The Partner Told Me to Get a New Car

Q I’ve got an interesting dilemma with a two part question. Here’s the background. I’m four years out of law school and am fully employed with a small suburban law firm. Big city, tony suburban setting, decent pay. The job is fine, work is pretty steady. The problem—or so I’m told—is that I drive an old rusty truck. Specifically, a blue 1990 Ford F150, which I love. It breaks down a times, but I feel it’s all I need and doesn’t have all the presumptions of any other car. It’s a truck. I drive it. It gets me there.

It also doesn’t fit in. Last fall I was in the firm conference room with another associate and pointed out the window and down to the parking lot. I said “which one of these is not like the others?” The associate looked down at the rows of cars in the lot—Lexus SUV, BMW, Lexus SUV, Lexus SUV—and then said “rusty truck at 2:00.”

So, it sticks out, but I rarely get seen in it nor have I ever needed to drive a client anywhere. Two weeks ago, though, I had to meet with a partner and a client over breakfast and, when I got there, they were outside the restaurant talking and waiting for me. They saw me when I pulled in, and I dutifully waved, parked, and proceeded as normal. For some odd reason, the fact that they didn’t say anything at all about the truck didn’t seem to bode well.

Later in the day, the partner came into my office and told me I had to get a new car. There wasn’t much more to it, just “[Name], it’s time you got a more appropriate car for your position. The truck doesn’t cut it.” That was it. My truck doesn’t cut it.

Now, my two questions. First, and honestly, what’s wrong with the truck? And, two, if I have to get a new car, what’s best for a youngish associate who thinks he’s moving up?

A Wait. Your truck doesn’t have “all the presumptions of any other car?” How about the presumption that you’re a wheat-chewing hick from Decatur? How about that you’re an upper middle-class suburban professional who is pissed about working in the suburbs and wearing a suit? That’s actually, honestly, what your question exudes, especially if you seem to think the partner and the client should at least have said something about your trusty rust bucket.

Lose the truck. Or at least leave it at home with ma and pa.

Don’t get me wrong. I love trucks. At my farmhouse I have one of the best trucks in the world—a beat up Ford F250. Keyword is “farmhouse.” As in hauling dirt, moving rocks, driving through fields. Not hauling CEOs, moving files, and driving through the parking lot at a Shaker Heights TGI Friday’s. It just doesn’t work, hombre, at least for a suburban lawyer in a world of Lexus SUVs.

Now, what car is best for a third or fourth-year associate in a small suburban firm? That’s a fascinating question. It’s also one of these questions that associates think about a lot. At least I did when I was in BigLaw. The common thought was practicality for the first few years, followed by status the following years. And a more common arrangement was to lease, not buy, though recently lawyers have been shedding high-end car leases like old skin.

Though I’m sure readers will pipe in about how dead wrong I am about this (who doesn’t like to argue about the right lawyer car), I’d try to lease or buy a used one of these: Honda Pilot, Mazda 3, or a Volkswagen Jetta. Not exactly a collection of gold Lexus SUVs but, honestly, you’re not there yet.

Post image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/birdnerd25/3787803342 on Flickr

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

12 Comments

  1. southern bitter

    March 2, 2012 at 9:04 am

    i would go with a jeep. fully loaded. nice transition and not presumptious. or if you want to shed the rugged outdoorsy appearance, honda accord (with nav). that will transition you nicely into a Lexus ES. :)

  2. Dan

    March 2, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Well, I’m at about the same place in my career as this fellow. I work for a midsize firm in a midsize city.

    What I would say is, “I’m sorry, but I’m living within my means, and I don’t see a professional need to drive any particular car. I do not want to make a major, unnecessary, purchase at this stage of my life. However, if you are willing to supply me with a car you feel is more appropriate, feel free to do so.”

    Then again, I drive a 1986 Monte Carlo SS, because it’s what I want. What image does it project about me? That I’m an all-American gearhead who loves the low rumble of a muscle car, I hope.

  3. Guano Dubango

    March 2, 2012 at 10:09 am

    In my country, only the rich have cars, and most have no vehicles at all. My Aunt Ooona has a 2007 Mercedes and all the men flock around the car when she is driven about like a rock star.

    Here, my Aunt Ooona subsidized me during my LLM and gave me a Ford Mustang (new), which I am still using. It has not caused any pretty women to swoon over, so I am thinking also of upgrading to a Lexus Sports Car, which I’ve seen about town.

  4. bigeasylawindc

    March 2, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Agreed on the Jeep – a nice Grand Cherokee Limited or Overland – you can pick one with a few thousand miles on it for significantly less than they cost off the lot.

  5. The Northwest 2L

    March 2, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    I don’t think that the problem is the truck per se, but the fact that it’s apparently a rustbucket. I get the impression that if the truck were pristine, it would be fine but, based on the comments (“old, rusty truck,” “breaks down a[t] times,” and “rusty truck at 2:00″) he’s apparently driving a junker. (I picture the truck as the sort that takes 30-seconds or so of cranking before the engine catches and then blows a black smoke ring from somewhere underneath through the disintegrated exhaust system when the engine finally fires.) I’m reminded here of a line from “Bull Durham” where “Crash” Davis is tutoring a young pitcher who’s a AAA prodigy:

    “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”

    I have the feeling that the letter-writer thinks that driving a junker makes him “quirky” or “interesting” or “grounded” or some other such colorful adjective that sets him apart as more “down home” than the rest of the lawyers. Unfortunately, unless this guy writes like Posner and is “the” hot new lawyer in town because of his case record, it doesn’t mean any of that, it just means that he’s a slob.

    As for what he can get to replace it, I say he can get another 1990 F-150. He just needs to make sure that the new one isn’t a rusted-out junker.

  6. Mario Sandoval

    March 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Check out the VW Toureg its nice transition from truck to style and it still has capabilities of that occasional dirt road.

  7. Southern Lawyer

    March 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    I agree with NW 2L. It appears that the writer is not happy with his truck just because it gets him from point A to point B, but rather, because it makes him “different” and “not like other lawyers.” Well, in the South, where I practice, it is not uncommon for attorneys to drive trucks. In fact, our clients usually like it. But, you don’t usually see an attorney driving around in a rusted-out truck. So, buy a new truck. It doesn’t even have to be new. Buy a used, but reasonably newer truck (like 2005 and up). Along those lines, I bet his truck was not just old when he showed up at the client meeting. I bet it was dirty, and had a bunch of random crap in the bed. The point is, show some respect for yourself, your career, and your client. If you want to drive a truck, drive a truck. But don’t drive a piece of junk. Clean your truck before you go to a client meeting. And, by the way, if you want to “move up”, your boss and your client should NEVER be waiting for you to arrive. You should be there first. Bottom line, get over yourself. You ARE just like all the other lawyers, you just happen to drive a truck.

  8. Martin

    March 3, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Try the smallest hatchback Audi, MB or Acura…

    if you’re gonna buy a VW Jetta (they are made in Mexico), believe me. just keep the ford buddy.

  9. Miscellaneous Lawyer

    March 4, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    There is nothing that screams ‘new solicitor’ like a flash new car. You could always go something classy and understated, like a Focus or a Cruize (Ford and Holden respectively), or you could go something classy and overstated, like a 3y/o Merc or BMW 330i, or you could go something classless and overstated, like a lexus.

    Personally, I drive a Nissan. Not a skyline… a 16y/o Pulsar. It gets me from A to B (about 220km each way, each week) and so long as I occasionally wash it, it looks ok. It isn’t a great car, but it is scratch-free, clean (at times) and respectable without being flash.

  10. LAB

    March 5, 2012 at 11:53 am

    A nice car for you is something that you can afford, afford to maintain and still stay in your budget. The commentary is that what you drive is something that does not bespeak your position or your firm’s position in the community. It does speak to people that your firm does not pay you enough to make the consideration to purchase something in better condition. I agree with you that if your firm is that concerned about what you drive they should give you a stipend toward a lease or purchase since they made the comment to you about what you drive. There are many HR departments that scan the parking lot before and after a prospective employee departs to see what vehicle they claim and if the vehicle is not well maintained or appears trashed inside no matter what the person’s qualifications, it is opined that the car speaks differently. Even if you acquired a used Mercury Grand Marquis with low mileage, if the car is in good condition, you’re not going to be subject to anyone else’s opinion except that you might have inherited the car from someone in your family.

  11. Cliff

    March 6, 2012 at 9:55 am

    The same thing happened to me. I was told I could no longer drive my Honda Accord because the partners did not want to be seen in it. Even better, I was “encouraged” to buy the partner’s old Lexus so he could get a new one. Good Luck

  12. AliciaBV

    March 6, 2012 at 10:26 am

    I’m remembering the law firm layoffs in the 1990s–I think? Many new associates were laid off after they had listed to partners urging them to buy nicer cars “in case they needed to drive a client around.” It seems that this too is a time of firm downsizing. A great deal of my practice is in bankruptcy and a repossessed vehicle isn’t a pretty scenario. I urge you not to succumb to suggestions to incur debt unless the ‘suggestor’ is going to pay off your vehicle if you suffer a job loss or other economic catastrophe. But if your vehicle is badly rusted, get a paint job. If it’s just a little rusted, use touch-up paint. Rust is not only unsightly, but also destructive. Meantime, save for a better vehicle. I like LAB’s suggestions.

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