The Life of a Lawyer: In Their Own Words

An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald's book

An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald’s book

First-Year Litigation Associate at a Major Firm
My day consists of research and writing—dealing with the source documents of a case. I get my assignments from partners, who just stop in and tell me they need help. They want to know the law, and I will research it; then they will turn that into advocacy.
Let’s say we were defending someone in a sexual harassment case. From me, they would want to gather the elements under Title VII. What are the elements that our client will have to prove? Later, we would get more targeted. Hypothetically, let’s say it was a same-sex case—I would need to find favorable examples. Maybe I would need to quickly research 30–40 cases. If I find 3–5 in my jurisdiction and then I am done, that is a good day. A bad day? I can’t find one. I can’t say, “I have noth- ing.” So, maybe I ultimately need to go back to a senior associate or partner with points against our case that might have holes and discrepancies.
Recently, we submitted a motion to dismiss in a case. It was a 35-page motion—I found 40–50 precedents that were incorporated in that motion. I actually wrote a small part of that brief, which is very unusual. As a third year, you become more trusted and experienced and start to draft more significant portions of language, but it is always fairly collaborative with the partner…. You also deal with clients more directly. Right now, no one wants to hear from me. I actually take pro bono clients to develop my skills, because they will talk to me—they have no one else!
I would say that for me, 50% of my job is research. That for me is the fun side of things. It is like being in school. Forty-five percent is producing documents— answering interrogatives and taking depositions. Research can get quite intense. Imagine if you were looking into Merck’s liability in its disclosures around Vioxx. You might need to go through ten thousand emails; you might need to go through medical records; you might need to depose expert witnesses. Finally, 5% might be trial or settlement work. A huge percentage of civil cases settle, because the risks are too high. If you have a $10 million case and a 50% chance of winning, there is a lot at risk! This is the fun part, but it is a small part of my job.
In-House Council at a Nonprofit Organization
“At a law firm, I probably would not state my legal opinion at a major client meeting for the first four years at least. At my organization, I am hands-on every day, leading all of our legal work.”
I spent my time as a first-year corporate associate worrying about typos and dead- lines. Those days were completely governed by the transactions that I was on. Often as a junior, the work resembled herding cats—finding signatures, pulling docu- ments, mailing documents, binding documents, proofing documents, and now and then, drafting documents. If I was working with multiple clients, I was often flooded with document requests. Often I was the messenger/envoy between clients, and when dealing with busy and stressed people, I needed thick skin, because being rebuffed both at work and by clients can be a trying part of the job.
I had to understand the relevant aspects of the assets we were acquiring, and possibly more importantly, all of the liabilities. Let’s say we were buying a small trading platform that was solid, even though the company was not. We needed to know that the IT [information technology] system worked; we needed to know who was servicing the system; we needed to know what was licensed and what was proprietary; we needed to know how long service contracts or patents would last; we needed to know whether these IT contracts had provisions that would trigger termination of the contract on the event of the completed transaction. I would read tons of contracts and then produce elaborate charts depicting the relevant details for each of them.
It can get so granular, and admittedly, some people love that. I preferred the big pic- ture behind the details, but in any event, you are paid six figures out of school to get the details right—whether you like them or not. Highly paid junior attorneys can be doing basic tasks like binding documents after hours, because certain documents could be going straight to the hands of clients. Support staff helps, but as someone said, if you want to guarantee a good job, often you must do it yourself. I have heard nightmare stories about pushing relatively easy but client-sensitive materials and responsibilities to support staff.
I enjoyed my position for the most part but had to make a quick move out of the firm when the economy turned. With the help of a couple contacts, quick legwork, and not a small amount of luck, I made a transition into the nonprofit world. I arrived at my new organization, not really in the position of practicing lawyer, but they had so many needs—and no internal attorney—that I just started to fill that role naturally.
When I first started taking on all this legal work myself, this level of legal responsibility was potentially intimidating. This was an established corporation, not a fly-by-night shop. And here I was, a hair under two years out of law school and being literally the last say on legal. At a law firm at my level, I would have had at least three layers of authority and legal review above me on any deal. So you may be wondering… What worked? and What didn’t? Well, these considerations weighed heavily on all the legal issues I advised or signed off on, and frankly, the name of the game for the first few months in this role was simple but important: prudence.
Nonprofits face a lot of reporting requirements—tax-exemption requirements and government and philanthropic grants lead to paperwork. If I were in-house at a specific corporate firm, say a Fortune 500, I might work in one area, such as employment issues or patents. But the nonprofit world tends to be somewhat understaffed, which makes many job functions quite amorphous and a bit more colorful and interesting. At the law firm, I probably would not state my legal opinion at a major client meeting for the first four years at least. At my organization, I am hands-on every day, leading all of our legal work. As any lawyer could relate, the first order of business at the new gig was ordering Westlaw—it was that bootstrapped.
We have contracts that need to be standardized and then adjusted, depending on circumstances and parties. We have leases that are renewed, negotiated, and re- drafted. We have insurance issues that need to be negotiated for our operations. We have had multiple legal issues that I researched in broad and varying areas of the law. Occasionally, I might be dealing with litigation and managing outside coun- sel, and it may take time and mental space to contemplate tactics—negotiation and settlement or fighting it out in court. I have to stay up-to-date on a host of legal issues that are constantly shifting.