A Father-Daughter Dance: Choreography by Strunk, White, Pesci, and Holmes

Molly McDonald '18
Guest Columnist

Having taken a couple more years off after college than the average law student, I have noticed things that set me apart from most classmates. A birthdate in the 1980s comes to mind.  One of my professors was the same year in school as my sister, and my boyfriend. But another aspect of being (slightly) old for my class is that I started law school, in 2016, just as my dad announced his impending retirement after more than thirty-seven years at the law firm. Poetic, right?

Then came winter break of 2L, also known as the longest uninterrupted stretch I’ve spent at my parents’ house since 2010. The retirement announcement had come and gone, and the actual transition was upon us. Dad spent the week after Christmas cleaning out his office while Mom pressed him on where he was going to put all of the stuff once it got to the house. I spent the week watching Game of Thrones, talking to Mom for hours at the kitchen island, occasionally socializing, and devising ways to make it seem like I was producing fewer recyclables than I actually was. My laundry consisted primarily of socks and items with elastic waistbands.  

But I knew I would be gearing up for school again soon, and I wondered what retirement would look like when I left. Over coffee one morning, Dad asked me if—in my antitrust class that had ended two weeks earlier—we had talked about “two-sided platforms” in defining a market to analyze potential competitive effects. He had an article on a pending Supreme Court case due at the end of January, and I realized that his key fob might have been deactivated, but his pen wasn’t down. After all, he wrote frequently while working, turning out articles ranging from the origin of the antitrust exemption for baseball (called “Stealing Holmes”), to a more recent essay on the prolific misuse of the word “literally.”

Dad’s victory lap year, or whatever “of counsel” means, ended along with 2017. In 2017, he traveled to offices in various parts of the country giving legal writing presentations to associates in his firm’s other offices. Several of the slides he used were just written versions of things he attempted to teach me and my sister while we were still in car seats (e.g., the difference between envy and jealousy).  One slide featured The Princess Bride, because Dad is the ever-optimistic writer who thinks that English is, as Wesley was, only mostly dead. The prominence of grammar and My Cousin Vinny as topics of conversation in our family cannot be overstated. I like to think that the family banter is borne of a love of language first and foremost, which translates to law. Mom isn’t as tickled by grammar as we are, but she is a lawyer (UVa Law Class of 1980, and long retired herself), while my sister isn’t a lawyer but is tickled by grammar; it evens out. The fact that we all love to laugh is just a gloss—a thick one.  

Near the end of winter break, I sat in a minimally comfortable chair to Dad’s left in a French restaurant outside D.C. as we toasted his retirement. He recounted how, at the “goodbye” lunch the firm had put on the week prior, a colleague shared a story about him in trial (if it was elementary school for me, my guess for location would be Madison, Wisc.). Apparently there were multiple ways to argue that a certain statement was admissible evidence by stretching one of the traditional rules, but Dad said to the judge something along the lines of, “Yes, Your Honor, but I’ve always wanted to get something in under the residual exception to the [hearsay] rule, and this just seems like the perfect opportunity.” He was talking about FRE 803(24), now FRE 807, and he did it. In 2010, Dad won an appeal in the Second Circuit, but still insisted on filing a “Motion to Correct the Opinion.”  In millennial speak: I didn’t even know that was a thing. But he did it, because he thought it would help prevent Supreme Court review, and it was granted. It is safe to say that being a lawyer was fun for him, most of the time.  

I am very close with my family, and I may be extra sensitive to their pains—both physical and professional.  When we were little, my sister got hurt at an amusement park and needed stitches; I remember my poor mom telling me, as I was bawling face-down in a chair, that she couldn’t console me because she had to console my sister.  When I was six or seven I got in a car accident with my mom and sister over the winter holidays.  An old lady ran a stop sign, I hit my head, and I was generally shaken up.  When school started again, I told my teacher (exasperated, probably through tears) the accident was the exact same day that “Dad lost the jury in his case.”  Perhaps my emotional readings for physical pain and legal losses were uncomfortably close.  More than twenty years later, I just know I was lucky to have parents who cared about their jobs, even if I didn’t have a clue what the fuss was about with antitrust and baseball. 

I learned something pretty cool from my parents’ (most recently my dad’s) legal careers.  I learned what it looks like not only to be a good lawyer, but also to do something fulfilling while writing, winning, losing, teaching, and laughing.  If there were ever a baton I did not want to drop…