Lifelong career lessons learned from Dad


Our 1965 cobalt blue Pontiac Bonneville never saw the inside of our suburban New York garage. A narrow slot of available floor-space provided me a place to park my Sting-Ray bike, but the rest of the garage entrance was blocked-off by a neatly stacked, waist-high battalion of silver, five-gallon cans of New Period Lacquer paint. My father, Murray Margo, was a paint salesman. He kept a ready supply of his company’s products at home to give out as samples to prospective customers or to make an emergency delivery to a customer in need. Our current zoning ordinances, and personal sensibilities for that matter, would cringe at this obvious fire hazard. Looking back, there was enough inflammable liquid in our garage to set the entire neighborhood aflame.

In the early 1970s, when my father noticed that the “sprayers”- his customers’ employees who actually used his paints and stains – were increasingly Hispanic, he went to night school and learned to speak a little Spanish. It seems my father became New York’s only paint salesman who could communicate directly with the sprayers, and the sprayers were grateful for the effort. Apparently they told their plant managers to “only buy from Murray.” Did I mention my father was a great salesman?

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But while being a paint salesman afforded our family a very nice lifestyle, my father wanted me to be a professional. Dad never finished college and Dad never complained about his job, but he wanted more for me. He thought a job should be intellectually stimulating and his was not. He thought I should have a career.

And I do. At 54, I’m one of the owners of our medium-sized St. Louis law firm. Day to day, I don’t know anyone with more interesting work than me. One day is full of surprise as a new client arrives and tells an intriguing and incredible story that I have never heard before. The next day is exciting – pressing arguments in Federal Court. I am an occasional confidant to public figures and valued advisor for corporate decision-makers. I am genuinely happy and content in my profession.

There is, however, one very appealing aspect of Dad’s job that he neglected to mention. Dad’s job got easier as he got older. Once he established a stable of repeat customers, the orders poured in like…well, like paint. As long as the lacquer thinner was thinning lacquer and the paint pigment was true, Dad’s job was to visit his customers once or twice a month, talk a little talk, and collect his 10 percent.

Now I know why Dad never missed even one of my high school baseball games.

Having practiced law for 26 years, I’ve learned that there is a world of personal difference between customers and clients. The customer may always be right, but the client expects me to be right, always. It was no small epiphany when I realized a few years ago that I am not only a law salesman – I am also the product. The salesman might check in every once in a while, but the product must keep on flowing. Dad’s company value was measured in gallons ordered, but mine is measured in billable tenths of countless hours. I worry that the phone will stop ringing.

My father passed away three years ago. Shortly before he died I thanked him for many things, including my career. When I told him that I still remain passionate about practicing law, his eyes responded that he was very proud. When I thanked him for guiding me to this profession, he gave my hand an eloquent squeeze, motioned me forward, and gently kissed my forehead.

During that conversation, our last important conversation, there was one thing I neglected to mention. I didn’t tell him that when I have to work through my son’s high school basketball game or spend the entire weekend preparing for trial, I sometimes wish I could quit this career and go get a job.

Mitch Margo is a partner at Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe, PC and a former syndicated columnist to various legal publications. He lives in Clayton with his wife Karen and their son Sam and is a member of Central Reform Congregation.

‘Dor to Dor’

Editor’s note: “Dor to Dor” is an intermittent Jewish Light series looking at various aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections (“dor” means generation in Hebrew) through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area. Some of these columns may deal directly with Jewish issues, other may not, but we hope you’ll find each one informative or entertaining or, better yet, both.

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