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Persuading and learning on the non-dualistic path

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From the get-go in law school, I learned about the premium that big corporate law firms place on hiring law students and recent law school graduates from top-ranked law schools, with a high class grade rank, and who won highly competitive efforts to be on the staff of one of the law school’s scholarly law reviews. Most of the newly-minted lawyers at such law firms had the same credentials, and like frequently seeks like.

Although I went to a highly-ranked law school, in the second tier, after graduating from a highly-ranked college in the tier below the ivy league, my law school class rank was not at the top, and my many hours of efforts to win the written competition to join the law review and law journal — which also heavily considered first semester grades — did not pan out.

Why did I want to join a big corporate law firm? Besides their paying the highest salaries, I felt that the best corporate law firm training would be among the big law firms that attracted a huge share of the best and brightest lawyers to learn from. My ideal remained to be in a law firm of any size that did a substantial amount of pro bono work and socially responsible work for paying clients, where I would learn litigation.

I was disenchanted, though, by information of the substantial hours needed to succeed at big law firms, knowing that the minimum of 1800 to 2000 billable hours required at such law firms to justify their large first-year associate salaries, resulting from significantly paring down the many more actual hours worked, lest clients complain about the learning curve involved in training new lawyers on clients’ dimes, I mean hundred dollar bills.

Why did I want to work for a corporate law firm rather than, for instance, for government, a criminal defense firm, a personal injury firm, public interest, a trade association, or in-house counsel? I have always believed strongly in private sector work, and liked the prospect that some corporate law firms have of including particularly meaningful pro bono work among one’s billable hours.

In my second year of law school, I got summer associate job offers from three law firms, one a great-sounding general practice law firm in my natal Bridgeport, Connecticut, city with some great people working as lawyers there, another from a 25-lawyer Washington, D.C., law firm focused on representing financial institutions and transportation companies, and another from a major Maryland real estate law firm. For geographic purposes, I eliminated the natal city law firm; for practice type purposes, I eliminated the real estate firm; and I joined the D.C. law firm.

I enjoyed working at the D.C. law firm much more than I had expected. Although the law firm was showcasing itself to the summer associates, I got a substantially more realistic look at the firm than at the big firms that were constantly wining and dining their summer associates, with more than one even jetting their summer associates for a getaway during the summer.

I joined the D.C. firm as a full-time associate attorney, and realized early on that I was learning great litigation and other skills, but was doing nothing to give back to society. Doing pro bono was not a high priority for the firm. The firm had a big financial and salary overhead, and could only cover it by substantial billable work hours from its attorneys.

One and a half years after joining the D.C. law firm as an associate, I decided to seek more meaningful work, even if that meant taking a pay cut. I was particularly interested in criminal defense work, especially in public defender work, where I could overlap my interest in defending civil liberties and more equal access to justice for those otherwise unable to afford lawyers. I was ecstatic at landing a Maryland public defender trial lawyer job. The pay there was better than plenty of other public defender offices nationwide, and my pay cut from my corporate law firm — although significant — was manageable.

I learned to be a criminal defense lawyer at the Maryland public defender’s office, moved to a private civil litigation law firm defending injury victims five years later, and opened my own law firm two years after that with my now-former law partner Jay Marks. I am much happier in the work I do than if I had stayed on the corporate law firm path, and years ago found a way to be profitable as my own boss, which takes skill when considering how competitive is the legal market, including the market for criminal defense clients, after excluding the approximately 80 percent or more of criminal defendants who obtain indigent/public defender counsel.

Were I not a risk taker, I never would have become my own boss. However, I dreamed of being my own boss from before college. My former law partner and I loved the prospect of being our own bosses, and reaching our full professional potentials without bosses getting in the way or taking over the glory of the more interesting cases.

What would have happened if I had gotten hired by such highly sought-after D.C. law firms (by lawyer candidates) as Arnold & Porter, Hogan & Hartson, and Covington & Burling? Would I have been as ready to depart for a public defender job that would have involved all the greater a pay cut, and leave all the more talented colleagues at such law firms? I doubt it.

Everything ultimately fell into place career-wise, with plenty of hard work along the way. I could have sulked in law school at not being offered job interviews at the three law firms listed in the last paragraph, and at the many rejection letters from those law firms where I applied and interviewed with (which I then referenced in drafting rejection letters to applicants at my own law firm, sometimes including "We are unable to identify an open position at our firm that will suitably match your experience with our current hiring needs").

The Maryland Public Defender’s Office provided me great experience and satisfaction, but was not the ideal job, considering such factors as the bureaucracy of it all, budget constraints, and earning income off tax dollars rather than from the private sector.

I learned that the National Criminal Defense College’s Trial Practice Institute was the premier lengthy seminar for criminal defense lawyers, but also learned that it was highly competitive for public defender lawyers to get accepted to, as the college retained a certain number of slots for private practitioners, who represented a smaller percentage of applicants than public defenders. After my application was declined, when I was wait-listed the next time around, I sent the NCDC a note that I had purchased a plane ticket to the college in the even I was taken off the wait list, and could arrange to clear my calendar to attend. I was accepted, and attended in 1994, where I took quickly to the themes of caring deeply for our clients, finding our own magic as criminal defense lawyers while learning from the gifts of those who had already accomplished much, and storytelling at every turn of the trial. That full ten business days of training with such amazing teachers as SunWolf, Larry Pozner, and John Delgado worked wonders for me.

Then I met Denver trial lawyer great Steve Rench not long after the NCDC, when he spoke to public defender lawyers in Baltimore, where he underlined the great trial experience available to public defender lawyers, and emphasized "Dare to be great." He also told us about the Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming, where he had spent an entire month on the faculty. I was convinced that I would follow this man Rench as far as Antarctica if that is where he would be teaching.

Therefore, I applied to the Trial Lawyers College, which for the then-upcoming class of forty-eight experienced trial lawyer apparently rejected plenty of applicants for each available slot. I knew from Steve that the Trial Lawyers College focused heavily on persuasion, so I focused my application on persuasion. I also tried distinguishing myself as a person by pointing out that since my first and then-only time in Wyoming at the age of fourteen, I had thrown myself into fighting for social justice, with Amnesty International, next the ACLU, and for three years as a public defender lawyer.

The Trial Lawyers College accepted my application, and gave me a substantial scholarship, paying for over two-thirds of my tuition, room and board, and I now give back to the college with my own donations.

I had mixed feelings about the Trial Lawyers College as it progressed. Whereas the NCDC was tightly organized with the benefit of many years in business and with a highly-qualified executive director, the Trial Lawyers College was still very much in the raw, experimental stage, backed up by apparently tremendous financial resources of founder Gerry Spence and perhaps others as well. Regardless of how much Gerry’s motivation in opening his beautiful ranch to the Trial Lawyers College was pure altruism versus leaving a legacy of lawyers praising his name and applying the lessons of the Trial Lawyers College, the combination of the Trial Lawyers College and National Criminal Defense College helped me jump quantum leaps as a person and lawyer.

Today, the Trial Lawyers College is very organized, but now suffers from being overinstitutionalized, over-corporatized, and over-ivorytowerized. Consequently, as always by now, I take what works and leave the rest. Steve Rench stopped teaching at the Trial Lawyers College in the late 1990’s, and remains my key trial teaching guru. Gerry Spence handed over the Trial Lawyers College presidential reins to California lawyer Jude Basile over two years ago. Gerry — amazingly charismatic and inspirational to dissolve perceived personal limits, whereas Steve Rench has those same qualities minus the charisma — remains a great inspiration to me about being a great trial lawyer and person. transcending the stuffy image of the lawyer, while at once revealing one’s power and warts, and about the true possibility to do good for society while doing well financially. Gerry’s key Trial Lawyers College partners John Johnson and Bob Rose, both non-charismatics, left their bodies, respectively, in 1996 and 1997. John remains a strong influence for harnessing the power of being real. 

Constants at the Trial Lawyers College have included great acting teacher Josh Karton and great trial consultant and psychodramatist Don Clarkson. They alone are worth the fee for any Trial Lawyers College program.

I can kvetch and oppose all I want about one of the Trial Lawyers College’s best staffers being unceremoniously dumped from the board and staff awhile back, and about the TLC’s overinstitutionalization. In protest, I can refuse to ever step foot again on the magnificently beautiful Trial Lawyers College ranch in western Wyoming and to attend any TLC-sponsored seminars.

I also have the choice, which I instead take, to celebrate the amazing doors that the NCDC and TLC have opened for me to recognize that I have been on the right personal and professional path all along, to keep me on that path, to refine the excellence I achieve on that path, and to be in a community of like-minded lawyers on that path.

I have heard a few very otherwise talented criminal defense lawyers for one reason or another proclaim on purported principal that they will not attend any Trial Lawyers College programs. At best, they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

The great Ram Dass underlines how we are all connected and that we will better understand that connectedness as we shed attachment, pursuing the non-dualistic path. Consequently, instead of cursing when our teachers seem to let us down, we should instead see our teachers as helping us motivate ourselves to teach ourselves, to get on the path we need to be on, and to stay on the right path. Ram Dass was highly skeptical at first about Neem Karoli Baba/Maharaji, who quickly became Ram Dass’s key guru over forty years ago. Among his other key teachers, Ram Dass includes Anandamayi Ma. Neither Maharaji nor Anandamai Ma taught formally, instead teaching how to love by each being love personified. In the process, the two helped people open themselves to be their best selves.

Love, actually, is a big theme at the Trial Lawyers College, to love our clients, ourselves, our jurors, and everyone else. Love is the essential approach. It took me many years after attending the Trial Lawyers College to internalize that as to all people, from the heart and not just from the head.  

"There is no out there for the mind," my teacher Ihaleakala Hew Len reminds us. Consequently, my ultimate teacher, guide and intuition provider is myself. with my external teachers helping to reinvigorate, keep me on, and show me the right path, and to help strengthen and embolden me on that path.