Stupid Tuesday Questions, Aspirational Anxiety Edition

Well, I did it. It’s only something I’ve been wanting for my entire career and talking about for half a dozen years (or more). I finished doing a whole bunch of detective work about myself, got it all down in a single document, transferred all the data into the right form, and before I could stop myself, I pressed “submit,” and now I can’t take it back.

I’ve formally asked the Governor to appoint me to the Superior Court of the State of California.

I’ve put in for lower-level judicial positions in the past, and been passed over each time. A lot of people have asked me recently why I’ve waited so long to submit my application to the Governor for judicial appointment. A seat on the bench is, after all, what I really really want most out of my legal career, because to me that represents precisely what I’ve trained and educated myself to do for the past quarter century. Even my current employers know that over time my current job has eroded to become inadequate for both my economic and hedonic needs — they’ve done what is in their power to shore that up, to their credit, but still.

So why wait? Why hesitate? Go chase career success! That’s what I’d tell someone else; why not take my own advice?

Part of it is that I’ve now had to ask complete strangers — strangers with important political positions, to be sure, and political attitudes that might be in places different from my own — to look at my merits as a candidate for what I consider to be a signal honor. I’ve asked the local judges to consider me for appointment as a Commissioner (a kind of appointed judge, who typically hears traffic or small claims cases) before, because that was both more familiar territory for me and I knew some of the judges involved in the process from my experiences serving as a pro tem judge. So at least then I could hope that some of the decision makers would know me, or at least know of me.

But that’s just awkwardness. There’s also inertia. Am I happy where I’m at? Not as much as anyone would prefer. But I am somewhere. I have work, work which sometimes I do enjoy. For instance, I settled a case last week, and my client’s gratitude was a tremendous professional and emotional satisfaction. I’ve a group of people with whom I work whose company I’ve come to enjoy. I don’t have a long commute, and sometimes I get to work from home, which is a perk I enjoy very much. Change would disrupt all that.

The little demon of depression has been a heavy anchor. Calm down, friends, I’m not talking about anything that rises to the level of a mental health issue; I’m talking about the sort of intermittent blue feeling that’s universal to the experience of being a human being. If you’re a Freudian, this demon is a creature of the superego — feeding vampire-like upon false but felt inadequacy. We all feel inadequate to life from time to time, which in turn makes us sad. I’m not the only one who has listened to depression’s seductive lies of inadequacy. But they are lies. And while like everyone I’m not able to deafen myself to the demon who taunts me at night when I can’t sleep, also like nearly everyone else I found a way to snap out of it and express pride in my intellectual, experiential, and temperamental qualifications. Still, coming up with a rejoinder that actually shuts that little demon up is, at times, a surprisingly tall order.

The demon also told me that politics are against me. It took a lot of digging in to assure myself that the demon was lying, or at least mostly lying. Credit where it’s due: Governor Brown’s record of judicial appointments has not been hidebound to partisan loyalty, and has not been stereotypically prosecutor-heavy. Indeed, a little looking into the judicial appointments process produces the profound impression that intellectual qualifications and personal temperament — in other words, merit — are the principal defining factors of Brown’s appointments. The decidedly pragmatic Jerry Brown of the 2010’s has defied at lot of what my cynical Republican friends claimed about him, claims based on what by now can only be hazy memories of the Jerry Brown administration of the 1970’s. I’ve a professional colleague and sometime adversary who serves in the Legislature (after last week’s election, he’s now what you call a lame duck) and he too has assured me that partisan issues aren’t a significant factor in the appointment process. But the little demon tells me that I’m wearing rose-colored contact lenses, that politics will undo my ambition and that I’ve not done anything of note politically to alleviate that situation, he reminds me that my colleague didn’t say that partisan issues aren’t a factor at all.

Of course, the demon has also been telling me that I might not be a desirable appointment from a diversity standpoint. As I noted above, really looking into it demonstrates the truth of what several actively-serving judges have assured me, which is that first and foremost the need is for qualified people. Diversity on the bench is important and yes there should be more women and people of color serving. A white dude like me looks like the majority of the rest of the bench, which I suppose also was a small but greater than trivial factor deterring me from stepping up and finishing the thing. But eventually, I decided that was my insecurity, not the Governor’s problem. Just because I agree that there should be a spectrum of many kinds of people serving, well, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t serve. I already reach out to the community and encourage young people of all genders and races to learn about the legal profession and if appointed there’s no reason at all that I’d stop doing that; how much better would that be coming from a member of the bench than a member of the bar?

And while the demon dwells in the Freudian superego, he gets help from the limbic system’s amygdala. After all, fear is a factor for all of us, too. In my case, it feels particularly perverse, as I suffered from both fear of failure – what if I’m rejected? – and fear of success – I’d have changes in my life! – and it doesn’t make a lick of rational sense to fear both failure and success at the same time. It’s strangely debilitating. Yet something tells me it’s also a common experience.

Now, having swallowed this sour soporific stew of self-doubt, fear, and inertia, I’m left with a smouldering coal of unease dwelling in my belly whenever I think about it. That’s the vertigo of realizing that something important is going to happen that is at this point functionally beyond my ability to control. Alea iacta est. It’ll be months, maybe the better part of a year, before I know what will come of this. I don’t even know if the answer is “no” if I’ll get any communication at all (although the thoroughness and professionalism of the investigation process as described to me makes that seem decidedly doubtful).

So have any of you had similar sorts of experiences? Hesitation, caused by groundless self-doubt and fear, to go get something that you really wanted? Or something else, which turned out to be entirely within yourself! How’d it work out for you — did you overcome it, did you get the success you sought? Hopefully, you all have stories with happy endings to tell.


Image Credit: modified from original at wikimedia commons (that’s a picture of a “brass ring,” get it?)


Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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30 thoughts on “Stupid Tuesday Questions, Aspirational Anxiety Edition

  1. Good luck! I look forward to the day when I am in front of your bench and we need to awkwardly disclose our nom de plumes!

    My answer is probably starting my own law practice. My mom seems to really want me to because she is worried about me being laid off or downsized when I am in my 50s and not being able to get work again.

    She might have a point but all I think about are the risks and how am I suppose to pay for the thing. Where am I supposed to get the money to rent office space? purchase malpractice insurance? Pay for cases because plaintiff’s work goes on a contingency basis? I was told that if you start your own practice you should only do law that interests you, otherwise you will want to blow your brains out.
    Who would want to sign up a new lawyer without any experience when there is a ton of competition in the Bay Area and New York including in the suburbs? And all other sorts of practical questions.

    Maybe necessity will be the mother of invention one day but right now it is not. I just imagine myself going bankrupt over trying this. I’ve approached friends who were itching for a change professionally about starting a firm and they are all initially intrigued but then back down because they are not “risk takers.” Sometimes they joke about joining me after I become successful and I am not sure whether that is a joke or a “joke.”

    I met with a guy who was always solo. He started int he early 80s as a law clerk making 150 a week and living in SROs which were really dangerous. He know lives in the East Bay Hills and does well for himself but said he got married late because it took him a while to be financially secure. I don’t want to get married late. I feel like a late bloomer enough as it is. The prospect of blooming even later is not appealing.

    Finally, I think starting my own practice would basically confirm that I am a weirdo-outsider who can’t get hired for a normal job like a normal person.


    • What I can tell you, based on the internal struggle I had to win but I described in this post, is that you need to find a way to elevate your ambition over the obstacles. I realize that’s not as easy to do as it sounds. That’s kind of why I wrote this post — to give voice to some of the irrational, internal impediments but have to get put in their place.

      You have no more guarantee of success in your proposed endeavor then I do in mine, and different stakes, but especially after putting a demon in his place, I can tell you that I feel a whole lot better about at least trying. I know you’ve been struggling to find a viable alternative for sometime now. I think that you’re made of the right stuff, and that you would be a great benefit to your clients.


  2. That’s tremendously exciting news, Burt. You would make an awesome SCOTSOC* addition.

    As for the aspirational anxiety question, I’m not sure I have that gene — or at least not as it pertains to career stuff. The closest thing I can think of in my own life was around the topic of marriage. For a long time I refused to even consider the possibility of marrying (or even living with) someone I was dating, even if I really liked them, because I was convinced I would be the worst husband ever and that I’d be divorced within five years.

    * When I look at that acronym I say it phonetically in my head, so from now on I’m going to picture you wearing tartan-plaid socks.


    • I like argyle socks, so that’s close enough. I noticed a number of the younger lawyers, men of and ‘s vintage,have begun a trend of wearing all kinds of crazily-decorated, sometimes even loud, socks with otherwise perfectly acceptable suits and shoes. I sourly but quietly disapprove of this frivolous youthful impetuosity, which I also take as a signal that I have attained a level of personal maturity recommending me to the bench — clearly, I am turning into a curmudgeon.


      • James,
        depends on the court, and what you mean by personality.
        I don’t think the lawyer who asked another lawyer (on the stand) “Are you the WitchKing of Angmar?” got in trouble.

        I’m pretty sure taking cases simply to prank the judge and the opposing council is frowned upon, though.

        As is showing up with a ventriloquist dummy (and attempting to get the dummy to pass the bar exam).


  3. Good luck! When you get the job, are we going to have to call you “Your Honor,” and stand everytime you enter the comments of a post? Is that how that works?

    (Seriously, though, good luck. I suspect you’d make a very good judge.)


    • If I were to attain this, and you were then to call me “Your Honor” in a regular post, I’d — well, like the good counselor above, I wouldn’t cite you for contempt, but I’d feel most awkward about it. Judges are supposed to have things like non-judge friends and hobbies and regular conversations about things that aren’t necessarily legal. You don’t stop being a human being just because you put on a black robe to do your job.

      Pretty much what would change here is that I’d have to refrain from commenting on issues that were likely to come before me on the bench, and refrain from offering opinions about most political issues and candidates for political office. Also, I wouldn’t be able to explain or comment on my own rulings; those have to stand on their own merit as issued — so if someone were to find one of my rulings and criticize it, I’d not be able to comment on that criticism. But I rather doubt that the sorts of things I’d be likely to rule upon would be of interest here.

      It’s not like SCOTUS is the only thing I write about as it is. I’d probably do a higher percentage of cooking and dining posts, more cultural stuff like movies and history and explorations of interesting places I’ve had the good fortune to visit.

      And I’m also not taking it for granted that I get this appointment at all.


      • Yeah, I was being silly of course. My parents were good friends with a judge, and I with his kids, in the early 90s. I used to jokingly call him “Your Honor” when I visited, and I’m pretty sure he found me really annoying, in part because of that.

        But I am glad I got you to explain how your posting might be different. I was thinking that would probably be the case (I was hoping the answer wouldn’t be, “I wouldn’t be able to post”).

        So again, good luck, and I’m being quite sincere when I say that I believe you’d be good at it.


    • I confess a fascination with the British legal system precisely because of the wigs, and the colorful robes, and all the ceremony and pomp and titles, and the great premium placed on quick-wittedness in live proceedings.

      Not that I’d want to be called “My Lord” under any circumstances; that’s even more off-putting than “Your Honor”! And that whole stand-the-Defendant Accused-in-a-dock-by-himself-in-the-middle-of-the-courtroom protocol gives me some serious pause about the presumption of innocence and the appearance of judicial fairness.


  4. Burt,

    Congrats on taking the next step in your career!

    For me, doubts in my career are constant since I am not in the field I studied for and also do not necessarily have an aptitude for all the time. It’s scary, especially when you have people telling you that you are ready for the next step on the career ladder and it doesn’t feel like it from your perspective. Sometimes it’s good to trust those words of encouragement and at other times I have learned to listen to my own instincts. Usually it works out.


  5. This whole ‘I’m a-gonna write me a textbook’ business is doing it to me on spades.

    I strongly believe you would be a better judge than I am as a textbook author. I mean, I think you’re really well suited to be a judge.


  6. A decade ago I was on the wrong side of a corporate acquisition and my position was eliminated. It was a position that had been pretty much created around me, allowing me to spend half my time on questions of my own choosing and half on (usually) oddball questions that the company wanted me to work on [1]. The job had also required me to be even more of a generalist than I had always been. After the first few months following the layoff, it was clear that everybody local was looking to hire specialists [2]. I wasn’t interested in pulling up stakes and moving across the country. For the last two years of it, the job had become steadily less fun as the entire industry was going through a massive mergers-and-acquisition phase. I had always done analysis of complex systems, and was personally becoming more interested in policy kinds of systems rather than purely technical ones. My own judgement was that to do that, I was going to have to go back to school and get another degree. One kid was in college, the other was about to start, and my wife was taking classes at the local community college after being a stay-at-home Mom and volunteer this-and-that for ~20 years.

    I was depressed about the job search and couldn’t bring myself to commit to going back to school. The trigger finally happened one Friday afternoon. The labs where I had worked had occasional “happy labs” meetings at a local micro-brewery and invited those of us who had already been laid off to attend (laying off the entire labs had been announced, but some of the staff had been given substantial bonuses if they stayed on long enough to train the people in Philadelphia on some things). I ended up describing my situation to one of the people I had sometimes worked with — he was a rabbi as well as a specialist in software security. He asked some questions about the family finances, and finally said, “Mike, does God have to write it across the sky in big letters for you?”

    On balance, I’d say it was the right decision. Not the most financially secure one, but the right one overall.

    [1] An example: “Given the pace of various technologies, what kind of video-on-demand services will the satellite-TV companies be able to provide in five years?” It’s a complicated combination of the amount and cost of local storage, video compression quality, emerging satellite bandwidth, and the ability to predict what a viewer will want to see. The answer that I gave the marketing team that asked terrified them. I heard through the rumor mill that at least one of them said something to the effect of, “Maybe we should kill Mike before he goes to work for Dish.”

    [2] Relative to that remark at the end of [1], I asked after being laid off and Dish had their own business plans and service architects and weren’t interested (at that point in time) in video-on-demand.


  7. Good luck.

    I remember when my Dad went through all of that, and it took him representing an awful client in a multi-week trial in a remote part of the country to actually put the application together. Congrats for doing it on more like your own initiative.


  8. Congratulations and the best of luck, Burt!

    As to the question,: hesitation, caused by groundless self-doubt and fear, to go get something that I really want, is pretty much my greatest area of expertise.


  9. So have any of you had similar sorts of experiences? Hesitation, caused by groundless self-doubt and fear, to go get something that you really wanted?

    Dude. Only every minute of every day spent waking.

    It takes a lot for me to ask for things and to put myself out there. I’ve been trying to get over that for a lifetime, but it’s still in progress. I have a strong preference for not being rejected, and the best way to avoid it is to not ask in the first place.

    But I can easily point to times in my past where I wish I had applied for this or asked for that and didn’t because I was scared. If you ask me for times when I wish I hadn’t asked or hadn’t applied, I’m left with a blank. Reaching too far hurts ones ego, but not reaching at all will screw up your life. I try to remember this.


  10. Late to the party, as usual*

    First, congratulations on pulling the trigger on the application and the very best of luck. I became a judge** 2+ years ago and I simply love the job. It’s even more fun than being a federal law clerk, and I didn’t think there was any job better than that (I did it twice).

    The best part of the job is, well, the deciding – weighing up the merits of both sides, finding the holes in the arguments, and deciding who has the better argument. That’s the sort of analytic process I find ultimately the most rewarding part of the job. Moreover, I find much less of the drudgery that was involved in being an attorney; preparing briefs that you’re sure will lose, the hell of discovery (I spent a decade one year in BigLaw), etc. When you’re the judge, counsel serves it all up to you in a nice tidy package for your delectation (or else). Plus you get to observe, from time to time, spectacularly talented attorneys who are a real pleasure to watch.

    If I have any advice, it’s what I learned from the district court judge I clerked for: be extra, extra patient and considerate with the pro se litigants (even those that are crazy and driving you nuts) and cultivate a detestation of legal bullies.

    But watch out! The job can be very socially isolating, particularly with respect to your current legal friends and colleagues. Of course, I’m basically antisocial and introverted, so this has not been much of a problem for me except insofar as it tends to increase those tendencies, which I think is something I should perhaps be concerned about….

    The worst part of being a judge that I’ve seen, is sentencing. It can be very, very difficult sometimes (not always) and especially for nonviolent crimes. For example, when I was a law clerk, we had a case of a group who were illegally importing steroids from overseas and selling them on the internet. One of the defendants didn’t show up for his sentencing. The judge issued a bench warrant and sent the sheriffs, who found the guy at home. He’d shot himself rather than face prison. That was very hard. Happily for me, I hear cases that are very technical, but not criminal (and I’m not saying more than that). So the cases are very important monetarily, but no one gets sent to jail by me (although there are one or two counsel, perhaps….)

    Pet peeve. Counsel who submit arguments in a brief supported by case law that does not support their argument at all and sometimes even states the opposite. It happens more than you think. They can expect no mercy whatsoever.

    With respect to Tuesday’s Stupid Question: I think I lack that gene as well. I had a successful 20+ year career as a scientist and academic and then, as my midlife crisis, decided to go to law school. Just went ahead and did it (I guess I waited about 6 months before finally deciding to take the LSAT). I’ve been extremely fortunate and delighted with the way things have worked out. But looking back, it’s absolutely terrifying the risks that I took. I mean, leaving a tenured, full-professor position….

    * I’ve posted here before occasionally, under (more or less) my own name, but since I’m revealing some personal info, I thought I should be more discreet.

    ** Federal, specialized-jurisdiction court.


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