It was August 1990, the summer after my second year at Vanderbilt Law School. I was one of twenty-nine summer associates at the law firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost. It was a prestigious program and my fellow wannabe lawyers and I each hoped that upon graduation we'd be offered a high-paying first-year position at the Park Avenue firm. Typically, 90 percent of the associates were offered a job. Good odds. Nevertheless, it was still a competitive environment, and as the summer program rolled to an end, naturally the lot of us became anxious as we prepared for the "last rites."
Turner Smith was managing partner of the summer associate program, and it was he who would deliver our fate. On that hot August afternoon, I was the last associate called to his office. By then, however, news had already filtered through the building that every single one of the summer associates had been given an offer. I felt confident as I took a seat in his office, ready to enjoy the moment. Smith was a disarmingly charming man, almost courtly, and he welcomed me with a warm smile. He leaned forward across his walnut brown desk to look me straight in the eye, and in a gentle, polite tone, he told me I was an atrociously bad summer associate. I should save my money and quit law school. Immediately.
I sat back in his stately leather chair, wide-eyed and incredulous. He again smiled politely and underscored his point—I shouldn't consider, not even remotely, becoming a lawyer.
It felt like a ton of bricks had been suddenly smashed over my head. How could this be? I'd scored in the 95th percentile on the LSATs. Twenty years of formal schooling had all led in this singular direction. I came from a family of legal experts. My father, my uncle, brothers, and cousins were all lawyers! My whole life had seemed preordained to a career in law.
I reeled out of Smith's office, trying to process what had just happened. I was days away from starting my last year of law school, and the tuition was paid. I was going to get that law degree. But then what? A black mark like this on my record would be tough to explain away to any other law firm. After mulling over my options, I hit on a plan. If I couldn't be a lawyer, I'd follow my other lifelong dream. Sports had always been my first love. The overweight youngest of three boys, I'd made up for what I lacked in athletic ability with sheer passion and knowledge. In school I'd done every sports-related job you could do except play, from serving as sports editor of the yearbook and newspaper, to statistician, and I'd often fantasized about becoming a sports agent. Why not go for it? My law degree would be a marketable asset in a competitive field.
Fast-forward five years, and I was twenty-nine years old, beginning my fourth job representing sportscasters at a boutique talent agency. Each job made me more miserable than the last. I'd thought I'd learn to develop and nurture sports talent, but all the companies I worked for cared about was whether you could bring in enough clients to substantiate your salary. Beyond that, it was negotiating boilerplate contracts and glorified babysitting. Despite rubbing elbows with people whom just a few years earlier I would have killed to meet, I found the work expected of me utterly uninspiring and, worse, pointless. Stuck at home one day with a nasty head cold, I realized that I had to get out while I had little to lose, or risk a lifetime of regret. Before I could talk myself out of it, I called my boss and quit. He graciously offered me severance through the end of the year.
Once again, I found myself unmoored.
The next day, feeling better, I put on my yellow headphones, turned up my Sony Walkman radio, and jogged over to the brand-new Reebok Sports Club I had joined a few months earlier, which featured this new thing called a "Spin" class that was all the rage. On my way to the reception desk, I found myself sharing the elevator with a familiar figure. It was Alfred Geller, a widely respected agent for several top television newscasters, such as Al Roker, Connie Chung, and Maury Povich. We'd met briefly at a media conference a few months earlier. At nearly three hundred pounds, he was literally and figuratively a giant in the industry. I took his appearance as a sign.
The elevator ride was only two floors up. I had thirty seconds to make my case. I pulled off my headphones.
"Alfred," I blurted. "So nice to see you again." I told him that I'd quit my job and wanted to start a talent agency representing sportscasters. "With your knowledge of newscasters and my sports expertise, we'd be a great combination."
The elevator doors opened. Geller stepped off and turned back to look at me. "Be at my office eight a.m. tomorrow morning," he said.