The Plea

December 3, 2013

It is Tuesday at 9.30am and I am in the booth.

The booth is a tiny box where I have the honor of talking to my client through an inch of bullet-proof glass. I say “talking”, though it’s really more like yelling, since it’s pretty hard to hear through that glass.

“Booth” is a misnomer too. “Booth” reminds me of the precursor to something fun. You buy tickets to a movie or carnival rides at a booth. No such fun was happening today.

Really, the booth is purgatory, a limbo my clients sit in after they’ve made their way from the prison and to the courthouse basement’s holding cells, but before they enter the courtroom where they await final judgment.

This particular morning, I am wearing a navy flannel Brooks Brothers No. 1 sack suit, a white shirt I freshly pressed at 5.30 that morning, and a somber tie that reflected my mood.

In gross juxtaposition, my client is in an orange prison jumpsuit and has a thermal on underneath to keep warm. I guess this hell follows Dante’s rules.

My client is a good man who’d recently made a series of terrible decisions, all of which led to where he is today. Despite his cock-ups, he was truthful and admitted his mistakes not only to his family, but to members of his community.

Then the police became involved.

And he got arrested.

And his mistakes became a “case.”

And that’s how we ended up on opposite sides of the same sheet of glass on Tuesday at 9.32am.

Today, he is ready to plead guilty to the charges against him. In exchange for giving up his Constitutional right to a jury trial, he is offered a sentence far less than what he would see if he were found guilty at trial.

Though we’ve already done this before back up at prison, I review with him one last time his written guilty plea colloquy, and explain to him word by word the rights he is giving up by pleading guilty. I’m reading it to him like I’d read “Hop on Pop” to a kindergartner.

But he’s not a kindergartner. He’s a grown man. And this isn’t “Hop on Pop.”

It’s 9.34am. I’ve finished reviewing the colloquy with him. He’ll sign it out in the courtroom, since now his hands are shackled behind his back and we’re separated by an inch of bullet-proof glass.

It’s 9.35am, and I can only watch as my client sobs and tears stream down his face.

You see, up until this point he’s been a man of god. An educated guy, he’s worked the same job for the last 25 years, and been married to the woman he loves for the last 30. He’s lost all of that now.

(Did I miss the day in law school they taught you how to handle this?)

According to the arrangement with the District Attorney’s office, he faces up to five years in a state correctional institution for the crimes he’s pleading to. If he’s really good (including credit for time served) he’ll get out in about two years. If he runs into problems in prison, he’s going to miss his son’s high school graduation.

I ask him if he as any more questions for me before we go into the courtroom.

“Lord Jesus, what have I done? Will God forgive me? My wife’s left me. Leo, what am I going to do?”

He spits out this sentence between sobs. A man, broken. But in an instant, he musters up all the dignity he has left. He toughens up his features and tries to wipe his eyes on his elbow—which is difficult seeing as his arms are handcuffed behind his back—and puts on an air of stoicism.

And I tell him. “Bill [not his real name], when the court officer asks you how you plead, you say ‘Guilty’”.

He nods.

According to that fancy framed piece of paper from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hanging on the wall of my office, I’m an attorney and counselor at law. But the three years of schooling and two years out in practice hadn’t prepared me for this—telling a grown man, through bullet proof glass, who until thirty seconds ago had been crying like a baby, that he was going to be spending the next five-ish years of his life outside of the city he’s lived in his whole life, shipped out to Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania (which alone would be enough of a shock) to take up residence at the taxpayer’s expense in a state correctional institution. And I can tell you that a state correctional institution is no Sandals resort. Hell, it’s not even a Howard Johnson.

“Leo, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” He asks me. While his expression is still stoic, his bloodshot, watery eyes belie his terror. That look—the feeble attempt to cover fear with toughness—it’s a look that will quickly become familiar to me.

(Remind me, what the fuck did Two Ships Peerless do to prepare me for this?)

At 9.37am, two knocks on the door interrupt us. The court crier pokes his head in. “The Judge is ready,” he says, then shuts the door behind him.

I stand up. Bill stands up, hands cuffed behind his back, and the sheriff walks in prepared to lead him out to the courtroom.

Through the glass I shout: “Bill, I’ll see you inside. It’s been my honor to represent you. Remember — everyone is better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I turn and walk out of the booth, prepared to meet my client in the courtroom for judgment.


Trash Day

November 24, 2013

“Leo, bro, it’s Jordan… you gotta see this. It’s Christmas in Fishtown. Come to the office!”
“I have caller ID. I know it’s you, Jordan. Why are you calling me on a Saturday? And don’t ever refer to me as ‘bro’ again”.
“Bro, err, Leo. Just trust me. Come to the office. And wear jeans and a t-shirt if you own anything like that.”

Before me on that hot Saturday morning stood the most beautiful thing I had ever seen – a giant mountain of trash. Well, a mountain full of discarded office furniture. Old filing cabinets, used chairs, pens, desks, you name it. Apparently one of the businesses in our building had left abruptly and figured it would be too expensive to move any of the furniture, so they threw it all in a big dumpster. I swallowed my pride, called the building manager, and asked if I could take their trash.

“It’s trash, Jordan. You can do whatever you want.”
“Thanks, Jess! You’re the best!”

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Technology Is Still Not How You Build A Law Firm

July 7, 2013

Today I read an… interesting… article suggesting something that only lawyers on the internet believe. Apparently “virtual technology” (I guess stuff like cloud computing and iPads) is going to reshape the face of law. This will allow young lawyers with very little supervision to offer cheaper legal services to people, thereby undercutting large and mid-sized law firms. The author states:

I’ve seen new law school graduates successfully fill the void between the brick and mortar model and the other option of downloading do-it-yourself legal forms on-line by serving this market virtually.  Clients can find the attorney on line, the attorney comes to meet the clients  at a time and place convenient to the clients, the clients can access their attorney and documents on line and everyone is happy.

The obvious regarding my questions about “virtual lawyers” aside (where do they take depositions? Where do they store deposition transcripts, or client files securely for that matter?), here are a few observations from a young guy who has their own practice that is doing well.

Of course, take my advice for what it’s worth because I only started my own firm in 2012, and it could all fall apart tomorrow. But these are my musings…

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Just Keep Plugging Away – Some Thoughts From A Year In Solo Practice

June 28, 2013

We’ve been in business since February of 2012. Since it’s been longer than a year, apparently this is the part where I’m supposed to write a congratulatory blog post patting ourselves on the back, telling the world that our law firm is the greatest success ever, and that starting a practice was the best decision of our lives.

Truth be told? Money is still tight. I’m worried that every client who calls will be our last. I am still learning the basics of how to run a business, and I have made mistakes. I work longer hours than I did as an associate at a law firm, and there is no guarantee there will be enough money at the end of the month to buy craft beer. I’m still driving the same 2004 Honda Civic I bought right after law school.

That’s the glamorous life of a self employed young lawyer. Anyone who tells you differently is either lying or trying to sell something. It’s a hard living. A very hard living, and it will be for a long time. I can see why people burn out after a few years of doing it.

Now, things have gone well for us, and they are a lot better than when we first opened the doors. We just expanded our physical office space, and we have a part time per diem lawyer doing coverage work for us. Part of me was tempted to write a “we’re so awesome because we’ve done this for an entire year” post. I admit it.

But I still remember the first day we started. Well, more accurately, I still remember that first Friday being out on my own. Before starting my own firm, I worked as an associate at a reputable mid-sized shop making a comfortable living. I woke up every Friday and there was money in my bank account.

On this particular Friday, I woke up and there was no money in my bank account. I sort of panicked. What if I didn’t make enough money to pay the mortgage?

I needed some reassurance. A pat on the head. Someone to tell me that I hadn’t make a huge mistake and that everything would be fine. I called my former boss, James. James started his own law firm three years out of law school. Now he is getting ready to retire, where he can spend more time sailing and with his family. I was certain that James would tell me everything will be okay, and that someday I’ll retire rich and successful like him….

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What Do Lawyers Do? They Represent Clients

June 27, 2013

Last week I wrote some actual questions prospective law students should ask themselves before deciding to go to law school. One question is “Do you really want to be a lawyer?” This is probably the most important question any prospective law student should ask themselves.

Of course, this led to a discussion on JDUnderground, where some of the same lawyers who complain that their law schools tricked them into borrowing huge sums of money to enter into a career that doesn’t pay them as much as they feel they are entitled to be paid, also complained about how bad the profession is.

Their gripe? Having to find clients, and then represent them.

Terrible.

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Some Actual Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Go To Law School, By A Non-Ivy League Lawyer

June 23, 2013
"Your honor, with all due respect, it is getting dangerously close to happy hour."

“Your honor, I went to a better law school than my less prestigious opposing counsel, so clearly my argument is better”, said no lawyer ever.

I graduated from a T2 law school (Temple Law) in 2008, after transferring from Widener (a T4 law school). I have been practicing law for five years now.

In law school, I clerked for a Superior Court judge, and then for a large law firm. When I graduated, I worked for a small firm in suburban Pennsylvania. After three years, I left and worked for a mid-sized law firm for a year, where I still work as Of Counsel. Sort of on a whim, I left the firm in 2012 and started “The Fishtown Lawyers” along with Leo, which is what I do now.

So far, I am very happy with my career. It’s been fun, interesting, and rewarding. My mortgage remains paid, and I will probably take a vacation to somewhere nice this year.

However, I’ve read on the internet that law is the worst profession in the world, everyone is unemployed, and the only people making money are the ones who went to the best law schools in the country, got the best grades, and are now working for large law firms.

That is what they call the “law school scam” apparently.

As you might imagine, the questions I get from prospective law students normally go like this: “If I get into X school, and get Y GPA, what are my chances of getting into biglaw? I’ll at least be able to get a shot in mid-law if I don’t get biglaw with that GPA, right?”

Almost all the questions involve their chances of getting into biglaw, and what will guarantee them that job.

While I appreciate where you are coming from, those aren’t really the right questions. Or at least the important ones, if you are considering law school.

Where you go to law school is a very tiny aspect of how your career as a lawyer will go. It’s certainly not the most important one.

Here are a few questions I would ask myself before going to law school, and selecting a law school…

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A Scam Blogger Finally Gets It Right: “We went to law school for easy paychecks – not to actually become real lawyers!”

May 19, 2013

This morning Keith Lee directed me to a a post written by a law school scam blogger telling anyone who decided to offer productive advice to young lawyers to just go away. I normally ignore “law school scam blogs”, which are usually stupid blogs filled with juvenile rants about the legal profession, written anonymously by disgruntled, underemployed, lawyers using toilet humor.

However, I was shocked that “The Forgotten Attorney” actually got it right on why they are so angry:

Some people hoped to win the biglaw lottery and lost. Others went because they had a choice between law school, getting a McJob or becoming a commission only insurance salesman and law school seemed a hell of a lot easier and more respectable. But most people just wanted to be glorified and highly paid employees. Basically, a large number of us should not have gone to law school in the first place and if given the opportunity, will leave the profession in a heartbeat.

You can’t motivate these people. They want to escape. They want revenge or justice as they see it. They don’t want to learn the ropes on their own. They don’t want to observe court hearings. They don’t want mentors. They don’t want to go to networking events and probably can’t afford to go either. They are angry and bitter and in my opinion, rightfully so.

Exactly.

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The Hustle – A Week in the Life of a Young, Self Employed Lawyer

May 16, 2013
charlie

“Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where jobs grow on little jobbies?!”

Along with running my law practice, there are other things that I do in my spare time. Believe it or not.

To name a few, I am on the Board of Directors of the Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA), along with the FNA Zoning Committee. FNA is the registered community organization (RCO) for my neighborhood, meaning that we are responsible for providing community input to various legal bodies about proposed development. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Fishtown Area Business Association (FABA), which is the entity responsible for representing the interests of business owners in the Fishtown, East Kensington, and Old Richmond areas of town. Sometimes my involvement in these organizations involves real legal work, like when I represented a few neighbors in an effort to save historic Kensington bank buildings, which was successful.

I’m also active with the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Specifically, I serve on the Federal Practice Committee, Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee, and the Civil and Equal Rights Committee. Through these committees, we as a bar association take positions on various legal issues and proposed legislation.

This week has been crazy. It looked like this:

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Customer Service

April 6, 2013

At first glance, I thought Brandon was going to be a great client for the firm. He was dressed well, had a thriving business, and had no qualms about paying our retainer. This was going to be a good relationship. Brandon wanted to hire us to help him go after about six businesses who stiffed him.

Easy enough.

James called me into his office and said to just run with the file. I’d worked for James for about three years now, and he was confident I knew the ropes when it came to handling civil litigation files. James sent Brandon an email letting him know I would be handling the file.

“Dear Brandon: My associate Jordan will be handling your cases. Please continue to copy me on emails, as I will be supervising, but Jordan will be your point of contact. Thanks. -James.”

The next morning, I got into the office after getting back from court and checked my voicemails. “Jordan, it’s Brandon. Have those lawsuits been filed? I’m eager to get started!” I returned his call quickly. I didn’t want to cost James a client. But how could I possibly review his file and initiate a lawsuit in less than one day?

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Your Website Is Not a Reception Area #abatechshow

April 6, 2013

Today I was bored and decided to see what Rachel Rodgers is up to. Something she said caught my eye:

As a lawyer with an online-based law practice, your virtual law office website is your storefront and reception area. The first impression you leave with website visitors can often determine what they think of you and whether or not they will become clients. Its important that your virtual law office website be an interactive, trusted resource for your clients that reflects your personality and gives them a sense of what its like to work with you.

Ah, the future of law! Technology is going to change everything about lawyering! In the very near future no lawyer will have an office and everyone will work from either Starbucks or their living room. The cat will proofread your briefs. There will be no need for filing cabinets because all paper will be stored in the cloud (or the trunk of your car). Court will be held in a chatroom, and the judge will be a moderator. Judgements will be in bitcoin and people convicted of crimes will be banned from the internet or something. This is where it’s all going! Get your iPad ready!

Of course, this “future of law” is usually propagated by non-lawyers and failed lawyers who claim to be qualified to tell us about the future without ever having been part of the past.

So get this. In the future, your website serves as your reception area!

Err, wait, what?

As a young lawyer with a real office, here is my actual reception area:

reception area

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