Better Life

The Briefcase

The Briefcase
Necessity is the mother of re-invention.

Shortly after 9pm one February night, Allen switched off the lights to his store, locked up, and headed home, just as he had done every other night for 4 decades. This time, though, there was no next-day opening with which to concern himself. He was out of business.

The year was 1989. The recession of the late 80s, and the ascent of big box stores, caused his mini-chain of small town catalog showrooms to dwindle from seven locations to just one, and then finally to zero.

He was 52 years old, a veteran of retail since his first job working the counter of his dad’s five-and-dime at age 11, and he had just two years of college under his belt. Finding work with those credentials in economically challenging times was a tall enough order. Add in the fact that he still had a kid in college (who planned to enroll in law school the following fall), plenty of bills to pay, and only his wife’s modest government paycheck to cover it all, and you might start to get the picture of how difficult his situation was.

But Allen had a few things working in his favor. He had a real estate license, which he picked up a few years earlier when he got interested in investment properties. He also had a fine reputation in the local business community, an entrepreneurial spirit bred into him by his father, and a refusal to quit, or even sit still.

Within a year, he had secured a position with a local real estate firm where he parlayed his business experience, customer management skills, and professional demeanor into a flourishing career where he is now considered an elder statesman of the profession and a mentor to many. Nearly two decades after closing his last store and ambling out into cold (both figurative and literal), Allen was named Missouri Realtor of the Year.

A few years into this incredible second act, one of his clients – a very demanding, Type-A lawyer – was so impressed by Allen’s work that he presented him with a rather expensive Hartmann briefcase; a gift that he used every day for many years thereafter.

As for Allen’s kid, he – or should I say “I” – made it to law school, went into practice, and wound up as the principal of a multi-state law firm bearing his name.

Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit. Within a year, my biggest client, the one who paid just about all of the bills, went under. And so did I.

In early January of 2010, I too locked up my business one last time and wandered out into the frigid unknown. I was 42 years old with bills to pay, two kids (fortunately nowhere near college aged), and a wife blessedly earning enough to get us by…but not by much. On top of that, my 17 years of experience practicing law and my executive pedigree made me particularly unemployable in a community where the desirable traits firms looked for were being young, hungry, and not-set-in-old-ways.

Fortunately, there was one firm in town looking to start a quality assurance and attorney development program – an operation for which I was uniquely qualified. I drafted a plan, set up a meeting and – yadda, yadda, yadda – I’m now in the fifth year of my own successful second act.

Last fall I was visiting my dad, rummaging around in the basement of his house when I came across that Hartmann briefcase. Its caramel-hued leather bore a few nicks, a coating of dust, and the patina of nearly a quarter century’s use, but it was otherwise in decent shape.

One good dusting and leather conditioner rubdown later, and the briefcase was perhaps not as good as new, but certainly in good enough condition to return to service; not unlike its past – and new – owners.

I am proud to lug that old leather briefcase to work every single day. Sure, it’s not as sleek or lightweight as its contemporary counterparts but it’s practical, reliable, and more than capable of getting the job done despite its advanced age. I guess that makes three of us.