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Staying connected to why I attended law school in the first place

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Law school is not for everyone. I found law school in large part to be a necessary, time-consuming and money-consuming pain in the ass — and sometimes worse — for finding a way to use the law to help make the world a better place. Law school had its good moments — including the immigration law clinic, where I got a chance to represent clients at two critical administrative trials, and the opportunity to learn from some brilliant people, whether or not I agreed with the pedagogical approach of some of them — but I asked myself several times why I was paying money to have most of my grades mainly depend on one three hour exam held at the end of the semester, and to have plenty of closed-door policy law professors.

Maybe I went to the wrong law school, which was George Washington University, which I attended when all the second-tier law schools to which I applied accepted me, but none of the top-tier schools did, save for having been waitlisted at Cornell, which I dutifully informed to remove me from consideration after meeting GW’s acceptance deadline. Maybe some other law schools had more students than GW who wanted to make the world a better place, and more law professors who supported that. Later, one of my favorite law professors told me that even his law school alma mater Harvard had professors galore with closed-door policies. I attended GW interested in being in Washington, D.C., and with the possibility of doing stints both in government and private practice. As it turned out, I did only one government sting, for my first summer, at the nation’s savings and loan regulator in the thick of the savings and loan crisis in 1987.

In the end, everything fell into place and worked out. I took a detour for three years from making the world a better place when working as a summer associate, then law clerk and then attorney with a Washington, D.C., corporate law firm, learning litigation, regulatory advocacy, and corporate counseling from some great lawyers. I took the job with hesitancy, knowing that it was away from my ideal path, but wanting to know how to serve clients in a private sector setting. I later started applying for jobs more in line with myself, including public defender positions, and fortunately got hired at the Maryland Public Defender’s Office in 1991. I quickly learned that criminal defense was my calling, which to this day I love doing, together with occasional forays into First Amendment defense. I left the public defender’s office in 1996 to join a civil trial law firm in Washington, D.C., believing that it was important for me to know how to litigate and try civil cases beyond the smaller picture I had obtained at my first law firm. Defending the Constitution extends to civil litigation and not only criminal defense. In 1998, I became my own boss, joining forces with my former law partner Jay Marks for ten years, and then becoming a solo practitioner in 2008, when the respective law area focuses of Jay and me had little overlap, with me doing almost all criminal and DWI defense, and Jay doing almost all immigration defense.

Succeeding in the practice of law is much easier when a lawyer has true commitment and passion for his work. That is what drew me to the four-week Trial Lawyers College in 1995. This was a place that I felt would not only help me become a better trial lawyer, but also would be a place where I would find other lawyers not committee to the traditional legal establishment and believing in putting clients ahead of money. I have had some sharp differences with the Trial Lawyers College’s subsequent path, as I recount here and here. Nevertheless, the TLC was a program I needed at the time, and have benefitted immeasurably from since then.

Today, a client asked me why I chose to practice law, and I told him it was because I wanted to save the world. That was a main motivator for me to attend law school, in addition to feeling that a bachelor’s degree alone was not going to cut it for my professional aspirations. Whether or not my goal of saving the world was naive, I kept my eye on that goal ever since starting law school, even when I let myself get sidetracked. The Trial Lawyers College helped me keep on that path. Here are some thoughts I wrote about the Trial Lawyers College after my client asked that question:

In 1988 the law firm where I was a summer associate took us to a summer law firm associate bar dinner. I was bored, until the keynote speaker Gerry Spence came to the podium. The event fit the stereotype of establishment and conformity, and I had done nothing to change that, other than feeling bored and uncomfortable and out of place. The dinner chair came to the podium encouraging everyone to return to practice law in Washington, D.C. after finishing law school.

Her invitation to practice law in D.C. became comical soon after keynote speaker Gerry Spence came to the podium. Thank goodness that the dinner organizers had not vetted Spence, or else invited him despite what he was about to tell the audience (he probably was invited due to his reputation as a great trial lawyer who had won some huge jury money verdicts), which was to urge us NOT to return to practice law in D.C., but to spread out across the nation’s smaller towns, underserved by lawyers, to serve people, not corporations. This painfully dull conformist law firm dinner had turned to electrifying once Gerry Spence started speaking.

Gerry’s talk included the conflict he dealt with in taking a special appointment, when in private practice, to prosecute a death penalty case when he was opposed to capital punishment. I tried asking him about that during the question and answer session, but he did not hear me. When I asked him face-to-face, he said the answer was in his book Gunning for Justice. The answer in his book has never persuaded me. He talked about wanting to hunt when he finished law school, and that wearing his sheepskin jacket reminded him of his hunting days, for better or worse. He told us about doing well in law school out of fear of failure; I appreciated the willingness of a great trial lawyer to share his weaknesses, and learned at the TLC that showing our true selves, warts and all, is essential on the road to persuasion. He told his many-times-repeated story about how he switched from representing corporations to only people, when he encountered at the grocery store the same injury plaintiff he had beaten down just hours before in the courthouse. The man reassured Gerry that Gerry was just doing his job, and Gerry says he could not take that he was just doing his job in the way he had treated this injured man by winning against him.

Six years later, Gerry, in concert with other lawyers, opened the Trial Lawyers College at his beautiful ranch ten miles from the nearest paved road, outside Dubois, Wyoming. A few months after the maiden TLC session, I met my soon-to-be most valued trial law teacher Steve Rench who urged the benefits of attending the TLC. Steve’s recommendation and full-month presence at the TLC were enough for me to apply and attend, when competition was apparently fierce for admission to the TLC.

I spent three often lonely-feeling years at my first law firm in those pre-Internet days, feeling without birds of a feather at the firm to share with anyone my vision for my life and practice of law. I sustained my optimism for getting on track with my devotion to helping make the world a better place with such inspirations as Gerry Spence and his 1988 speech, then-NORML national director and trial lawyer Don Fiedler, and meeting birds of a feather at a subsequent annual conference of the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

and a local gathering of American Civil Liberties Union members.

Had I attended law school purely as a way to make money or on the path of trying to figure out what to do with my life, I may not have discovered my path to criminal defense and civil liberties defense. Fortunately, I finally tuned out the naysayers who saw me as naive for my reasons for going to law school, to make the world a better place.