is fine

Desire is a tricky thing.  We can spend years chasing a single goal without knowing exactly what obtaining it will entail.  Detailed preparation never totally equips you for how finally obtaining a long sought after prize will change your life.  I had spent years hunting high and low for employment as an articling student.  Although I had idled away many hours wondering about the individual pros and cons of certain positions, I always seemed to proceed with a mild naivete that whatever position that I did end up securing would be a good, supportive experience.  Of course, I realized that there would be stress. I anticipated feeling helpless and lost at certain times.  Indeed, I even contemplated that I would question my decision to pursue law at certain points throughout the articling term.

None of these musings truly prepared me for what articling was or who I would be dealing with. Enter Bawss, my articling principal.  Bawss was a 50-something year old man who had been in the insurance and personal injury game for over twenty years.  He had worked for a variety of large to mid-sized firms before branching out and starting his own plaintiff personal injury firm.  He employed one other lawyer, two articling students (myself included), an office administrator and two clerks.

To say that the business was run poorly would be an honest to god insult to most poorly-run businesses.  Bawss was out of the office more days per week than he was in.   These absences were not typically attributable to court dates or mediation events.  Instead, we would be told, rather cryptically, that Bawss was “working from home”.   Meanwhile, mediation memos would be sent 12 hours before the mediating was to occur and motion records would be rushed to court mere minutes before the filing deadline.

Dealing with an absentee landlord is tricky enough.  Dealing with an absentee mentor and boss is trickier still.  But, I never knew the true meaning of aggravation until I dealt with a MIA boss who managed, through emotional outbursts and mild mood swings, to be both nowhere when he was needed and everywhere when he wasn’t.  An avowed conservative and Trump supporter, Bawss would alternate between lining us up and screaming that we were “hacks”, “retards”, “children” and “idiots” and guffawing good naturedly when something interesting in the political sphere came to his attention. Bawss loved politics.  He would often interrupt work to lecture us all on the dangers and idiocy of a Trudeau government, on how birth control is solely a woman’s responsibility or on how there was scientific evidence behind the belief that the Chinese were poor drivers.

I could go on and on.  The truth is, you probably would not believe me if I detailed every instance of his objectionable behaviour.  One of the most difficult aspects of a work environment like this was the uncertainty.  If Bawss had been a complete asshole all of the time, it would have made things much easier.  One would at least be able to consistently prepare.  Instead, you never really knew what would cause him to explode or what he would blow off.  One of his most loathsome traits was losing his mind on someone in the office one day and then texting or calling them a day or so later and offering a half-hearted apology.  He would usually blame sleep deprivation or his kids as  the likely culprits of his abusive behaviour.

Instead of going on and on in paragraph form, here is a top ten list of articling’s most memorable moments:

  1. After a particularly rocky start to a mediation where opposing counsel and her client were both women, being sequestered with Bawss and our clients (a married couple) and witnessing Bawss bellowing: “What a couple of BITCHES those two are! You wanna know my theory for why women act like that?  It’s because they’re not getting laid enough.”
  2. Working through lunch and well into the evening to assist a client with an urgent matter and hearing Bawss dismiss my colleagues and I as “idiots” for not having ordered food earlier
  3. At another mediation, hearing Bawss scream at the top of his lungs for me to get back into the meeting as I was hunched over a toilet in a nearby bathroom and coughing up mouthfuls of blood
  4. Being called “Fuckboy” on a regular basis and questioned frequently about my sexual history and amount of partners
  5. Getting paid $6.25/hour while simultaneously hearing incessantly about Bawss’s financial woes (one of these laments came a day after he visited the Toronto Yacht Club)
  6. While off to study for the bar exam, being called at home and shrieked at for having not sent a letter to someone that Bawss had previously told me not to send.  The day after, he texted me a good natured “don’t worry about it, bro” and told me that he was just grumpy from a poor night’s sleep.
  7. Following contentious motion negotiations with opposing counsel, receiving a firm-wide e-mail from Bawss linking to a picture of opposing counsel and stating “Look at this dweeb, here is someone who clearly had no friends in high school.”
  8. A few weeks after starting my term, hearing from my colleagues that Bawss had confided in them that “there was something wrong with me” and that  “I must be sick, or something” after noticing the fact that I walk with a slight limp.
  9. At the wedding of a junior lawyer at our firm, being seated next to Bawss as he loudly lectured the entire table (complete strangers included) of how AIDS was primarily a “gay” disease and that the only reason it ever got research funding was through politicians lying to the public about sufferers contracting it through other means.
  10. Hearing, after I had finished my articling term, that Bawss thought I “wasn’t very good” and “not going to be a great lawyer”.

If this seems incredible to you, I sympathize.  Before I started my articling term, I never thought a person like Bawss actually existed in real life.  To me, someone like him could only inhabit satirical newspaper columns or Saturday Night Live skits.  Every item of the above list is a genuine accounting of the antics that went down.  There are hundreds of other examples.  That job contributed to a worsening of my physical and mental health. My struggles with chronic illness became particularly difficult during those months. Also, I started increasingly thinking of myself as incompetent and unlikely to ever be a success.

I wanted to quit so badly.  There were dozens of times when I thought that the uncertainty and stigma associated with leaving an articling gig early would be well worth ending this torture.  Throughout all of this, I was supported by my exceptionally talented and supportive coworkers.  We drew strength from one another and bonded through the realization that we were in this together.  Frequent after-work drinks were had and we would socialize on weekends and holidays.

Somehow, the months slowly passed and August crept closer.  I passed the bar exam and managed to become a little more efficient and a little less clueless about the files that I was handling.  Also, I learned a lot of interesting things about Bawss and about the world he existed in.  Within a few weeks of commencing articles, I discovered something very significant:  Bawss had worked for McCann (see Parts 17-21 regarding this firm and my candidacy there) for over twelve years before starting his own business.  He never talked about why he left, but the word around the office was that the split was not amicable.  I sent Sheila a brief update e-mail by December about what I was doing and where I was.  I dropped a line about working with her former colleague.  She responded and told me to say hello to Bawss for her before kindly encouraging me to reach out if I ever needed anything.

Unbeknownst to me until much later, Sheila had taken it upon herself to then e-mail Bawss.  She told him to “be nice” to me and that I reminded her of a former mutual acquaintance.  Bawss charged into my shared office shortly thereafter and demanded to know how I knew Sheila and what my connection with McCann was.  I was honest with him.  He nodded and then fixed me with a threatening glare.

“Don’t EVER talk about me to them, do you understand?  They would steal files from me without even thinking twice.”  I nodded lamely and thought about telling him that I really only knew Sheila.  He stormed out before the words left my mouth.  From then on (and whenever Bawss would take me with him to some event), he would frequently introduce me to other defence lawyers rather pompously as someone that he had “stolen” from McCann.  Had this come from anyone else, I might have been vaguely touched.  Instead, I inwardly rolled my eyes, as much at the desperation as at the dishonesty.

Time slowly rolled on and it was not long before the icy cold of fall and winter gave way to an uncharacteristically warm spring.  I had not heard from Sheila or from any of the law firms that I had previously interviewed with for months.  As April turned into May, I considered whether to begin networking in advance of my call to the bar.  I would not be called until later September and it was difficult to know how far in advance to begin the search for an associate gig.   Previously, I had discussed with my colleagues the wisdom of reaching out to Sheila again.  I didn’t want to be a nuisance, but it seemed like she would be the logical starting point.  Despite this, something held me back. Bawss had been particularly ambiguous about the possibility of hireback.  It didn’t really matter, as I knew that I never wanted to be in his employ ever again.

Early in May, I was about to leave the office early to run an errand downtown.  I refreshed my workplace e-mail a final time before signing off.  A new e-mail stood out to me in bolded font.  The subject line read “Re: Articles” and it was from Sheila.  My heart skipped a beat and I quickly looked around to make sure that I was not being watched.

Hi, Stephen:

How are you?  How is articling?  We should catch up and have coffee sometime.  Let me know a day that works.

Take care,

Sheila

Though the e-mail was short, the excitement that I felt was electric.  Like our last meeting, it was also tinged with confusion.  Why would a partner at a well-respected, downtown law firm take it upon herself to reach out to me?  What could this be about?  I’d have counted myself lucky if she had agreed to having coffee at my request, but for her to make the first move?  I didn’t understand and it was the sweetest confusion that I had ever experienced.

I replied briefly to Sheila and talked about being finished the bar exam and how happy I was to be over that hurdle.  As I typed the rest of the message, I tried not to let my eagerness drip with desperation.  I told her that I was free most of next week and that I’d be glad to meet with her at a time and place that was convenient.  My out-of-office errand was time sensitive, so I did not wait around for a further response.  For the rest of the day, my mind raced.  What could this mean?  Was I setting myself up for another disappointment?  Could this just be a friendly meeting and nothing more?

Next week, I again left the office on an “errand”.  As before, it was a struggle to know how to dress for my meeting with Sheila.  Was this an interview?  Was it just a friendly meeting between colleagues?  I laughed at the idea that Sheila and I were anywhere near the same level, but it helped inoculate me from sky-high expectations about this rendezvous.  The commute from North York into the downtown core seemed to take forever.  The weather was bright and pleasant and seemed to tease me with the possibilities that it implied.

We met at the same coffeeshop as last time.  I arrived first, selected a table near the window and ordered a hot chocolate.  Ten minutes later, Sheila strode in.  We shook hands and, after ordering herself a coffee, we both sat.  The meeting lasted about a half hour.   To her immense credit, she stated rather bluntly at the outset that she did not have a job to offer me.  Nonetheless, she asked about articling, about how Bawss was doing and about what type of work we did at his firm.  I answered honestly, but stopped short of venting outright about the type of treatment that I had experienced under him.  Despite everything that had happened, I still thought it poor form to completely denigrate a current employer in front of a potential one.

Luckily, Sheila knew all about Bawss.  She had spent years working with him and, in fact, had enjoyed a friendly relationship for some of those years.  She implied that the end of the friendship had been messy and told me that she would not at all be surprised if Bawss had bad things to say about her.  It was a relief to be speaking with someone who knew all about my “mentor” without me needing to explain.

After the subject of Bawss grew stale, I asked about McCann and how work for Sheila was going.  She explained that the firm was always busy and that there was always something new going on.  I recalled that the firm had opened its first satellite office in Waterloo in 2015 and asked about how that transition had gone.  Before she answered, she looked at me a little sharply.  “Is a job in that region something you’d be interested in?”

I was taken aback, though, luckily, not for long enough to become tongue tied.  I replied that a job in that region doing insurance defence would be something that I’d very seriously consider.  As well, I quipped that my current commute through the heart of the city to North York wouldn’t be all that shorter than a commute to Waterloo every morning.  She nodded and continued to sip her coffee.

The last thing we talked about before we split was what my plan for the future was.  In all honesty, I told her that I was most likely not going to seek employment with my current firm following the conclusion of the articling term.  She nodded as I explained and seemed to affix me with an appraising gaze.  I also mentioned that I would be getting called to the bar in September of 2016 and that I hoped there would be prospects for permanent employment during that time of the year.  Before I could go on, Sheila interjected.

“You know, that might work for you… and it might work for us.”

Outwardly, I smiled and thanked her for her support.  Inwardly, I felt another burst of excitement and possibility swell within me.  What was this?  Is this just another fake out? I couldn’t deal.  Minutes later, we were throwing out our garbage and bidding each other farewell.  We promised to keep in touch and Sheile promised that she would keep my name floating around the offices of McCann.  I walked towards the subway and excitedly texted my coworkers and friends.  This felt like something good, for a change.

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