Monday, 19 March 2012
Washington DC, USA
A LAWYER'S TALE
by David M. Steiner
Last May I addressed a class on stuttering at Hunter College in New York City taught by Dorothy Ross, Ph.D. After speaking for about 25 minutes, I threw open the session to Q&A. One of the student SLP's asked why in the world did I choose the law as my profession if I stutter. To truly answer her question would have taken at least another 25 minutes. One of the skills we learn in Toastmasters, however, is how to make a long story short. In this case, very short. I said that all of us who have chosen to do anything in our lives, and that is all of us, did it for exactly the same reason: It seemed like a good idea at the time. Fortunately, in my case, a career in the law has turned out to be richly rewarding.
For the past five years I have held the title of Assistant Corporation Counsel in the New York City Law Department, where I was recently promoted to Associate Counsel. The Law Department, also known as the Office of the Corporation Counsel, is New York City's office of trial attorneys. We defend the City when it is sued, and argue for the City when it sues others. Of course, we cannot offer the big salaries that private firms pay, but other incentives exist. Our lawyers frequently win public interest awards from bar associations, and the work is always interesting. We recruit from law schools and public interest job fairs.
I, however, did not come to the Law Department in the usual way, but via a circuitous route. My college career, though fun, lacked direction. While an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City, I could not decide upon a major until my junior year, when I decided that I had a knack for Philosophy. As I saw graduation approaching, I had no idea what to do with myself. I decided to apply for Naval Officer Candidate School, to which I was initially accepted. On the day that I was to be sworn in, however, I was told to fill out a set of forms, one of which asked if I had ever had any kind of therapy. I said that I had had speech therapy, at which point my swearing in was postponed and my application ultimately rejected. The Department of the Navy later wrote me saying that there was no waiver for stuttering.
I ended up applying to the Peace Corps and, having learned my lesson, never mentioned my stutter during the application process. The Peace Corps assigned me to teach English in the West African country of Niger for two years. I then returned home and entered a masters program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Unfortunately, my speech had degenerated significantly during my Peace Corps years, and my job interviews while I was at Fletcher went poorly. My inability to find a job was my primary motivation in going to Cornell Law School.
Initially, law school was a scary experience, to which I eventually habituated myself. When it came time to look for a job again, however, I had no more luck. I stuttered badly in my interviews and found myself jobless after graduation. I returned to another masters program at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, which I had actually started years earlier. My interviews there went no better and the job placement office banned me from further interviewing, telling me that I was hurting the school's reputation.
I never gave up, however, and eventually landed a volunteer job in the chambers of a federal judge in New York City, John Walker, cousin of George Bush. With that under my belt, I got a job offer from Judge Jane Restani on the U.S. Court of International Trade. During the interview, she asked me if I stuttered, my unconditional affirmative answer apparently impressed her. I then got a job with Judge Reynaldo Garza on the Federal Court of Appeals.
My work with the federal judiciary was followed by a period of joblessness during which I got a masters in tax law at New York University in order to get more interviews. Once again, I graduated jobless but eventually I got employment at a small firm through a friend from the Fletcher School, and then another friend got me a job at the New York City Law Department.
During my job hunting ordeal, I received speech therapy and became very involved with Toastmasters and am now president of my chapter. The Law Department has placed great faith in my ability to try cases and my speech has greatly improved. Perhaps the most important factor in my coming to terms with stuttering is my self-actualization as a stutterer. Joining the stuttering lists, going to NSA and Speakeasy conventions, and recently going to the Third World Conference of the International Fluency Association have all helped to embrace a condition from which I used to run. While I am not one of those who claim to love their stutter, I fully acknowledge its presence. As those in the NSA who know me can attest, I now love giving speeches and relish any opportunity to reach a podium. Facing one's problems head on is a liberating experience. When things go wrong, do not despair, the only thing regrettable about mistakes is the failure to learn from them. Remember, good judgment comes from bad experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.