Our 1965 Pontiac Bonneville never saw the inside of our suburban New York garage. A narrow opening provided me space to park my banana-seat Sting-Ray bike, but the rest of the garage entrance was blocked-off by a neatly stacked, waist-high battalion of silver, five-gallon cans of New Period Lacquer paint.
My father, Murray Margo, was a paint salesman. He kept a ready supply of his company’s products at home to give out as samples to prospective customers or to make an emergency delivery to a customer in need. It was a different time. I now realize that we had enough inflammable liquids in our garage to blow up the entire neighborhood.
But it was the early 1970s. A time of change. It was a time when my father noticed that the “sprayers”– his customer’s employees who actually used his paints and stains — were increasingly Hispanic. So my father went to night school and learned to speak a little Spanish. It seems my father became New York’s only paint salesman who could communicate directly with the sprayers, and the sprayers told their company managers to “only buy from Murray.” Did I mention my father was a great salesman?
But while being a salesman afforded our family a very nice lifestyle, my father wanted me to be a professional. Dad never complained about his job, but he wanted more for me. He thought a job should be intellectually stimulating and his was not. He thought I should have a career.
And I do. At 62, I’m one of the owners of our medium-sized St. Louis law firm. Day to day, I don’t know anyone with more interesting work. One day is full of surprise, as a new client arrives and tells an intriguing and incredible story. The next day is exciting, pressing arguments in Federal Court. I am an occasional confidant to public figures and a valued advisor for corporate decision-makers. I am genuinely content.
There is, however, one very appealing aspect of Dad’s job that he neglected to mention. Dad’s job got easier as he got older. Once he established a stable of repeat customers, the orders poured in like…well, like paint. As long as the lacquer thinner was thinning lacquer and the paint pigment was true, Dad’s job was to visit the customer once or twice a month, talk a little talk, and take his 10 percent.
Now I know why Dad never missed even one of my high school baseball games.
Having practiced law for 33 years, I’ve learned that there is a world of personal difference between customers and clients. The customer may always be right, but the client expects me to be right, always. It was no small epiphany when I realized a few years ago that I am not only a law salesman — I am also the product. The salesman might check in every once in a while, but the product must keep on flowing. Dad’s company value was measured in gallons, but mine is measured in billable tenths of countless hours. I worry that the phone will stop ringing.
My father passed away 10 years ago. Shortly before he died I thanked him for many things, including my career. When I told him that I still remain passionate about practicing law, his eyes responded that he was very proud. When I thanked him for guiding me to this profession, he gave my hand an eloquent squeeze, motioned me forward, and gently kissed my forehead.
During that conversation, our last important conversation, there was one thing I neglected to mention. I didn’t tell him that when I had to work through my son’s basketball game or spend the entire weekend preparing for trial, I sometimes wish I could quit this career and go get a job.