I used to make ninety bucks an hour as a lawyer doing part-time legal research and writing — hateful work I was nevertheless grateful for, as for ten years it had supported me while I tried to make my way as a creative writer. I’d found the job by sending out résumés to lawyers listed in the yellow pages. Prior to that I’d worked for four years in civil litigation, loathed it, and quit to pursue my passion: writing. Getting hired as a legal freelancer had seemed like a godsend. I never had to go to court or deal with clients; my employer brought the assignments to my door.
My boss was in his midfifties: short, slim, African American. A bit of a dandy, he drove a silver bmw convertible, drenched himself in sweet cologne, and wore well-fitting suits with a matching handkerchief in the breast pocket. With his calm demeanor and kewpie-doll smile, he had the perfect temperament for a trial lawyer. I, on the other hand, am a people-pleaser, with all the sublimated anger people-pleasing gives rise to. I hate confrontation; my boss couldn’t have cared less whether people — clients, judges, I — got mad at him. A wooden plaque on his desk read, “Relax and Let God Do It.”
I was all for letting God into my life. I’d converted to Catholicism several years before I met my boss. In fact, he and I sometimes talked about our respective faiths. He attended a Baptist church in south LA. Still, in light of the fact that he was perpetually disorganized, chronically late, and forever making lame excuses, that plaque made me a little nervous. To my mind, faith was about being faithful in the small ways, too: showing courtesy, telling the truth, and playing fair.
My job was to write motions, appeals, writs: work that was nitpicky, detail-oriented, and boring beyond belief. Perhaps it will come as no surprise when I say my heart was never in it. Our adversarial system of litigation struck me as almost intrinsically wrong, intrinsically violent. Far from resolving disputes to anyone’s satisfaction, it set the parties up as combatants and seemed only to breed more enmity, anger, and hurt. My philosophy (perhaps a strange one for a lawyer) is that you shouldn’t sue every time something doesn’t go your way. Christ himself said, “Lose no time; settle with your opponent while on your way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to the guard, who will throw you into prison. I warn you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:21–26). With the financial toll litigation takes, it’s clear we are all paying down to the last penny.
Personally I had never thought of suing anybody. That I made my living helping people conduct lawsuits was inner conflict enough. But then my boss stiffed me for $2,817.
I didn’t want to sue him. He’d always paid me eventually, if only because he needed me to do more work. Over the years we’d fought and made up so many times that the relationship felt like an old battle-scarred marriage. He’d been up to my apartment, and we’d had coffee together at my dining-room table. He talked about vacationing in Hawaii, how much he’d enjoyed walking along the beach, marveling at the birds.
But I didn’t entirely trust my boss, either. He told little, unnecessary lies, and it had been a monthly battle to get my paycheck. He’d pay me one, two, three weeks late, and then the check would bounce. I shouldn’t have put up with this, but I did because I thought of him as a friend, because I didn’t want to look for another job, and because I didn’t want him to think I was a racist.
Weeks, then months, drifted by, and still he didn’t pay me. I wheedled; I nagged; I offered to set up a payment plan. He seemed impervious to my pleas, which frustrated me even more. This was a huge sum of money to me, representing thirty-plus hours of drudgery.
I try to bring my faith into everything I do. To me, religion isn’t separate from life; it permeates life, radiating from our every action, word, and thought. The Crucifixion symbolizes, among other things, the human ego, continually crucified in its daily collision with our bodies, our wills, other people. Along with the Resurrection, it speaks of the two great mysteries, so close it’s often hard to tell them apart: suffering and love.
I wanted to believe that if I practiced honesty, I’d get what was rightfully mine — but it wasn’t happening. I wanted to be “as innocent as a dove and shrewd as a serpent” (Matt. 10:16). I wanted to give my boss every chance I could, but I also wanted to be a good steward of my money. It was becoming harder and harder to do both. One of them would have to give.
Then, during my morning meditation, I came across a prayer:
Give peace to those who have destroyed our peace; Grant love to those who have refused us love; Protect from injury those who have done us injury; Grant success to those who have competed with us to our loss; Give prosperity to those who have taken what was ours.
This prayer moved me. I decided to write my boss a letter, enclosing the prayer, and appeal to him as a man of faith. I told him I’d been feeling angry and betrayed and didn’t know what to do, but that the prayer had helped me see his side of it. After all, he’d been faithful in paying me all these years. I asked if he could see my side of it, too: I’d done the work, and it was only right that he pay me for it. I said I’d been prepared to file a claim, but that wasn’t going to make either of us feel any better. So I was going to keep praying this prayer and hoping some money would come in for him, and I would trust with an open heart that he’d pay me when he could, as he always had.
Another couple of months went by, and I still hadn’t seen a cent. “I’m going to keep praying for him,” I told my friend Joan, “and I’m also going to sue his ass in small-claims court.”
I might have been ambivalent about being a lawyer, but I suddenly found myself eagerly awaiting the prospect of exercising my right as an American citizen to have my day in court. I would swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I’d present my evidence, and the judge — bless his or her fair-minded heart — would proceed to rule in my favor, and maybe even give my boss a lecture on being a good employer!
I filled out the forms, schlepped to the downtown courthouse, and paid the fees. It came as a small shock when my boss evaded the first process server — fifty-five bucks wasted. The next server nailed him at his office but then sent back the wrong proof-of-service form — twice — which meant two more trips downtown for me. Meanwhile I gathered my paperwork: copies of my federal and state tax returns with the relevant entries highlighted; bills underlined and asterisked.
The day of the hearing, at the downtown superior courthouse, I anxiously scanned the crowd outside Room 541. My boss wasn’t there. Apparently he wasn’t going to show up. I was thrilled.
When the judge called my case, I jumped smartly to my spot. “You did some legal work you didn’t get paid for,” the judge said. “Do you have an invoice of some kind?”
“Yes, indeed,” I replied, brandishing an inch-thick sheaf of exhibits bristling with binder clips, tab markers, and Post-its.
He regarded me coldly for a moment, then closed the file without reading its contents. “I hope you can collect your money,” he said. “Bowden v. Flores?”
It took me a second to realize I’d won. That was easy, I thought, gathering up my papers and thinking how lovely it would be when I soon received a check for almost three thousand dollars.
Little did I know my boss was just warming up. Three weeks later he filed a motion for relief, claiming he’d “miscalendared” the earlier hearing. From start to finish, the second hearing was a nightmare. First my boss was an hour and fifteen minutes late. When he finally did show up, he beckoned me imperiously out to the hallway, ostensibly to exchange exhibits. Once we were out there, he said he’d accidentally brought the wrong ones.
It wasn’t until we were finally in front of the judge, though, that my boss delivered the coup de grâce: he claimed the real reason he hadn’t paid me was that I’d done shoddy work and padded my bill.
I was flabbergasted. “But, Your Honor,” I stammered, “he always said he just didn’t have the money. There’s no evidence of any such thing. I worked for him for ten years, and he never once mentioned —”
My boss cut in, sounding calm and reasonable. “Your Honor, I trusted Heather. I never had any reason to believe she wasn’t billing me fairly. But when I sat down and compared the motion for summary judgment and the appeal in the case . . . well, she just copied most of it right in.”
This was a shameless ploy. Any lawyer who specializes in a particular area of law routinely uses the same language when drafting motions, appeals, and so forth; it would be a complete waste of time — and true bill-padding — to start from scratch in each instance. I asked the judge for a couple of minutes to look at my boss’s exhibits.
“No,” the judge replied curtly. And, signaling that the testimony was over, he stood and swept back into his chambers.
I struggled to comprehend the hideous turn the case had taken. Maybe it had been naive of me, but I’d thought my boss was my friend. Certainly I’d never thought him capable of looking me in the eye and lying. He’d been a guest in my apartment. I’d run out to his double-parked car to pick up files in my pajamas. In ten years I’d never once missed a deadline. And now he was not only cheating me: he was accusing me of having cheated him!
A week later the judgment came back for $1,800 — a thousand less than I was owed. I was still smarting over that when my boss appealed it. I seriously considered giving up at that point, but a friend who’d won a small-claims case against her employer told me that, when her boss had refused to pay, she’d gotten a writ of execution, and the sheriffs had come and put yellow tape around the deadbeat’s office and started hauling out his furniture. I imagined my boss’s office door splintered with a battering ram, the files and deposition transcripts scattered all over the floor, the sign that said, “Relax and Let God Do It” broken underfoot. The idea made me smile.
The appeal meant I had to prove my case all over again in superior court. Now that I knew the accusations he was going to make, I came to the hearing fully prepared. My boss, as usual, appeared calm and collected, while I — the injured party with the truth and a carefully collated stack of evidence on my side — came off like a hysterical harpy.
“Lawyers shouldn’t be arguing over five hundred dollars,” the judge said with a yawn.
“It’s not five hundred; it’s $2,800,” I quavered bravely, thinking of my recent divorce, my inability to afford health insurance, the eighteen thousand dollars I’d grossed the year before.
Since my poor, beleaguered boss had neglected to bring his exhibits, the judge ordered us to come back the next day at 9:30. “Is that OK for you, Ms. King?”
It took everything I had not to scream, No, it’s not OK! He’s the one who showed up late and without his exhibits! Why should I have to come back? Instead I turned on my heel, fighting tears, and left.
To my horror, my boss followed me out to the hallway. “Heather?” he said gently. “Do you want to talk settlement?”
Settlement? After he’d ripped me off and disrespected my status as a fellow member of the legal profession? I whirled around and said, “How dare you address me!” My voice was shockingly loud and startled the hapless folks trying to eat their lunches on the benches lining the hall. “Don’t you ever talk to me again!”
I boarded the down escalator, still seething. Was I the only one who thought it was important to be fair and tell the truth? The whole affair made me feel as if I were missing something or being dishonest in some secret way unknown even to me.
The next day the judge announced he was taking the case under advisement. Over the weekend I thought about how I’d screamed at my boss in the hallway. Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean being a doormat, but returning someone else’s psychological aggression with your own — something Christ never did, even to Judas — wasn’t the answer either. Also, I kept thinking of those people who’d been quietly eating their lunches when I’d flown into an apoplectic rage; it was the kind of disturbing scene that could stay with a person all day. So on Monday I sent my boss another note: “I’m sorry I yelled at you in the hall last week. I hope you can forgive me.”
On Tuesday the judgment arrived in the mail — for $1,417. So much for justice: on the basis of zero evidence, the amount my boss owed me had been cut in half. He was supposed to pay up within thirty days. Sure enough, on day thirty-two, I came home to a message on my machine: “Hi, Heather? I’m calling regarding the judgment. I don’t have all the money at this time. I was trying to get it all to give to you, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to have it for another few days. I’m hoping I will have some money Monday or Tuesday. Talk to you soon.”
Talk to me soon: About what? The fact that I had won, and he still wasn’t going to give me the money? My only recourse now was to get a subpoena issued and haul my boss back into court. Since he’d failed to pay up, he could theoretically have been forced to divulge his assets.
My eyes fell on the crucifix above my desk: the intersection of heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material. What would Jesus do? I wondered. The media portrayed it as the motto of brainwashed teenage evangelicals, but I’d asked myself this question many times over the course of the ordeal. My feeling about Jesus is that he could see through to a person’s core and transform him or her with a look: a look that said, I know and treasure you — and I also see what’s making you so unhappy.
What kind of look would Jesus have given my boss outside the courtroom? It wouldn’t have been the look I’d given him: a look of reproach calculated, however unconsciously, to induce guilt. No, Jesus would already have absolved my boss, and at the same time he would have called upon him to live up to his highest self.
And what kind of look would Jesus have given me right now? Maybe a look that said, You don’t have to put yourself through this anymore. Or perhaps, Your time would be better spent looking for a job. I probably should have been looking for a job, but it was deeper than that. I’d always been conflicted about being a lawyer. I could point the finger at my boss all I wanted, but in a way he had the firmer faith. He believed in the legal system, and it was working fine for him. What did I really believe in? At the start of all this, I’d said I was going to keep praying for him and sue him. Was it really possible for me to do both — for a heart to open and close at the same time?
I’d wanted to stand up for what was mine, yet not be driven by anger. But now that I’d finally calmed down, I saw that I had been driven by anger from the beginning. I hadn’t prayed for my boss once since I’d filed my complaint. When I’d apologized for screaming at him in the hall, I hadn’t been genuinely contrite. I’d submitted my claim to litigation, then gotten mad when it hadn’t turned out the way I’d wanted. I’d never acknowledged how I’d contributed to the problem in the first place by letting him get away with making untimely payments. I’d never once dared to ask, How loyal an employee could I have been all those years if I’d been ambivalent about the work? I was attaching every grievance I’d ever had — against people, against the world, against God — to this one.
My real sin was that I’d believed myself to be morally superior to my boss. In fact, he and I were all too alike. We’d both been stubborn and proud. We’d both been afraid: of losing something we had, or not getting something we wanted. I was starting to feel at least a little compassion for him — and a little forgiveness.
In the end the legal system doesn’t address the betrayal, hurt, and anger that are a result of lawsuits. There’s a higher law that does: the healing power of forgiveness. And it’s the work of a lifetime to try to practice it. Let me start by imagining my old boss and me. We’re on a beach together in Hawaii, marveling at the birds. He looks into my eyes and says he’s sorry. We embrace as brother and sister.