Here is the published version of “All I Need to Know About Being a Lawyer I Learned From Star Trek: An Open Letter to New Attorneys”. from the April/May issue of The Advocate. Posting this because the published version looks cool (even though they took out the colorful metaphors), and because I have not written anything substantial since. Well, nothing that’s fit for public consumption, anyway.
My colleague and comrade-at-arms Joe Dunman immortalizes my one of many trips to court in a far-off land.
The above link is the final order in the first leg of the Kentucky Marriage Equality cases (Bourke v. Beshear). As of right now, same-sex marriages that were recognized by the jurisdiction in which they were performed now must be recognized by the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
Isaiah 58:6, 7, 10
Dear New Attorney:
By now, you’ve graduated law school, passed the bar, and been sworn in. Congratulations. You’re ready to settle into your cushy firm job. There, you can live the American dream: work 200 hours a week, never see your family, make gobs and gobs of money, and die of a heart attack before age 50. Yes, you’ve finally made it. Right?
Hold on there, space cadet. By now, you’ve probably discovered that big firm jobs - or any jobs - aren’t exactly guaranteed to new graduates. In fact, you might have discovered that your law school sold you a bill of goods. As a result, thousands of newly minted lawyers hit the streets each year with no jobs, no client base, and no mentoring. Many of you have no choice but to hang a shingle, squeeze the bank (or your parents, or whoever) for a small business loan, buy a bus ad, and hope for the best.
Okay, but how do you learn to practice law? By now, you probably know that law school did not prepare you for solo practice. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. You don’t even know how to figure out what the hell you’re doing. Is there an answer for you lost souls?
But take heart, young lawyer! There are some principles which may be applied to your practice; principles which may be derived from the single greatest moral authority of our era: Star Trek. Let’s get started.
1. Don’t take on more than you can realistically handle. Let me just start off by saying that for me, there is no Star Trek without Captain Kirk. And when I say “Captain Kirk,” I mean William Shatner, not that new pretty one. If you’re into brooding and overanalyzing, Picard’s your captain. But for getting shit done without all that rational thought getting in the way, Shatner is the man. And a big part of getting shit done is knowing your limitations.
Incidentally, Shatner’s limitations are few. Shakespearean actor, starship captain, cop, crazy attorney, poet laureate - he does it all. But you, my dear young lawyer? You must not try to do it all. If you do, you will find yourself up shit galaxy without a dilithium crystal. This is a mistake a lot of us make, especially those who try to hang a shingle right out of law school. You cannot successfully learn to practice personal injury, employment, tax, bankruptcy, worker’s compensation and criminal defense all at the same time. Don’t try. Focus on building a practice area and (ideally) developing a niche within that area. (And non-lawyers: if an attorney tells you they practice every kind of law imaginable, beware.)
A prime example of what I mean can be found in the classic episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Too many furry creatures to feed? Blast ‘em into space. They’re someone else’s problem. Kirk understands that despite his best intentions, he can’t save all the living critters in the universe.
2. The product of emotion is often greater than the product of logic. Like Mr. Spock, lawyers are creatures obsessed with logic, rationality, and methodical analysis. After years of conditioning, it’s tough to talk to the average joe about legal issues. But that’s precisely what a trial lawyer has to do. Kirk knows that “we humans are full of unpredictable emotions that logic cannot solve.” After a bit of seasoning, even Spock recognized that “logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end.” It’s one of the major themes of the whole Star Trek universe. In the lawyer universe, the lesson is: just because the law is on your side doesn’t mean the jury will be. This is especially important to recognize when trying to decide whether to take a case in the first place. Even if liability is crystal clear and a potential case looks like a slam dunk on paper, an unsavory client can earn you a big fat zero (or less than zero if you factor in lost time and expenses).
3. There is rarely such thing as a no-win situation. Reference is made throughout the Star Trek movies to Starfleet’s Kobayashi Maru test. The idea behind the test is that cadets are faced with a no-win situation to see how they perform. Do they die with dignity? Or crack under the pressure?
The fact of the matter is, you are faced with seemingly hopeless situations a lot when you’re a lawyer. When you first start out, there’s a tendency to go into red-alert mode right away. However, after a while you’ll find there are actually very few situations where you just can’t win.
Some jerk on the other side starts haphazardly threatening to seek Rule 11 sanctions. A client gets bent out of shape because their case isn’t going the way they expected. It turns out halfway through discovery that your case is not nearly as strong as you thought. It keeps you up at night. You think about backing out. You think about dropping the case, withdrawing from representation, turning in your law license, etc.
What would Kirk do? When faced with the Kobayashi Maru test for the third time, Kirk simply reprogrammed it so he could win. He doesn’t believe in no-win situations. And while truly hopeless scenarios are occasionally encountered in both law and space, remember that most crises are not worth panicking over; a creative solution almost always exists. Get some distance between you and the perceived threat before you write off your crew as doomed. That said…
4. Know when to sacrifice the red shirts. This is closely related to #1. By now, the “red shirt” meme has become so ingrained in pop culture that is hardly bears explanation. Without exception, real accomplishment requires real sacrifice. On the Enterprise, this means crew members in red who were unfortunate enough to accompany the main characters to the vampire samurai planet were the first ones to go.
But what does this mean for your practice? Two things. First, as discussed above, you can’t take all the cases. Even if the potential case is right in your practice area, even if liability is clear, even if your potential client is the most sympathetic creature to have ever lived, there might still be a reason to reject a case. And you should heed your instincts on this. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Your resources are limited. You’ve got to apply your talents where they are needed most. That means focusing on your core crew (good cases) and sacrificing red shirts (shit cases) if need be. And there are a lot of red shirts, if you catch my drift. You don’t see Kirk putting Spock in harm’s way, because his value to the Enterprise is too great. So even though he can kill a man just by putting a hand on his neck, he’s not front and center when the crew is attacked by floating zombie monkey gods. The sacrificial red shirts keep the core crew alive, thereby saving the rest of the crew and the overall mission. Do your own utilitarian calculus and you’ll see: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Second, there will be sacrifices made from your pocketbook, and I don’t mean for the sports car or luxury villa you’re going to want to buy when you catch your first million-dollar ambulance. When you settle your first case as a solo, it can feel like the only money you’ll ever get in your professional life. Don’t fall into that trap. Be prepared to turn that money around to pay expenses on an even better case, or to advertise, or to pay a competent assistant.
5. Boldly go where no one has gone before. Just because someone says it can’t be done, doesn’t mean it can’t. And just because you think you know the outcome before it happens, doesn’t mean you do. Without fail, every opinion I’ve ever gotten from a court has been a surprise in some way. Judges are humans, and therefore unpredictable. You never know what’s going to resonate with a court, a legislature, or the public. Listen to other lawyers. Listen to your clients. Listen to folks you trust, even if they have no idea what the law is or how it works. But at the end of the day, blaze your own trail. Be bold. Be creative. Seek out new laws, new rationalizations. Boldly go where no one has gone before.
Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of a world dominated by robot workers seems to be coming true. As such, more and more jobs are becoming obsolete. But remember young lawyer, Star Trek has always been about hope for the future. As bad as the job market for your ilk may seem now, it is unlikely that your profession will ever become automated. There are a lot of things machines can do, but the creativity, passion, and willpower involved in the practice of law requires a human brain.* Get out there and use yours.
*This post assumes that Vulcans, Betazoids, Ferengi, and Benedict Cumberbatch are all fictional. If any of those creatures really exist, you may be headed for obsolescence.
There is a very imperfect relationship between desire and flourishing. Desire aims at pleasure. Whereas the achievement of a good life depends upon the good we create. And the opportunity to follow whatever desire one might happen to have is the enemy of the effort, concentration, devotion, patience and self-sacrifice that are necessary if we are to achieve worthwhile ends.
Every now and then, you read an article that turns your brain upside down. This one did it for me. The quote above pertains to: 1) the desire to make a bunch of money; 2) the desire to do whatever you want, and 3) the desire to live a fulfilling life.
Basic principles of positive psychology teach us that #1 and #3 are (at best) minimally related, but this article suggests that #2 and #3 are also not in harmony, and also complicates the relationship between #1 and #3. This also makes sense in the context of positive psychology, but is sort of counterintuitive.
The long and short of it is: money is necessary for doing whatever you want, whenever you want, but having the means to do whatever you want might actually hinder you from leading an objectively meaningful, fulfilling life. At the same time, increasing your cash flow might be essential to a fulfilling existence, because adequately pursuing a life of meaningful service can be…well…expensive.
Source: Maria Popova, How to Worry Less About Money
Here is my piece on the Kentucky marriage equality case for Insider Louisville. This has gotten way more ‘likes’ than anything I’ve ever written, and I can’t stop looking at the tally because I am a pathetic egomaniac. With a blog. Go figure.
The above links to yet another post on social media by someone who knows almost nothing about it. You’re welcome.
I’m sure many of you are wondering “what does a sophisticated guitarlawyeryogadad-about-town keep in his trunk?”
Good news, everyone! I’ve provided a handy key based on a photo from earlier this evening.
A. Yoga mat. Thin, smelly, and worn out. Please do not spell it “matt.”
B. Fender Concert Reverb 4x12 guitar amp. You just never know when one of these is gonna come in handy. Cons: too heavy to carry back and forth from the house. Pros: very loud and very difficult to steal.
C. Stroller. There is currently no baby in it.
D. Groceries (breakables).
E. Baby (in car seat, not under stuff) (not pictured).
F. Groceries (non-breakables).
You people with pristine vehicles stop judging me. In college, all that stuff would have been in my back seat. Well, probably not the stroller. Or the mat. The point is, I’ve made progress. Don’t tear that away from me.
Here’s what I’ve been working on at the ol’ law mill these days:
Employment Discrimination Cases: This takes up the vast majority of my time. Most of our clients have been discriminated against in the workplace due to age, sex, religious affiliation, national origin, or disability. We are seeing lots of disability discrimination cases, especially the kind where an employer sees a disabled person as too much of a liability and lets them go despite the fact that they’re perfectly capable of doing the work. I am pretty convinced that sex-based discrimination will always be around in some form or another, because when you stick people together for long enough in one place - even the workplace - they start wanting to diddle each other. Shocking, right? And while I’ve seen a bit of a decrease in race-based discrimination cases, for those of you who think we’re living in a post-racial America, I respectfully (and heartily) disagree.
Constitutional Cases: This is a relatively small but time-consuming area of my practice, consisting mostly of free-speech cases and police abuse cases. Inmate rights cases fall into this category as well. I love these cases because they are almost always about “truth, justice, and the American way”; they make you feel proud to be a lawyer and stand up for people’s rights and blah blah blah. Plus, they are often a great academic exercise, which the sociology/history nerd in me appreciates. I’ve written about the police cases here.
Appeals and Post-Conviction Cases: In which we’re trying to convince a higher court that a lower court did something wrong. And a lot can go wrong. Nonetheless, these can be like attacking a tank with a toothpick unless something went SO wrong that the higher court just can’t ignore it. Even then, there’s no guarantee the higher court will give you what you’re asking for, and if they do, you’re usually just back at square one. We won a pretty significant victory at the Kentucky Supreme Court recently. I was really excited about this one, but what happens in a practical sense? The client “gets” to have a new trial. That’s usually not too much fun for the client.
The post-conviction cases are what you might think of as habeas corpus actions, so they often involve people who have been put away for a long time for something they may not have done. This is the type of stuff that makes for good primetime law drama: murder, sex crimes, DNA testing, etc. It’s not as sexy as it sounds. It’s mostly kind of frustrating, but sometimes rewarding (as in this case, where we were able to overturn a guilty plea that never should have happened).
Administrative Law: You just never know what you’re going to get with these. State and federal agencies all have their own obscure, arcane, and/or downright counterintuitive rules. Those rules might or might not be followed, depending on the direction the wind blows and how much the hearing officer likes you or your client. Most of my work in this area is representing people who have lost some kind of government benefit or have some sort of professional license in jeopardy. I’ve written about the Kafkaesque adventures folks can get themselves into in the administrative context here.
Commercial Litigation: Business A sues business B (or employee C, or partner D) because Business A doesn’t have as much money as it thinks it should. That’s these cases in a nutshell.
Other Stuff: New stuff walks in the door every day. You gotta be ready to reinvent the wheel. It’s like the old song says: “problems, problems, problems all day long.” Everybody’s got ‘em, and they’re not always garden-variety. Sorry for mixing metaphors in this paragraph. But anyway, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a team of world-class problem solvers, so if I can’t figure something out I usually just run down the hall and ask someone smarter.
What are y’all up to?
Somehow, for the second year in a row, my partner and I have managed to be voted “Top Lawyers” by other lawyers in Louisville. It has taken me since April to post about this - I didn’t even have a copy of the magazine until last week - and Louisville Magazine is kind of a mess (they had to run the story in 2 issues because they forgot some names or something) AND it’s obviously a big advertising dollar grab…
BUT STILL I’m proud of this. I’m proud of the work we do for people, and proud to work on cases with both Greg Belzley (see above) who is doing some really important work on inmates’ rights, and Garry Adams, who is probably the best lawyer I know. This stuff is all totally subjective, and other people deserve equal if not more recognition, and blah blah blah, but, y’know. I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth here. I’m grateful.