Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Star Wars Taught Me to Be a Better Lawyer

A little tongue in cheek advice from the Nutmeg Lawyer. 
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up mesmerized with films like Star Wars.  The eternal struggle of good and evil played out before me on the silver screen as a rag tag band of rebels battled unsurmountable odds. In retrospect, the films had a big impact on the life decisions I would make.  Some would even say that I was drawn to the Dark Side.  I would choose the evil empire and become a die-hard Yankees fan.  I chose Coke over Pepsi.  Microsoft over Apple.  Heck, I even decided I wanted to be a corporate lawyer.  I had dreams of joining one of those fancy wall street powerhouse death star law firms.  I decided that someday I would wear red suspenders to work and slick my hair back like Gordon Gekko. I would own one of those clikety clacking metal ball thinga-ma-whozits on my desk.  I would tell my secretary Delores to hold my calls as I practiced on my putting inside my office.  Perhaps someday I would even make partner or Sith Lord.   I would eventually change my tune after interning for a solo practitioner.

Like most law grads, I grappled with the question of what type of legal career I wanted to pursue.   My own awakening came after interning with a solo practitioner.  I soon realized private practice was a better fit for me.  I had several friends who worked for huge white shoe firms.  While some loved it, others were miserable.  They complained of long hours and being pigeon holed into a particular practice group.  One friend lamented that he wasn't allowed to speak to clients directly.  The only time he appeared in court was for his own divorce.  I liked the idea of being able to pick and choose my clients.  I liked being able to explore new practice areas.  I didn't want to be stuck in the office hundreds of hours a week.  I wanted some semblance of a family life.  As such, I decided to go into private practice.  If you think you might want to follow a similar path, here are a few tips from a long long time ago in a galaxy not so far away.

credit: Lucas Films
Going Solo:  Die hard fans of Star Wars may know that Han Solo almost went the corporate route.  He had once been a cadet in the Imperial Academy.  Han gave up his plans to become an Imperial officer in order to skim the stars with a Wookie at his side.  He wanted to be his own boss.  Of course, going Solo can have it's risks. Sometimes it feels like you are taking on the universe by yourself.  It can also be tough financially.  Han learned this the hard way.  His debts led to him being frozen and hanging on Jabba's wall.  In the end, Han worked through his problems.  He took some chances.  He wound up becoming pretty successful and even married some TV lawyer.   Of course, his path may have been easier if he had a mentor.

Credit Lucas Films
Get A Mentor:  As a young Jedi, Luke had skills but he needed help honing them.  When I graduated law school and passed the bar, I was pretty full of myself too.  I quickly realized I had no clue.  I decided to take a cue from Luke and looked for my own Yoda or Obi Wan.  I became an apprentice.   I accompanied my mentor to depositions. I learned how to interact with prosecutors in court.  I took part in client consultations. I sat in on conference calls where he negotiated settlements.  He even blindfolded me and threw legal briefs at my head.  Kidding aside, I found that working for a small firm really threw me into the thick of things.  With a small staff, the learning curve was much smaller.  Deadlines needed to be met and court appearances had to be made.  I was a lawyer now.  I was responsible for getting things done. As Yoda said.  "Do or do not, there is no try".  

Location, Location.  If you do plan to hang your own shingle, it's important where you locate your practice. Renting expensive downtown high rise digs may not be the best course of action if you plan to practice elder law with a clientele based in the suburbs.  I learned this from watching Jabba the Hutt.  Rather than opening shop on some ritzy moon, Jabba chose the desert planet Tatooine.  For a gangster and a smuggler, the location was perfect.  Far from the prying eyes of authorities, Jabba became the only game in town.  While I am not suggesting you should become an intergalatic smuggler, I do believe you can learn something from this grandiose gangster.  

When I first started practicing, our law office was located in an old grand mansion in downtown Hartford.  From my office, I could see the gleaming dome of the capitol.  It was during this time we opened a ramshackle one room satellite office in a depressed neighborhood in New Britain.  A strip club was down the street.  We were next to a pawn shop.  The one room office was street level and had an air conditioner that would drip water on those who entered.  Surprisingly, the one room office began outdoing our grand downtown office.  It was the location.  We were near a bus stop.  The office was on a busy corner.  We were also near a Polish church.  Each Sunday, thousands of parishioners walked by that little office.  Despite 20,000 Poles living in the area, only 4 or 5 lawyers spoke Polish.  I was one of them.  I had stumbled into a niche.  We eventually invested in a building in the area and renovated it to match the grandness of our Hartford office.  The neighborhood improved.  Within a few years, the strip club would be replaced with an elegant restaurant.  Day spas and cafes opened in the area.  (Editors note: The building we bought was once a biker bar.  It now has hardwood floors, high ceilings, Victorian style furniture and yes,  some of the same clients that the former owner enjoyed. )   

Learn another Language.  C-3PO was fluent in over 6 million ways of communication.  This ability allowed him to avoid the scrap heap.  In Empire Strikes Back, C-3PO was spared the scrap heap when it was discovered he could serve as an interpreter. Knowing an additional language can be a tremendous asset.  It can give you an immense advantage over other attorneys.  As I mentioned earlier, I happen to speak Polish.  It was a language skill that I thought would never come in handy in my professional life.  I then discovered that despite the fact approximately 300,000 Poles lived in my state, only 3 or 4 Polish speaking attorneys served the community.  I soon established a niche practice with a vibrant client base.

It's a Trap:  Don't fall into the trap of doing too much free accommodation work for friends and family members.  Sometimes, it's better to say "no" than "I'll look into it."  Early in my practice, I was deluged with requests from friends to help them with trivial matters.  "Can I sue my neighbor for snoring too loud when he sleeps outside on his hammock?  Can you call my boss and scare him with a law suit for making me work late every night?"   For some reason, I always felt the need to answer "I'll look into it."  Time and time again, that statement would be a time trap for me.   It wasn't that I didn't want to help.  With my regular case load, I just didn't have the time.  If you don't have the time, be up front about it.  Even if you do something for your family pro bono, it might be good to send them a bill indicating your fee with a "family discount" notation.  They will be less likely to undervalue your services.

Don't Fall to the Dark Side.  Most Star Wars fans know that Darth Vader wasn't always a bad guy.  He started off as a Jedi.  Unfortunately, he fell for the Dark Side.  The allure of power was too much for him to ignore.
Like Darth, most law students don't plan to become crooked lawyers.  Some simply fall prey to the Dark Side.  Greed can cloud judgment. You may have heard such whispered stories in court house hallways.  One need only read some recent ethics opinions to see what some attorneys are capable of doing.  Unfortunately, their actions tarnish the image of all attorneys.  I seem to recall one particularly heinous case where a lawyer made a staff member dress as a priest to meet with grieving families of an airplane crash.  In my own practice,  I was the victim of a more humorous brush with the Dark Side.  Last year, I installed a brochure holder that was accessible after office hours. A week after installing it,  I witnessed the "marketing director" of a competing firm completely emptying out all of our brochures and dumping them in the trash.  Has it really come to this?  While I could not choke the paralegal with my mind, I do manage to give him quite a stare down every time I see him.  If you do feel the draw of the Dark Side, remind yourself of the hard work you went through to become a lawyer.  Then ask yourself, is it really worth risking it all?

Ruining Childhood Memories.  Finally, you can build up a great practice through old fashioned networking, reputation and word of mouth.  Many attorneys decide to take a less dignified route.  They plaster their faces on  buses and billboards off the exit heading toward the local hospital. Their late night ads might follow the steel drums of a Girls Gone Wild infomercial. These are the Jar Jar Binks lawyers of our universe.  Now, I know I shouldn't begrudge lawyers who do this type of marketing.  If it was in my budget, I might consider doing some more aggressive advertising.  Maybe I'm just jealous.  Still, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  Kind of like when they introduced Jar Jar Binks as a character.   I had built up an image of what Star Wars should be.   I couldn't help thinking that Jar Jar was ruining my beloved childhood memory.   The same goes for lawyers.  Entering law school, I pictured lawyers as grand defenders of the constitution.  They were to be respected.  So don't be like Jar Jar.  Be more like Obi Wan.  And may the force be with you.


Darth Vader said...

Just a quick note. I really enjoyed this post. It brought a smile to my face. Great job!

Anonymous said...

I don't care how hard you studied, those friggin' Ewoks have a mind of their own!

Anonymous said...

What a great way to get some serious info across.

Anonymous said...

Solo Ho Ho Ho

Anonymous said...

Love this post! Ha!

James Delfino said...

Attorney Baron, Enjoyed the "these attorneys are the Jar Jar Binks of the legal profession" comment. Spot on and hilarious

Anonymous said...

Found this through the ABA Journal. Enjoy your writing style.

Anonymous said...

Got to speak up for Jar Jar-he's maligned. When we first see him, he's a bumbling teenager. But he proves himself on the battlefield (quite courageous!) and goes on in the subsequent movie to become a Senator. Lay off Jar Jar. Maybe he's not the most lovable character-but he does have admirable attributes. He's loyal, brave, and determined. Okay-so he's not pretty, cute, or cuddly. Many lawyers aren't either.

Anonymous said...

and Jar Jar's speach is unintelligble...he must have a J.D.

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bizandlegis said...

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Biz and Legis
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Richard Vetstein said...

Very entertaining. I'm saving enough money so one day I can buy a real Stormtrooper suit and wear it to the office one day, freaking out staff and clients.