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Thu, 23 Nov 2023 13:41:15 -0800

Andy from private IP /all Water under the bridge from 18 years of law As I write this, it's Thanksgiving 2023, which is a day after my eighteenth anniversary of being licensed to practice law. I am experiencing a mix of feelings about the last eighteen years. I want to give both the good and the bad before concluding that, for me, there was no other logical choice and I don't think I would do anything differently. However, I want to carefully illustrate that this particular and still-ongoing trial lawyer trajectory is like threading the needle, and requires a combination of the ability to do the job (most important factor), the ability to rapidly assess and exploit opportunities (most important factor), actual opportunity (often awarded by chance), experience, professional development, and (key factor) the avoidance of calamity. On the plus side, I have my own small law firm (five attorneys and three administrative professionals) in a nice office that is set up exactly how I want, with awesome people who I actually want to work with. I have done thirty-three trials and counting, with about seven jury trials set for 2024. This trial lawyering thing is working out well because I have had opportunities, experience, and downright awesome luck in addition to (I think) an honestly high level of potential in this field. On the minus side, the crushing burdens of law firm management and my state of perpetual suffering from an insane workload have taken a toll on my mental state, and my views of the legal system are profoundly negative at this point. Let me simply go over my life since 2000 and discuss the background that led me to want to do what I do. In September 2000, I had a major dilemma that I knew would change my life. In September 2001, I had another major dilemma that I knew would change my life. In September 2009, I had another major dilemma that I knew would change my life. In September 2011, I had yet another major dilemma that I knew would be really important. I guess September is my month for life-changing dilemmas, which is ironic considering that I celebrate my birthday in September. I will go over each of these decision points and why they led me to lawyering, and what I learned. September 2000 was the first life-changing dilemma. That summer (June 2000-September 2000), I had been working at a graphic design studio in San Mateo doing websites full-time. At that time, it was both a hand-coded process and a process in the design program DreamWeaver. The advantage I had over many of my peers was that I had taught myself HTML from 1998-2000 and specialized in "hand coding," not using DreamWeaver, primarily because I could not afford DreamWeaver. Due to all the experience editing HTML in a text editor, I could take someone's DreamWeaver files and edit them without DreamWeaver-- a key capability. When combined with my legitimately purchased copy of Adobe Photoshop (I had to save for a while to afford this $500 software while a freshman in college), hand-coded HTML was a devastating combination, even with no credentials or formal training. I got the job in San Mateo by walking into their office and asking whether they needed any help with editing websites (lol). Basically, this was a rare skill set that was in booming need at that time during the dot-com era. The summer job exposed me to things I had never used before, such as SQL. By the close of Summer 2000, I had basic web applications in the LAMP stack running, plus a rudimentary understanding of SQL. It was at that point that I was given an intelligence test by an expert programmer whom I still totally respect, and he concluded that my programming potential was extremely high. The programmer recommended to the owner that I be retained and trained as a web application programmer because I would crush it at programming. This resulted in the owner of this company, who is a wonderful and very interesting man, telling me that I could "name my price" if I quit UCLA and went to work for him full-time. Imagine you are a broke 20 year-old who just had the most profitable three months of his life, and was told he could start tomorrow making $100,000 per year in a job that was interesting, rewarding, and well-suited for him. That brings us to my first life-changing dilemma in September 2000: drop out of college and join the dot-com boom at 20, on the ground floor, with a wonderful small company that valued my work and would throw money at me. You know who that sounds like? Mark Zuckerberg when he created Facebook. This was actually the least difficult life dilemma that I indicated above, but I still went back and forth for days on this. I asked people I trusted, including my parents, what they would do. I diagrammed out the options and listed costs and benefits. I did extensive research. The consensus from third parties was that I should finish college because the dot-com boom was a passing thing and the college degree would be of higher value than just going into the workforce with a half-completed degree. On the other side, my co-workers were telling me I should drop out and commit to being an amazing programmer, which was my destiny. Looking back, of course I should have taken this opportunity because that was my chance to get in on the ground floor of the dot-com era and ride the coattails of my employer to do something amazing. However, that is only apparent from looking back now in hindsight. Since we're looking at hindsight, I also should look at what actually happened, and therefore what would not have happened if I had accepted the offer. Then I have to weigh the outcome against what could have happened if I had taken the offer. So the question is, is the imaginary outcome better than the actual outcome? Looking back now, the answer is a soft "no." When I made the decision to return to UCLA, (1) within two months I had met Miss Right (a separate very sad story that ended a year later), which itself changed my life; (2) within three months I was elected President of my fraternity, which also changed my life; (3) within a year I was running my own small web application programming business, and (4) within two years I was in law school. I'd say (1) and (2) alone were worth it because these were life-changing experiences that I would not have had if I had stayed with the design studio. The decision to forego the name-your-price offer was a reasonable decision at the time, and I don't think I would do anything different with respect to this decision had I known then what I know now. But then life changed again in September 2001 with 9/11. I was in prep courses for the LSAT that summer and firmly on the law school trajectory. Watching the Twin Towers collapse and realizing that this was a terrorist attack made me physically sick. The war in Afghanistan and the Spring of 2002 after I had gotten into law school were very difficult, because I had always strongly considered serving our country and already had met with recruiters, even before 9/11. In Summer 2002, the choice was simple: law school or Afghanistan. One factor was that I had gotten into UC College of Law San Francisco (formerly UC Hastings), which at that time was still a good school and was ranked maybe 35th in the country. The question I asked myself was: should I stay on the law trajectory or should I walk away from it? This was the second-most difficult dilemma of my life. Looking back, had I known there was such a thing as Delta Force in 2002 and that it was full of the type of people I like, that might have made the difference for me. But you know what's ironic now? In 2013, I ended up meeting a former Ranger, Special Forces, and Delta Force commander, and I still represent him in legal matters because he retired from the Army and had moved to California. I posed the same dilemma to him, and he told me I made the right choice! There you have it. But back to the 2002 time frame. In Fall 2002, I will never forget how toxic and awful law school was. Unlike UCLA, which was full of happy, bubbly, pleasant people, law school was full of negative, political, backstabbing gossipers. The kind of people who are polite to your face and then talk about you behind your back. It was a completely depressing contrast from college. I almost quit in my first year, but I decided to stick with it because I didn't want to drop out and was committed to finishing. Turns out legal writing was not my strong suit back then. Second year was more of the same awful experience. But then, in my third year, I took Trial Advocacy I and II. Those courses changed my life because they made it clear to me that trial lawyering is where I would make up for potential issues with legal writing. Those were classes of 12 people and I got A's in both-- and in the II course, this was partly because I totally destroyed the other side in the full mock trial we had at the conclusion of the semester, shortly before graduation. Considering that civil litigation and trial practice were what I wanted to do, this was a good sign. In 2005 when I took the bar exam and passed, being sworn into the bar on November 22, 2005 by my trial advocacy instructor (a judge in San Francisco), that was the happiest day of my life until nearly 17 years later in 2022 when I finally got married (lol). And then I experienced one of the most crushing defeats of my life, as it took me about eight months to find a job and I was very depressed during that time. Finally, in early 2006, my uncle Mike hired me when an associate left his firm. The rest is history, haha. But in all seriousness, that three years from 2006 to 2009 was the crucible that enabled me to learn the ropes and have my first couple of trials. At the same time, I wasn't happy with lawyering and I decided that government service was my future. That brings us to September 2009, which I put as the most difficult, life-changing dilemma of my life. In June 2009, I departed my uncle's law firm in order to join a government agency within the Department of Justice. Unfortunately, a month later I was unexpectedly non-selected from the agency for bullshit reasons. In case you're wondering, I was present when two friends exchanged a small quantity of marijuana in 2008, shortly before my application to this agency. This was a law enforcement position requiring a Top Secret clearance. Back then, this type of incident was taken a lot more seriously than it is today, especially for a lawyer. I received a stupid form rejection letter in the mail in early July 2009, when I was about a month from going to their training academy. Not getting the Department of Justice job was a soul-crushing, humiliating loss that caused me extreme distress. This was on top of other stressors in that time period that were also soul-crushing, humiliating losses, such as losing my job and moving home with the folks while preparing for the academy. I wasn't thinking as clearly in Summer 2009 as I was later on. In order to support myself, I made the mistake of joining an insane local attorney as an associate in August 2009, which was so awful and disturbing that I quit after a month. So there I was in September 2009, and I was faced with what I now consider to be the most difficult choice of my life: (1) continue lawyering, or (2) join the Army. I had visited the local Army recruiter in March 2009 because I was choosing between the Department of Justice (first choice) and the Army (second choice). But after losing the DOJ opportunity, my motivation to join the Army as the alternative somewhat ebbed. At this point, Iraq and Afghanistan were still ongoing wars and I was again told that there was plenty of other stuff I could do. I thought about doing computer programming full-time, but by then in 2009, it was pretty clear that nobody would believe that a lawyer with a History degree could do software engineering, and in any case I would have required substantial study or training to be effective in that era. So that didn't really work for me. So what I decided to do was what turned out to be a huge mistake: pursuing the DOJ opportunity further even though they had decided to non-select me. I spent September and October 2009 unemployed and living with my folks, obsessively focused on filing my appeal of the DOJ's decision. Obviously I had no money, and all the time in the world to ruminate. It wasn't healthy, let's just leave it at that. By early November 2009, I was a wreck mentally and I ended up making myself sick. After that, in mid-November 2009, I was no longer able to join the Department of Defense because I had a disqualifying medical condition. So there I was, in November 2009, not wanting to practice law and not qualified to join the Army-- and those had been the two options available to me. So what did I do? I returned to law practice in April 2010 at the most toxic, god-awful law firm I've ever experienced: Robinson & Wood. That's another story. The bottom line is that I returned to law practice and worked at Robinson & Wood, plus another then-awful law firm, before quitting in July 2012 because I couldn't take it anymore. That was a very low point in my life. I again did a bunch of soul-searching, but this time with the government service options off the table. It was in January 2013 that I had a great idea that again changed my life: what if I stop being Mr. Nice Guy Associate Attorney and start offering people a mutually beneficial contract attorney setup where I take no bullshit and deliver quality work on my terms? I can work part-time at two law firms and do hourly billing so they have a 1099 and I have my own business so I can write off business expenses? It turns out there is exactly a market for that among small law firms that cannot predict their workloads sufficiently to bring on a W-2 employee. The rest is history; after about three years of contract attorney work, I had enough going to start my own law firm. Here I am seven years later with an increasingly good result. I have my own small law firm and I'm practicing law on my own terms in my own office that I look forward to going to every day. This on top of a booming business with many cases and many trials. I am a freaking gunslinger, which is what I wanted when I set out in 2006 as an associate attorney not knowing anything. Was it worth the suffering? No, but what else could I have done? If I could do it over again, I would have joined the Army in September 2009, and that is the only change I would make with my actual trajectory. The law firm management is the toughest part of what I do, and is no joke; it's a constant struggle to manage money as it relates to earnings, expenses, gross receipts, compensation to colleagues, vendor bills, and otherwise. At the end of the day, I simply have not been comfortable because the firm is always in expansion mode, and I feel like I never have an opportunity to just sit back and make actual profit. But that goes with the territory. I am one of the only members of my law school class who is left standing, so to speak. Many have transitioned out of law, or are permanent associates at law firms, or have their own "litigation law firms" (deliberate air quotes) that never go to trial. Trial practice is a rare thing with 95% of cases settling and the managing partner of every firm wanting to handle it, so the opportunities to go to trial at all are rare. The fact that I've personally handled 33 trials start to finish, 31 of which were with me as first-chair trial attorney, means I am frankly in an unusual position being 18 years out. I know that I have what it takes, which is affirming and gives me a sense of agency. My and my peers' experiences over the last eighteen years are why I think that virtually no one who is uncertain about their future ability, and no one who scores below a 160 on the LSAT, should attend law school. This would leave the top 20% of applicants, who are the people who should actually attend law school and then would become a normal distribution of attorneys-- but at a higher quality level. This is underscored by the fact that the legal system is unfair and poorly designed to right wrongs; it seems to be primarily intended to get rid of disputes for as little court time as possible, which is awful and not something they ever tell you in law school. Add to that the depressing intermediate court of appeal decisions that essentially rubber-stamp trial court decisions for any reason. This led me to conclude that appellate work is futile and that trial-level work is where all the work should be done. If I could do it over again, I'm not sure I would make any different choices since I check all the right boxes and have basically threaded the needle on what I set out to do-- civil litigation and trial lawyering. Had I dropped out of college in 2000 or gone into the workforce after college in 2002, I never would have been able to turn back to a student lifestyle for law school. Had I joined the Army in 2002 as I was considering doing, I would have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times serving our country and risked life and limb, with an unclear trajectory. Had I joined the Army in 2009, I would be 14 years into a 20-year career and probably would have ended up as a lawyer anyway, which would have defeated the purpose. There were no easy choices back then. There is an easy choice now, which is to continue lawyering while doing such side projects as I can manage with my limited spare time. Those side projects are computers and custom guitars...which is plenty. I hope anyone who reads this essay appreciates the difficulty of making major life decisions without the benefit of hindsight, and I hope anyone considering law school considers this as a potential path. Whether they actually decide to attend is their own choice, and I would encourage them to not let anyone take it away. _reply Mon, 04 Dec 2023 08:04:00 -0800
Andy from private IP /all test _reply Sun, 07 Jan 2024 20:31:47 -0800
zerosugar from private IP /all This is a very interesting post on a delicate subject which sadly has no magic answer. The important thing to warn young people about law is even if you do all the right things and score high on the LSAT and pass the bar exam, big law jobs are not easy to come by and most employers are small businesses. I do not know if I agree by LSAT score. As somebody who scored very high, I was a crappy law student and also had a low undergrad gpa. I simply studied nonstop for an exam, took prep courses, and tons of practice tests. I have friends who scored much lower than me and are suited to this profession. I think it takes a certain personality to love law. I just am not that person. I still graduated and do good for myself, but it was an uphill battle. I am lucky to have income outside of law due to some smart investments. Am I better than friends who did not attend a graduate program? Possibly, but it was nonstop aggravation for a long time and three years of my life wasted studying nonstop plus the months studying for the bar exam. If not for online dating, I would have had zero social life. Law school women are strange to say the least and most were engaged.
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