Heavy Lifting: Jon Avins '86
"Until I started working in law two years ago, being a garbage man after high school was the best job I ever had." Meet Jon Avins '86, a guy with a resume so enviable one has to wonder: Were his other jobs really that terrible, are lawyers and garbage men more alike than we think they are, or are the rest of us missing something important about life on a garbage truck?
It must be the latter, because I've known Jon since we lived together while on the Sarah Lawrence College at Oxford program, and I have a fair idea of the life he's lived. This is a guy who moved to Cairo to learn Arabic, a guy who earned an M.A. with honors from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and who spent seven years at the World Bank as a Middle East specialist. Nothing too shabby here. Plus, these experiences led him to Georgetown University Law Center — from which he graduated magna cum laude—and then to Dewey Ballantine, the prestigious law firm in Washington, DC, where Jon works on international trade litigation.
So given all of this, I had to ask: "What was so great about being a garbage man?"
"Total transparency and accountability," he replied. "And great camaraderie. There were just three guys to a truck, everyone knew what needed to be done, and you had to pull your weight."
"And what did that teach you about work?"
"When your colleagues are engaged in what they're doing," Jon answered, "and they show up ready to work hard and be real, that's a good job—which is one reason I left the World Bank. It was hard—frequently impossible—to get through the fog of jargon and politics and nonsense that went on. And there was no intellectual accountability. You could say any kind of nonsense and get away with it, and that drove me nuts. Once, I asked an operations officer what he meant in a sentence he'd written that contained a lot of the jargon popular at the time. He answered 'I don't know.'
"In law, that is simply unacceptable. If you don't make sense the other side will say to the judge, 'Your honor, that makes no sense at all,' and then you lose. Whatever you write and say has to make sense. It may not win, it may make less sense than what the other side comes up with, but you absolutely cannot say any kind of nonsense and get away with it."
"So is that why you like the law?"
"That's one reason," Jon answered. "I feel like a highly paid graduate student. I investigate, read, and write constantly. I immerse myself in the facts of a case, and then have to show how the answer that my client needs is really the only viable answer within the relevant body of law. Then I need to combine all of this in writing that's concise and convincing, and that explains complex ideas so they're easy to understand.
"The culture of law firms is also very unlike the World Bank in that the path is more or less clear of ridiculous obstacles. You can do what you need to do, and that makes the work engaging and fun. There's also a lot of accountability and camaraderie, and I like that."
"Sounds great," I said, "and you sound happy, but do you ever miss the World Bank?"
"I miss spending time in Egypt and Yemen. I would go back and forth from the States, staying over there about a quarter of the time. I loved that part of it."
"And do you ever miss being a garbage man?"
"Sometimes," Jon answered. "I was in the best shape of my life, and the other guys were great. Plus, I was a teamster before I could even register to vote."
— Scott Shindell '85