Friday, March 4, 2011

More on civil v. criminal law: a question answered

Thanks to Tim for a question good enough to become the subject of a blog entry. It continues this and last week's entries looking at civil and criminal law and the uneasy relationship the two sometimes have:

I'm curious, Mark: us law students often get told that even if we want to practice criminal/community law, we should sign up with a big firm for the first couple of years to get experience and training. Do you think your early experience with a big firm made you a better lawyer, gave you bad habits, or was neither here nor there?

Here's what I did: three years at a big firm in Dallas, then the DA's office for a year, then two more years with a local civil firm, and now back at the DA's office for the last two years.

Now, with that background established I'll answer the question. Here's what I got from working at civil firms:

1. Attention to detail. I am not, by nature, a detail-oriented person. I love my current job because it doesn't entail boxes of paper and endless discovery. But having spent years looking closely at everything from constructions contracts to tens of thousands of pages of insurance-related documents, I can (when necessary) focus on the details. Spot small but important nuggets of info that make all the difference.

2. Research and writing skills. You do a lot of that as a young associate. Research memos, motions, discovery requests and responses. And you get good at it. I don't do much writing or researching now, but when I do I am fairly confident the end result is half decent.

3. Delusions of self-importance. (Oh, there had to be some bad stuff, you knew that!) One of the partners at one of the law firms gathered together the new associates and told them that being there, at the firm, was the ultimate in practicing law. Big, rich clients, complex cases, millions of bucks at stake. He said, and the upcoming phrase was his, that some people couldn't handle it, weren't good enough, and those who left did so to "Go peck sh*t with the chickens." And what struck me then, as it does now, is that he believed his own schtick. So many big firms lawyers do think that way. They love being on call 24 hours a day to respond to the whims of their clients. They are proud of it. Maybe you have to believe it to put up with it, I don't know. But I'll tell you that, for a short time there, I was suckered in. The nice office, the fat paycheck, the all-expenses trips. I thought I was doing something important, I thought I was important.
And then I came here.

4. Preparation. I think I give the impression of being pretty low-key when it comes to my trials. Some folks rush about getting stuff together at the last minute and it all gets a bit hectic. I find that I prioritize very well and I give credit to the firms for that. After all, if you have two partners (with above-mentioned Self-Importance Syndrome) wanting their memo pronto, you have to prioritize, to be able to prepare far in advance for the storm that's coming.

5. Disconnection. Back to the not-so-good stuff: doing my job now I meet every single type of citizen Austin possesses. Every race, every age, every socio-economic background. A month or two ago I sat next to a famous musician, last month I spoke to an actor nominated for this year's Oscars. In fact, I spoke to him the day I met and shook hands with a 20-year crack addict. Which was a couple of months after a prostitute asked me, in open court, why I wasn't wearing underwear. At the big firms, that doesn't happen. You don't meet outsiders. Even the clients, who are wined and dined almost exclusively by the partners, and you can bet they aren't a diverse group!

6. Courtroom practice. Which is to say, almost none. I was hired at the big firm for the "trial division." It took a while to realize that it was in reality a "litigation division." The difference being that lawyers at the large, civil firms fight over a lot of stuff, but never in court. Carefully worded letters that threaten court, and even serious voices over the telephone (serious but never raised, that would be unseemly). All of which is to say, if you go to a firm expecting any kind of courtroom experience, you will be disappointed. Now, the training is good, they may well send you to all kind of cool trial training, but you'll never get to use it, not working at a big firm. Ironic, of course.

7. Perspective. I end with this one because it's the most important. I have, thanks entirely to my big-firm experience, a wonderful perspective on life. I know that money isn't the most important thing, that having an office with a view is merely a fancy prison cell, that being proud of my job is important to me, and that getting a thank-you note from a rape victim is immeasurably more important than any Christmas bonus.
For this reason, perspective, I am grateful that I went to a big firm. I know what's important now, what matters to me, what makes me happy. I wouldn't be so sure of that if I hadn't tasted the other side of things.
But as you can see, am I sure now.


  1. If you had posted only #7, this would have still been an excellent blog.


  2. Well, I -am- on call to my clients 24/7, and I -do- feel important, but I'm definitely pecking the s--t with the chickens, no question of that. :-)

    Yesterday one of my clients, a police officer, emailed me at 3:30 a.m. and called on the phone a little after 6, and didn't wake me up either time. The client gets paid more to do what she does than I do to do what I do. And I'm okay with that, I'm at far less risk than she is of being shot or run over, and I've never had to wrestle any drunks. And on this one occasion we might both have been up working all night, but in her case it was scheduled and customary. Most nights, I'm sleeping.

  3. I have to share with you a true story of something no big-firm lawyer will EVER experience.

    I got a call one day from a fellow who said he had a personal injury claim against Capital Metro, Austin's transit system. He said he was riding a bus when the driver slammed on the brakes and he and several others were thrown violently to the floor of the bus.

    I was skeptical of the merits of the claim for multiple reasons, but just to get the guy off the phone I suggested he schedule an appointment. (Half the people who do so never show up.) So he scheduled an appointment.

    Sure enough, this fellow showed up. He was an older black man, about five-foot-nuthin', slightly stooped over, dressed in a green velvet leisure suit, carrying a Bible under one arm and featuring an enormous silver crucifix around his neck. He looked like a cross between Kermit the Frog and Nelson Mandela.

    He repeated his story, and I began to ask some pertinent questions about his injuries and his medical treatment. It came to light that he had been taken to an emergency room but summarily released. He then transported himself to a second emergency room, where the same thing happened.

    "Dey wo'n't gimme no Vicodin," he said. Uh-huh, I'm beginning to understand.

    I asked him if he'd ever suffered back pain or any kind of back injury before. Yes, it turns out that he had, only a few weeks earlier. I asked him how that happened.

    "Mah Louisey, she tie me to da bed, and she whup't me like Jeeeesus."

    I quickly grabbed for a tissue to dab at the coffee that was coming out of my nostrils....

    You won't get THAT working at Big Law, I promise. Pecking s--t with the chickens has its moments!

  4. Edith Ann: Thanks, that's nice to hear. :)

    Don: Holy cow, see, that's what I'm talking about! Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. I enjoy reading your blog, to see the difference between your perspective of court, and the stereotypical Hollywood movies we see. In this post, I mostly enjoyed reading your segment about Perspective -- I think you really hit the nail on the head with that one.

    Keep with the good fight!

  6. Thanks emx, I appreciate the kind words. And you are right - it's nothing like tv!

  7. Slightly off topic (but only slightly): A lot of law schools have clinic programs that place students in prosecutors' offices. The one in my office allowed law students to try criminal cases. (Oregon allows third year law students to appear in court under supervision.) This may be a way for law students to a) get an idea if criminal law is right for them; and b) get some clinical ed credits.


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