Fenno stood on a long, narrow dock flanked by the tranquil, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand. How could it be, he thought, that he was leaving behind serene Ko Samui for the snows of Cambridge? He took a whiff of the Gulf’s sweet, salty air, trying to forget the images of sooty slush that kept returning to him as he recalled what had led to this moment: the end of his semester in paradise, and his return to the spiritually moribund corridors of America’s runner-up law school.
It began with the offer letter. “We regret to inform you…” Fenno had braced himself at the sight of that line, prepared to toss the sheet on the ground for a hapless Cambridge Common hobo to use as part of his toasty garbage quilt. But something was tugging at Fenno, and, for once, it wasn’t one of the homeless bankers or Sunbelt foreclosure refugees who were becoming regulars of the Common’s begging circuit.
No, it was the impulse to read on, with the feeling that this firm – this special firm – was going to offer him something more than the standard “despite your considerable qualifications, we received too many talented applications this year.” Fenno’s eyes glanced to the right, then down the page. And there it was.
“We regret to inform you that we cannot offer you a start date,” Fenno winced momentarily, but had glanced ahead to know what was coming – “before December 2012. We understand if this means that you will have to accept employment elsewhere, and can assure you that we will not bother with the expense of engraving your name on our solid gold office doors before the election assures us that Comrade Obama’s reign of socialist terror has finally come to an end, and/or we have faced down the Mayan apocalypse. Welcome to the team!”
Crazy, Fenno thought, but at least they weren’t birther crazy. And it hit him: he had a job! For Fenno had no intention of “seeking employment elsewhere”. If one of the ten firms he’d summered at – in spite of Career Services’ attempt to advise him against using his summer associate experience to complete the traditional 18th century aristocrat’s Grand Tour – hadn’t offered him a job, he didn’t have much choice: not even the Law Review kids were earning clerkships these days, and who knew who could pull of one of those mythical public service jobs?
No, it would probably mean becoming a government employee – punching the clock around five to five PM, instead of forcing his secretary to memorize billing codes in order to record, in precise detail, his epic four-in-the-morning doc review sessions. It would mean living in the sepulchral city of Washington, DC, which was about as exciting as (and very much like) spending the rest of one’s life in law school.
But the offer Fenno was holding in his hand had a catch – and it wasn’t just that it was caught in the hand of a starving former journalist who was begging for paper to record his last moments before wasting away. No, it was the kind of catch that required Fenno to perform “pro bono” service somewhere in order to enjoy the firm’s generous allowance. Fenno had to think. He trotted off, ignoring the cries of the hobos behind him. “We know you all got free coffee again!” one shouted, pointing to a crinkled copy of the Record that had been serving as his bedspread. “Bring us some! I was once one of you! We never thought the doc review would dry up! Please”
Several hours later, the answer came to Fenno while he was reading one of those mindless “end of the decade” articles. This one listed all the worst natural disasters that had transpired over the last ten years. “Hurricane Katrina, earthquake in Sichuan, earthquake in Bam…hmm…” Fenno moaned. And then, there it was: the tsunami. Surely, in the vast ass-poordom of southern Asia, some people were still reeling from the ill-effects of that killer wave. Or, Fenno smiled, at the very least, it would be quite believable that they were. And where had all that suffering been taking place? In one of the world’s most sought-after tropical paradises! It didn’t take Fenno long to plot a course for Bangkok, texting his travel agent under his desk during a particularly sleepy lecture on legal ethics.
No one ever asked Fenno why he’d taken off on his firm-sponsored public service quest before actually graduating from law school. Perhaps they should have. Or perhaps Fenno should have emailed the question he sent to his stateside firm when he’d first bothered to seek out an internet café in sleepy Phuket – with other problems weighing on him – sooner. The issue he was wrestling with instead was that the beaches had been scrubbed entirely clean. He’d been hoping for at least a little devastation to help out with, perhaps a few extraneous legal claims to deal with or insurance scams to crack and/or join…but there was nada.
That didn’t stop him from acting with determination when he’d secured his five-bhat-a-minute booth in the internet café. “Hello firm!” he wrote. “In Thailand helping tsunami victims. Please send money.” His work for the day finished, Fenno strode off to the beach, tossing a few stray bhat toward the café’s attendant. Of course, it would be hours before his contacts woke up and could answer his question.
But Fenno’s tour of ten firms in two months meant that he’d radically underevaluated the culture of each. For the entire staff of his future employer was now up and slaving away on a merger agreement – at 5:30AM EST. At first, there was nothing to distinguish the BlackBerry buzz that heralded the arrival of Fenno’s missive from Thailand – that is, until the assistant director of human resources’ very audible “what the freaking fuck!” resonated through all 41 stories of the firm’s girthy Midtown skyscraper.
Luckily, he still had the number of the smartphone the firm had issued Fenno during the twelve hours he’d spent there that summer. Fenno hadn’t been particularly impressive, the ADHR recalled – it had just been hard, even in a recession, to recruit associates to an organization specializing in genocide defense and loopholes in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, even when they confronted potential recruits with the achievement of reclassifying hidden foreign assets as “hibernating” rather than “parked” – the move that was paying Goldman Sachs the bonuses they technically weren’t supposed to be receiving this year – or showing them the fabulous Fabergé deal toys they’d received from the Russian Mafia.
“U douchenozzle,” the ADHR swiftly texted back to Fenno. “Get ur ass back 2 USA + finish HLS… or u wont c a dime!”
The ADHR’s message left his BlackBerry, traveled to the cellular transmitter atop the Empire State Building, was relayed to a 3G data center in New Jersey, intercepted and read by a team of 35 NSA analysts, sent up to a satellite in a geostatic orbit somewhere over southern Libya, relayed to a GSM data center in Singapore, transmitted to Thai receivers, and finally into Fenno’s old firm-issued Palm, which was resting about four inches underwater in the sapphire Andaman Sea.
Only about fifteen minutes earlier, Fenno had been delighting a gaggle of waitresses at the beachside bar by attempting to skip his phone along the surface of the water – a move he’d seen in a Corona commercial once. He failed. The phone sank like a stone just a couple feet from shore, but he wasn’t in a hurry to go after it. “Who’s going to need to contact me here?” he asked aloud. “The tsunami victims?” His new friends scattered, unamused.
Fenno must have been in Thailand a week before he realized something was terribly wrong. He’d been back to the internet café a couple times, but no one was answering his emails. Finally, he’d come to the realization that he’d have to seek his living expenses elsewhere.
“Dear Dean Minow,” his next email began. “Starving in Southeast Asia. Please send money. It’s a human rights issue!”
sand miles away, Dean Martha Minow was startled to find a personal appeal from a victim of starvation in the third world – and then vexed to remember that its author was one of her students. She thought carefully before throwing up her hands. “Oh, what the hell,” she muttered aloud. “I know it’s a recession and that Arts and Sciences can’t even afford to keep the Math Department around anymore. But if we at Harvard Law School can afford to not only give the students free coffee again, but expand the hours it’s available, we can afford to fly this idiot home.”
She replied to Fenno, explaining that he’d be wired a couple thousand dollars from the discretionary “secret SPIF / buy an attractive NYU faculty member a Cambridge house” fund, on the condition that he returned home immediately. She got that his firm had stiffed him with a deferral, but what on earth had given him the idea he could take it before he was conferred his J.D.? But when she thought about it twice, it did make some sense: Fenno, she recalled, couldn’t possibly be on track to graduate, anyway.
The next week, Fenno was back at HLS – at the back of a long line of scruffy LL.M.s, to be precise, waiting for his turn in the free coffee pantry, and cursing his existence. He’d just received an email – he’d had to check the public terminal in the Hark, like some kind of street rat, with his Palm now stuck at the bottom of the sea – that his Thailand adventure would cost him some of the precious paid time he’d been awarded away from the firm. “Things are looking up, dipshit,” the ADHR had informed him. “The bailouts are good for business. We have associates sticking bonuses in offshore accounts all over the world. We can’t afford to have you take off on a yearlong sojourn anymore. From what it sounds like, you had your fun anyway.”
Nor was there much reprieve from his studies – Fenno was on call that morning in legal ethics. He sighed as he counted the LL.M.s in front of him, all thirsting after the packets of weak, institutional coffee hanging on the kitchenette’s plastic rack, and counted his blessings for at least not having to sleep on Cambridge Common. Maybe he’d bring some out to the tent city. Not only would the time it took to fill so many cups royally piss off the people in line behind him – he’d get to miss all of legal ethics. For if Fenno had learned anything from law school, it was that there was no way to attempt a good deed without cancelling out another.