I Can[n't] Let Go: A Retired Lawyer Reflects on Walking Away

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


I retired sixteen months ago, and I find that the study of the law and I, while not divorcing ourselves from one another completely, have definitely set up separate maintenance. It’s a shock. Although I always wanted to be a lawyer, it didn’t seem possible for the first member of my immediate family to graduate from high school. Needless to say, there were no other lawyers in the family to ask for advice. And while I can proudly state that most of the family was free-world, I was far more familiar with trailer parks than putting greens. If actually getting admitted to law school was a pleasant surprise, getting a job after graduation was as much as I thought I could ever wish for. I would never have dreamed that, thirty-seven years later, I could walk away without looking back.

That’s not to say that I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about the law. My husband likes to watch Perry Mason at night — apparently, courtroom drama makes him sleepy. (Don’t laugh; I’ve seen judges and jurors with the same problem.) If Perry and his nemesis, Hamilton Burger, get into a particularly heated debate, I’ve been known to bolt upright from apparent slumber, point a finger at Hamilton, and yell, “That’s not a real objection!” Scares Hubby almost to death, and, no, Hamilton, that’s not my motivation.

So, what’s the problem? Disappointment, I think, with both the profession and my profession. Atticus Finch modelled lawyering for me, and I aspired to have his life, as I imagined it: a house in a decent neighborhood (Well, okay, Boo Radley lived down the street, but that turned out to be a good thing, and what small southern town doesn’t have a resident eccentric?), a new car every five or six years, and money to put the kids through college (if they chose state schools, anyway). Poor old Atticus didn’t appear to have a private plane, a condo in Gulf Shores (or Oxford), or a Range Rover, and yet he seemed oddly content. He was probably never going to be President of the Alabama Bar or make TV commercials  —  too unassuming for that; nevertheless, he was a successful lawyer. That’s the life I was looking for; however, by current material expectations, I failed miserably.

To compound the problem, I spent the biggest part of my career as a law clerk. As in law clerk. Sure, you can say staff attorney, but what people hear is law clerk. Young lawyers often told me how much they desired to be a career law clerk, and I always told them that they would have to check their self-esteem at the door. Don’t get me wrong, judges love their own law clerks, but they view the rest as failed lawyers. The Administrative Office gutted the federal career law clerk program several years ago, over virtually no objection from the judges. It was not a problem until their law clerks were let go because their time was up. And the name  —  law clerk. My daughter once asked me whether law clerks did a lot of filing. One of the lowest points in my tenure was when a young lady on our custodial staff told me that she was thinking about going back to school “so I can have a job like yours, where I just sit at a desk and look at paper all day.”

A considerable upside to all of this is the tight group of friends I made along the way, most of whom are lawyers. Several of them were law clerks and understand. Another plus is the stories. I’m firmly convinced that lawyers have the best war stories in the world, particularly if you’re able to laugh at yourself. In real life, I’d like to hear Hamilton laugh at some of his objections, as well as his failure to object when Perry started testifying.

Finally, the public’s perception of lawyers and the legal system has me disheartened. Not lawyer jokes; I’m sure they have existed since the beginning of lawyering. (“What do you call a chariot full of lawyers falling into a river?” “A good start.”) No, it’s more the public belief that all lawyers are corrupt, and the system is rigged. Y’all, “justice” means administering the law in a manner that is fair and impartial; not, “I win because of who I am.” “Witch hunt” means an actual hunt for witches; “political prosecution” is not the same thing.

We will all miss the articles contributed by Judge Jimmy Robertson. But, while I sometimes wish that I had enough energy and curiosity to write the kind of scholarly articles that he turned out, I’m not smart enough. Moreover, I’m glad to be finally able to play with my granddaughter, torment the new husband, watch as much football as I can stand, and learn about cooking (see “torment the new husband”). I serve at the whim and caprice only of my family (meaning the number of times Ali wants to watch Frozen), and she won’t fire me unless I lose the remote. So, don’t look for me in the law library. Unless, of course, there’s a TV in there that’s tuned to ESPN.