THE SENIOR PARTNER studied the résumé for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper. He had the brains, the ambition, the good looks. And he was hungry; with his background, he had to be. He was married, and that was mandatory. The firm had never hired an unmarried lawyer, and it frowned heavily on divorce, as well as womanizing and drinking. Drug testing was in the contract. He had a degree in accounting, passed the CPA exam the first time he took it and wanted to be a tax lawyer, which of course was a requirement with a tax firm. He was white, and the firm had never hired a black. They managed this by being secretive and clubbish and never soliciting job applications. Other firms solicited, and hired blacks. This firm recruited, and remained lily white. Plus, the firm was in Memphis, of all places, and the top blacks wanted New York or Washington or Chicago. McDeere was a male, and there were no women in the firm. That mistake had b
een made in the mid-seventies when they recruited the number one grad from Harvard, who happened to be a she and a wizard at taxation. She lasted four turbulent years and was killed in a car wreck.
He looked good, on paper. He was their top choice. In fact, for this year there were no other prospects. The list was very short. It was McDeere or no one.
The managing partner, Royce McKnight, studied a dossier labeled “Mitchell Y. McDeere–Harvard.” An inch thick with small print and a few photographs, it had been prepared by some ex-CIA agents in a private intelligence outfit in Bethesda. They were clients of the firm and each year did the investigating for no fee. It was easy work, they said, checking out unsuspecting law students. They learned, for instance, that he preferred to leave the Northeast, that he was holding three job offers, two in New York and one in Chicago, and that the highest offer was $76,000 and the lowest was $68,000. He was in demand. He had been given the opportunity to cheat on a securities exam during his second year. He declined, and made the highest grade in the class. Two months ago he had been offered cocaine at a law school party. He said no and left when everyone began snorting. He drank an occasional beer, but drinking was expensive and he had no money. He owed close to $23,000 in student loans. He was hungry.
Royce McKnight flipped through the dossier and smiled. McDeere was their man.
Lamar Quin was thirty-two and not yet a partner. He had been brought along to look young and act young and project a youthful image for Bendini, Lambert & Locke, which in fact was a young firm, since most of the partners retired in their late forties or early fifties with money to burn. He would make partner in this firm. With a six-figure income guaranteed for the rest of his life, Lamar could enjoy the twelve-hundred-dollar tailored suits that hung so comfortably from his tall, athletic frame. He strolled nonchalantly across the thousand-dollar-a-day suite and poured another cup of decaf. He checked his watch. He glanced at the two partners sitting at the small conference table near the windows.
Precisely at two-thirty someone knocked on the door. Lamar looked at the partners, who slid the résumé and dossier into an open briefcase. All three reached for their jackets. Lamar buttoned his top button and opened the door.
“Mitchell McDeere?” he asked with a huge smile and a hand thrust forward.
“Yes.” They shook hands violently.
“Nice to meet you, Mitchell. I’m Lamar Quin.”
“My pleasure. Please call me Mitch.” He stepped inside and quickly surveyed the spacious room.
“Sure, Mitch.” Lamar grabbed his shoulder and led him across the suite, where the partners introduced themselves. They were exceedingly warm and cordial. They offered him coffee, then water. They sat around a shiny mahogany conference table and exchanged pleasantries. McDeere unbuttoned his coat and crossed his legs. He was now a seasoned veteran in the search of employment, and he knew they wanted him. He relaxed. With three job offers from three of the most prestigious firms in the country, he did not need this interview, this firm. He could afford to be a little overconfident now. He was there out of curiosity. And he longed for warmer weather.
Oliver Lambert, the senior partner, leaned forward on his elbows and took control of the preliminary chitchat. He was glib and engaging with a mellow, almost professional baritone. At sixty-one, he was the grandfather of the firm and spent most of his time administering and balancing the enormous egos of some of the richest lawyers in the country. He was the counselor, the one the younger associates went to with their troubles. Mr. Lambert also handled the recruiting, and it was his mission to sign Mitchell Y. McDeere.
“Are you tired of interviewing?” asked Oliver Lambert.
“Not really. It’s part of it.”
Yes, yes, they all agreed. Seemed like yesterday they were interviewing and submitting résumés and scared to death they wouldn’t find a job and three years of sweat and torture would be down the drain. They knew what he was going through, all right.
“May I ask a question?” Mitch asked.
“Why are we interviewing in this hotel room? The other firms interview on campus through the placement office.”
“Good question.” They all nodded and looked at each other and agreed it was a good question.
“Perhaps I can answer that, Mitch,” said Royce McKnight, the managing partner. “You must understand our firm. We are different, and we take pride in that. We have forty-one lawyers, so we are small compared with other firms. We don’t hire too many people; about one every other year. We offer the highest salary and fringes in the country, and I’m not exaggerating. So we are very selective. We selected you. The letter you received last month was sent after we screened over two thousand third-year law students at the best schools. Only one letter was sent. We don’t advertise openings and we don’t solicit applications. We keep a low profile, and we do things differently. That’s our explanation.”
“Fair enough. What kind of firm is it?”
“Tax. Some securities, real estate and banking, but eighty percent is tax work. That’s why we wanted to meet you, Mitch. You have an incredibly strong tax background.”
“Why’d you go to Western Kentucky?” asked Oliver Lambert.
“Simple. They offered me a full scholarship to play football. Had it not been for that, college would’ve been impossible.”
“Tell us about your family.”
“Why is that important?”
“It’s very important to us, Mitch,” Royce McKnight said warmly.
They all say that, thought McDeere. “Okay, my father was killed in the coal mines when I was seven years old. My mother remarried and lives in Florida. I had two brothers. Rusty was killed in Vietnam. I have a brother named Ray McDeere.”
“Where is he?”
“I’m afraid that’s none of your business.” He stared at Royce McKnight and exposed a mammoth chip on his shoulder. The dossier said little about Ray.
“I’m sorry,” the managing partner said softly.
“Mitch, our firm is in Memphis,” Lamar said. “Does that bother you?”
“Not at all. I’m not fond of cold weather.”
“Have you ever been to Memphis?”
“We’ll have you down soon. You’ll love it.”
Mitch smiled and nodded and played along. Were these guys serious? How could he consider such a small firm in such a small town when Wall Street was waiting?
“How are you ranked in your class?” Mr. Lambert asked.
“Top five.” Not top five percent, but top five. That was enough of an answer for all of them. Top five out of three hundred. He could have said number three, a fraction away from number two, and within striking distance of number one. But he didn’t. They came from inferior schools–Chicago, Columbia and Vanderbilt, as he recalled from a cursory examination of Martindale-Hubbell’s Legal Directory. He knew they would not dwell on academics.
“Why did you select Harvard?”
“Actually, Harvard selected me. I applied at several schools and was accepted everywhere. Harvard offered more financial assistance. I thought it was the best school. Still do.”
“You’ve done quite well here, Mitch,” Mr. Lambert said, admiring the résumé. The dossier was in the briefcase, under the table.
“Thank you. I’ve worked hard.”
“You made extremely high grades in your tax and securities courses.”
“That’s where my interest lies.”
“We’ve reviewed your writing sample, and it’s quite impressive.”
“Thank you. I enjoy research.”
They nodded and acknowledged this obvious lie. It was part of the ritual. No law student or lawyer in his right mind enjoyed research, yet, without fail, every prospective associate professed a deep love for the library.
“Tell us about your wife,” Royce McKnight said, almost meekly. They braced for another reprimand. But it was a standard, nonsacred area explored by every firm.
“Her name is Abby. She has a degree in elementary education from Western Kentucky. We graduated one week and got married the next. For the past three years she’s taught at a private kindergarten near Boston College.”
“And is the marriage–”
“We’re very happy. We’ve known each other since high school.”
“What position did you play?” asked Lamar, in the direction of less sensitive matters.
“Quarterback. I was heavily recruited until I messed up a knee in my last high school game. Everyone disappeared except Western Kentucky. I played off and on for four years, even started some as a junior, but the knee would never hold up.”
“How’d you make straight A’s and play football?”
“I put the books first.”
“I don’t imagine Western Kentucky is much of an academic school,” Lamar blurted with a stupid grin, and immediately wished he could take it back. Lambert and McKnight frowned and acknowledged the mistake.
“Sort of like Kansas State,” Mitch replied. They froze, all of them froze, and for a few seconds stared incredulously at each other. This guy McDeere knew Lamar Quin went to Kansas State. He had never met Lamar Quin and had no idea who would appear on behalf of the firm and conduct the interview. Yet, he knew. He had gone to Martindale-Hubbell’s and checked them out. He had read the biographical sketches of all of the forty-one lawyers in the firm, and in a split second he had recalled that Lamar Quin, just one of the forty-one, had gone to Kansas State. Damn, they were impressed.
“I guess that came out wrong,” Lamar apologized.
“No problem.” Mitch smiled warmly. It was forgotten.
Oliver Lambert cleared his throat and decided to get personal again. “Mitch, our firm frowns on drinking and chasing women. We’re not a bunch of Holy Rollers, but we put business ahead of everything. We keep low profiles and we work very hard. And we make plenty of money.”
“I can live with all that.”
“We reserve the right to test any member of the firm for drug use.”
“I don’t use drugs.”
“Good. What’s your religious affiliation?”
“Good. You’ll find a wide variety in our firm. Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians. It’s really none of our business, but we like to know. We want stable families. Happy lawyers are productive lawyers. That’s why we ask these questions.”
Mitch smiled and nodded. He’d heard this before.
The three looked at each other, then at Mitch. This meant they had reached the point in the interview where the interviewee was supposed to ask one or two intelligent questions. Mitch recrossed his legs. Money, that was the big question, particularly how it compared to his other offers. If it isn’t enough, thought Mitch, then it was nice to meet you fellas. If the pay is attractive, then we can discuss families and marriages and football and churches. But, he knew, like all the other firms they had to shadowbox around the issue until things got awkward and it was apparent they had discussed everything in the world but money. So, hit them with a soft question first.
“What type of work will I do initially?”
They nodded and approved of the question. Lambert and McKnight looked at Lamar. This answer was his.
“We have something similar to a two-year apprenticeship, although we don’t call it that. We’ll send you all over the country to tax seminars. Your education is far from over. You’ll spend two weeks next winter in Washington at the American Tax Institute. We take great pride in our technical expertise, and the training is continual, for all of us. If you want to pursue a master’s in taxation, we’ll pay for it. As far as practicing law, it won’t be very exciting for the first two years. You’ll do a lot of research and generally boring stuff. But you’ll be paid handsomely.”
Lamar looked at Royce McKnight, who eyed Mitch and said, “We’ll discuss the compensation and other benefits when you come to Memphis.”
“I want a ballpark figure or I may not come to Memphis.” He smiled, arrogant but cordial. He spoke like a man with three job offers.
The partners smiled at each other, and Mr. Lambert spoke first. “Okay. A base salary of eighty thousand the first year, plus bonuses. Eighty-five the second year, plus bonuses. A low-interest mortgage so you can buy a home. Two country club memberships. And a new BMW. You pick the color, of course.”
They focused on his lips, and waited for the wrinkles to form on his cheeks and the teeth to break through. He tried to conceal a smile, but it was impossible. He chuckled.
“That’s incredible,” he mumbled. Eighty thousand in Memphis equaled a hundred and twenty thousand in New York. Did the man say BMW! His Mazda hatchback had a million miles on it and for the moment had to be jump-started while he saved for a rebuilt starter.
“Plus a few more fringes we’ll be glad to discuss in Memphis.”
Suddenly he had a strong desire to visit Memphis. Wasn’t it by the river?
The smile vanished and he regained his composure. He looked sternly, importantly at Oliver Lambert and said, as if he’d forgotten about the money and the home and the BMW, “Tell me about your firm.”
“Forty-one lawyers. Last year we earned more per lawyer than any firm our size or larger. That includes every big firm in the country. We take only rich clients–corporations, banks and wealthy people who pay our healthy fees and never complain. We’ve developed a specialty in international taxation, and it’s both exciting and very profitable. We deal only with people who can pay.”
“How long does it take to make partner?”
“On the average, ten years, and it’s a hard ten years. It’s not unusual for our partners to earn half a million a year, and most retire before they’re fifty. You’ve got to pay your dues, put in eighty-hour weeks, but it’s worth it when you make partner.”
Lamar leaned forward. “You don’t have to be a partner to earn six figures. I’ve been with the firm seven years, and went over a hundred thousand four years ago.”
Mitch thought about this for a second and figured by the time he was thirty he could be well over a hundred thousand, maybe close to two hundred thousand. At the age of thirty!
They watched him carefully and knew exactly what he was calculating.
“What’s an international tax firm doing in Memphis?” he asked.
That brought smiles. Mr. Lambert removed his reading glasses and twirled them. “Now that’s a good question. Mr. Bendini founded the firm in 1944. He had been a tax lawyer in Philadelphia and had picked up some wealthy clients in the South. He got a wild hair and landed in Memphis. For twenty-five years he hired nothing but tax lawyers, and the firm prospered nicely down there. None of us are from Memphis, but we have grown to love it. It’s a very pleasant old Southern town. By the way, Mr. Bendini died in 1970.”
“How many partners in the firm?”
“Twenty, active. We try to keep a ratio of one partner for each associate. That’s high for the industry, but we like it. Again, we do things differently.”
“All of our partners are multimillionaires by the age of forty-five,” Royce McKnight said.
“All of them?”
“Yes, sir. We don’t guarantee it, but if you join our firm, put in ten hard years, make partner and put in ten more years, and you’re not a millionaire at the age of forty-five, you’ll be the first in twenty years.”
“That’s an impressive statistic.”
“It’s an impressive firm, Mitch,” Oliver Lambert said, “and we’re very proud of it. We’re a close-knit fraternity. We’re small and we take care of each other. We don’t have the cutthroat competition the big firms are famous for. We’re very careful whom we hire, and our goal is for each new associate to become a partner as soon as possible. Toward that end we invest an enormous amount of time and money in ourselves, especially our new people. It is a rare, extremely rare occasion when a lawyer leaves our firm. It is simply unheard of. We go the extra mile to keep careers on track. We want our people happy. We think it is the most profitable way to operate.”
“I have another impressive statistic,” Mr. McKnight added. “Last year, for firms our size or larger, the average turnover rate among associates was twenty-eight percent. At Bendini, Lambert & Locke, it was zero. Year before, zero. It’s been a long time since a lawyer left our firm.”
They watched him carefully to make sure all of this sank in. Each term and each condition of the employment was important, but the permanence, the finality of his acceptance overshadowed all other items on the checklist. They explained as best they could, for now. Further explanation would come later.
Of course, they knew much more than they could talk about. For instance, his mother lived in a cheap trailer park in Panama City Beach, remarried to a retired truck driver with a violent drinking problem. They knew she had received $41,000 from the mine explosion, squandered most of it, then went crazy after her oldest son was killed in Vietnam. They knew he had been neglected, raised in poverty by his brother Ray (whom they could not find) and some sympathetic relatives. The poverty hurt, and they assumed, correctly, it had bred the intense desire to succeed. He had worked thirty hours a week at an all-night convenience store while playing football and making perfect grades. They knew he seldom slept. They knew he was hungry. He was their man.
“Would you like to come visit us?” asked Oliver Lambert.
“When?” asked Mitch, dreaming of a black 318i with a sunroof.
The ancient Mazda hatchback with three hubcaps and a badly cracked windshield hung in the gutter with its front wheels sideways, aiming at the curb, preventing a roll down the hill. Abby grabbed the door handle on the inside, yanked twice and opened the door. She inserted the key, pressed the clutch and turned the wheel. The Mazda began a slow roll. As it gained speed, she held her breath, released the clutch and bit her lip until the unmuffled rotary engine began whining.
With three job offers on the table, a new car was four months away. She could last. For three years they had endured poverty in a two-room student apartment on a campus covered with Porsches and little Mercedes convertibles. For the most part they had ignored the snubs from the classmates and coworkers in this bastion of East Coast snobbery. They were hillbillies from Kentucky, with few friends. But they had endured and succeeded quite nicely all to themselves.
She preferred Chicago to New York, even for a lower salary, largely because it was farther from Boston and closer to Kentucky. But Mitch remained noncommittal, characteristically weighing it all carefully and keeping most of it to himself. She had not been invited to visit New York and Chicago with her husband. And she was tired of guessing. She wanted an answer.
She parked illegally on the hill nearest the apartment and walked two blocks. Their unit was one of thirty in a two-story red-brick rectangle. Abby stood outside her door and fumbled through the purse looking for keys. Suddenly, the door jerked open. He grabbed her, yanked her inside the tiny apartment, threw her on the sofa and attacked her neck with his lips. She yelled and giggled as arms and legs thrashed about. They kissed, one of those long, wet, ten-minute embraces with groping and fondling and moaning, the kind they had enjoyed as teenagers when kissing was fun and mysterious and the ultimate.
“My goodness,” she said when they finished. “What’s the occasion?”
“Do you smell anything?” Mitch asked.
She looked away and sniffed. “Well, yes. What is it?”
“Chicken chow mein and egg foo yung. From Wong Boys.”
“Okay, what’s the occasion?”
“Plus an expensive bottle of Chablis. It’s even got a cork.”
“What have you done, Mitch?”
“Follow me.” On the small, painted kitchen table, among the legal pads and casebooks, sat a large bottle of wine and a sack of Chinese food. They shoved the law school paraphernalia aside and spread the food. Mitch opened the wine and filled two plastic wineglasses.
“I had a great interview today,” he said.
“Remember that firm in Memphis I received a letter from last month?”
“Yes. You weren’t too impressed.”
“That’s the one. I’m very impressed. It’s all tax work and the money looks good.”
He ceremoniously dipped chow mein from the container onto both plates, then ripped open the tiny packages of soy sauce. She waited for an answer. He opened another container and began dividing the egg foo yung. He sipped his wine and smacked his lips.
“How much?” she repeated.
“More than Chicago. More than Wall Street.”
She took a long, deliberate drink of wine and eyed him suspiciously. Her brown eyes narrowed and glowed. The eyebrows lowered and the forehead wrinkled. She waited.
“Eighty thousand, first year, plus bonuses. Eighty-five, second year, plus bonuses.” He said this nonchalantly while studying the celery bits in the chow mein.
“Eighty thousand,” she repeated.
“Eighty thousand, babe. Eighty thousand bucks in Memphis, Tennessee, is about the same as a hundred and twenty thousand bucks in New York.”
“Who wants New York?” she asked.
“Plus a low-interest mortgage loan.”
That word–mortgage–had not been uttered in the apartment in a long time. In fact, she could not, at the moment, recall the last discussion about a home or anything related to one. For months now it had been accepted that they would rent some place until some distant, unimaginable point in the future when they achieved affluence and would then qualify for a large mortgage.
She sat her glass of wine on the table and said matter-of-factly, “I didn’t hear that.”
“A low-interest mortgage loan. The firm loans enough money to buy a house. It’s very important to these guys that their associates look prosperous, so they give us the money at a much lower rate.”
“You mean as in a home, with grass around it and shrubs?”
“Yep. Not some overpriced apartment in Manhattan, but a three-bedroom house in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage where we can park the BMW.”
The reaction was delayed by a second or two, but she finally said, “BMW? Whose BMW?”
“Ours, babe. Our BMW. The firm leases a new one and gives us the keys. It’s sort of like a signing bonus for a first-round draft pick. It’s worth another five thousand a year. We pick the color, of course. I think black would be nice. What do you think?”
“No more clunkers. No more leftovers. No more hand-me-downs,” she said as she slowly shook her head.
He crunched on a mouthful of noodles and smiled at her. She was dreaming, he could tell, probably of furniture, and wallpaper, and perhaps a pool before too long. And babies, little dark-eyed children with light brown hair.
“And there are some other benefits to be discussed later.”
“I don’t understand, Mitch. Why are they so generous?”
“I asked that question. They’re very selective, and they take a lot of pride in paying top dollar. They go for the best and don’t mind shelling out the bucks. Their turnover rate is zero. Plus, I think it costs more to entice the top people to Memphis.”
“It would be closer to home,” she said without looking at him.
“I don’t have a home. It would be closer to your parents, and that worries me.”
She deflected this, as she did most of his comments about her family. “You’d be closer to Ray.”
He nodded, bit into an egg roll and imagined her parents’ first visit, that sweet moment when they pulled into the driveway in their well-used Cadillac and stared in shock at the new French colonial with two new cars in the garage. They would burn with envy and wonder how the poor kid with no family and no status could afford all this at twenty-five and fresh out of law school. They would force painful smiles and comment on how nice everything was, and before long Mr. Sutherland would break down and ask how much the house cost and Mitch would tell him to mind his own business, and it would drive the old man crazy. They’d leave after a short visit and return to Kentucky, where all their friends would hear how great the daughter and the son-in-law were doing down in Memphis. Abby would be sorry they couldn’t get along but wouldn’t say much. From the start they had treated him like a leper. He was so unworthy they had boycotted the small wedding.
“Have you ever been to Memphis?” he asked.
“Once when I was a little girl. Some kind of convention for the church. All I remember is the river.”
“They want us to visit.”
“Us! You mean I’m invited?”
“Yes. They insist on you coming.”
“Couple of weeks. They’ll fly us down Thursday afternoon for the weekend.”
“I like this firm already.”