The Dark Art of the Small-Firm Biggie Smalls


Dealing with my (literally) poor client Margaret’s unfortunate situation I mentioned in my previous post was very uncomfortable for me. The justice system failed Margaret. Though I was a part of that failure, I had hit a wall. Margret simply got the short end of the stick.

As many of you former gunners pointed out in the comments last time, “Oh, Mr. 162, she could file a nondischargability action.” Nice try, but think about it. Do you know a bankruptcy lawyer who works on contingency, smarty-pants? I don’t. Know why? It’s in the title: bankruptcy attorney.  These people have no money. And poor Ms. “I invested all my money with a shady real estate developer” Margaret doesn’t have the $50K it would take to make her $500K nondischargable.

Every time I thought about the blatant fraud that left Margaret destitute, I reached a crossroads. It was my first truly sympathetic case, and I knew how I handled this would determine a lot about my future career. One direction was the emotional route—the Grey’s Anatomy version where it would hang on my conscience, but eventually I would stop returning her calls and let it die a slow death. The other was to be clinically sterile with the militaristic callousness of a wartime medic: Treat the symptoms, deal with the triage, forget what you’ve seen. It seemed a no brainer.

So, on a beautiful day in Los Angeles, I sat Margaret down told her she was screwed.

She cried. A lot. I offered to validate her parking.

Triage.

I couldn’t work with Margaret any longer. The look in my boss’ eyes during our calendar meetings told me so every time her name came up. When I finally told him she was old business, I felt my Q rating rise and my standing in the firm solidify. He respected my decision to cut bait. Every case is a moment to prove myself. I needed to follow other opportunities. Moving on, I submerged myself into a handful of cases I knew could turn an immediate profit.

The pool of unemployed JDs is filled with qualified lawyers without an edge. In small firms, every lawyer needs something that distinguishes him or her to the boss on a daily basis. Whatever that may be. “Hard-working” and “pleasant” are perfectly exploitable at a Big Firm—if you’re lucky enough to get there—but boutique lawyers need an angle that meshes with management. And it’s usually not standard CV criteria.

Right now, I’m the young, “money talks” lawyer who reminds his boss of himself at my age. He’s proud of me for it. My newfound ability to dismantle my feelings and birddog damages will never be listed on my resume, but right now it’s my calling card. I’m not thrilled and remain conflicted, but when it came to the fork in the road, I chose the one that kept me employed.

I have a friend, Ryan, who graduated in May. Local law school, nothing fancy, but good enough that the Bigs recruit there for local talent. Top 30% of his class. He’s certainly not bragging, but he’s being a realist and just wants a clerking job as a chance to prove himself. This is a bona fide JD who will work his ass off for $15/hour. (Humbling to think about given we all came into this thing with promises of expense accounts and six-figure incomes.) I did Ryan a favor by putting in a good word. My boss interviewed him, and after about 30 seconds, he told the kid he wasn’t qualified.

On the other hand, we have a new chestnut blonde file clerk in her second month who’s making $12/hour. She wears transparent black tops. She might not know there are 26 letters in the alphabet. She definitely doesn’t know a pleading from a bucket of hot water. Still, my boss will probably jerk off thinking about her tonight. She’s going places in this world. She has a distinguished utility.

Chestnut and I have carved out our places. Hers is her ability to put up with men who stare at her all day. “Put up” may not even be the right expression: She knows that’s why she got the job.  She’s using her professionally unquantifiable assets to build resume experience. See, she’s treating the symptoms. She knows how the world works and how to best play the hand (and chest) she’s been dealt.

I used to look down on beautiful women. I thought they were stupid, shallow, manipulative and undeserving of all the breaks. This was naive. In fact, they’re realists. They know that men are superficial by nature. The obsession men have with beautiful women is never going to change.  Making the choice to accept that is now what I admire about Chestnut. And I channeled my own 32DDs when I told Margret that she was no longer welcome in the office unless she could prepay for the hour.

Being a lawyer is an art and a science.

The science is simple. It’s factual. The whole legal research/writing thing—I see that as the science. The textbook stuff anyone can do if you just immerse yourself in the details.

The art—the salesmanship, the games, the strategy—that is what builds or destroys careers for a man like me. It’s the part that’s not fair because it is not something where you can just follow the rules and succeed. But you have to use your instincts, and instincts are exactly what law school tries to beat out of you.

As a Big associate, instincts are not encouraged. Hence (what used to be, at least) lockstep advancement. The newly initiated ride in the safety zone for any number of years because they accept the yoke of machine law: Take direction well, do the work of others and accept little ownership of work product. It’s all science. There’s no faking a 60-page brief. It’s tangible, and its value is obvious for everyone to quantify. Art has yet to exist on any level.

Further down the road, for a select few in Big Firms, the art begins to matter, and there’s value to right-brain work. If you think about it, many, many law firms were founded by one writer and one talker. Just look back to moot court: There are the people who write the briefs, and there are people who argue the briefs. The ivory tower of BigLaw is full of writers (scientists), but only has a few talkers (artists). Scientists see the artists as egoists, which is true, but knowing their utility, the writers channel their own 32DDs and support the talkers.

In a small firm, the art is apparent early on. Can you juggle? Can you tap dance?  Are you fearless? Are you a big-titted freak show?

Thank God I didn’t have the credentials, luck, or fraternity connections to land a BigLaw gig. I have too much of an oversized need for external validation that the art of law provides. My intellectual failures (going to a bad law school) leave me with a need to prove to myself that I measure up beyond basic science.

Basically, I try to model myself after Biggie Smalls. I can never use this argument at a bar association mixer, but I think that Biggie would have made a great oral advocate. Biggie wrote hundreds of rhymes and lyrics that he could piece together on the fly. He had a semi-photographic memory and had all of these lyrics perfectly memorized. This was one of the main reasons that Biggie was one of the best freestyle rappers/MC’s the world has ever known. What looked like off-the-cuff improvisation was, in fact, the product of years and years of work coupled with superior intellect and a sense of the moment. He also used that talent to produce other artists. And when a particular collaboration wasn’t working out, he had no problem cutting the cord and moving on to the next. Biggie Smalls put more work and effort into his oral advocacy than your average trial lawyer.

While I obviously hope to rewrite Biggie’s history in the final chapter, at the end of the day, my art is all I have. It’s what people respond to. Courts are busy, clients are emotional, bosses are demanding. Art is the unspoken currency.

Mr. 162 may have fallen short of the first tier, but in these crazy economic times, “small is the new big.” Mr. 162 provides a “learner, more efficient” account of the fast-talking, no-support-staff lifestyle of a Los Angeles boutique associate. Read more from Mr. 162.

16 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    October 20, 2009 at 3:51 am

    “Nortorious B.I.G.Law” would have been a better title.

  2. Craig

    October 20, 2009 at 4:07 am

    Except the guy works at a small firm, so “Biggie Smalls” makes a lot more sense … I enjoyed the article, thanks … Sorry to hear about you officially choosing to go over to the dark side. I hope it works for you and I worry that I will be following in your footsteps shortly.

  3. Frat Guy Lawyer Type

    October 20, 2009 at 5:51 am

    @ Alma:
    The sooner you learn to read the story, the better off you will be.

  4. Tony

    October 20, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I like your remarks about “talkers” vs. “writers;” I think that is very, very accurate. 
    Fortunately, or unfortunately, I work for a municipality and I have to be both a talker and writer, but I definitely agree that there are people who should just stick to the briefs and those who should definitely not be trusted to write anything.

  5. Ace in the Hole

    October 20, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Craig is right, and anyone who’s ever listened to Biggie, let alone owns a CD or two, knows who Biggie Smalls is.

  6. Guano Dubango

    October 20, 2009 at 7:09 am

    What is this all about?  Craig, why all the fuss about the practise of law?  I do not understand why all of the fuss here.

  7. Magic Circle Jerk

    October 20, 2009 at 7:27 am

    “She has a distinguished utility.”

    I have to remember this line…
    good column

  8. Craig

    October 20, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Guano, not even considering all the other posts you have made on this site, in a recent thread, you have described yourself as Samuel L. Jackson in “Black Snake Moan.” Am I supposed to respond to you seriously?

  9. Marcy

    October 20, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Good Column

  10. Guano Dubango

    October 20, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Craig, I have LLM from US law school; you are meerly a first year law student.  You must answer and obey your elders.

  11. Craig

    October 20, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Third year law student

  12. BL1Y

    October 20, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    You guys are seriously competing to be king of the comments?

  13. Guano Dubango

    October 20, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    BL1Y, we cannot ever supplant you.  We thought you were away, possibly with a woman, so we did not want to disturb you.  You are and will always be king on this website, even better commentary from you than the tools that run the site.  I now say “All Hail BL1Y, the bitterest of lawyers!”.  You are like our own Dirty Harry, because you always get the s****it end of the stick.

  14. Craig

    October 20, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    “You guys are seriously competing to be king of the comments?”
    I’m pretty sure that that was not what the conversation was about.  But I could wrong.

  15. Guano Dubango

    October 20, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Don’t worry, Craig, be happy, because you too can be cool like BL1Y.  You, being a 3rd year, have also reason to be bitter.  Fortunately, for me, I can go back to Ghana if everything works out here, and I find an appropriate women who will bear me children.  I seek no accolades from my fellow lawyers, only a worthy woman.

  16. Deraj

    January 12, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Mr. 162:  You are the criminal.  Your boss refused to Margaret’s case on anything but an hourly basis because he knew that the case had a zero chance of generating revenue.  You should have refused the case and referenced Margaret to someone who would take the case as a contingency.  Instead, you took a woman who had been bilked out of her life savings and decided to bilk her out of the rest of her net worth.  Way to go, asshole!!

    P.S.  You do not practice in a boutique law firm.  You practice in a small law firm.  If the firm begins specializing in something other than douchebaggery, then you can start saying that you practice in a boutique.

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