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An Open Letter About Law As A Second Career

Latest posts by Charles A. Thurston, Esq. (see all)

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Hi.  I’m Charles A. Thurston, Esquire, but most people just know me as “Lawyer Charlie.”  I forget who first began to call me “Lawyer Charlie”, but whoever it was, the name stuck and I kind of like it.

Obviously, I’m an attorney, but it was not always thus.  In law school, I was what was known as a retread – a person who was older than most of the other students and was training for a second career in the law.

It turns out that for most of my adult life, I was actually a geek.  More officially, I was a computer specialist for the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in Washington, D.C.

For over 20 years, I spent my days writing computer code designed to count how many people and how much money my agency required to be able to tell the American people just how bad the economy was and how long it was going to take to fix it.  Sometimes, I even got to write code that helped figure out the country’s inflation rates and what America’s unemployment picture looked like.  Heck, my first job with the Bureau (that’s insider talk for the Bureau of Labor Statistics) was responding to an accusation from the Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush election campaign that then President Jimmy Carter had ordered the Bureau to “Jimmy” the books so that the inflation rate would look better than it actually was.

I got to tell you, for a young twenty-something year old, I was star struck.  I was actually working with an assistant commissioner researching facts to prove that my government and our president had not and would not ever allow anyone to tamper with the process of producing the best Consumer Price Index humanly possible.  Can you imagine, at 24, I was producing data that proved the integrity of my agency was beyond reproach?  Gosh, isn’t it amazing how so little really changes.  Just last week there was a big story on the news where Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, accused the Bureau, my agency, of understating the unemployment statistics for political purposes.  No offense Mr. Welch, but clearly you really don’t know Jack …

Anyway, after bumming around as a computer geek for twenty years or so, I realized that something was missing in my life.  Well, I took a little inventory and I discovered the following; I was well paid, I had a relatively prestigious job (not everybody could program computers in the 80’s and 90’s), I had a great wife, a nice house in the suburbs of D.C., yet something was not quite right because I wasn’t all that happy.  Hmm, I wondered was wrong.

Well, maybe there is a divine plan or something because about that time, my wife’s asthma got really bad and to make a long story short, her doctors said to me, “boy you need to get your wife out of all this pollution and stress and get her on down to Florida where the air is clean, the nights are warm, and the pace of life is considerably more sane than in Washington, D.C.”  So, taking their advice, I loaded up the truck and we moved to Beverly – I mean Melbourne.  Florida that is: good schools, nice people and rockets that could take you to the moon.

As it happened, the Bureau was actually sorry to see me go, so we worked out a deal where I could work from home and telecommute to my same job in D.C.  At first, this was great; I got up in the morning and walked 15 feet to my office where I could work in the cool comfort of my best underwear.  No more suits, no more ties, I didn’t even have to comb my hair.  But whatever had been missing up north was clearly still missing because I was not only no happier, I was actually getting more unhappy.

Well, it took a little while, but my smart wife who seems to know me better than I know myself figured out the problem.  She said she thought I just missed being with and helping people.  She said I had always been a “people person” and she thought working on computers in silence all day and now, having no co-workers with whom to associate, I was simply missing out on people.  Wow, who knew?  I guess she did.

So my wife and I talked about this and she said, “you know, ever since we met you’ve said you wished you had gone to law school, but it was simply too expensive when we were young.  How about you quit your job, we can live off of my salary and love and you can go live out your dream by going to law school.”  Well, I said I had a great wife.  So the decision was made, and off to school I went.

In my third year of law school, I got really lucky.  I got to intern with the wonderful people at Brevard County Legal Aid.  This was like a dream, a second, perhaps even more prestigious career, working with great colleagues and helping lots of people who really appreciated my help.  Way different from stroking keys on a computer all day.

So, I finished up at law school, passed the Bar and opened up a small practice with another newly minted lawyer who, like me, really had no good job prospects and, therefore, not much to lose by opening up a practice before we really knew what we were doing.

Anyway, as you might imagine, we had little experience in practicing law and even less in running a business.  We barely broke even our first 6 months and my partner decided he no longer wished to practice law and returned to his former profession as a college teacher.

I, on the other hand, carried on valiantly for another 6 months barely keeping my head above water and no doubt making a fool of myself in court going up against experienced attorneys who seemed amused at my stupidity and lack of awareness of courtroom procedure.  In fact, I’ll never forget the first time a judge asked me if I objected to opposing counsel “invoking the rule”.  With a completely dumfounded look borne of total ineptitude, I thought to myself, which rule, there are so many.  Still, not wanting to appear even more ridiculous than I truly was, I meekly answered, “no objection your honor”.  Of course, the judge and opposing counsel could easily tell by my beet red face that I actually had no clue as to what I was being asked.  Ah, the bad ol’ days!

Never fear, there is a higher power and he or she took pity on me.  One of the very attorneys who had mentored me when I interned at Brevard County Legal Aid decided to make a career change and resigned her position.  This meant there was an opening and the Executive Director of Legal Aid mysteriously called me and asked if I was interested in the job.  After putting on my best ponderous voice and saying, “I’m interested, but I need time to think about it”, and after I finished cleaning up were I had wet myself, I called the Executive Director back and asked when I could start.

Well, that was back in January of 2007 and I am blessed to say I have been at Legal Aid ever since.  Now that’s not to say everything has gone perfectly or that there are not many stressors in my job – believe me there are.  Still, all-in-all, since I began practicing law and, especially since I got to take over Legal Aid’s Children’s Program, I have not really had another bad day.  I get to work with foster kids who really need legal representation and I think I have made a difference in some of their lives.  I’ve also had an opportunity to work with a great bunch of lawyers and highly skilled support staff at Legal Aid.

I’ve learned so much over the past 10 years.  I learned that the rule that other lawyer was invoking was commonly understood to mean the rule of sequestration where witnesses are required to leave the courtroom while other witnesses are testifying so as not to be unduly influenced by someone else’s testimony.  I learned that, contrary to popular opinion, lawyers really are just people – and not very different from all the other people.  They and I just have a rather unique job that requires a great deal of laser focus and doesn’t allow for a lot of chit chat with clients who are paying a lot of money for their lawyer’s expertise in the law as opposed to sympathetic comments about the fact that the client is probably going through a very tough time in their lives.  I learned that practicing law is a lot of fun; you actually get paid for helping people which is something I was taught you should always do anyway.  Finally, and perhaps the most important thing for me personally, is that I learned that my wife was right again.  All that was missing in my life was people.  Computers are amazing, but people are vital to keeping a balance in our lives.  And, as for second careers, take it from me; we all live a lot longer these days and doing one thing for thirty, forty or even fifty years is a real challenge.  My advice is to follow your dreams.  You could end up like me, happy and wondering what took your wife so long to tell you what was wrong.


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