Risk–On Being a Lawyer

I never really planned on being a lawyer–never imagined myself as a Perry Mason or any other paragon of the profession. It was accidental–I took the LSAT on a whim, did even better than I expected and got into a great law school. I wasn’t sure what else I would do straight out of college, and it seemed like a good choice. And, even in hindsight, it was.

Choices can be deceiving, though. When choosing to attend law school, I thought (perhaps naively) that I was choosing what to do with the next three years of my life. I did not foresee the extent to which that choice would lead me toward so many other choices, decisions that I may not have made (or have wanted to make) had I not made the initial choice to attend law school. And this is what I tell people who are considering law school now: Law school is not simply a matter of getting an education in an interesting field with a wide array of applications, and “keeping your options open”; the reality is that, having attended law school, there will be certain paths set before you that will be very easy to choose, default options that you will fall into unless you to some extent swim against the current. These pre-packaged paths are not necessary bad ones, but given that most of my classmates and I chose one of them, it may be said that when you choose to attend law school you are choosing perhaps the next seven years of your life, and not just the next three.

But this post isn’t about career paths and choices–no, I wanted to discuss a bit how a legal education changes your general behavior, decreases your appetite for certain kinds of risk. Now, it is true that the profession probably draws the risk-adverse simply because a legal education is seen as a “safe” field for moderate professional and economic success. But it is also true that the numerous examples of conflicts, whether in torts or contracts, that a prospective lawyer encounters brings to the fore of his or her mind things that can go wrong, and how hideously and painfully things can go wrong. Yes, I believe that law school and law practice have made me a more cautious, risk-adverse person. In many situations, my mind goes through lists of potential accidents. I consider how language may be misinterpreted by others. When reaching some sort of agreement I double check to make sure that there has been a “meeting of the minds.” I have developed a deep appreciation of insurance.

What has made me think of all of this? It being Ramadan, with most of the population here in Egypt fasting from sunrise to sunset, our dietary schedules have been somewhat disturbed. Although we manage to snack during the day and eat a substantial dinner at night, the erratic eating routine has indeed been challenging, well offsetting what are some “fun” aspects of traveling in Egypt during the holy month (post to come). Well, walking home from dinner last night, we thought we would grab another little something to eat, and so stopped by the McDonald’s located across Talaat Harb Street from our hotel. Derek and I ordered a couple double cheeseburgers and sat down to eat. I was about halfway through my burger when I noticed that I had a hard object in my mouth–I removed it to see that it was a fairly large piece of glass. It didn’t cut me or do any other immediately noticeable harm, but I was understandably somewhat shocked. Derek took the burgers and the glass to the management and explained the situation.

After waiting for a few minutes, I realized that I should probably inspect the burgers and the glass to see if it was likely that there was additional glass, which I may have ingested. I was in disbelief to hear that the store employees had thrown the burgers and glass away. I was immediately suspicious of their motives–were they going to deny that it ever happened? Why did they throw away the evidence? I demanded that the burgers and glass be tracked down–they must be in the garbage after all–and eventually they did find our burgers (though not the glass). I carefully went through each burger and saw that there was no other glass, which gave me some peace of mind that the piece I caught may have been the only one. Nonetheless, I imagined dying of internal bleeding, recalling prison movies where inmates are murdered with glass-contaminated food and Derek’s story about his father killing a skunk with glass-enriched ground meat. I demanded that the garbage be searched again, thoroughly, went into the back of the store and watched an employee go through the refuse, to no avail.

I was, to be honest, somewhat hysterical by this point. One of the McDonald’s managers suggested that it may have been plastic, not glass, and this combined with their disposal of the object gave me concern that they were trying to shirk their obvious responsibility for whatever could happen to me. It was September 11, and I even contemplated the glass not being accidental, having been deliberately placed in the food of the foreigner. Any actual damage to health seemed unlikely, but I wanted the incident thoroughly documented in case any problems arose overnight. Though the hour was quite late, the incident was escalated up the Cairo-based management of McDonald’s Egypt. I demanded that someone sign my statement, confirming what had happened to me in the store. Not surprisingly, they refused, even when I had watered down the statement to say only what my allegations were.

Now, I didn’t really want to go to the hospital. It seemed unlikely that there had been more than one piece of glass. I wasn’t even sure what a doctor could do (given that glass cannot be detected by x-ray). But the operations manager who had been called in to the store suggested that I go to the hospital, and I knew that I could not refuse. However great a waste of time it would be, and however much I would rather sleep and go to the pyramids the next day, I knew that one responsibility on the part of a claimant in a contracts lawsuit in the U.S. is to mitigate one’s losses, and I did not want to take any step (or refuse to take any step) that might jeopardize my position. I did not want to risk being in a situation where I (or Derek) could not claim against McDonald’s because I didn’t go to the hospital when it was suggested. So I went. (Fortunately, Derek was able to have the doctor clarify that having my stomach pumped was not, strictly speaking, recommended.)

One thought on “Risk–On Being a Lawyer

  1. Just to let you know that in almost all cases, swallowing sharp stuff like glass isn’t too dangerous as long as you got it down in the first place – cuts to the mouth and esophagus are the most likely dangerous things from glass, but once in the stomach, the harsh acids pretty quickly blunt the most sharp edges (not that the piece wouldn’t cut your skin if you tried, just the very sharpest part gets blunted a little). Sharp and long objects (like a toothpick) might pose more of a problem, but generally aren’t. I once had to round on a prisoner who swallowed several razor blades and saw the daily xrays of the blades as they went through his gi tract without any issue at all (he was in the hospital so we could follow him and recover the blades so he wouldn’t use them later!). Button batteries (because of leakage and erosion through the walls of the stomach/intestine) and those tiny powerful magnets (which can stick intestine together and cause an obstruction) are the most dangerous objects that actually get into the stomach and require endoscopic retrieval. Loving your posts! – Jeremy the ER doc

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