Feb 17 2011

Passion vs. Paycheck

Published by under Miscellaneous

As a new contributor to this blog, I was not sure what I would write about for my first post. One of the questions Professor Friedland suggested was, “who are the happiest law students”, which made me think about something that has been bothering me for a few weeks now. Coming back to Elon as a 2L has been much different than starting out as a brand new, and slightly naive, 1L. After everyone’s summer experiences, my fellow classmates seem to have a better grasp on what type of law they may someday want to practice. I loved my summer experience and it reaffirmed to me that I want to be a prosecutor following law school.

2L year, however, has also brought a string of what I think are a mix between stereotypes and assumptions. As we all start to send out applications for positions next summer, I feel that a lot of my fellow classmates are too focused on why they can or cannot secure positions at the top-notch law firms. Whenever someone asks me where I am sending out applications, I respond with a list of various district attorneys’ offices around the state and elsewhere. Inevitably there is always a moment when the other student judges me on my choice. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard something along the lines of, “you know you are never going to make any money” or “how are you going to pay off your loans”. Sure, these are valid questions. I would venture most students going to law school have crunched the numbers on the interest rates of their loans and cringed. What happened in the legal sector, however, to push people away from extremely rewarding jobs in the public sector? And why is there a stigma attached to pursuing those careers?

I think the happiest law students are the ones who decide they are going to practice the type of law that makes them excited. I can honestly say that I looked forward to getting up in the morning and going to my internship. I’m not sure how many of my classmates felt the same way. Sure some of these students will be happy at huge law firms. I worry that some others, however, put too much emphasis on the name and size of the firm. I may take longer to pay off my loans, but I know I will be happy pursuing the type of law I have a passion for, regardless of the paycheck.

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Feb 17 2011

Simple Frustrations I Overcame

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The first frustration I encountered was that the entire semester pretty much goes by with little to no official feedback from the professors on how your learning is taking shape. This is so different from undergrad, in which you have periodic exams to gauge progress. But now I know in order to overcome that frustration is to simply take some hypos I worked out to my professors and they are more than happy to provide feedback!

The second frustration I encountered was this “study group” thing. Being an introvert, I have always been content studying alone. So it was hard to see the value in study groups. However, what I realized was the easy thing to do to make sure the experience is productive is: 1. Study with those whose personalities fit well with your own 2. Study with those who are as serious about their work as you are about your own. And 3. Make a plan before you guys meet as to what the objectives of the study session will be.

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Feb 17 2011

The Greatest Lesson Learned from 1st Semester of Law School

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The greatest lesson I learned was: I can do this! I can really do this thing called law school! This may sound really simple, but trust me it was a life-changing revelation. Long before I achieved my 1L status, I used to think law school was intimidating. I suppose that is because of the prestige that cloaks the profession. Or it could be the anxiety- inducing Socratic Method, that is the mark of the law school experience, I heard so much about. Either way, I knew intimidation was the pink elephant in the room that eventually I would have to face.  Now, after surviving one semester I can officially conclude that it really isn’t that bad. Of course, it’s not a cake walk. But, I have realized my intellectual strength once again and am ready for the 5 semester marathon that remains.

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Feb 21 2010

It’s Black. It’s White. It’s Wrong. It’s Right.

Published by under Miscellaneous

This weekend I served as a scoring juror for one round of the high school mock trial competition sponsored by the NC Advocates for Justice. I saw only one round with two teams facing off. I don’t know where each team was from, or their individual circumstances. I have no idea of the back stories behind what I saw. But here’s what I do know:

The prosecution team was white. The defense team was black.

The prosecution team had 12 supporters cheering it on. The defense team had none.

The prosecution team wiped the floor with the defense team.

Again, I don’t know the back stories, nor from where each team came. What I do know is that my mother drove from PA to New Jersey to see my moot court competition, and would have driven to VA had I let her. What I do know is that the defense team looked lost, alone and frustrated in a world very far over its head and out of its grasp.

Was this a commentary on race? On parenting? On socioeconomic status? All of the above? I’m not sure, and I doubt I’ll ever be sure.

But I’m sure that the other jurors and the judge noticed it, too, and came to a similar conclusion: no one supports you … and it shows.

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Feb 05 2010

ESC Hearings: Rediscovering a Lost Sense of Humanity

Published by under Miscellaneous

A long time ago I blogged that law school tended to suck the qi (life force inherent in all things) right out of you. Suddenly, happy-go-lucky folks are sulky and serious. Life isn’t all that much fun anymore. And you don’t really notice it because now all your friends are also law students and in much the same predicament as you.

Being a lawyer has pretty much the same effect. I remember those few glorious weeks immediately following the Bar exam. True, I didn’t get so much as a day’s vacation, but in those sunny days after a grueling 3-year “marathon,” followed by a nightmarish 2-month “sprint,” followed by a terrifying 2-day “dive off a cliff hoping there’s very deep water at the bottom,” life seemed glorious. I felt lighter. I smiled brighter. People noticed that I seemed extremely at peace with the world again. Heck, I even fell in love.

But then the rigors of real life set in amidst a bad economy and I did something I always knew I never, ever wanted to do: started my own law firm. And those 90-hour weeks I blogged about in November haven’t gone away. There is really no such thing as a night off or a weekend break. Some days sleep feels akin to malpractice. The stress of being the lead attorney, research assistant, bookkeeper, office manager, paralegal, and receptionist are enough to kill anyone, especially someone who is also the lone bread winner in a household of one.

And in the midst of that kind of stress, it would be easy to assume one’s humanity would start to slide just the way it did in law school. It would be understandable to see how one might see clients as ATM machines designed to pay your bills at all cost. One could rationalize the concept that I’m so busy looking after myself, there is no room left to look after anyone else.

But in the strange world of representing unemployed folks who have lost their benefits amidst an economy reluctant to hand out new jobs (especially to older people), quite the opposite occurred. In the midst of this world of creditors pounding on my clients’ doors, houses threatened with foreclosure, cars threatened with repossession, and 59-year old truck drivers in tears at the conference table, a strange and deep-seeded sense of humanity emerged.

Maybe it was the memory of my own mom fighting for unemployment benefits in the midst of the economic meltdown of the early ’90’s while trying to raise two kids on her own. Maybe it’s the rebirth of blue collar roots (of which I am prodigiously proud). Maybe it’s as simple as the very real issues facing my clients putting my “champagne problems” in perspective.

Whatever the reason, in the midst of a life filled with ridiculous amounts of pressure and stress, a humanity resurfaced in my life much to my own surprise. Raising money and resources for a good cause seemed a good idea recently. Building a house for some very poor folks in another country came to mind. Even simple things like telling my clients the truth about the merits of their cases instead of convincing them to bankrupt themselves for the sake of nothing but my own personal gain. And appreciating once again the reality of the human condition – the real life struggles of real life people who maybe didn’t go to college or maybe didn’t even go to high school, but who work damn hard for damn little and deserve a hand every now and again without going broke to get it.

It’s an odd turn of events to stumble into humanity again after a long time spent obsessing over statutes and loans and licenses. It’s a very nice turn of events. I wonder if my colleagues are experiencing this, too…

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Dec 16 2009

Following In Our Footsteps [or: Why Starting Your Own Firm Is Not All Glitz & Glamour]

Published by under Advice

Having recently started my own law firm, today I rode to a program in Raleigh sponsored by the NC Bar Association called Start Up Boot Camp. The seminar featured a series of speakers on topics related to starting one’s own small/solo law firm. Topics ranged from malpractice to fee setting to blogging to ethics.

On the way there, my colleague and fellow Elon Law grad (who also started her own firm) told me that she’d heard a rumor about Elon Law students. “A rumor at Elon!?” I exclaimed. “Surely not.” Indeed, she’d heard a rumor that certain members of the Class of 2010, having seen the blazing success of their predecessors in starting solo law practices, had stopped seeking jobs and intended to follow in the footsteps of so much of the Charter Class.

My friend and I are equally aghast at this idea. Oh, kids. Take heed: starting one’s own law firm is NOT all glitz and glamour!

If starting your own law firm is something you’ve contemplated a long time and have always wanted to do, then ignore this blog by all means. You’re all excited and I encourage you to follow your ambitions!

However, if you’re like so many who came before you and started out on your own simply because there wasn’t anything else, I still won’t discourage you, but CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING:

1. It takes money. A lot of law students come from money or at least have someone to pay their bills until they make money. Be sure you fall in one of those categories before you attempt this feat. Or be sure you have a nice line of credit. Starting a law practice is NOT CHEAP, even for the frugal among us. Space, equipment, filing fees, software, insurance, and advertising are all things you need and all things that have you bleeding money before you’ve made any. And bleed money you certainly will. If the sight of monetary blood leaves you queasy, consider sending more resumes and fewer PLLC filing fees!

2. It takes time. I am blessed with independent contract work to supplement my meager law firm income. However, every hour I spend earning $15/hr to pay my bills is an hour I’m not working on a firm that will potentially make me $150/hr. And every hour I spend building my firm (for free) is an hour I’m not billing as a contractor. Every hour I spend at seminars telling me how to do what I need to know how to do is an hour I make NO money. It’s a delicate balance and I spent the vast majority of the first month working 80+ hours per week. If you’re not ready, able, or willing to do that (consider your children and spouse before committing), then DON’T.

3. It takes skill you don’t have. Unless you were extraordinarily fortunate in your summer internships, and perhaps even then, you can bet that 95% of the issues crossing your desk will BAFFLE you. Seriously. Even stuff you just studied for the Bar will send you scurrying to friends and colleagues for the simplest advice. Law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer. It does NOT teach you how to BE a lawyer. It does not teach you what a “shuck” is or what to do with one or where to find one. It does not teach you what the plea options are for felony possession. It does not teach you what to charge your clients or what type of fee arrangement to make. It does not teach you how to navigate the courthouse or file your own claim (sans paralegal) or balance your office accounts or certify your IOLTA or create invoices or…. Well, you get the point. You will be lost all the time. Trust me. If fear frightens you, don’t start a law firm!

4. It takes clients you won’t have. Unless you have very naughty/unlucky friends begging you to start a practice and help them, you’re going to be clientless for a while. Advertising is expensive and hit-or-miss at best. Example: a business-size ad in the yellow pages is over $300/month. The traffic offense lists for direct marketing are around $185/month. The ESC list is $300/month. And stamps are $.44 a piece. All that adds up FAST. If you’re a schmoozer, GREAT! But make sure you schmooze people who need lawyers and need them now, otherwise that’s hit-or-miss, too. Oh, and those nice business cards you schmooze with aren’t free, either. Lawyer referrals are also great if you’re not all competing for the same clients, which a lot of us will be. And everyone is on the court appointed list these days. Point being: it’s going to take a lot of time, money, and work to get clients. And you’ll be poor until you do. If you’re broke, tired, and shy, DON’T start a law firm!

If I haven’t scared you yet, great. Pick a formation type and start writing checks on your way to seeing your name on the sign out front (also not cheap). Otherwise, please don’t look at all the Charter Class members, convince yourselves that we’re playing golf on Fridays with our new-found wealth, and strike out on your own on that basis. Starting a law firm is a LOT of ridiculously hard work and if you’re not in it to win it, reconsider.

If you are in it to win it, ROCK ON and GO ELON!

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Dec 08 2009

Guide to the CELL blog…

Published by under Miscellaneous

So a few things if you are an occassional or first time visitor.

1) At the bottom of each blog post is a link that says comments. You can find some good responses from classmates, the occassional professor, and visitors. Also, you can leave your comments, serious or sarcastic.

2) Additionally, CELL is actively seeking contributors. If you have some comments you would like to make about law school, life in general, or living in Greensboro, e-mail me at mgroves@elon.edu so that I can establish you as a contributor and have you start posting. You DO NOT need to be a student or even in the Elon community, so long as you are somehow related to the legal field. Again, the posts can be serious/not serious so long as they are loosely related to law and clear of (most) any profanity.

Forward any questions to the above e-mail…

Matt

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Dec 08 2009

Not an idea was stirring…. not after that exam

Published by under Miscellaneous

In the intervals of spare time we have between days of studying for exams, hopefully you are aware that the year is winding down.  There are less than 2 weeks to Christmas, and less than 3 to New Year’s 2010.  Rather than looking forward to decide where I will be spending your New Year’s Eve, I prefer to look backwards to see where the year started and how much progress has been made for 2009.  Did I make this year better than the last?  Most people don’t keep track of things like this.   As we get older, years tend to blend together, until we can’t remember which year I took that vacation.  Suddenly, while paying at the gas station you look down and see that you can’t buy cigarettes unless you were born before this day in 1991.  1991?  Didn’t that say 1984 two weeks ago?  The point I want to make here is to take time to ensure that every year counts.  Don’t just say you’re going to do it, as you will when you loosely make resolutions in three weeks.  Actually find quantifiable standards to mark your progress towards making yourself who you want to be so that law school doesn’t turn out to be a 3 year black out on your life’s itenerary. 

Hemingway said there were three marks of a man:  writing a novel, fighting a bull, and fathering a son.  Now, certainly he didn’t do these things every year, but there was a goal, a clear path to that goal, and a time frame for accomplishment.  To make a well rounded person he included a serious intellectual, physical, and emotional challenge (respectively).  Do something that makes you realize your own mortality so that you remeber that you are in fact, alive.  That can be lost in reading days, especially when your library is two floors underground. 

If you ever hesitate to seize an opportunity, consider the alternative.  Where will you be in 10 years if you monopolize your day with law school, get straight A’s throughout school, take a 150,000/year job with a large firm and work 70-80 hours a week to come home to an empty, albeit well decorated, condo to sleep wake up and start over again?  You can say “there’s always Vegas,” and then realize that that was 10 years ago.  Or you can heed Morgan Freeman, “get busy living, or get busy dying.”

“Nunc lento sonitu dicunt morieris…”

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Nov 08 2009

(rare and unsolicited) Advice for the Rookies….

Published by under Miscellaneous

One of the great things about living in a city is that there is never a lack of things to do.  One of the great things about living in Washington, DC is that there is never a lack of great FREE things to do.  JFK said of DC, “it’s a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”  In spite of that, and the noticable lack of seasonal weather, it does have its high points.  Since the Smithsonian Institution recieves a federal subsidy, they are prohibited from charging admission fees to any of their museums.  I always thought this was compensation for locals after having to deal with hordes of tourists that smelled like sunscreen and had no particular direction when you wanted to visit the national mall.  However, about once every six months, when the weather was ripe for a long walk, you can take a trip wayyyy up Connecticut Avenue to the national zoo.  This was a perfect destination for locals because not only is it free, but it’s far enough away from downtown that most tourists can’t find it AND it’s such a long uphill walk that most parents are unwilling to push their strollers.

Obviously, the main attraction of this zoo is Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, the asian pandas.  Very few zoos in the world have pandas.  However, the exhibit I couldn’t keep away from was Luke and Lusaka, the African lions.  Luke was born in captivity in the fall of 2005, and has been displayed in Washington ever since.  Lusaka was a more recent addition.  Over the course of the next three years I was able to watch Luke’s de-evolution from King of the Jungle into zoo exhibit.

It was very obvious when he was young that Luke knew his place in the order of the jungle.  He was quite active and possessed a piercing roar from a young age.  Many of the trainers were apprehentious about entering the cage because he was quite unpredictable and liked to lash out, as young lions do.   The second time I saw him, I noticed a few bruises on his face.  I was told he has put his head down and run into the exhibit wall, thinking he could break free of it.  He also has a habit or coming fairly close to the edge of the viewing platform and roaring loudly enough to scare young children (and some unsuspecting adults).  This is why I liked him in the first place.  About a year later, on a return trip he appeared a little more reticent.  He walked, uncharacteristically, with his head down and did not fight to get out quite as much.  He still roared occasionally, but it lacked its awe inspiring volume and ferocity.   Finally, in 2008 in  my final trip before returning to North Carolina, I noticed that at only 3 years old, Luke looked defeated.  He lied around a good portion of the day with the other lions and did very little to frighten or entertain anyone.  It appeared as though he had accepted his role as a captive.

I did not think much about this until this time last year.  Such is the plight of a first year law student.  For those of us coming from the working world, we re-enter the world of academia having spent years accomplishing and building not 0nly a career, but a life.  Though we are cognitively aware of what is ahead of us, we fool ourselves into thinking that you can be built up without first being broken down.  In the initial months, we overlook the fact that we often don’t leave the law school until the sun goes down, and that we spend so much time reading that we lose track of the news and the world around us.  Days melt into each other until you don’t know which is which, only how many more until the weekend.  Studying and sleeping become so ritual that we only stop a few times mid semester to think, “man, this month has gone by quickly.”  The strain of a new schedule shakes you of your hold habits, hobbies, and more often than not, friends.  It is very easy to fall into colleagialrelationships with your classmates, and then realize you rarely see some of them outside of school.  Half way through the semester, you tend to accept a fate you spent the first several weeks trying to fight.  Other aspects of your personal life begin to suffer in the weeks preceding exams, for some, even hygiene goes out the window, as cognitive dissonance tells you that “it’s ok to show up to class in sweatpants.”  You become short tempered with your family and friends because you want to strangle the next person that asks, “How law school going?”  It’s a bad place.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, even so early in the academic career.  First, we’ve all been there.  Now, we’re all out of it.  Trust us, you’ll get there too.  Further, once you’ve hit what you consider rock bottom, the rebuilding begins.  Around the late spring of your first year, you realize you’re a lot smarter than you used to be.  When internship hunting season comes around, you have the opportunity to get out, and meet people; people who do things; productive members of society, like you used to be.  Hopefully, by this many months into the year you’ve also shed yourself of your corrosive drinking habits (to some degree) and regressive early 20s behavior.  Without notice, you’ve become an adult.  You actually enjoy spring break, instead of spending thanksgiving break in the library.  And when you reemerge in society people respect the sacrifice you have made to pursue a higher level of education.  Because out there, unlike in here, not everybody is in law school.  You can step back and look at yourself and see that you are building towards a new career.  In a spring semester where there are no quizzes and you have no idea where you stand, this is the sign that you are successful.  Anyone can get an education, it’s the social development that will make you a successful lawyer.  (Because, evidently, it doesn’t stick for everyone.) 

So hang in there, and be lucky.  Unlike the lion, your captivity has an end game.  Just don’t lose your roar in the process, it’s always good for a few chuckles.

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Oct 19 2009

Bull Rushing a Bear (Job) Market

Published by under Miscellaneous

Since we have entered law school we have been inundated with gloom and doom advice about the state of the legal economy.  Each week’s ABA newsletter last year seemed to highlight another several hundred jobs cut at some big city firm, partner’s asked to give up some job perk, and ominous undertones implying those of us still in school would not likely find work.  Being a first year student I felt the same way I felt about all tragedies that didn’t directly effect  me… so what?  But as months went on, and I heard nightmares of recent graduates, it occurred to me that there had to be a solution for this predicament of too many lawyers not enough jobs.  This post is my answer, which will inevitably be ignored:

Now I admit that I am not a brilliant economic mind.  In fact, economics is the primary reason I changed majors in undergrad, eventually leading me to law school.  But I think I have a handle on the basics, and the legal job market seems to be a pretty basic concept to me.  As supply goes up, demand goes down.  Profound, ain’t it?  But believe it or not there are a finite number of legal problems in America; as we continue to fill the job market with new lawyers it resembles a cup under the faucet (or spicket, if you are from North Carolina).  If we do not soon turn off the faucet, we are left with a big mess.  This seems to be the only logical solution, since lawyers have already tried the opposite approach, creating more problems to support the growing field.

To clarify “turning off the faucet,” I mean regulation.  A nationwide proposal amongst every accredited law school in country to not accept a class of 2013.  To draw an academic parallel, no less a groan from my classmates, you will recall the Supreme Court tried this in Wickard.  The government said stop producing this product in excess because doing so is dragging down the national post-depression economy.  Needless to say we are again in a post-recession/depression economy, and need to be particularly cognizant of society’s needs.  I foresee two primary benefits to this approach.  First, we take some small measure to thin out the “job-seeking” crowd.  By reducing the denominator in the jobs to lawyers ratio, we would ever so slightly lower unemployment.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly it would strengthen the talent of the next class that is produced.  Having twice the population competing for the same number of spots allows only the best to continue their training, instead of simply applying until you get accepted somewhere. 

The obvious argument against is that this would be “bad for business.”  But, I have to question the validity of this.  One of my numerous and sordid jobs prior to law school was working at the Maryland Fund for Excellence.  You know us as, “Hi.  I’m from your college.  Give us money!”  In any case, one of the facts from our script was that state funds (at a state school) only covered about 50% of the cost of a student’s education.  Now, couple this with another fact.  I had the occasion to meet the associate dean of one of our near peer law schools over summer break.  This person said they had admitted over 220 students into the Class of 2012.  Now for the hypothetical…

If there are 200 students at 100 recognized law schools, creating a 50% of 1 student’s tuition deficit [let's round it off at 40,000/year, though Elon is markedly less].  This is 20,000 students times 20,000 dollars, creating a $400 million deficit.  Traditionally, this is covered by raising tuition rates for students for whom, as it stands, there are bleak job prospects at the end of the line.  If we were to cut a class for a year we would not only lower the variable costs of running the business, but allow professors with newly found free time to pursue new methods of teaching and research.   This has the collateral effect of adding value to the teacher, and perhaps, the school.  This way, perhaps we would produce better lawyers, instead of just more…

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