J uly 2020
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O ffice M anager S ulay M artinez
Remembering My Days in the Dish Pit How My First Jobs Helped Me Become a Good Lawyer
Life slowed down a lot this spring. Everything was closed because of the pandemic, business eased up a little, and for the first time in years, I felt like I had spare hours in the day. Weirdly, it reminded me a bit of what summer break used to feel like when I was a kid. You remember that feeling, right? Life seemed to stop, and the days were endless. I never thought I’d have that experience again after graduating from law school, but there I was, having it in my home office. I’m telling you this so you understand where my head has been lately. I’ve been thinking back a lot to the teenager I used to be and how those summer experiences shaped the man I am today. One memory really stands out from the heap: working my very first summer job in the dish pit of an Italian restaurant. I was 14 when I was hired on to wash dishes. I spent hours every day in the wet, steamy dish pit up to my elbows in water and food scraps. It was far from glamorous, but the worst part wasn’t the work itself. (I actually credit that job with teaching me how important and rewarding hard work can be.) The worst part was how so many other people on staff at the restaurant treated me like a second-class citizen. Yeah, I was a 14-year-old kid, but I still didn’t appreciate it when a waiter threw a dish of food on my rack and splashed nasty water all over me. I was a person, too, and I deserved more consideration than that. That experience stuck with me, and it taught me that no matter what rank someone is, what position they’re in, or what background they’re from, you should treat them with respect and dignity. That’s how I’ve operated ever since I got out of the dish pit, and now that I run my own law firm: I encourage my staff to live by the same principles. After my dishwashing days, I took a series of other jobs to put myself through college and law school. I was a busboy, a valet, a stock boy in the produce section of the grocery store, and even a parks and recreation crew member helping to maintain a local park. I’d do anything for a buck to put toward my education, whether it was parking cars, raking baseball fields, cutting grass, or stacking fruit. During all of those jobs, I interacted with people from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. I learned how to communicate, and I always made a point to be genuine and treat people well no matter what. Today, I think those qualities are what make me a good lawyer, too.
Apart from my time at the Italian restaurant, working in the grocery store taught me the most out of all of my summer jobs. The biggest and most valuable lesson came from my manager. Every day, he would leave me with a long list of tasks to complete, and the list was always so long that I couldn’t possibly finish it. I resented him for that and was angry all night trying to do the impossible. Years later, I realized that the list was probably impossible by design. The realization hit when, after I became a lawyer, my father-in-law told me that one hallmark of a successful law firm was that you never got to the bottom of your pile of work. If you did, that meant there was nothing else coming in and your business was in trouble. I didn’t listen to my manager or my father-in-law at first, but over the years, I’ve realized that I can’t “win” by trying to finish my work like it’s a footrace. There’s something to be said for embracing the unfinished pile as you take your time, work hard, and do it right. That goes for law — and for life.
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