Many clients come to me filled with fear, worry, and anxiety because they have just found out that they are being sued, and they have no idea what is going to happen next. Sometimes they never even realized that they were being sued until their employer told them that their wages were about to be garnished, or they just got a notice from the bank that their checks were bouncing because some bill collector froze their bank account. I know that it's certainly traumatic and shocking to be surprisingly sued, because I myself have experienced those very same feelings.
I most certainly remember that day in 1977. I had opened my own law office just 3 years earlier, after having been surprisingly fired from my first lawyer job in 1974, because my bosses believed that I wasn't working hard enough, and that being a lawyer just wasn't my cup of tea. And looking way back then as objectively as possible, I have to admit that they were absolutely right. My outlook on life when I got out of law school in 1973 was totally different from what it has been for the past 40 years. Back then it was all about working as little as possible, having as much fun as possible, and making as much easy money as possible.
Well it took a few years, but I'm glad that in 1979 I finally learned that life is not about me. I learned that life is really about we, and what we can do to help others. But let's get back to that day in 1977.
I was in Bridgeton Municipal Court getting ready to start an important trial. All of a sudden the judge's secretary came out of the judge's chambers and walked right up to me. "Mr. Wasserstrum, you have a very important call from your office. You can follow me, and you can use our phone." My secretary, Liora, started whispering very quietly, "Seymour, there are two sheriff's officers here. They want to go through your file cabinets, and they want to know what kind of car you own."
I had no idea what was going on, but I sure know what I was thinking. "Are they going to arrest me? Am I going to have to close down my law office? Are my 20 years of education about to go down the drain? And I'm supposed to start a trial with all of this on my mind?" I was filled with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. Fortunately, I was able to put my thoughts and fears aside for a little while, because my immediate concern was that I had to do the best job possible for my client. It turned out that the prosecutor offered my client a deal that he couldn't refuse, so I was able to get out of the court room in about 30 minutes. I called Liora from a pay phone in the court house, and she told me that the officers had left, but they had dropped off some papers for me, and she didn't really understand what the papers meant.
To use my law school roommate's favorite expression, I was quaking in my boots as I took that 30 minute drive to the office. Was I being charged with some sort of crime? Why did these officers want to go through my files, and why did they want to know what kind of car I had?
When I finally got back to the office and read the papers that the officers had left with Liora, I realized that things weren't as bad as I had feared, but they still were bad enough. I apparently had gotten sued, but I never knew about the lawsuit. The reason that the sheriff's officers had come to my office was that I had already lost the lawsuit that I knew nothing about, and now they wanted to know what assets and properties I owned so that they could sell them in order to pay off my big debt.
A professional psychotherapist once told me that it's a good experience for a doctor to get sick once in a while, so that the doctor can have an idea as to what some of his patients might feel like. Well, as a lawyer, I can honestly say that I not only know what it feels like to sue people, but I also learned very early in my career what it feels like to be surprisingly sued. This lawsuit against me was a total shock. It took a while to figure everything out, but here's what I finally realized.
It's a little bit complicated, but the El San Juan Hotel and Casino in Puerto Rico had sued me in Puerto Rico because I had signed "markers" for a friend of mine named Dave who was a pretty big gambler. Dave was a Philadelphia lawyer, and he had a big personal injury practice. But what he really liked to do was gamble. You name it and he bet it - horses, baseball, football, and basketball, but his real love was blackjack. The only problem was that he was a horrible blackjack player. He didn't even understand simple blackjack strategy. And that's exacty where I came into the picture.
I was introduced to Dave one night in 1975 by Brian, my friend from Philly that I had met in 1973 while I was in law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Brian was a lifelong Philadelphia resident, and he knew all of the hot singles spots in town. Brian briefly introduced me to Dave at The Library Disco in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, and that meeting took place exactly around the time that I had decided that I was going to become an expert Blackjack player. I hadn't known the first thing about Blackjack until having been exposed to the game in Puerto Rico during my 1973 Christmas vacation.
After I passed the New Jersey bar exam in November,1973, Brian told me that I should celebrate and go with him to Puerto Rico during Christmas vacation. Brian had been going to San Juan for several years, and he told me that during Christmas vacation all of the Jewish school teachers from New York flocked to the beaches in Puerto Rico, and it was the best place in the world to meet single Jewish women. It wasn't very hard for Brian to convince me, and one day at lunch with my two bosses, I very casually told them that I was going to take 10 days off and go to Puerto Rico to celebrate passing the bar exam. I just told them this very matter of factly, and it hadn't even occurred to me that maybe I should have asked for their permission to do so.
During my vacation, I met quite a few people at the pool who were in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and they all told me that their entire vacation was being paid for by the casino. That's how I first learned about gambling "junkets". These people had everything paid for - breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, buffets, all kind of drinks, bottles of all kinds of alcohol, Vegas style shows and entertainment, and free round trip flights. How was this possible? Well, I learned that all they had to do was put up $2500 with the casino and agree to gamble for at least 3 hours a day, making minimum bets of $25.
I quickly decided that this junket stuff was going to be for me. I had always wanted to travel all over the world, but I didn't have much money. I thought that if I could somehow figure out how to get these free vacations, it would be like being in paradise.
I sure couldn't afford to put up $2500, and I couldn't imagine betting $25 a hand (this was in 1973, and back then $25 was probably the equivalent of at least $100 today). Fortunately for me, there were lots of $1 Blackjack tables at the El San Juan Hotel/Casino, so I put $25 together and started playing $1 Blackjack. I also tried my luck at Roulette and Craps. I really had no idea what I was doing, and although I won at first, I soon gave it all back and eventually wound up losing about $100 for the night.
The next day at the pool, I started asking some of the junket guys about their gambling strategy, and I soon learned that if you were a smart player, you had a semi decent chance to win money at Blackjack. That was all I needed to hear to get super excited. I quickly started to figure out a way to live the life of my dreams. I would somehow put together $2500 and start going on these gambling junkets. This became my goal: I would learn all about the game of Blackjack, and I would travel around the world on free junket vacations. I would bet as little as I needed to bet, and my goal was to break even - this way I would always have my bankroll, and I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, have a super fun time, and all of this wouldn't even cost me one single dollar. What an amazing plan.
There is an old Jewish saying that says, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." Back then I had never heard about that saying, so when I got back home, I quickly drove to the Vineland Public Library, and I took out every single gambling book that I could get my hands on. From that day forward, as soon as the clock struck 5 pm, I quickly left work, and I went directly home to read and seriously study the art of gambling. I resolved to become an expert Blackjack player once I learned that the game of Blackjack could theoretically be beaten if you were a good "card counter." Well, I decided I was going to become a great card counter, and I was going to go on gambling junkets all over the world - free vacations, and the chance to make some easy money, because I was going to become a Blackjack expert.
I read book after book after book, and after about 6 months of studying, I decided I would now try out my expertise, but before actually playing in a casino, I would buy 6 decks of cards and a bunch of chips, and I would simulate the game of Blackjack in my home. I would run out of the office every afternoon around 4 pm, then go straight home, and for about 6 hours a night I would turn my dining room table into a Blackjack table.
When I finally felt ready for a real casino, I found an ad in the Philly paper about a junket to the Bahamas. It didn't require $2500 to be put up front. It only required $500 up front, and the minimum required bet was only $5. This was not a big exotic trip. It was simply an overnight back and forth. It was a chartered flight that left Philly around 4 pm, got you to the casino around 8 pm, and you played until the casino closed at 2 am. I was psyched.
Well, guess who I ran into as I boarded the plane? There was Dave the lawyer sitting right beside his friend Bill. Dave was totally surprised to see me, because he never knew me to be a gambler. Of course in my mind, I was the furthest thing from being a gambler. I saw myself as the ultimate professional Blackjack player. I was going to beat the game scientifically. I was going to be like a non emotional computer and just follow exactly the strategy that I had learned. I told this to Dave and Bill, and they sort of chuckled and wished me luck.
I was very excited when I finally walked into the casino at about 8:15 pm. I was happy to see that the casino was not very crowded. I wanted to play at a table where there weren't many other players, and fortunately I easily found such a table. I've got to say that I impressed myself by the way I played Blackjack that night. I was very cool and relaxed, and I precisely followed the strategy that I had learned. I played almost continuously until 1 am, and I won $200. That actually had been my goal for the night, and at that point I was very happy to quit playing and just savor my victory. I figured that I'd just hang out for another hour until we had to leave, and then I would have a very happy flight back to Philly. As I was taking a short walk around the casino, I saw Dave and Bill, and they both looked pretty sad and dejected.
They told me that they had come to the casino with $5000, and that they were totally tapped out, they had lost it all. They then asked me how I was doing, and I proudly told them that I had started with a $500 bankroll, and after playing for about 4 hours, I had won $200 by betting $5, $10, and once in a great while $20 per hand. I was done for the night, and I was very happy with my win. On a percentage basis, I had made a pretty easy 40% profit.
I immediately saw Dave's eyes light up, and he quickly asked if he could borrow my $700, because he desperately needed to win some of that money back. Other than having spoken to Dave a couple of times at The Library, I hardly knew him. Nevertheless, I quickly gave him all of my money, and within about 10 minutes he had lost all of my $700.
On the long plane ride back to Philly, I sat with Dave and Bill, and they told me a lot of stories about the fun junkets that they had been on in the past. They had been making regular trips to Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, St. Martaan, and Aruba. Wow, I finally met some guys who were living it up, and it wasn't costing them anything. Or so I thought.
After I heard all of these great stories from Dave and Bill, I explained to them that, unlike them, I was approaching the game of Blackjack as more or less a scientific study, and as a card counter, I was becoming more and more convinced that I could beat this game. I developed a closer relationship with Dave and Bill from that point forward, and the next thing I knew, they were taking me on a trip to the exotic Caribbean island of St. Maartan.
I didn't realize it at the time, but Dave's goals and my goals were somewhat different. I wanted to have a great totally free vacation, meet lots of single women, have lots of fun in the sun, eat some great gourmet meals, and play some Blackjack for about 3 hours a day as the casino required. On the other hand, Dave was there because he wanted to make a lot of money, he wanted a big casino win. He had a much younger girlfriend, and he brought her on the trip.
Before going on the trip, Dave made a deal with me. He would put up the $2500 cash, and I would play the blackjack hands based on my highly skilled playing and betting strategy. If we won, I would get 20% of the profits. If we lost, I would be responsible for only 10% of the losses. That all sounded pretty fair and reasonable to me, and I was ready to roll.
So what actually happened that ultimately led to the sudden unexpected visit that I received about 1 year later, from those two sheriff's officers who appeared at my office and wanted to sell all of my properties and assets? Well, that's another story for another time. But at this point, let me tell you some of the lessons I learned from all of the things that had happened to me by the fairly young age of 29.
1) First of all, I learned that being in substantial debt can be a very painful thing. It can be very painful to your mind, to your body, and to your spirit.
2) I also learned that when you're in substantial debt, it's often very, very difficult to think clearly, and it's even more difficult to concentrate and focus your mind.
3) Third, I learned that gettiing sued can scare the crap out of you, and that the average person, (even if he is a lawyer), can get very worried and can make all sorts of crazy decisions and mistakes that he normally would not make.
4) Stress is a killer. Sure, I needed plenty of debt relief, but even more so, I needed lots of stress relief.
5) I learned that it was pretty stupid for my happiness or my unhappiness to be determined and controlled by whatever card was next going to be dealt from the Blackjack shoe.
6) I learned that when you're stressed and worried, you're not very likely to be nice and kind to other people. In fact you're probably going to be pretty nasty to people that you're normally pretty nice to.
7) I learned that up to that point in my life I had been a pretty selfish and self centered guy.
8) Maybe, just maybe, the secret to living is giving.
9) I became passionate about helping people legally get released from their burdensome debts. I resolved to myself that I would do whatever it takes to help people avoid the pain that I had been going through with my massive debt.