The Life of a Lawyer: In Their Own Words

An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald's book

An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald’s book

I graduated into a rough employment environment, and my start was delayed af- ter graduation, which I saw as a major opportunity. I went traveling to [where my parents were from]. Before I got there, I was in touch with Lawyers Without Borders, and my firm helped facilitate some contacts for me, too. I showed up in [country] and offered six months of free services. For an under-resourced international organization, I guess it was pretty appealing to get a top graduate for free, and the next thing I knew, I was helping to make a genocide case against an alleged war criminal.

My main task was to go through thousands and thousands of witness statements in a database, day in and day out, searching for mentions of the accused or any relevant information that may be connected to the accused. I had to organize the information and create a huge summary chart, detailing what was important and what was not. I wanted to assemble important information and also save others down the road time, by carefully cataloguing the information. Ultimately, I found 100 statements that identified this person in a way that was helpful to the case. Then, I went to [country] and took new witness statements.

In the end, we drafted a 24-count indictment and waited two months before the court ruled that there was enough evidence to proceed. I started to see that the six months was going to expand and was in frequent contact with my firm to ensure that I could stick with this work and not burn bridges back home. Soon, I was in pretrial, meeting witnesses and reading and responding to motions. At first, I was clueless. I literally had no idea how to respond. Eventually, I could respond, knowing that X is crazy and Y has no precedent. I was kind of amazed. Wow, what I am doing here is going to the international criminal court!

On my team, I became known as the “motion machine” and made and dealt with opposing motions. I actually took witnesses in front of the court. I am back home practicing, and we are awaiting the verdict. It was two surreal years, and it almost eels like it was not my life. I am not sure how it happened, but I got on the case very early and I offered to work for free—that had to be the key.

Fifth-Year Associate in the Mergers and Acquisitions Department at a Major Law Firm

Law is very unpredictable. It is not like a normal office job. It can be very quiet for a few days and then a deal will near its close and you are on. If I could draw an analogy, a live deal is like a fire hose. Everyone is just holding on, trying to ensure it does not spray out of control. You can’t fall asleep, and you can’t worry about frayed tempers. You just have to get the job done.

There was once a 72-hour period when I had three hours of sleep. When a deal is closing, you need to get it done and done well before it leaks to the press and the market gets wind. So, you need to be available when the client is calling, when a specialist on your team is calling, when anyone is calling and that contract needs to get done. A fully staffed deal might have 25 corporate lawyers coordinating everyone else—we might need to make sure the tax specialist gets his work done, the employee benefits specialists might be making sure the founders are contractually obliged to stay on board, that the intellectual property is not walking out the door. Imagine the environmental considerations if you were buying a Dow Chemical or an energy company. Imagine the risks. We need to consider thousands of contracts and liabilities. The legal department in the company we represent might do five or six transactions like this in a career—we have more resources, and we might do five or six each year. So, they depend on us to ensure that everything works.

If I manage my work well—work harder and smarter—I am doing 80% “good” work and 20% crap, rather than 50%–50%. “Good” work is negotiating a deal, which is pretty much done by partners, but I might lead on very small points.

“Good” work is drafting an agreement—our deals often involve a lot of money, a lot of jobs. So, I have to be very careful. I might have to make a judgment call about whether or not to file something with the SEC [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission], which could make aspects of my client’s business public—strategic thinking is good. Crap is due diligence—it is hard on the soul. Crap is cross-referencing pages of a contract, making sure that each number is repeated in the exact same way a hundred times.

It is not as much about skill as it is about desire and stamina. Very few people have the drive to keep going at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. Professionals who can get it right day after day in that environment get paid for it because they are at an elite level, like professional athletes. Ultimately, when you are trying to progress in your career, it comes down to who can make the fewest mistakes. Will you give up your life for a deal? There is a difference between those who will put 16 hours into something and someone who will put 21 hours in. Think about the people who are starting at top firms—all really smart, top graduates. Only 3% will make partner. It is the elite of the elite. But you don’t just need to be technically perfect—getting every document right. If that is the case, you might be a great “service partner.” Those who make the millions engender trust in their clients, so they win business. Your clients know you really well and know they are taken care of; they give you the business because there is a bond. You may have grown up together, gone to college together, or come up the ranks of your firms together. You know that you can each help each other.

Right now, I gain more and more responsibility. I am checking the work of those on my team. I am drafting agreements for clients. I am interacting with clients on a regular basis. But the next step is to negotiate more and to help my clients make judgment calls. Should they give on X point? Should they try to take on Y point? What is each point worth? Lawyers are an unhappy bunch—a lot of depression, alcoholism. I like what I do. I enjoy seeing my deals on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.