Perspective: My First Law Job

Thank God! I had just finished my first year of law school at Widener in 2006. The experience could only be described as strange…

Admittedly, I had no idea what lawyers did on a regular basis. I had only met small town lawyers in my neighborhood. Most of them seemed pretty interesting. My view of lawyers was shaped by John Grisham novels, Law and Order, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and A Civil Action. Law seemed like a pretty interesting profession. My goal was to get into prosecution, and then maybe become a criminal defense lawyer. That sounded cool.

As you might imagine, I had no idea what law school was going to be like. I figured it would be like my mock trial team, except all the time. We would learn how to cross examine witnesses, voir dire a jury, and learn the rules of evidence inside and out. In all the glossy brochures, there were pictures of law students wearing suits who looked like they were making legal arguments. Since I loved mock trial, law school was the next logical step. Unfortunately for me, I had never seen The Paper Chase or asked anyone what law school (or the practice of law) was really like.

Needless to say, first year of law school was nothing like being on mock trial. We studied concepts like “personal jurisdiction” and “joint and several liability.” In our legal writing class, we wrote a formal memo to a “Senior Partner” that discussed the ins and outs of a narrow legal issue.

Towards the end of the year, career services met with us to talk about getting a job. They helped us edit our resume to have all kinds of “impressive” stuff on it, like your grade point average, any awards from the school, and scholarships. Career services taught us how to ask the “right” questions at interviews, too. Questions like: “Could yell me about the firm culture?” “How do you manage a work / life balance?”  and “What is the typical tenure for partnership track at your law firm?” None of this made any sense to me, but they obviously knew better.

When the school year ended, I was blessed with a respectable grade point average. I have no idea how that happened, but it did. During the school year, I worked part time at Ruby Tuesday, waiting tables. Civil Procedure by day, “Would you like fries with that?” by night. However, I wanted a “real” legal job to see what this was all about. I put out hundreds of resumes to all the law firms in town. I received mostly rejection letters.

One morning I checked my email. I had something in there from Mark Everhart. Subject: Interview.

“Dear Mr. Rushie: Could you please come in for an interview on May 10 at 9:30am? Thank you.

Very truly yours,
Mark Everhart”

What a strange way to sign something.

Mark Everhart was the only person who responded to all the resumes I put out, so I figured I would interview with him. His office was in a building in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. This was a small office suite, shared by a few other lawyers.

I interviewed with Mark Everhart on a fine May morning. The interview seemed to be going well. Then, although it seemed like an awkward question, I asked Mr. Everhart about the “firm culture.” He chuckled. “We do good legal work, hopefully we get paid, and then we go out for beers. How’s that?” I laughed. “I know your career office told you to ask that question” Mark said. “They’re clowns. Don’t listen to them.” Then we started to just talk. It turned out we both liked sports, guns, and shared quasi-Libertarian views. Mr. Everhart explained that his practice was “civil litigation” meaning he represented people who had civil disputes in court. He also handled personal injury, which he said could be very lucrative if the right cases came in.

A couple days later Mr. Everhart called me back and said “Can you start on Monday? I’m prepared to pay you $18 an hour.” On average, I probably made about $25 an hour waiting tables and Ruby Tuesday. But this was a substantive legal job and I wanted all the experience I could get. I agreed to his proposal, provided he let me keep my waiter job on the weekends. If that was okay, I would be in on Monday at 8:30am. Although I wanted to do criminal defense, this was the only opportunity I had at legal employment. I guess any experience was better than none.

On my first day at the office, I was still kind of confused by what I was told by career services and what reality was. Mark Everhart’s practice consisted of him, a receptionist who he shared with other lawyers, and his paralegal. Although he was the “senior partner” this seemed a little different than what we talked about in law school. Mr. Everhart called me into his office and gave me some tasks: write a research memo about something, start to prepare a motion, and draft discovery. “Yes, Mr. Everhart. Sure thing, Mr. Everhart.” I was on my best, most formal behavior.

Later in the afternoon, Mr. Everhart called me into his office. “Listen, I know you’re excited about this job. And you should be. But stop calling me Mr. Everhart. It’s Mark. Once you get your law license we’re going to be colleagues and equals. Let’s grab a beer after work.”

Mark turned out to be a great guy. He had been a former prosecutor. After getting out of prosecution, Mark started his own solo litigation practice which was very successful. I spent the entire summer doing substantive legal work – drafting legal documents, calling clients, conducting legal research and fact development. Mark let me watch him try cases, inspect sites with him, and interview potential clients. Mark always asked me for my opinion: “What did you think of my cross-examination? Did I do okay there? Are you getting a weird vibe from that client?” I felt like an equal, because he valued my input. Mark and I found ourselves in the strangest places – bad parts of town interviewing potential clients, rural parts of town interviewing witnesses, and in foreign state courts.

Mark and I never discussed “firm culture.” Instead we discussed concepts like “cash flow”. Mark taught me how “retainers” work, and to turn away clients that couldn’t pay or bad personal injury cases. This was far removed from the picture I got of “firm life” in law school. Maybe “firm life” would come after 2L? (it would, kind of).

I was disappointed that the summer was almost over. Although I could barely pay my bills, Mark and I were having a great time. Before I went back to school I asked him:

“Why did you hire me, anyway? Was it because of my GPA? A lot of kids were looking for summer jobs and couldn’t find anything.”
“No, I saw that your resume mentioned Brehon Society. I’m also big into Irish culture. I didn’t even notice your GPA.”

Funny, I had always considered my interest in Irish culture more of a hobby than anything. I love Irish history, music, and culture. I never thought it would get me a job.

Once I left working for Mark and went back to school, we kept in touch. When ever I got a new job I would shoot Mark an email and say “Hey Mark: Hope you’re doing well. Just want to let you know that I got a job! This is my updated contact information.” We would talk here and there and exchange funny YouTube videos or forward funny emails.

Although I had gone to law school for criminal law, I learned civil litigation while working for Mark. Six years after working for Mark for a summer, I have never left civil litigation. If you ever ask “Why did you get into civil litigation?” The answer is, “I took a summer job during 1L. I learned a lot about civil litigation. After that, other civil litigation firms hired me, and I learned more about it.” Civil litigation is what I do, it’s who I am, and it all started with my 1L summer job. Do I regret not becoming a criminal defense attorney? Not for a second. I love civil litigation, although if you asked me before law school, I would have said “That sounds boring.”

Let’s turn the clock to 2008. I had just graduated and passed the bar, and I was weighing a couple full time associate positions. I emailed Mark and asked him what he thought. He responded: “You should take the job where you have the best chance of building your own practice. You can get laid off from a large law firm at any time. If you have your own clients, and your own specialties, you’ll have much more security and a better chance of making money.” When I worked for him, Mark had always stressed to me the importance of having your own clients.

Based on Mark’s advice, I took a job with the Wolf Rebman law firm in suburban Philadelphia, although I had opportunities to make more money elsewhere. The partners at Wolf Rebman said the biggest benefit of taking a job with them is they would let me take on my own clients, and get a share of the fee. I asked Mark: “That sounds like a good situation for you, Jordan. They’ll teach you how to practice law on their buck while you are developing your own client base. Do that over a job like insurance defense. Keep an eye towards building your own practice while learning how to be a lawyer.”

Mark wasn’t licensed in Pennsylvania. Any time he got work in that involved Pennsylvania litigation, he sent it to me and the Wolf Rebman firm. Over the next three years, Mark sent me some of my best clients.

Three years after working at the Wolf Rebman law firm, I decided to quit and take a job doing insurance defense. Although my phone was ringing constantly, I wanted more money, pure and simple. And I wanted it right now. When I took the insurance defense job, I sent Mark an email letting him know I left Wolf Rebman. Mark responded: “Jordan: You have to be careful with insurance defense. Often the guy on the other side, the Plaintiff’s lawyer, is making three times as much money as you and working half as much. I doubt you will be able to build a practice there, either. Although, I’m glad you found a job, we should sit down and talk.”

I drove out to Wilmington and Mark bought me lunch. He stressed the importance of building a practice over time. Mark said he didn’t make any money his first ten years of private practice, and he worked a hell of a lot. But eventually his hard work paid off and now he could retire if he wanted to. “If you were licensed in Delaware, I would talk about just selling you my firm.”

I did insurance defense for a year. While working, I would still get phone calls from former clients and friends.
“Hey Jordan, you left Wolf Rebman? I need someone to do my will and help my grandmother out. She tripped on a sidewalk and hurt herself real bad. Can you do that?”
“No, we don’t take on that kind of work.” I found myself saying that frequently. Instead, I would tell people:
“Why don’t you give my friend Leo a call? He just started a law firm in Fishtown, where I live. He’ll set you straight.”

My former clients were becoming Leo’s.

Mark’s words continued to resonated with me. Maybe I made a mistake, taking a highly paid job where I wouldn’t be able to have my own clients and build my own practice…perhaps I had taken the quick money at the expense of destroying something good…

“Mark, it’s Jordan.”
“Hey, how have you been? I was just reading that book you sent me. I’ve been thinking about you.”
“I did something stupid. I just gave notice at my job. I told them I’m starting my own practice.”
“Good. It’s about damn time.” he said. “By the way, I just got a call from someone in Pennsylvania. Do you want to give them a call? Sounds like a good case. Also, let me buy you and your wife some dinner.”

I didn’t make a lot of money working for Mark that summer in 2006. Yet I got so much from it…

4 Responses to Perspective: My First Law Job

  1. Curious says:

    When did you meet “Uncle Jim” and the other lawyers in your family?

  2. […] At Philly Law Blog, Jordan Rushie offers some perspective recounting his first law job. […]

  3. Ted K. says:

    This was awesome, I am in somewhat the same position graduating from Temple last year – love the blog and insight!

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