I’ve often said that any idiot can be a lawyer, it takes someone special to be a great lawyer. To become a lawyer, you just need to go to school, pass the exam, and get a job somewhere. That’s about it. The better the school is doesn’t always mean the better the lawyer.
My first two legal experiences were as a 1L. I did something I wasn’t supposed to do, I practiced law without a license. My mother was in the middle of an administrative hearing for her job, and a lawyer of 35 years was against her. I had a few weeks of legal writing, but did my best to help counter his arguments, and draft a persuasive memo. I won. I defeated a lawyer who would eventually be 38 years my senior in the practice of law, on memos, in my first try. Was it wrong? Yes, absolutely. But it was my mom, there is no way I wouldn’t have helped her. So screw any bar that wants to take it up with me. I’d do it again in a second. My second experience was with the city where my law school was. Conflicting signs and law had caused many of my fellow students to get a parking ticket for parking too close to a stop sign. When I got one, I organized my first class action suit. I took on the city on behalf of myself and my fellow students. I won, we got refunds from the city, the tickets wiped from our records, and they had to move the parking sign so as not to entrap any more unsuspecting students. I was 2 wins, 0 losses before my first semester of my 1L year was over. I also pissed of my first city attorney, always a good sign of things to come.
So the point I’m making there, you don’t need to be a Harvard Grad to be a great lawyer, you don’t even need to be an A student to be one. Just know what you know well, and don’t get in over your head with things you don’t know. Of course, there is much more to it. I would add that you have to be a good person, with a good heart and good moral compass, and you have to do whatever it takes (within ethical bounds) to be good at what you do. I’m talking long nights in a library, sucking up the pride and asking anyone you can for help when you need it, and not being afraid to say no to a client if you can’t effectively do what they need you to do.
Good person, that’s surprisingly hard for some people to do. Try as hard as you might to be the one lawyer who puts all the “Shark” jokes and bad stereotypes to bed, there’s always someone else who spoils it for everyone else. My experience with this came when I had just passed the bar and was looking for work.
I got a call from a lawyer I cold-mailed in Orange County. We’ll call him Chance, because that’s his actual name. I won’t elaborate. But Chance called me before Christmas, and had a one hour phone interview with me. He basically assured me that once I met him in person, saw the offices, I was as good as hired. He had told me the salary I’d be paid, the first cases I’d be working on, where my cubicle was going to be, and had e-mailed me paper-work for a parking pass. I was in. All I had to do was get out there and meet him in person. We agreed that I’d go out there after the new year, january 7th of that year in fact, and we even agreed on a time 2:30 pm. I bought plane tickets, got a rental car, booked a hotel in Orange County near where his office was, and good to go. I had his cell phone number and would call him the day before the interview in case he needed to meet me later that day.
I land in Orange County the day before, and because I’m kind of a detail guy, I go to the office to check out parking, the traffic, and see what floor he’s on. The office building is deserted. This attorney’s name isn’t even on the listing in the lobby anymore. the guard tells me he packed up and left the day after Christmas.WTF?
He had a website. This was in 2006, as of 2011, it still said he was in Orange County. The reality of it was that he had moved his firm to LA, because you could make more money there. According to his secretary. But I’ll get to that later.
Not knowing where he is, I call Chance, so I can find out where his office is now located. His voicemail is full. I can’t even leave a message. I keep trying until 11:00 that night, voice mail is full, no one is picking up. The next morning I bring up the Cal Bar profile to see if he has updated the address. Good news is, yes, he did. The bad news, I’m in Newport Beach, and I need to get to Westwood in LA by 2:30. It’s entirely doable, but I’d have to get there early, and figure out where I was going. All up the I-5, I’m calling Chance, desperately trying to find out what is going on with this job I had all but locked up. No answer.
I get to the address and look for the suite number. I open the door to find…. a Chinese sweat shop with dozens of ladies behind sewing machines, trying to figure out what the white guy is doing there. Two large men began to approach, I got out of dodge, fast!
I had one last card to play, I called the phone number listed with the Cal Bar. A woman answered “law office” I asked for Chance, who “wasn’t in.” But I got the correct address, a small office inside the Screen Actor’s Guild building next to the LaBrea tar pits.I arrive at his office at exactly 2:28 and notify the girl at the desk that I’m there for an interview with Chance.
The look on her face wasn’t comforting. I was directed to a chair to wait, and there were a flurry of phone calls being made. I was brought water, and later coffee, and by 3:10 another lawyer approached and said “Chance hasn’t come into the office today. I don’t think he’s going to.” It seems he was renting space there, and came and went as he pleased, pissing off the other attorneys in that office. I explained how I’d flown there the night before from almost all the way across the USA, I was there to interview for my first law job, a job I all but had in the bag, and they were unmoved. Well, at least unmoved by me, they were seriously pissed at Chance. I sat there until 5:00, like I was stood up for a date, then I had to call home and tell my folks how I wasted over $1000 on airfare, hotels and a rental car for someone who didn’t even show up to the interview he was giving me.
A month later, I finally got a voice mail message from him, pledging he’d send me another ticket to fly out there, pay all my expenses, and finally get me hired on. But he never did. I never heard from that ass-clown ever again. Probably for the best, he’s moved three times since then, can be found on the web under “Rip-off report” and has changed his area of practice from general civil to criminal to foreclosure law. And while his profile on the Cal Bar website is clean, it’s really just a matter of time for someone like this. You can totally see it coming, he will someday be disbarred.
I’ve had similar horror stories, another attorney in Santa Ana with three license suspensions wanted me to fly out for an interview, he needed someone immediately…until his son graduated from law school. Then I’m guessing all bets were off. His office share is with a gas station that looks like it hasn’t been in use since the 70’s.
Then there are the “franchisers.” These guys want you to go to a whole bunch of Debt Relief Coalition type websites before they “interview” you, which is actually just you filling out paper work and faxing it to them. They send you bankruptcy cases, you fill out the forms, and pretty much screw the client. The Better Business Bureau has numerous complaints about them. Their lead attorney isn’t even a member of the California State Bar. He might be in New York, although it’s unclear. Their main office is someone’s house, and they aren’t even in the practice of law, they have a degree in Spanish.
The bottom line, your bar license is your future. You have to protect it, that means not only following the ethical guidelines, but keeping your reputation pristine. If you meet people like the ones I’ve listed above, run away. It’s better to be jobless and in debt than working for the likes of them.