Michael J. Chepiga – Lawyer
Getting and Spending and
Giving and Writing
O’NEILL: I became a lawyer because injustice made me angry. I stopped being a lawyer because injustice made me angry. That’s allowed, isn’t it?
VICTORIA: If you don’t mind my saying so, it isn’t.
O’NEILL: It was a rhetorical question.
VICTORIA: You want rhetorical questions? What right do you have to give it up? You have a God-given gift. He gave it to you to use.
A lawyer who aspires to be a Franciscan monk. A Franciscan monk obsessed with the stock market. An investment banker who gives her money away. They are characters in “Getting and Spending,” which opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater in 1998, and evidence that a key to successful writing may be that age-old advice to “write what you know.”
Long before he became a lawyer, the play’s author, Michael J. Chepiga, thought he would be a priest. He attended St. Joseph’s Seminary for six years before changing his mind and attending Fordham for his junior and senior years, where he met his wife-to-be in a class called “God in Modern Drama.”
“It’s scary how much of life is fate,” says Chepiga.
After graduating, the native New Yorker became a teacher. He would teach at Washington Irving High School on 16 th Street until 2:30, then at Laguardia Community College in Queens from 4:00 to 6:00, while going for his PhD in English at NYU at night. His thesis was on Politics and the Uses of Language in Shakespeare’s English History Plays. “I have no idea what that means,” confesses Chepiga. “All I remember is it had 252 footnotes.”
With university teaching jobs scarce at the time, Chepiga settled on law as a practical career, so it was off to Yale. He recalls that one day, when trying to pick courses for the next semester, a friend suggested Securities Regulation. “And I said, I don’t know many things but I know one thing: I will never, ever, ever be a securities lawyer. No interest. I didn’t take the course.”
Cut to Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in 1981. “I got here and I liked antitrust and I thought I might become an antitrust lawyer, but I liked the securities cases. Like the Nixon impeachment hearings, securities cases are all about what they were about: What did the president know and when did he know it?”
VICTORIA: Something wrong?
O’NEILL: Occupational hazard.
VICTORIA: Which is?
O’NEILL: Skepticism. About everything.
Chepiga figured he’d last a year at Simpson Thacher. “I thought I would hate life at a firm. I thought it would be terrible, boring, awful, atrocious. And maybe it was a case of low expectations, but I liked the people, I liked the matters I was working on. And I realized my year had turned into five and I was being considered for partner already, so I stayed.” These days Chepiga is representing one of the feeder funds that invested with Bernie Madoff.
In between securities litigation, Chepiga did pro bono. “I’m sitting in my office just a week or two after coming here, and a senior litigation associate came in and said, ‘Congratulations, you got your first trial.’ And I said ‘Oh, that’s great, a trial.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna go to court and get a mother’s rights to her child severed.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not! What do you mean? I know big firms are supposed to be oppressive, but I’m not doing that!’ And he said, ‘No no no, it’s something good, he said a lot of people put their kids in foster care and just disappear and don’t come back. And a lot of kids can’t be adopted because technically the birth parents are still the parents. But under the statute, if you prove they abandoned or neglected the kid for whatever the period, you can terminate their rights, and then the kids can be adopted.”
Satisfied that pro bono work was not about breaking up families, Chepiga took to it, working on asylum cases, then for a time on the big NYC school funding case. In 1996, he became president of The Legal Aid Society. Today he’s on the boards of VOLS and the City Bar Justice Center.
Chepiga had written plays since high school but stopped when he joined the firm and had kids. After a few years, however, with his career in good shape and his kids in school, Chepiga returned to it. He wrote “Getting and Spending” on ski vacations. “I hated skiing, I hated everything about it,” Chepiga recalls. “I hate the cold. I hate the equipment. I hate the travel. I hate the altitude. And we went with our family, and with Jed Rakoff, who’s Judge Rakoff now. Our families went skiing together every year at Christmas time. They’d all go out, and I’d stay in, and that’s when I wrote ‘Getting and Spending,’ on successive ski vacations over a couple of years.”
At first, Chepiga thought legal and dramatic writing didn’t have much in common, but experience taught him otherwise. “They’re really very, very similar,” he says. “You’re trying to convince an audience, whether it’s a roomful of people or one judge sitting on a bench, you’re trying to convince an audience of your view of the world, and you’re trying to sell it to them.” He teaches associates to focus more on the facts than the law. “You should win the motion by the end of the facts. You can’t change the facts, but you have to present them in a way that compels the conclusion, and your biggest opportunity to be convincing is when you’re writing the facts.” He adds, “Litigation and theater are about conflict and clash and drama. You know, two people want the same thing and only one can get it. They are really very similar.”
BROTHER ALFRED: He came into this very room. Said he’d been driving for days with no destination. He heard our bells and pulled up to the gate. He asked if he could stay to get some sleep.
VICTORIA: So, he’s here by accident?
BROTHER ALFRED: You can call it that if you want.
VICTORIA: But he wasn’t looking for you? Or God?
BROTHER ALFRED: Of course he was. He just didn’t know it.
Chepiga finished his script for “Getting and Spending”—the title comes from the Wordsworth poem: The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers—but now he had to market it. He figured finding an agent, who would then have to find a producer, would take too long, so he decided to enter a contest. He thought if he could win a contest, the play might catch a producer’s attention. Most of the contests paid a couple hundred dollars, but the Weisberger competition paid $10,000, so that’s the one he entered. “It was the stupidest marketing plan anyone ever came up with,” he says.
Even he thought it was stupid at the time, which is why the script was still sitting on top of his desk on the day of the deadline. Three copies of the script needed to be at St. Clements church, way over on the West Side by 5:00 p.m., but Chepiga had a deposition that day.
“So I come in and I’m upstairs in the deposition room, and the deposition’s dragging on. So about 4:00, the deposition ends and I get down to my office. This was before voicemail, so I had all these pink messages. And I look at the scripts there on the desk and I say, I have all these messages, this was a stupid idea, it was never gonna work, forget it. I started returning the phone calls. About 10 minutes later, I’m looking at the scripts and I’m beginning to feel guilty—I got the scripts, I wrote the letter, I filled out the application, I did all this. I hung up the phone, I grabbed the scripts and ran out, and I go running across town. It’s like five to five. I get on the block and I see people coming out, locking up and leaving. So I yell and run after them, and I say hey wait, it’s two minutes to five, and they say OK, they took it, they threw it in, locked up and left. And it won. And if I was 15 seconds later, they would have been gone. A year later, I’m sitting in my office and I get a call—this is the Weisbergers and you won, and about a couple weeks later, a producer, Marty Markinson, who produced the play on Broadway, called and said he’d like to see the script. And so the stupid plan worked. So it’s scary about accidents and fate.”
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