20 Years A Lawyer

Twenty years ago, I stood as a freshly shaven 25-year-old, raised my right hand, and got sworn in to the California State Bar with absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into. I thought on this anniversary, I’d share a bit how I got here, some of the wisdom I’ve learned along the way, and my own reflections on my profession.

A Little History

In 1986 I was an aerospace engineering student and doing great. A professor told me that as an engineer, I would be well served to get better at presenting ideas. He explained there are plenty of engineers but not so many articulate ones.

I thought about it and joined the debate team. In no time at all, I was cleaning up on the collegiate debate circuit all over the southwest on every weekend. I had lots of fun and was good at it. I was so good that it began to make me wonder if maybe I needed to lean my ladder against a different wall.

Eventually, I started thinking about law school. Looking back, I really had no idea what it was like being a lawyer, what kind of law I wanted to practice, or even what types of skills I’d need to be successful at it. I just knew that I loved the debate tournaments more than engineering. I think part of the reason for this big move was my own delusion about what it would be like being a lawyer. Coming from a working class family, the thought of becoming a lawyer felt like something special. In hindsight, none of those delusions were correct.

My dad knew something was up, so we went to Denny’s together and I told him of my intention to drastically alter the course of my life over scrambled eggs and pancakes. Dad wasn’t all that impressed. Instead he said he was worried. He wasn’t worried about the cost or the idea of me leaving engineering or even about my ability to succeed. His concern was that becoming an attorney was going to wreck me as a human. (As I’ve written before, my dad was pretty special.)

So with a sincere promise to my father, I switched majors and eventualy headed off to law school.

My first day of law school is worth explaining. One of my professors was in the process of publishing her own textbook but for the meantime, her students had to trudge off to the law library and make photocopies of important cases for reading. So there I was on my first day with a brand-spanking-new mechanical pencil surrounded by people that only wrote with Mont Blanc. I was waiting in line behind another first year that was making copies at full resolution. I explained politely (really. politely.) that hitting the “reduce” button would let her copy two pages at once at nearly the same size. She gave me her snarky baby-lawyer face and said, “I knew that.” Then she resumed copying one page at a time. As I waited I realized there was another room with copiers (it was, after all, my first day) so I left for greener pastures. After finishing my copy project–using the “reduce” button–I passed the snarky 1L and, of course, she was now indeed using the reduce button.

I remember this experience vividly. My head started spinning and I had to sit down. My father’s words were ringing in my ears and I wondered exactly what I was getting myself into. That silly moment was another crossroad in my life. I realized at that moment that I’d be dealing with people like that the rest of my life. I was a scholarship kid in a fancy private school. I could have walked out the door at that moment and actually considered it for awhile. In the end I decided I was making too much out of a person having a bad day at a copy machine and started reading my cases for the next day.

So I spent three years in law school and was pretty good at it. I still had no idea what it meant to be a lawyer. My third year of law school my dad got sick so I moved back home and took and externship with a federal judge in Los Angeles. I spent six months riding the bus from San Bernardino to Los Angeles and back every day. I spent my time in a working courtroom and I finally started to understand what it meant to be a lawyer.

Then I buried my father, finished law school, passed the bar, and on December 15, 1993 got sworn in. Having worked in the federal court and graduated with good grades, I had some pretty good opportunities. At the end of every interview, I’d ask my prospective employer what they expected of me. Every single answer I received was some integer follows by the word “hours”. Some wanted 1500 billable hours. Some wanted 2200 hours. Everybody wanted a slave. There was one little firm that I’d done some work for while in law school. They offered me a job but the pay was less. They did promise to let me try cases. The clincher though was my “what do you expect of me” question. Their answer: “We expect you to win.” I took the job and have now worked with the same people for 20 years.

As promised, I had my first trial in February 1994, less than two months after swearing in. Opposing counsel called me to tell me how he looked for my bar number and I didn’t have one yet. I prepared for that four day trial like I was going to be in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. I crushed it. It was a bench trial (meaning there was no jury) and when the judge asked me if I wanted to waive closing statements, I declined explaining it was my first trial and I was going to give a closing statement even if it meant doing so in the empty courtroom during the lunch hour. The judge let me give my closing to actual people and then I won the case. I was hooked.

A Little Wisdom

So I’ve spent the last 20 years in the trenches. I’ve evolved into the country-doctor version of a business lawyer. I spend more time these days talking people out of lawsuits than I do filing lawsuits. I’ve also found that I get more pleasure out of making transactional deals than I did 20 years ago when all I could think about was getting in court. Over these years I’ve learned a few things about life and the law worth sharing.

Think Long and Hard Before Getting in a Lawsuit

A lawsuit is like a root canal. Don’t get a root canal just for the hell of it. You need three things before you should consider suing someone:

  1. Liability. Did he run over your dog?

  2. Damages. Is your dog worth something? (By something … I mean a lot.)

  3. Collectability. Can he pay for your dog?

Without that trinity, you may just be getting that root canal for giggles. That’s not all. Being involved in litigation takes lot of time and takes a lot out of you emotionally and financially. Elihu Root, a very accomplished attorney, once explained, “About half of the practice of a decent lawyer is telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop.” He was right.

That Ounce of Prevention Thing is True

So often I’ve seen clients come in with really big expensive problems that, at some point, were very small inexpensive problems. If you are getting that tingly feeling that you need a lawyer, ignore it at your own peril. Seeing a lawyer early is always cheaper and easier.

Lawsuits Are Magnifying Glasses for Human Emotions

Being involved in litigation magnifies people’s personality traits, good and bad, exponentially.

Lawyers Are Generally Pretty Great People

Despite my copier panic attack my first day of law school, some of the most remarkable people I’ve met in my life are lawyers. Most lawyers have artist’s hearts and truly want to leave the world a better place than they found it. They are generally eager to work professionally and ethically and I’ve witnessed many lawyers make tough decisions for the betterment of their clients and our society at their own expense. I like most of the lawyers I meet.

Some Lawyers are Truly Despicable People

I’ve bumped into a few attorneys in the course of my career that are j
ust dreadful people. They make lawsuits cost multiples of what they should cost (especially for their own clients), have the emotional impact on a room of a fully charged dementor, and–in the end–usually end up losing their cases because juries also despise them. Any trade or profession is going to have its share of contemptible people. The problem is that contemptible lawyers do so much more damage to the world than contemptible plumbers. This is probably why Shakespeare wanted to kill us all.

Being forced to deal with these people is the worst part of being a lawyer. You have no control over who the other person hires to represent them and some of these people revel in attempting to ruin your day. When I first started, these people made me crazy. I simply could not comprehend them and I laid awake trying to figure out what to do. If there weren’t so many good, ethical attorneys out there, I would have quit.

However, after 20 years, the occaisional miscreants don’t nearly ruffle my feathers as they used to. I’ve finally figured it out. I can’t get down in the mud with them because they are always better at that than me. I can’t take it personally because they treat everyone that way. Instead, I go out of my way not to stoop down with them and take the high road. Occasionally, that will even lead to one of them rising up. Occasionally.

If they are really terrible, I imagine in my mind the sound of clown music every time I witness one of their trantrums. That always puts things in perspective for me.

Sometimes I have a client that thinks going down in the mud is how you are supposed to practice law. That never works and also, conveniently, leads to my next bit of wisdom.

Only Work with Quality People

I can’t control who opposing counsel will be but I can control who I work with and who I work for. Every time I’ve got in a professional relationship with someone that wants to play fast and loose or cut corners, I’ve regretted it later. Every time. Maybe this is the most important thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years: Only work with and for quality people.

More Pancakes with Dad

So now that I’ve logged some 40,000 hours at this job would I do it again? Absolutely. I really enjoy being a lawyer. I still enjoy taking a big ugly mess of facts and applying the law to it and then coherently presenting it to a judge or jury. I still love taking a complicated broken transaction and finding a way to turn it into a deal. I still love meeting with a few guys that have nothing more than a dream and a laptop and watching them grow into a public company. After all these years, I still enjoy (most) all of it.

Moreover, I’ve helped a lot of people in the last 20 years. I’ve saved multigenerational businesses from bankruptcy. I’ve kept families together. I’ve helped small clients become big clients and created many jobs along the way.

If Dad were still around and we returned to Denny’s for my 20 year check-up I’d be able to tell him that not only is it possible to practice law with integrity, it is the only way I know how.