All mushrooms are edible, but some are edible only once. Philip Hanes, mushroom expert quoted in the New York Times

I was just out of law school, working for a huge law firm and still trying to figure out what the practice of law was all about. One day I received a call from the secretary of a senior partner I’ll call Mr. S, summoning me to his office.

When I arrived I was astonished at what I saw: cardboard boxes everywhere, carefully sealed with packing tape. Mr. S, his back to me, was wrapping delicate items in newspaper and placing them carefully in yet another box. He hadn’t heard me come in so I cleared my throat.

Looking around at me, he said, “Oh, it’s you. Have a seat.”

There was an office chair behind the desk, wrapped in clear plastic. There were two guest chairs, each with two boxes on them, and a sofa in the corner with at least six boxes on it. I remained standing.

Talking to me while he was still packing, Mr. S explained, to my further astonishment, that he was leaving the law firm – indeed, he was leaving the practice of law altogether. He had handed off all his clients to other lawyers, but had forgotten about one because he hadn’t done any legal work for it for a long time.

Mr. S picked up a thick file from atop one of the boxes and handed it to me, saying, “Here’s your new client.”

I was now astonished for a third time. I’d never had a client of my own and didn’t expect to have one for years. Hell, I’d just passed the bar exam. I glanced at the label on the file, which read “Butler County Mushroom Farm.” I raised my eyebrows – how the hell did you farm mushrooms? Did you plant little seeds in the spring and in the fall mushrooms would pop up everywhere?

Thinking that Mr. S could enlighten me about this, I said, “What does this company actually do?”

He grinned at me and said, “BCMF has developed a brilliant business model – they turn horsesh*t into dollar bills.”

Mr. S went back to his packing, laughing at his own joke, then told me that BCMF was run by a guy I’ll call Mr. Y, who was a charismatic CEO who didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a straight-shooter, a Marine who’d fought at Guadalcanal, and he expected his lawyers to be straight-shooters.

This wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I wanted to hear, and I could already feel my pulse rate zooming up into the stratosphere. “Are there,” I said haltingly, “any current issues I should know about?”

“Like I said,” said Mr. S, “I haven’t done much work for them for a while. But here’s something to keep in the back of your mind. BCMF is the largest producer of mushrooms in the world – they’re in the Guinness Book of World Records. But the growers around Kennett Square are far bigger in the aggregate – they produce half of all the mushrooms in the US. BCMF and the Kennett Square growers are intense competitors and they don’t like each other very much.”

Mr. S went on to explain that Kennett Square, which I’d never heard of, was a small town in the very southeastern-most corner of Pennsylvania, and was known as the Mushroom Capital of the World. “BCMF and all the growers around Kennett Square,” Mr. S said, “belong to the American Mushroom Institute.”

Mr. S sealed the box he’d been packing and leaned back against it. “All these mushroom growers get together at Institute meetings a couple of times a year,” he said. “I don’t know for sure, but I have a strong suspicion that at their martini-soaked dinners there might be some price-fixing going on.”

Naturally, I had no idea what amounted to price-fixing and what didn’t, and I could see a long bit of uncompensated research in my future.

Back in my bullpen, looking through the file, I saw that the legal work Mr. S – and another partner before him – had done for BCMF seemed to be all over the place. A tax problem with the state of Pennsylvania. Labor issues. A property dispute with a neighboring landowner.

I wondered what I should do now that I had my first client. Should I call BCMF and introduce myself? Surely Mr. S had already taken care of that. Besides, if I called the client they might ask me how long I’d been practicing law (two months). I decided the best thing to do was to sit tight – if BCMF had a legal problem, they’d call.

Three weeks later they called. The law firm’s long-time receptionist, who happened to live right across the street from me and who was a sort of friend, called to tell me there was a Mr. Y on the phone. He was the CEO of BCMF and he was none too happy, because no one had bothered to let him know Mr. S had left the firm.

My face burned red – damn, I should have called them. I swallowed hard and told the receptionist to put Mr. Y through. When he came on the line I said, in my best professional lawyer voice, “This is Greg Curtis speaking.”

Mr. Y naturally replied, “Who the hell is Greg Curtis?”

I began to explain about Mr. S leaving the firm and reassigning his clients to other lawyers, but Mr. Y was having none of it. “I don’t care about any of that, I’ve got problems and I need help. Can you get out here tomorrow, say, nine a.m.?”

“Let me just check my calendar,” I said, knowing perfectly well that it was entirely blank for the rest of the year. “Yes,” I said, “I think I could make that happen.”

“Good,” he said and hung up.

Next up: The Life and Death of Moonlight Mushrooms, Part 2

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