Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Can YOU help catch a killer?

I make some assumptions about my small but loyal gathering of readers: First, that they are interested in crime. Second, that they are intelligent.

The first assumption is based on the fact you are, well, readers of a criminal law blog. Duh. The second is based on your comments and those of you I have met.

And this is why I thought you might be interested in a post the FBI has up on their site. Basically, they need help deciphering a note found on a murder victim. Yes, the FBI needs YOUR help:

On June 30, 1999, sheriff’s officers in St. Louis, Missouri discovered the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick. He had been murdered and dumped in a field. The only clues regarding the homicide were two encrypted notes found in the victim’s pants pockets.

Despite extensive work by our Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (CRRU), as well as help from the American Cryptogram Association, the meanings of those two coded notes remain a mystery to this day, and Ricky McCormick’s murderer has yet to face justice.

Here's one of the notes:
(Go here for the full story.)Any of you masterminds able to crack it?

Because that would be very, very cool.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Debt and its attendant burdens

Many of you, faithful readers, are lawyers, and therefore many of you will be burdened by law school debt. My other, equally educated, readers no doubt have other forms of education debt.

To those of you living free from the shackles of the money-lenders: I salute you.

Now, I borrowed the money and I intend to pay it back. Slowly, yes, but I'll pay it back.

Okay, now that's all perfectly clear let me address those same money-lender: stop bloody calling me.

A polite request that I will repeat: Please, stop bloody calling me.

See, I was one day late making a payment. Less than that, actually, a few hours. And within hours they called me, asking me to pay up. So I did.

Since then, after I made the payment, they have called me sixteen times. After I made the payment.

So what I want to know is, if they know within hours that I haven't paid, how they hell can they not know for three days that I have paid?

I'll tell you what, it should be illegal.

Now, anyone want to lend me $150,000 so I can pay them off completely?

You'll get it back, I promise....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Author interview: Steven Sidor

It is a truly rare occasion when I will finish a book and immediately rush out and grab another by the same author. It's a quirk of my personality that I love change, in almost all things. So after reading a military-style thriller by, say, Stephen Leather, I'll plump for the artistry of French author Fred Vargas, and then toughen it up with something by Don Winslow.

But you remember my camping trip? I finished up THE MIRROR'S EDGE by Steven Sidor on that trip. And then, ignoring three books waiting on my nightstand, I went out and grabbed a copy of SKIN RIVER.

Steve's going to see this post so I feel stupid gushing. Read his books.

That's all I'll say.

And, as an added bonus to that recommendation, here's the man behind the pen, Steven Sidor (here's his website, and his blog is a link on my blogroll already):

  • Did you always want to be a writer, or did you come to it as an adult?

I decided I wanted to be a writer around age seven. I read no fiction at the time. Mostly I liked books about world disasters and strange trivia. The first things I wrote were one-act plays which my teachers let the class perform on Fridays. In truth, I stole my ideas from the old Carol Burnett show, except there were a lot more gunfights in my plays. I also performed magic at school talent shows, and I told scary stories to bullies so they wouldn’t beat me up – that’s the root of it all.

  • What is your writing schedule?

I’ve written all four of my novels late at night and on the weekends. I used to drink a pot of coffee around 9pm. That committed me because I was going to be wide awake one way or the other, so I might as well be writing. I’m a big believer in writing efficiently, but I need a good chunk of time, at least a two-hour bite. I can reread/edit myself in little bursts. I’m a stay-at-home dad so I’ve learned to improvise. Recently, my schedule changed. Both my kids are in school. I write in the mornings for a few hours, and then I go to the gym and lift weights. I come home, take a shower, and rewrite. Then I read.

I work in a basement office, on a desktop. It’s quite nice down there . . . carpeted, heated, warmly lit . . . and I have a great big desk a friend built for me. I face a blank wall. No windows. Distractions will undo me, so I eliminate them. I’ve had no TV access in my home for fifteen years. Seriously, if I had TV I would have no books with my name on them – I’ll watch anything, even test patterns.

  • Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

I freely blend genres in my writing these days. Thriller, mystery, horror, sci-fi – I think the most exciting genre writing is no longer purely in one field but a mix. I’ve never felt boxed-in by genre; to the contrary, I think you can do things in genre fiction that you can’t in mainstream or literary fiction.

  • You have a new novel coming out, PITCH DARK, tell us about it.

PITCH DARK is a supernatural thriller about a young woman on the run from a cult. She’s stolen something from them, and they’ll do anything to get it back. During a Christmas Eve blizzard, the woman holes up at a roadside motel on Minnesota’s northern border. The family that runs the motel has encountered unspeakable evil before, and now they’ll have to protect themselves and the rest of the world from an evil called The Pitch. It’s the most action-packed book I’ve written, and I hope readers will enjoy all the twists and surprises I built in.

  • How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

I write relatively slowly. Two keeper pages per day is good for me. Five is a great day. I pay a lot of attention to language. The telling of a story is what appeals to me as a reader, so I focus on that as a writer. I don’t like flavorless writing. I want style. The style I prefer usually is pretty stripped-down and energetic. I hate padding. I don’t want to read somebody’s research. I’m easily bored as a reader, and nothing bores me more than pages of bland extraneous writing that should have been edited out. When it comes to editing my own work, I’m a cutter – a taker-outer. Less is more. When I go too far, then less is less and I have to put more ink on the page. I’m quick to give up on any book I’m reading if the writing gets lazy or bogs down. I hope to avoid those same mistakes when I write.

  • If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Quit. Seriously, if you can quit then you should. Go get a hobby. Writing to publish is a thankless, painful, and heartbreaking enterprise. If you can get by without it, then take the out. Now, if you can’t live without it, then my advice would be different. Never quit. No matter what. Write every day. Read more.

  • Do you outline your novels?

I can’t outline a novel. I’ve tried. If I outline, then the story dies for me. I feel like I’ve already written it. I prepare for writing a novel by writing detailed character sketches. I also storyboard the plot. I take very small sticky notes and jot a word or two about scenes I want to appear in the book, and then I arrange them on a large black poster board that I keep next to my computer. As I progress, I rip down the notes for scenes I’ve written and I add new ones. Plotting is the hardest part of novel writing. Anything you can do to help, you should. I just can’t outline.

  • Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

I think every writer needs to find his or her own way. “How-to” books never helped me much. Many aspiring novelists think there’s some secret to writing a book, a magic formula. Sitting down and doing it is the only thing I know that works. The best book I ever read about writing is probably pretty hard to find these days, and the information in it might be a little dated. But Dean Koontz’s “How to Write Best Selling Fiction” taught me a lot of practical tips.

  • What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I’m terrible at predicting trends. Given that, it seems obvious to me that the future is digital. Books will go the way of LPs. Some folks will love them and collect them but most won’t. The younger generations will have little or no attachment to paper. Publishers will eventually catch up to readers, who at this point are ahead of the industry on the tech side, as they were with the music business. Storytelling will always find a way to reach people. I’ll try to do the same.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Words, words, words - Get it right, media!

You might expect me to be picky about word usage, being a lawyer and a writer. You'd be right, I am. Some pet peeves include:

"There's less people here than last time." It's fewer. If you can count whatever you are talking about, i.e. there's a specific number, it's 'fewer.' So, "There are fewer grains of sand on this beach," but "There is less sand on this beach."

"Her and David took the train." No, she and David took the bloody train. Take away the "and David" and read it.


"He gave a ride to Peter and I." Again, take away the "Peter and" and then you'll get it right.

So why do I care? Well, maybe I shouldn't. After all, it's high blood pressure for nothing, right? But yesterday I saw, for the millionth time, the media screwing up one that I do care about, because it's more than incorrect word usage, it's a factual mistake:

Saturday afternoon in the streets of Paterson, N.J., [mixed martial artist] Jon Jones and his trainers applied their gym techniques when they spotted a robber, chased him down and subdued him.

Thank you Yahoo News. Except the dude wasn't a robber. At all. He was a car burglar.

Does it matter? Well, it sure as heck does if you're charged with the offense. I can't speak to California law, but in Texas if you are a first-time robber you are looking at 2-20 years in the penitentiary. If you use a weapon, you face 5 years to Life.

If, on the other hand, you commit burglary from a vehicle as a one-time lark you cannot receive more that a year in the county lock-up (where you will actually do six months).

All the reports of this incident use the word 'robbery.' Is it actually a robbery in California? No, it's a second degree burglary according to my cursory research. According to one website, "Second degree burglary is most frequently seen in connection with Penal Code 484 shoplifting offenses." Not exactly robbery, then.

Is it laziness on the part of the media? Yes, I think it is. Laziness and a desire to make the story as dramatic as possible.

And as a lawyer and former newspaper reporter, it bugs the heck out of I.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My morning commute's a little tricky

You can tell it's me because of the pinstripe suit.

And every morning, every morning, that darned dog gets in my way.

VCA 2010 RACE RUN from changoman on Vimeo.

Okay, so it wasn't me. It was a rider in the legendary urban bike race called The Valparaiso Cerro Abajo Race, in Valparaiso, Chile.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Me, myself, and I

One of my blogging colleagues (see, I still refuse to say "blawgging") picked me as the grand winner in an informal, unscientific, utterly pointless survey of criminal law blogs.

A survey of good looks, you might think.
No, not this time.

Actually, no.

Apparently, my blog contains the highest quotient of "I" and "me" of those he sampled. The damnable thing is, he's fa rmore intelligent than I am, so I can't challenge his numbers. But if you read the comments, you will see my explanation for why I was The Grand Winner.

Go. Go read the comments.

That's all.

Hey, it's Monday, what do YOU have to say?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Author interview: Mark Russinovich

You may not have heard of him yet, but my guess is you will. Well, clearly you will because I'm talking about him.

You know what I mean.

He's that rare breed of fiction writer, the guy who writes about scary things that might actually happen. His first novel, ZERO DAY is now out, and not only is it getting rave reviews as a work of fiction but I'm also reading comments about how it may be a glimpse into the future.

Check it out.

Oh, while we're at it, meet Mark Russinovich:

Did you always want to be a writer, or did you come to it as an adult?
I was a voracious reader from a very young age. Like many boys, I was fascinated by science fiction, especially hard-core science fiction that’s grounded in science. I probably read most of the collective works of Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Niven and several other author classic sci-fi authors.

I knew that someday I wanted to craft a story anchored in technology, and expected that it would be a sci-fi novel. In seventh grade when a friend got an Apple II and we spent hours writing programs, I knew I wanted a career in computers. I also wanted to share and educate and wrote my first article for the magazine COMPUTE! when I was a senior in high school. I continued my writing as a columnist for Windows NT Magazine (now Windows IT Pro Magazine) and in 2000 coauthored my first non-fiction book, Inside Windows 2000. The book covers the internal operation of Windows and I’ve since coauthored two additional editions of the book, which is now called Windows Internals.

In around 2004, the germ of an idea for a novel emerged and I finally began writing Zero Day in early 2005.

Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

Only a few people knew I was writing a book and they were all very supportive. My wife and close friends read numerous drafts and provided great constructive feedback. It was only a couple of months ago that I announced to the world that the book was coming out.

What is your writing schedule? I'm guessing a full time job interferes with what you'd like it to be...

Yes, it’s hard to find time to write. I generally do it in the mornings before work and in the evenings, but the bulk I get done on weekends. Squeezing it in like that makes it take a long time to write, but that gives me opportunity to think through pretty carefully where the book is and where I’d like it go. I started working on the sequel about a year ago and may have a draft to start sharing with friends in another few months.

Do you work in a study, all alone, or do you prefer a cafe where there are people to watch (and bug you!)?

I definitely prefer to study alone and undisturbed in my home office. I’m easily thrown off by modern distractions like email so have to even shut down by email client so that I can get into the writing zone.

You have a new novel coming out, ZERO DAY, tell us about it.

Zero Day is a book about a scenario that, frankly, I’m surprised hasn’t yet occurred. After the virus waves of 2000-2003, it became obvious to me that a relatively minor effort by a few computer-experts could cause destruction that would easily dwarf that of 9/11. It’s the perfect weapon for terrorist because it has the potential for much wider damage than a physical attack, is virtually anonymous, and is based on technology that’s readily accessible.

I decided in 2005 to raise awareness and thought it writing a thriller would be a fun and effective way of doing that. It shows how such an attack could unfold, with typical thriller misdirection and plot twists.

Was the journey from idea to publication as you'd imagined?

Not at all. I thought with my background as an expert in the field with non-fiction books and an established audience (my blog is read by tens of thousands of people a month) that I’d have no trouble finding an agent and then a publisher. That didn’t seem to have much influence, though, and I received a few dozen agent rejections and a dozen publisher rejections. Many times during the process I seriously considered giving up on mainstream publishing and going the self-publishing route. I even researched self-publishing options. But every time I was on the verge of giving up, something would happen either to keep my hopes alive or to keep the ball moving and here I about six years after I started with a published novel. My agent, Ann Collette, was great support.

Your novel is very reality based, no? Do envisage it making any impact on the way people view technology?

It was one of my intentions to highlight just how dependent we are on technology. Like many things we take for granted, I don’t think people worry about what would happen if their PC died and they lost all the data on it until it happens to them or a friend. And that includes small business owners. Even large corporations get lax about verifying backups or developing contingency plans in the event that their main servers crash and won’t recover.

At a larger scale, we also need to be more thoughtful about the design of our infrastructure systems, including power and other utilities. Boundaries need to be erected between them and the Internet and they need to be subdivided such that cyber-attacks are isolated to just part of the system. Today, there’s very little of that formalized thinking.

Who are your favorite authors?

Besides some of the science fiction authors I’ve mentioned, Michael Crichton has a special spot in my list. I remember reading The Andromeda Strain when I was in seventh grade and being fascinated by the science he weaved into the story. He did it in a way that taught you while entertaining and I finished the book feeling smarter than when I had started. The experience I had with Jurassic Park was the same. I knew that if I wrote a novel that I would strive for the same authenticity and try to give even non-technical readers an understanding of the technology on which the story was based.

What was your favorite thriller/mystery novel of 2010?

It’s hard to pick one because I don’t necessarily read books as they are being released. Most of the thrillers I read in 2010 weren’t released in 2010. A couple of exceptions were Daniel Suarez’s Freedom, the sequel to his first novel, Daemon. Daniel’s books are also cyberthillers, though more futuristic in their portrayal of technology. In some cases I don’t think we’ll see what he imagines for several decades, but it was a great read nonetheless.

A 2010 non-fiction book I thought was great was Cyberwarefare by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake. Like my novel Zero Day, it’s a wakeup call that highlights how unprepared we are for a world where wars are fought in cyberspace. Richard and Robert not only describe the current state, but make concrete recommendations for improving our defenses.

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

First, try to look at your work objectively and get as much feedback from friends as possible. Don’t be afraid to go back and rework parts of the book that slow the plot. And most of all, if you believe that you have a good story, don’t give up trying to get it published. It can be a long process, but like you always hear, there’s a good bit of luck involved to getting a first novel published that you’ll only find with persistence.

Have you, or will you, attend writing conferences? Which one(s)?

Yes, I plan on attending Bouchercon in St Louis in September. My agent recommended it as one of the best writer conferences for meeting readers, reviewers, and other established writers. My agent put me in contact with another writer that’s attended several years and she had nothing but glowing things to say about the great experience and sharing she’d had there.

What's next, another novel in the works?

I actually have three books coming out this year: Zero Day, which is non-fiction, the 6th edition of the Windows Internals book, and The Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference. The Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference is a book I’m coauthoring on how to use the computer administration and troubleshooting tools I’ve created.

I’m also working on the sequel to Zero Day. I don’t have a firm title yet, but the book involves China, oil, and Iran’s nuclear program and is based on the real-world cyber-espionage that we’ve seen China engaged in. All the major powers have cyber operations that spy on, and in some cases interfere, with the activities of other nations. The attacks on Google last year and the Stuxnet virus attack on Iran are just some of the examples we’re aware of.

What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books it good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I think it’s good for authors and publishers, but it’s going to take the publishers time to adapt. There’s no shortage of demand for quality writing and publishers are generally a good filter for good content. They’ll continue to serve that role, but e-books democratize the publishing business and enable authors that otherwise wouldn’t ever have a voice to get published. We’ve already seen cases of first-time authors create a large following and earn some good income self-publishing on Kindle.

I ultimately think that, while the e-book business might be around ten percent of physical books today, in ten years you’ll see that ratio close to inverted. Publishers will have to take a much more active role in marketing authors to stay relevant.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Me? Paranoid?

So you will have noticed a silence from me for a few days. That's because I was off camping with the family. We went to Lake Whitney State Park, met up with some friends and the cousins. Six adults, nine kids, three boats, and a large lake full of fish.

Here's a picture I took last night:

The first night we about got blown away by the wind and soaked by the rain, but we survived. A roaring campfire kept us warm the second night.

As you can imagine, a huge amount of fun.

But I didn't post about it in advance because, well, I didn't want someone burgling my house. Is that silly? Paranoid? I mean, in this day and age it can't be that hard to find out where I live. Sure, I have a ferocious dog guarding the place, but even so.

I wonder whether it's my job that makes me extra cautious that way. Not a bad thing, I suppose.

And talking of the job influencing my thoughts, we were sitting lakeside just this morning when a yellow fixed-wing plane flew low over the water towards us, heading for the state park's small airstrip. The kids stopped skipping stones and craned their necks to stare. It was a cool sight, the blue sky, pretty water, and the small aircraft wobbling in the air towards a landing.

As the kids ooh-ed and aah-ed, I muttered to myself:

"Drug runner, I expect."

At least I was able to laugh at myself. It gave me an idea, too, for the beginning of my new book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Community, vigilantism, and karma

Now all my readers know I do not venture into topics that are controversial, political, or (frankly) interesting.

Just the bland and informative for D.A. Confidential.

But I would like to take a stand today and remind the good people of the world that vigilante justice is never okay. That taking the law into your own hands is always wrong.

I refer, specifically, to this story:

Shortly after finishing their protest at the funeral of Army Sgt. Jason James McCluskey of McAlester, a half-dozen protesters from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., headed to their minivan, only to discover that its front and rear passenger-side tires had been slashed.

Rest of the story here.

So, a reminder to other communities: do not do this.


It's not okay.



No matter what.

No matter why.



Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Flogging the horse, maybe... but you did ask!

A reader posted a question on a topic I've been discussing lately, the differences, similarities, and tensions between civil and criminal law. The three entries on this subject are Don't Bother Bribing Me, An Odd case of Snobbery, and More on Civil v. Criminal. Here's the (edited) question:

Why could (hypothetically) any disdain [] come from criminal lawyers towards civil lawyers?

Since this is (a) my blog and (b) all hypothetical I'm going to rephrase the question this way:

"If a law student was deciding whether to practice civil or criminal law, how would someone argue that he should choose criminal law?" Merely because it makes the question easier to answer.

1. It's more interesting. I don't think anyone can argue that, overall and in general, criminal law is more interesting. I say that because when I gather with my civil law friends (if I have any left afetr this topic!) I'm the one with the stories. Likewise, look at your TV guide and find a single show about the practice of criminal law, either a documentary or fiction. Perusing contracts and boxes of documents in an attempt to get the most money possible for your client simply isn't interesting. To me. And most other people.

2. The cases don't drag on. Civil cases not only last years, but you have to do years of work on them. While criminal cases can last a year, most don't and they don't require hundreds of hours of grunt work. As a result, a lawyer can handle more cases, not have all his income eggs in one basket, and get more variety.

3. Courtroom time. Civil lawyers simply don't got to court very often. As a civil litigator, I tried one case in five years, and that was a pro bono case. Likewise, hearings were few and far between, one every six months maybe.

4. Societal benefit and personal satisfaction. In a previous post I talked about the partner who told me that working for his mega firm was the only real practice of law, and anyone who didn't want to, or couldn't handle it, could "Go peck sh*t with the chickens." His point was that there was nothing more important in the legal world than not just civil law, but the kind of civil law he handled.
I beg to differ. Here's a question: how much money would you take to spend 10 years in the penitentiary, down in Huntsville? Ten years away from your spouse, your kids, not earning a living. A felony on your record and heaven-knows-who in the bunk above you. How much?
Didn't think so. Me neither.
Related question: which of these scenarios would make you feel like you were contributing:
  • helping a sexual assault victim see her rapist brought to justice, or
  • seeing the mother of a young murder victim watch his killer be found guilty by a jury, or
  • getting a not-guilty verdict for a client you truly believe is innocent, or
  • shaking the hand of your client's corporate representative after you've negotiated a favorable settlement to the case they'd brought against a competitor?
All four, to be truthful. But I wouldn't rank them all equally in terms of whether I felt I'd done the world a favor, and whether I was personally satisfied with what I was doing with my time.

5. Schedule. I have found myself working fewer hours in criminal law than in civil. Simple as that.

6. Colleagues. I loved all. . . okay most. . . of my fellow associates and I'm still friends with a lot of them. I was less enamored with the relationships between lawyers working different sides of a case. There was so much more hostility and considerably less honesty. I suspect there are a couple of reasons why, in my experience, the relationship between prosecutors and defense lawyers is better than that between plaintiff and civil defense lawyers.
The main one is that I see the same criminal defense lawyers day in and day out. If one of us cheats or lies, the small community in which we work will hear about it. In civil law, if you're dealing with a lawyer from another state, those same community-like rules don't seem to apply.
Relatedly, we work face-to-face. So much of civil law is done over the phone or by letter, email, and fax. People, lawyers included, simply don't have to be as civil when operating through those media.
Additionally, law firms are businesses and, at the end of the day, they exist to make money. That being their focus, and with one exception out of dozens of partners I worked with, I simply never found anyone I wanted to emulate, to be like. In other words, I'm more into practicing law than making money, but as a civil lawyer you are simply obliged to worry about the almighty buck. You have to hustle for clients, bill the heck out of them, and make them grateful you're billing the heck out of them. Any business where you have to account for your time, in six minute increments, simply doesn't suit me.

That's about all I can think of. . . any questions? Thoughts? If not, I think this will be my last post on the subject just because I don't want to appear as though I'm dissing civil lawyers or firms. They perform an essential business function, no doubt at all, and my hat is off to all those who make a successful, and enjoyable career, in the civil world.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My day yesterday

Here's what kept me busy yesterday. No comment, just the news story:

A woman who says she has been married to Dennis Davis, accused in a 1985 murder, since shortly after they met in 1991 wants to invoke her spousal privilege to avoid testifying at the former Austin recording studio owner's trial next month.

Read the rest here.

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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Budget cuts and my new secretary

They didn't warn me that my secretary was leaving. She got a better job, higher pay (decent boss?!).

They did tell me it'd be a while until she was replaced, what with all the budget cuts, the economic crisis in government and all that. And they were right, it was a while, because she left before Christmas.

But the new girl is here now, and maybe that's all that matters. She's here, tucked behind her desk, ready to go.


The thing is.

She's totally bloody useless.

Sure, she looks good, she has nice hair, and no matter what I say to her she doesn't get offended. She doesn't mind having the most horrific crime scene pictures come across her desk. But try to get her to actually do something?

Maybe fax or file something?

Absolutely. Bloody. Useless.

Meet. . . shoot, she won't even tell me her name. Any suggestions?!