Being low man on the totem pole at a boutique law firm requires the type of lawyering easily understood by John Q. Public. Laymen can wrap their heads around what I do because I’m the definition of what Hollywood portrays a lawyer to be. The type of law I handle is familiar to every Joe the Plumber. I’m also the guy they’re talking about when people call lawyers “greedy bastards,” “bottom feeders,” or “scum.”
The idea of a corporate lawyer doesn’t register with the average Joe. While I know what you guys do (memo to file; case law research; 10,000-page doc reviews), John and Jane Doe have no concept of this type of existence. So, when people hear someone say he or she is a first year associate working on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, they don’t equate that to the actual responsibility, which is binder-making and typo hunting. They just assume it’s big shit, so they’re less inclined to ask that person to help fix a parking ticket. I, however, am at the other end of the spectrum.
Despite having undergone the same three years of legal training as every other first-year lawyer, I am the person someone feels comfortable asking every insipid, inane legal question fathomable. I’m your nerdy younger brother. I get thrown the stuff no big law lawyer could ever imagine. I exist in the toxic waste of the legal world: cases that are lose-lose, petty, undignified, and just plain bad.
What guys like me have to learn in order to make a living worthy of what people assume all lawyers earn is to be lean and mean. Without the giant corporate resources of the Bigs, turning profit means being creative. And how do we do it? By being willing to take on the reputation of “greedy, bottom-feeding bastards.” I absorb the misconceptions and wear the negative labels to get the job done. And I love it.
Last month, a merchandiser got into a fight with one of his suppliers. It was nothing more than a pissing contest, but as a part of this spat, he stiffed his supplier $24K. In response, the supplier simply charged the amount to the merchandiser’s Centurion AMEX.
Now, does Skadden have a credit card dispute department? Uh, no. So they came to me, and I drafted a beautiful four-page letter to AMEX letting them know exactly what state and federal laws they were breaking by charging my poor client. CC the vendor. Seacrest, out.
Generally, the client’s wishes are what paint us boutiquers with such a bad brush. For example, I represented a man who’s wife, while eight-months pregnant, flipped out on her next-door neighbor, and some stuff went down. My neutral assessment: hormonally imbalanced woman starts trouble with neighbor. But a pregnant woman is a lawyer’s dream and can do no wrong. (Never, ever shout at a pregnant woman, no matter how wrong she is.) So, she’s pissed off, and the guy wants to “stir the pot.”
Enter the young associate.
Ever wonder how easy it is to get a restraining order in Los Angeles County? Just ask me. Nothing makes a respondent dump in his or her pants quite like a sheriff serving a TRO and a court summons. Would it have been my move? No. But am I going to turn away a huge fee and fun sh!t-starting by advising against it? Absolutely not. Their wishes. My job. Impersonal.
Which doesn’t mean there aren’t situations that tug at the heart. Because even “greedy bastard bottom feeders” have emotions.
I have an elderly client who we’ll call Margret. Margret was a career secretary who amassed about $500K in savings—all from her modest income—by the time she turned 60. Over the course of three years, Margret invested her life savings with a real estate developer who promised her 12% and total security in her investments. Sound familiar?
When the real estate market turned south, she asked for her money back, and the guy reneged. Took her whole life savings and is now hiding in bankruptcy court. While I said I keep it impersonal and try not to care about the outcome of cases, the system is not working for Margret. She’s too trusting and naïve. And there is no excuse or justification for what has happened to her. I don’t care about the guy’s story or what happened to his other investors, I want to get Margret her money back.
My boss would only take Margret’s case on an hourly basis. (Would you take a Madoff case on contingency?) So we filed a complaint—fraud, breach of contract, unfair business practices—and over-pleaded the heck out of it. More than enough to make a case. But the asshole filed BK.
Not fair. NOT FAIR.
Who invented this horrible system? This POS does not deserve any protection. All of you BK lawyers out there from big to small: You are all officially on my shit list. Y’all do not serve justice. Nobody ever wins but the lawyers, and it’s no wonder people hate us. There is no excuse for BK. None. It’s the biggest fraud in history.
Being upset for Margret already, it gets worse. Margret pays every cent of every bill we send her. Thousands of dollars.
Let’s be clear: Nobody pays 100% of their legal bills. Even big corporate clients whose general counsel was in the same fraternity as the lead partner at the BigLaw sweatshop they farm out their legal work—even they nitpick and whittle down their bills. But not Margret. Payment remitted within 30 days. Ugh.
Eventually she runs out of money and has no way to pay. But her sense of right and wrong won’t allow her to even call us to discuss the damn bills because she thinks it’s going to cost her $395 to talk to me for an hour. Me, a 27-year-old punk who doesn’t make 10% of what I bill. She can’t talk to me because of this fucked-up system that puts wall after wall between her and me. This whole system preys on people who follow the rules and do right by their fellow man.
Which, I guess, makes me a wolf that feels for the sheep.
I called Margret last Friday, talked to her for 90 minutes and didn’t bill her a dime. We talked about her issues, and I gave her my best advice given the situation. No matter what, she loses. She’s got a dead-bang winner of a case, but she’ll never collect on her judgment. Makes me sick.
At the same time, those situations can’t allow me to drop my guard because for every Margret, there are more clients who welsh on their bills. And being creative about that means my boss never pays client’s costs. When court reporters, videographers, etc. send us bills for services, we pass them on to clients. No mark-up—just sending the bill to the person who owes it. When they don’t pay, my boss tells the vendors to pound sand. Well, “he” doesn’t. I do. Because I’m the legal garbage disposal.
They have their accounts receivable people work on us for about a year, then they turn it over to a collections agency. The trick is to immediately respond to their collection letters with some BS letter on nice letterhead. The nincompoops at a collection agency crap the bed when they see a real law firm on the other side. A 200-word letter will generally buy you another 4 months. Fair on our part? Not sure. But it’s necessary.
Sure, I might be the stereotype. The one who’s living out the very perception of what every Tom, Dick and Harry non-lawyer assumes attorneys to be. But buried within is an art. A craft. A true survival instinct that few Bigs will ever develop because the listless bosom of their shut-up-and-be-a-cog employer coddles them. I’m the street fighter no one thinks they ever to be, but when they’re in trouble, they want me on their side. And, to me, that’s what being a lawyer is all about.