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February 6, 2010
Blame It On Equipment Malfunction

Four things are imperative when you start a business. A snappy business name, a good accountant, a trustworthy lawyer and especially a great tavern within two blocks of your office. Three out of four wasn’t too bad in the mid-eighties when I started my design firm in Buffalo, NY. I had been the victim of a corporate downsizing which closed my creative services department. (Things haven’t changed much in 22 years.) A couple of the department’s corporate clients wanted to continue to work with me, so that was the incentive to pursue every designer’s dream of opening a studio. I started out commandeering the dining room of my house and eventually moved to another designer’s dream… a 3500 square-foot loft downtown. During that time, I ended up buying the assets of a small design company that was incorporated, whereas mine was not. As I now owned a corporation, I was advised by my lawyer that it was a matter of simply filing some paperwork to change the name of the entity and viola–instant corporate benefits.

Remember the joke “What do you call 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!” Colleagues close to the legal profession tell me that lawyers are the ones that come up with those.

Other jokes come at the expense of clients. Like myself.

Fast-forward a year from my instructions to my lawyer to proceed with the name change.

I was still receiving documents from the state and feds with the old corporate moniker and I was concerned that some mix-up would occur between me and the government. (that never happens, right?) At any rate, phone calls to my lawyer were not being returned. My frustration boiled over one day after receiving another love-letter from the state with the wrong corporate name on it. I stood at my desk, punched the phone into speaker-mode and dialed my lawyer. When the expected answering machine kicked-in, I picked up the receiver and politely begged him to please, Please, PLEASE call me back on this urgent matter. When I hung up, I stood for a second, seething, and then burst into a tirade of expletives directed not only at my lawyer, but to the entire profession. I must have thrown out every legal cliché, mixed up with every curse word that came to me and when I ran out of swears, I think I made up a few new ones. If I spoke another language, I would have peppered the lecture with foreign profanity too. The studio was an open-architecture loft with 12-foot ceilings, so the sound of my outburst reverberated off the walls and all employees benefited from the English lesson. “Lawyers!” they agreed as I calmed down. Moments later, the “please hang up or dial again” automated voice came over the speakerphone. I pushed some buttons on the phone and thought nothing of it.

The phone rings and one of my people says that it’s my lawyer. I pick up the call and he cheerfully greets me, profusely apologizing for his inattention and promises to take swift action to resolve my problem as soon as he hangs up. And by the way, “my answering machine picked up your conversation.” I felt he blood draining from my head. “I heard your entire speech berating lawyers. You must have left your speaker phone on when you hung up.”

That was one of the few times in my life that I was speechless. When I got over my embarrassment, we both had a good laugh over the incident and I gave him permission to freely play the recording at bar association meetings. The papers were filed soon after, but I ended up hiring a new lawyer none the less and I learned how to properly operate a telephone.

I drank my lunch that day at the tavern two blocks away from the studio.

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Steve James owned and creative directed an advertising and design studio in Buffalo, NY with the un-snappy name of SteveJamesDesign, Inc. Steve and his family now live in Indianapolis where he worked as a Creative Director and he is currently in transition, flux, metamorphosis, segue, or whatever looking for work is now called.

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