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Litigation News

Summer 2023, Vol. 48, No. 4

Keeping the Journey in Perspective

Joseph Beckman


  • Reading my friend's obituary has inspired me to wonder a bit about how my own might read.
  • My new role includes an opportunity to pay forward the wonderful training I received last century at the beginning of what has proved to be an interesting and occasionally challenging career.
Keeping the Journey in Perspective
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This June marked a year of my “grand” experiment. It began with a return to living in the mountains after 22 years back in my native Midwest. My practice is largely the same, but the role includes an opportunity to pay forward the wonderful training I received last century at the beginning of what has proved to be an interesting and occasionally challenging career to date.

As detailed in my last column, the year had “mountain top moments” (literally and figuratively), all worth celebrating. It also included a handful of curveballs that might have driven a younger version of me to places where the shortcut to stress relief would have been unhealthy coping mechanisms. These could range from reprehensible eating habits, to abandoning exercise, to fulfilling too much of my caloric intake via cold malt beverages.

As humans, are we imperfect beings? Of course. We lawyers sometimes, whether through ego, force of will, or simple competitiveness, attempt to deny that imperfection. In the process of keeping our outward armor shiny, we sometimes permit the engine under the hood to “run hot,” risking that the whole thing will lock up.

An Early Lesson in Humanity

My first year in practice was largely split between two massive cases. Both were over $20 million at issue. In both, I was little more than an overpaid “document jockey.” The only thing more unremarkable than these disputes between corporate giants was probably the impact of my two years of legal work on them. What was remarkable, however, were some life lessons and perspective I gained in the process.

On the one case, my supervisor was the last attorney at the firm to have made full partner on the “seven-year track.” The two of us could not have been more different in background or outlook. Andrea came from a prominent East Coast family, and her marriage was announced in the New York Times society pages. She loved art and culture and had no interest in sports. Her husband was the chief operating officer of a large publicly traded Chicago business. The backyard of their Evanston home had 180 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline. I was a blue-collar city kid. I spent my newfound "wealth" on Bulls and Cubs season tickets. I played hoops two to three times per week at lunch and went out for (sometimes too many) beers after my softball and basketball games.

What we had in common—initially—was that we were neighbors. My condo was two stops north (maybe two miles) on the Northwestern train line. While their home had a fax machine, the technology sucked. As a result, I often received the “request” to “drop off the next copy of the brief on your way home.” That meant riding the train to my place, then jumping in my car for the five-minute drive to hers. At least it got me out of staying until 9:00 p.m. reviewing and summarizing documents.

I was a bachelor at the time, and every time I dropped off a draft brief, I was invited (instructed?) to come into the house and eat some dinner. Sometimes her daughters, who ranged from about four to eight, joined us. I was always sent home with leftovers. I even house-sat their two large dogs (all my meals prepared in advance by Andrea) when they went on vacation.

A couple of years later, she left the firm and moved to Geneva, a small river town west of Chicago, to spend more time with her daughters. She continued to practice, albeit on a much less hectic schedule. Kate (my wife) and I would go out each summer for her town’s “Swedish Day” festival, and we otherwise stayed in touch. When I was considering a move to Montana for a similarly “slower” lifestyle, Andrea was a fierce advocate and an amazing resource.

Death Offers a Holiday?

In my last column, I touched on a detour at the start of my last semester of law school into Georgetown Hospital’s intensive care unit. That experience robbed me of about two inches of extension, and I never dunked in a basketball game after my surgery. I made the choice to view the experience as liberating as opposed to limiting (save for dunking). The perspective it afforded makes it easier to appreciate that all in life is temporary—both the lows and the highs.

Fast-forward to the summer of 1996. Kate and I (and the creature in her belly that would become our first child) had driven to Geneva to visit Andrea and her family. This trip brought mixed emotions as Andrea had been battling cancer. Though physically less vibrant, her spirit remained indomitable. We had just come back from a vacation in Montana. I connected with a law school classmate who talked me into interviewing with his firm. Because I had a sport coat with me, I talked to three other firms there as well. The topic that perked Andrea up almost as much as the news of our family’s expansion was my request for some career advice. She urged us to strongly consider the lifestyle benefits that would accompany the Montana opportunities, especially as new parents.

We parted, and I kept tabs on Andrea’s condition through her classmates at the firm. When one said, “She’s having a good day,” I’d try to call and let her give me grief for 5–10 minutes. I think she liked that I would give it back every now and again, as in her mind she did not like “kid gloves.”

In November, I got a call. She had moved to hospice at Northwestern. “Go see her,” I was told. Ever the loyal associate, I did. When I arrived, she was tired but her eyes lit up. She, weakly, gave me grief for how I was dressed. We chatted briefly, then her intensity returned for a flash.

“Did you get the job in Montana?”
“Yes,” I replied. She fired back, “Are you going to take it?” Again, “Yes.”
“Good for you and Kate!”

Writing Your Own History

A few months ago, I came across the magnet pictured below. It was the inspiration for this article. I love it almost as much as a tangentially related Hunter S. Thompson quote. They epitomize how I vowed to live after the stint in the ICU all those years ago.

In preparing this article, I dug around for Andrea’s obituary. As I expected, it was easy to find. Reading it has inspired me to wonder a bit about how my own might read. That, plus working with my brother to write my mom’s, has inspired me to take a crack at writing my own. I suppose one value of such an exercise is I will have an outline for how to “live my best life” over my remaining years of this mortal coil. When it’s done, perhaps I’ll post it somewhere online. I wonder how much happier we would be if we all wrote our obituary. Would that change some of the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives for the better?