Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Some Insights from the Death of my Friend Ignoto

My old friend Ignoto died on Thanksgiving morning.  It was an easy death, the kind we all pray for: he and his wife were dining with two of their very best friends (not me) when he excused himself to go to the bathroom.   A while later, they found him unconscious, and a few hours after that, he was pronounced dead at Kaiser.  No interminable, agonizing, degrading, bankrupting delays.  Just poof, thank you and bye.  Lucky Ignoto.

I first met Ignoto 50 years ago in the city room of the old  Louisville Times, among (I must have said this before), some of the brightest, funniest, most engaging human specimens I've ever had the privilege to encounter.    Ignoto preceded me to California and when I showed up a few years later as a spanking new professor, I think his attitude was that if Buce can get through law school, why then anyone can.  

He did go to law school and professed to enjoy it but sadly, I don't think he ever really got traction in law practice.  In his later years, he was doing commercial collections: humble drudgery that nobody does except for the money (well-- cf. infra).   Ignoto did it for, I suspect, not a lot of money, although   it did get him out of the house and supplied him with some of the baroque and entertaining stories on which he (and let's face it, I) always seemed to thrive.

The death was easy; the cleanup, not quite as much so.  Ignoto's was a small, perhaps a tiny, practice and he does seem to have kept good records.  Still, there is a bunch of just stuff: clients to be notified, files to be returned, a trust account--other people's money!--to be reconciled, that sort of thing.

All this will get done and life will move on or not as the case me be and I'll spare you the details.  I'm telling the story because I want to tell also about how it has broadened my vision.  Here's my insight: this sort of thing is happening all over the place:  no, not just dying, wonder buns, I know that is happening (people are dying now who never died before!).   I mean rather: lawyers are dying, still in harness, with clients who still depend on them--lawyers in their 70s, 80s, 90s, who can't afford to quit because they never gave a thought to saving for retirement, or won't quit because they can't imagine what else to do.  "Lawyers live well and die poor," my father the credit manager (who had seen their balance sheets) liked to say.    

So perhaps its was aways true.   But I wonder whether it is truer now than it was in my father's day: we've had an uneasy sense for a long time that we have too many lawyers.  And since the bubble has burst, it's perhaps more urgently obvious than ever.  Here in Palookaville, there are several I see suspiciously often at the gym.  Around any courthouse, you'll find an array of hangers-on trying to scrounge for a few crumbs (public money for criminal defense has surely been a godsend for some clients; it's probably saved the bacon of a few lawyers too).

An oddity of the law is that this is one profession in which you may actually get better as you get older--at least up to a point.  I wouldn't want my mathematicians much over 26. I suspect there is much to be said for a surgeon who is still young enough to compete at pickup basketball (but be careful with those hands, doc, okay?).  I doubt that many dentists are better at 55 than they were at 30 (and probably a lot more bored).  Lawyers, by contrast, can improve, if they are lucky,  by leveraging their purely technical skills with maturity, good judgment, gravitas.

No, no, I'm not saying everybody gets wiser as they get older.  I remember how "that guy doesn't have 20 years' experience: he has one years' experience 20 times."  Still, some people do get wiser with age, and law is one profession where wisdom may do good work.

But you can anticipate the catch here: even in the best of cases, that wisdom will begin to plateau.  Short of egregious misconduct that leads to outright disbarment, nothing tells the lawyer to stop.  It's not like driving, where you have to renew every so often. It's more like the Energizer Bun--no, more like the Energizer Bunny's knockoff imitation cousin who keeps "going" but slower, slower, slower until he achieves entropy.

Addressing the aftermath of Ignoto, I find that Bar Associations apparently have noticed they have a problem: there seem to be mechanisms designed to facilitate a cost-effective and responsible cleanup (how well they work may be another story).   And I learn also that, well as I said, it's happening more and more: the older lawyer with not much of a practice who can't or won't quit and who flirts every day with the prospect of leaving clients in the lurch. Heaven help us all.

Disclaimer:  hope I don't sound too gloomy--but it seems like the mates are falling all around me.  I went to  (celebratory) memorial service for another old friend just the Saturday before Thanksgiving. And New Years' Eve marked the end of a much-loved faculty colleague.  Platoon is taking some incoming.


The New York Crank said...

I would submit that psychiatrists also improve with age, and the wisdom that comes with it. However, here, too, there are exceptions. The Crank's late beautiful girlfriend had a colleague who suffered from early onset Alzheimer's. The colleague was advised to parcel out patients and retire, but (no surprise) kept forgetting to do so. The local psychoanalytic association finally stepped in and quietly did whatever it is they do to make people stop.

Old advertising copywriters are another example of people who can go on. George Lois, who works for himself, has churned out great stuff in his 80s. (Well, he's actually an art director, but he still comes up with the ideas and often claims he wrote the copy, too.)

However, managements at ad advertising agencies actively spread rumors that creative people "lose it after 50," thus providing a rationale for firing productive but very well paid veterans and replacing them with triple the number of juniors, in the hope that one of those hordes of chimpanzees-in-a-closet will by chance write a great ad.

Have you seen a lot of great advertising lately, eh?

The loss of old friends is another matter. At a certain age, one begins to fear being the last one, and thus friendless in a world of arrogant youth. I read the obits each morning with the combined eagerness and dread of a drug addict who knows he is plunging a filthy needle into his veins, but just can't stop.

Very crankily yours,
The New York Crank

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Age is, alas, a fever chill
That every physicist must fear
He's better dead than living still
When once he's past his thirtieth year
-P.A.M. Dirac

On the other hand, Willard Gibbs didn't publish anything until he was 34. (Gibbs may be obscure, be he is certainly the greatest American theoretical scientist of the nineteenth century. Some fans would drop the last four words of the previous sentence.)