What follows is a rather long and rambling story ending with an explanation as to why this plaque, which looks big in the photograph but is actually not very big, hangs on the wall of my office.
It was spring semester of my first year of law school. For first-year law students in those days, what was on everybody’s mind was what they might do for the summer between their first and second years of law school. Of course what one hoped was to get a law-related summer job. Maybe that job would eventually lead to a full-time job after graduation.
I was in law school on the East Coast, and spring semester was interviewing season. I had attended many on-campus interviews, one of which was with the firm then known as Fenwick, Stone, Davis and West. A week or two later I received a telephone call from a secretary at the firm letting me know that I would soon receive an airplane ticket to fly to California to visit their offices in Palo Alto, California. The point of the trip was to follow up on the on-campus interview. This was exciting for me, and I am pretty sure it was the first time in my life that I had ever gotten on an airplane with someone else paying for the trip.
While I was in Northern California, my law school classmate Jonathan Baker took me to one of his favorite Chinese restaurants there. He is a very smart guy and it is he who introduced me to Steely Dan. During the dinner, we talked about each of our career decisions to attend law school, wondering whether it had been a good choice for each of us. At the end of the meal, I opened my fortune cookie, and what came out was the fortune that you see above.
You would make a good lawyer for no detail escapes your attention.
It seemed to me that if there were ever an event that might validate my own career choice, this was it!
The following morning was my scheduled meeting time with the Fenwick firm. I arrived at One Palo Alto Square and the firm’s receptionist handed me my schedule for the morning. I met with several associates and partners, learning about the firm and answering questions about myself. After a couple of hours of very pleasant discussions I finished in a conference room where I was told to wait and one of the firm’s four partners would see me. (Racking my brain I can only say that I am quite sure it was either Stone or Davis, but I am not now sure which.) The partner chatted with me for a moment, then got to his point. “So, Carl, what will it take to get you to accept our job offer and join our firm for the summer?”
I almost fell off my chair, and from my reply you can understand why: “I just spent the last two hours doing the best I could to try to make a good impression so that you might offer me a summer job!”
At which point he stared at me, opened his mouth, and closed it again. He said “we didn’t offer you a job?” I said “no.”
He said “how did you get here from Massachusetts?” I said “you sent me an airplane ticket.”
He said “Hm. Please wait here a moment.” He went out of the room, and came back in a moment later with one of the other partners, I want to say it was Fenwick. The two of them looked at me and they said “we didn’t offer you a job?” And I said “not as far as I know.” They went out again. Later the two of them returned, with Fenwick holding a flimsy piece of paper in his hand. He held it out to me to look at it. I could see that it was a carbon copy.
(For the youngsters who are reading this blog, a carbon copy is a thin piece of paper that has characters on it because it was behind some other piece of paper, with a piece of carbon paper sandwiched in between, and the whole assembly was rolled into a typewriter. Physical keys were manipulated to strike the paper to put characters on the front sheet and the impact caused the carbon paper to transfer carbon to the thin sheet of paper at the back. This sheet, called a “carbon copy”, gives rise to the initialism “cc” that we all use nowadays in emails.)
This carbon copy said something like “Dear Mr. Oppedahl, thank you for interviewing with us at the law school. We would like to offer you a summer job. My assistant will contact you shortly to arrange air travel so that you can visit with us to make a decision to accept our job offer.” I had never see this letter, and I told the partners this. We all had a good laugh, and the day of meetings concluded pleasantly.
I had spent the morning in “selling mode” and they had likewise spent the morning in “selling mode”.
The following week I was back at law school, and I went to my favorite nearby Chinese restaurant Changsho. (I am delighted to see that it is still there even now, many decades later.) At the end of the meal, I opened my fortune cookie, and I received the exact same fortune a second time!
Well, if at that point there had been any remaining crumb of doubt or worry for me about my decision to go to law school, this erased it. The same fortune, twice, thousands of miles apart.
When I graduated from law school and started my first full-time job with a law firm, I found a company that makes plaques out of things like photographs and diplomas. They told me they had never been asked to do this with a fortune from a fortune cookie, but they were glad to give it a try. What they came up with was an attractive little plaque, about three inches tall and five inches wide, with the fortune in the center. I hung it prominently in my office where any potential client would see it when entering. I figured, if a potential client ever wondered whether they were making a wise choice hiring me, I could point to the plaque and that would reassure them. To the extent that I have found some measure of success in my career, I attribute some of it to this plaque.
Oh, and the summer job offer from the Fenwick firm? I ended up turning them down. I spent the summer instead in the patent department at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago. Looking back on it, I often wonder how it might have worked out had I chosen the Fenwick job for that 1L summer.