News & Politics

First Person: Ron Liebman

I was a Washington lawyer, but what I wanted to do was tell stories. And play rock 'n' roll.

When he’s not at his desk writing, the lawyer-turned author often finds peace with his music. Photograph by Benjamin C. Tankersley

I don’t wear clothes—not real clothes. I used to. My closet is packed with suits, French-cuffed shirts, expensive ties. The suits and shirts are in plastic bags—my closet looks like a dry cleaner’s.

Now I wear sweatshirts displaying logos of the schools my kids have attended and, in warmer weather, T-shirts. Same logos. For bottoms, I’m in sweatpants or shorts. My arches have been ruined by flip-flops. (All of Indonesia must be flat-footed.)

I used to travel a lot. First-class mostly. I met interesting people. Some colleagues. Others with problems it was my job to solve. Quite often, interesting problems. But I also lived with a knot in my stomach. I watched billable hours the way a compulsive gambler eyes the ball on a spinning roulette wheel. I spent my time figuring out how to convince others to accept the often unacceptable.

I was a Washington lawyer. And I loved it. Sort of.I’d never had a burning desire to be a lawyer. My dad was a jazz musician. That sounded good to me. So I learned to play the drums. I grew up in the dawn of rock ’n’ roll. Very exciting, playing in a band. Better than most anything I could think of. So I told my parents that after high school I was off to New York, then LA. Just me and my drum kit. My parents nodded knowingly. Then they said no. I protested. Then they asked where I’d be applying to college. I went back to my room to retrieve my list. (I mean, even Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics.)

In college I decided I’d be an English teacher. It seemed to fit. I loved stories. Then I backed into law school. There was a war on. An unpopular one. So the decision was: Risk getting shot in Vietnam or apply to law school and get deferred. Hello?

Actually, with all its headaches, being a lawyer turned out to be rewarding. You work very long hours, but you do well. On occasion you can even do some good. Lots of stress, sure. But what uphill climb doesn’t take some of your breath away? On the other hand, to make it work you have to live the job. And if you live the job, there goes the rest of your life. It took me a while to get that.

That’s when I started making some course corrections. I forced my eyes away from the hood of the car, looked to the horizon. That’s where the rest of my life was going.

I had let my music slip. I set up my drum kit. Got my chops back. Started playing around town. Not a lot. Just enough.

And for my love of stories, I shorted the sleep depository. Used the early-morning hours to write. Not a lot at first, but enough. A novel. Then after some years, another book. Another hiatus, then a third one—a novel called Death by Rodrigo. It featured a couple of courthouse lawyers—and turned a corner for me. My publisher bought a sequel.

By then I was also feeling some serious been-there-done-that about my day job. I stepped down—gave up the law.

Was it the right thing to do, the right time to do it? Who knows? I do miss being a lawyer. Sort of. So many lawyers die with their boots on.

Me? I’m in flip-flops. Writing stories. And playing the drums.This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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