Friday Files: Lawyers and Carolyn Hax

Here’s another one of my guilty addictions: Carolyn Hax’s Tell Me About It columns and online chat. I’ve been reading her since her very first column appeared in the Washington Post. Strictly coincidentally, her column started about a year before I left law. I remember reading the column in the firm library on Fridays. Good times, good times.

Friday’s chat had a bit of discussion about the plight of lawyers who don’t like their jobs, courtesy of some guy who was thinking of law school, mostly because he didn’t have any better idea of what to do with his life. Apparently, Carolyn got inundated with responses from lawyers shooting down that idea, because she posts one (sadly, not MY pearls of wisdom, but ah well):

 Law School: I’m sure you’ll be inundated with disgruntled-lawyer responses, but please, PLEASE let someone else tell San Francisco that law school is NOT the panacea to career unhappiness. As someone who thought law sounded interesting (wrong, for the most part) and felt pressure to have a “professional” career (needlessly), I can assure you that being trapped at an all-consuming BigLaw firm just to pay my $70K of law school debt is not so great. Please reconsider going, particularly if you’re not super enthusiastic about being a lawyer. Plenty of other careers exist that cause far less debt and ultimate workload.

Carolyn Hax: We are (inundated), and I will (let), so thanks. The rest of you, get back to work–this can’t possibly be billable.

There’s no real lesson here, cause if you’re here you already know that. Just thought I’d share. If for no other reason than to lead you to the bit about bridesmaidzillas and the cosmic justice of making them wear the dress they picked for their bridesmaids, to your wedding.

Friday Files: Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya

Sometimes, you just feel for people. Even though you know that most BigLaw partners are huge pains in the tookus, when one screws up so majorly and publicly, you feel something. Gratitude, if nothing else, that it wasn’t you who did it.

It’s the worst nightmare of every attorney: an email goes astray to a reporter. Sending stuff to a reporter means buh-bye to attorney-client privilege, of course, because reporters, unlike opposing counsel, don’t have clawback agreements.

Without saying who, Portfolio.com reports that a woman partner at Pepper Hamilton accidentally sent an email to Alex Berenson at the New York Time–berenson@– rather than to Brad Berenson–bberenson@–co-counsel at Sidley Austin.

There’s been speculation about why a reporter’s email would even be in the partner’s address book, but I think it’s a red herring: all it would take is one “no comment” reply to a query from Alex Berenson, and boom! there it would be. Speaking as one, reporters send email queries all the time to set up interviews and such.

Here’s a guess: Auto-complete has been disabled in every attorneys’ email program at Pepper Hamilton, and probably a lot of other BigLaw firms. Hell, I would disable it, because I’m just the sort of person who gets ahead of herself and forgets to double-check those autocompleted names. Even without external email to blame, I once managed to fax a document to opposing counsel, rather than a client. Fortunately, it was only a case, and opposing counsel agreed to tear up the fax. All was forgiven. And let’s get real, sending opposing counsel a case is pretty small potatos compared to sending a document detailing the metes and bounds of a settlement agreement.

Eli Lilly has said it’s not firing Pepper Hamilton. No word on whether the partner who goofed is still working on the settlement, or has slept much in the interim. Maybe Eli Lilly gave her some Prozac, Cymbalta, or Darvocet samples to help.

Friday Files: The Great Font Debate

The thing about so many lawyers is they are very, very knowledgeable about one or two things, but think that means they know everything about everything. Which leads them into trouble when it comes to non-linear things like, say, typography.

In reality, I know precious little about typography, but having edited magazines, I’ve picked up bits here and there. When designers tell me a font does or doesn’t work, I listen. Plus I do own the classic Thinking with Type.

I mention all this because fonts are hot, baby. First, there was the movie last summer Helvetica, about the glories of that ground-breaking font. (Sadly, not living in a major city any longer, I missed it.) And the NYT Magazine published a terrific piece on Clearview, a new font coming to a road near you.

You would think that lawyers and typography are one of those “and ne’er the twain shall meet” kind of things, but you would be wrong. Back in the late 1980s, law firms were dipping their wing-tipped toes into the pool of branding. And at the particular BigLaw place where I was hanging, fonts were a raging debate, the subject of angry meetings and countless memos.

The problem was, essentially, that lawyers think everyone else is dumber than they are. And so the fact that an M and a W were looking mighty similar to each other, with very vertical stems, was keeping some folks up at night. In the proposed new logo, if you flipped one of those letters vertically, you couldn’t tell the difference between them. Flipped, they fit one on top of the other. And this was bad, very bad. A threat to the very fabric of society.

So the compromise was that the extremely vertical W was replaced with one that had some huge kind of angle to the stems. Never mind that it made the Ws as wide as a barge and collectively probably upped the firm’s printer cartridge consumption by 5 percent. The world was safe from interchangeable Ms and Ws, and that is what counted.

Until the firm changed its name. But that’s a different story.

Friday Files: Method Depositions

I used to work with Hank, a compulsive micromanager and highly methodical partner at a 30-attorney boutique. Despite having practiced for 20-plus years, Hank wanted his depo prep binders to have every possible iteration of a question included.

So I dutifully included questions like: What is your current position? How long have you held that position? What position did you hold before that? How long did you hold that position? Why did you leave that position? I think I included the same question set five or eight times, just in case.

I honestly couldn’t believe that going over 20 years of employment history was anything but a waste of time, when the dispute was only with a job held for about five years. Sure, ask if the guy had ever filed discrimination claims before, and follow that if the answer suggested you should, but going over every single job since the 45-year old guy was 21? Ludicrous.

So Hank calls me up after the first day of the deposition, in quite a lather. As he was plodding through the witness’ job history, the guy gets increasingly uncomfortable. When Hank got to the guy’s late 20s, the witness asked for a break. Hank was confused, but agreed.

When the witness and his lawyer return, the lawyer looks stunned. But the deposition resumes. Hank repeats the pending question, “What position did you hold before that?” And the witness proceeds to tell everyone how he wasn’t working before that. What was he doing? Serving time for a MURDER CONVICTION. For a murder committed when the guy was 19, trying to fence some stolen televisions.

Oy vey! I hate it when annoying partner habits pay off, but in that case, Hank’s plodding did just that.

As you might imagine, the case settled shortly thereafter. But that’s a tale for another day.

Friday Files: Stupid Phone Tricks

You know how they tell you in trial practice class that you should check all your equipment functioning, the courtroom, etc. before you start the trial? Well, this isn’t about a trial. It’s about something much closer to home and office — your telephone.

During my last law firm gig, I worked on a ginormous patent infringement case. The parties were two names you’ve definitely heard of. The case on our side was staffed out of four offices, in DC, San Diego, LA, and San Francisco. You can imagine the friction and the battling egos — and between opposing counsel as well.

So one evening, I sat with a DC partner while she left a message for the San Diego partner about a brief. The DC partner, Maire, and I both more or less loathed Sam, the San Diego guy. And after the call, we discussed the direction Sam had insisted we take the argument (the reason for the call). Marie and I made no bones about how stupid we thought the argument was, how moronic Sam was, blah, blah, blah. If you have NOT had one of these conversations about someone in another office, or heck in your own corner of paradise, I would be shocked.

I’ll bet, though, that you managed to hang up the receiver completely and not record the entire bitch session on the hated colleague’s voicemail.

Friday Files: The Mad Partner Editor

I worked for a couple years in a boutique firm of about 30 attorneys. Smaller numbers did not make this a warm fuzzy place to work. The parnter I worked for most of the time billed a ridiculous amount of hours, like 3,000 annually. Some of it was actual legal work, but a lot of those hours were from micro-managing and editing documents to make them worse — I’m sure you’ve run into such beasts.

The associates in the office who worked for this particular partner, let’s call him Hank, were sick and tired of all the crazy, nit-picking, make-your-writing-worse edits he insisted upon. So we decided to have a monthly contest. Whoever got the worst Hank edit of the month would get lunch on the others’ tab.

It was a great idea, but shortlived. Hank’s secretary won the all-time title in the first month.

Even if you’re not a litigator, I’ll bet you know the standard boilerplate for affidavits: “I certify under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct to the best of my knowledge.” And should you need to look it up, it’s in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Even after 9 years away from practicing law, I don’t have to look that up.)

Well, Hank gave his secretary this edit on an affidavit: “I certify under the penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct to the best of my knowledge.” Yep, he added THE to the boilerplate. He edited the FRCP!

We just couldn’t go on with the contest after that.

I am not making this up — I’m just not that good.

Friday Files: Lawyers and Cars

Lawyers pop up in the strangest places. There I was a couple Monday nights ago, watching Top Gear, a fabulous and (in Britain) wildly popular TV show about cars. Well, it’s about cars the way Car Talk is about cars. But the accent is better and the show much funnier.

So the Top Gear guys decided to come to America about a year after Katrina and see if they could prove that it was easier and cheaper to buy a car, rather than rent one, for a long trip. The plan was to buy the $1,000 car in Miami, drive it to New Orleans, and then try to sell it.

Yes, there is a lawyer in this story, but she comes in at the end.

So off they went. Sadly, I did not catch the first part, in which they bought said cars. (Three hosts each got to make his own best deal for a car: one bought a 15+ year old Camaro, no AC; another, an equally old Caddy; the third, a pickup truck also sans AC.) When I caught up with them, they were in Alabama, and had decided it would be a laugh riot to “decorate” (their word) their cars a bit. The Caddy had a simple “I’m BI” on either side of the hood ornament. The white truck had pink lettering down either side agitating for gay rights. I believe the Camaro had something about Man Love emblazoned on the hood.

They stop in a gas station just off the interstate in rural Alabama. Let’s just say that the station owner, a woman, did not care for their message. So she called some local toughs, who actually chased the guys, and their very visible film crew, down the highway. Even on the interstate, they’re not safe, as some 18-wheeler drivers bear down on them. Eventually, they pulled off onto the shoulder and quickly expunged their decorations. It actually scared me to watch this part; I don’t think it was staged. Shades of Matthew Shepard and all that.

But I digress.

They approach New Orleans, and are in shock at the still evident devastation, one year after Katrina. “My God, you would think in the world’s richest country, this would all be tidied up quickly. But look at it!” Indeed.

So, they abandon their plan to sell the cars (“it just wouldn’t be right”) and decide to give them away. They find a non-profit agency and ask for some help finding good candidates to give the cars to. The pickup location is somewhere in the Ninth Ward, I think. Their cars are not exactly the most desirable things you’ve ever seen, even minus the gay pride decorating. It takes some persuading, but eventually two of the cars are indeed given away.

But after the cameras stopped rolling, an attorney shows up. She is there from the agency. She says that the show had promised to give the agency’s client a 1991 piece of crap car, but instead delivered a 1989 piece of crap car instead (the Camaro). So she wanted $20,000 on the spot to make up for the misrepresentation.

Just for kicks, I checked out the cost of a 1991 Camaro on Edmunds: between $1,500 and $3,000.

Fortunately, the neighborhood toughs showed up in the midst of this discussion and told them all to get the hell off their street. So it all worked out in the end.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, writer, and collector of good lawyer stories. If you have one you’d like to share, email her at jennalvey AT gmail DOT com.