I want to tell you about a special award I created and bestowed upon myself.
The Stuffed Shirt Award.
Usually, awards are to celebrate accomplishment — with plaques or statuettes and a large party where such honors are bestowed, like The Oscars and Tonys, or Lifetime Achievement Awards.
However, there are also awards that single out questionable distinction.
For example, the Darwin Awards are annually given for “improving the gene pool.” This is deceptive because it only honors an act so stupid it often ends with the demise of the honoree and is thus given posthumously.
One of the early Darwin Awards went to a gentleman who put a jet rocket engine in the trunk of a Dodge Dart, and died after hitting a vertical cliff wall about 400 feet above the highway.
Somewhere between these two extremes lives the Stuffed Shirt Award.
The Stuffed Shirt Award is typically reserved for professionals, specifically professionals who think too highly of themselves.
The award requires a public demonstration of perceived self-worth, which must be 1) noticed by at least one other person and 2) leads to a moment of genuine disbelief demonstrated by a visible shake of the head by the observer.
An example would be the senior partner at a large law firm I was up against in NYC who FedExed his dry cleaning home to Chicago because he didn’t like the way the dry cleaners in New York City did his shirts.
Hence, the name of the award but the award is not about shirts alone. Here’s how I qualified:
I was fortunate when I first started my law firm back in 1990 to be representing a very large electrical contractor who routinely did huge jobs, such as the electrical work on Coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel, and also the Ted Williams Tunnel, which was towed in 12 sections by tug boats up to Boston from Maryland.
The case covered the construction of a subway system in southern Maryland leading from to Washington DC. There were loads of defendants.
It was an arbitration. The judge and everyone involved had agreed it should be held at the empty yet-to-be-opened subway station where the work had been done. I loved the idea because the subway station “courtroom” was my Exhibit A.
The Maryland State government had many branches and each had different lawyers representing them who were “in-house counsel.” I, however, was an independent lawyer with a big client and I was my own firm and I was damn proud of it.
I had all the makings of a stuffed shirt. All I needed was an event that would lead to a “genuine moment of sincere disbelief and the shake of the head” to be a competitor.
My client and I were seated in the middle of several tables pushed end-to-end, with all the opposing lawyers spread out on the other side.
As the arbitration began, each lawyer introduced their agency. They started at one end of the table, announced the agency, and then announced they were “in-house counsel“ for the agency.
The introductions went from left to right and finally ended after perhaps 15 minutes. None of them were independent counsel. They had all introduced themselves as “in-house counsel.”
Then it was my turn, and I decided that I needed to distinguish myself as an intimidating big shot lawyer.
I paused. I straightened the evidence books and the trial notebooks on the table, leaned forward in my chair, and announced:
“I’m Bob Bowie. Outhouse Counsel.”
My effort at intimidation had fallen short. The laughter rose and renewed several times, echoing in the large empty building. Thereafter, throughout the case, my fellow lawyers would periodically slap me on the back and say how funny I was.
I won the case but had dodged a bullet. There was no plaque or statuette. There wasn’t a celebration. They didn’t even know I had qualified for a Stuffed Shirt Award. To my amazement, this was the start of several long friendships.
Whenever I see them, they are quick to remind me that I am still their favorite “outhouse counsel.”
Self-importance can be like a hot air balloon.
It’s beautiful to see the world from an exulted height but returning back to earth may be its unexpected gift.