Smokey the Cat

January 5, 2014

“Jordan, have you ever done an eviction before?” my boss James asked me. I had been working for a small firm in suburban Pennsylvania for about three years now, and was beginning to hit my stride as a lawyer. James was letting me handle files from start to finish with more regularity.
“Nope. But I’m sure it’s not rocket science. Just give me the file, old man,” I said with a grin. “This one sounds boring.”

The case was simple enough. A woman named Agnes was renting a house from one of James’s biggest clients. She hadn’t paid her rent in a long, long time. The client decided he didn’t want her living there anymore. Too easy, or so I thought.

I drove to the courthouse that day and filed the paperwork. A few weeks later I had a default judgment and a writ of possession, meaning I could have the constables remove the tenant with force, if necessary. The constable posted notice on the house, and we made arrangements for the eviction. Again, too easy. Chalk this up as another win.

“How is the eviction case coming along, Jordan?” James asked me a few weeks later.
“Great! We got a default judgment. I’m going to the house tomorrow morning to remove her. Next time consider giving me an interesting assignment, old man,” I said laughing.
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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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Sharks and Dinosaurs

August 20, 2013

“Look at that old fart in the corner sleeping. What is the matter with him?,” John said to me, laughing.

John had just started his own solo practice about two months ago after getting laid off at an insurance defense firm. John is about my age. Why did I sit down next to him? It’s gonna be a long afternoon I thought to myself…

I looked over to my left. There was old Pete Keating, slumped over in a chair dozing off. Pete must be in his 80s by now. Although he didn’t look like much, Pete was a legend among the criminal defense bar.

Today I was covering a routine status conference for Leo. Show up, get a continuance, and then go home. Although I don’t practice criminal defense, that seemed like something I could handle.

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A Question For Rachel Rodgers – If It’s Not Legal Advice, What Is It?

August 19, 2013

I didn’t want to write about Rachel Rodgers again. Really, I didn’t. Rachel is smart, web savvy, and pretty cute. Honestly, I feel like a big hurtful bully by continually writing about the stuff she does. If Rachel were selling real estate or things on etsy, I would probably give her props. She is a heck of a business person and makes nice websites. We are also both are fans of Tim Ferriss.

But this is law we are talking about, and Rachel is continually finding new and clever ways to straddle that grey line of “is that ethical.”

Today, Rachel’s new venture takes the cake. Absolutely takes the cake. I tried not to write about it, I really did. But I just couldn’t resist. This is truly unbelievable…

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A Virtual Law Office For All The Baby Lawyers With Too Much Debt And No Jobs?

August 16, 2013

Today I came across what could possibly be the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Florida Coastal has decided to respond to the crisis of too many unemployed JDs with mountains of debt by creating a Center for Law Practice Technology (CLPT). What is this CLPT? According to the school’s website:

“At its core, the certificate offered through the center will ensure students graduate with the technological competence all lawyers need in light of the demands of the profession, namely how to leverage technology to serve clients more effectively and efficiently,” Granat said. “However, we also understand it is perhaps even more important to prepare students for new positions in the burgeoning market of companies offering technology solutions for legal services, including electronic discovery, legal process outsourcing, law practice management software, automated document assembly and more.”

So your solution to the debt crisis is to teach recent law graduates, most of whom don’t have any savings to start their own virtual law firms? Hmmmmmmm….

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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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Can I Start A Law Firm With No Money?

June 29, 2013
STRAIGHT CASH

This is how you get paid.

I think one of the most common questions I get asked is, “Jordan, I want to start my own firm, but I have like $1700 in my savings account. Can I start a law firm with no money?”

The simple answer is yes, yes you can. It doesn’t take much more than a law license, a working computer, a printer, and a cell phone to start a law firm.

But here is the better question. Will your law firm succeed in the long term if you start it with no money?

Well, that answer is a bit more complex…

I will preface this post with a true story. A friend of mine was abruptly laid off from biglaw. He couldn’t find a job so he decided to start his own practice with no clients, an office from home, and very little money in savings. During the startup period, he defaulted on his mortgage and his house was sold at sheriff’s sale. He also defaulted on his motorcycle loan, and rides a pedal bike around the neighborhood. At one point, he was on food stamps. Yes, a lawyer who once made a six figure salary working for a law firm was on food stamps. A few years later, his solo practice finally pays his rent, but he lost everything in the process.

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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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