The Life of a Lawyer: In Their Own Words

An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald's book

An excerpt from Jeremy Shinewald’s book

In case it is not clear from this description, mastery of particularized areas of law can be difficult—if not impossible—to achieve within in-house roles. But on the other hand, it is never boring. In my final analysis, the law firm provided a solid core skill set for running this kind of role, which is essentially a good sense of drafts- manship and business strategy. This is why—notwithstanding the gamut of experi- ences and current reputations of law firms—I still say get a year of two of experience there if you can. Trial by fire is better than no trial at all. The level of attention to detail, the fear, the dread, and sometimes the triumph of doing better than your best (or at least, better than the other side’s) will serve you well throughout your career. And while you will likely be less stressed in your post-firm role than in the “good old days” spent there, the emphasis on quality and client service that may be found, if you look, will carry you well into the future.
Of Counsel at an International Firm
What I do is really unusual for a lawyer. I started at a firm that was tiny, and I had business development responsibilities right away. In fact, I was basically told that I had to bring in clients because that was the only way that they could afford my salary, and this is typical for a lot of small firms out there—most firms are not thousand-lawyer international firms with enormous clients.
I won a few big cases at my first firm and developed a bit of a profile, and I had some experience with client development. I joined my current firm as of counsel and bring in $1.5 million in new business each year. My guess is that I will need to get to $2–$3 million a year to become a partner. So, I travel constantly and meet with potential clients, with new client generation on my mind always. Tonight, I would love to go home and see my pregnant wife and son, but I am going for drinks with the head of a trade association. A lot of what I do is not paid—it is a leap of faith, hoping that we get clients in the end.
I brought in a client: an international pharmaceutical firm, making inroads in the United States. This client is now dealing with regulations that it has never encountered before. Suddenly, the client is informed that it has run afoul of the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. Then, the justice department gets involved and starts filing civil and criminal charges. Then Congress gets involved… I am sudden- ly working with our team to deal with the regulators and head to Capitol Hill to defend our interests and lobby. We manufacture in the United States and are grow- ing jobs in one state at a rapid rate. Now I am developing an advocacy campaign.
All the while, I am managing their budget and ensuring that we don’t exceed their retainer. If we present them with a bill that is beyond their budget, they could either not pay or fire us. If we get close to our limits, I might step in and do a few hours of work for free, so that our $900 per hour partner stays off the file. There is no way that the senior associate will step in like that, because he needs to bill to survive. You can do that when you own the client.
Partner at an International Firm— Intellectual Property
Since I started as an associate, I have always said, “I love riding up the elevator in the morning without knowing what is going to happen that day.” I start each day with a mental list of the things I want to achieve, and I never get too much of it, because things come up. I am always reacting to the exigencies of the day, which keeps things interesting and challenging.
At my stage of the game, practicing law for ten years, I spend most of my day interacting with associates, instructing them and monitoring progress. Because my practice is varied, with both an advisory and litigation component, I have a large group of associates that I manage each day, anywhere from two to ten, most often closer to the high end of that rather than the low end. Right now, I am working on a big law suit on a mass copyright infringement—I have four associates working with me. Meanwhile, I have two working on another litigation piece and a couple working on the transactional side.
I don’t have a structure where every morning people are coming in and asking me what to do—the assignment and timelines vary and are dynamic. So I have a constant parade of people in my office. If I have something new, I spend a lot of time trying to give instruction and make sure they know what they are doing. I don’t want associates in the field, wasting time.
It is not always clear what a client wants, but I try to give my associates the best picture of the big picture. When I started out, there were lawyers who would assign a discrete task without ever giving you a sense of what the big picture looked like. It made associates feel like a small cog in a big wheel with no idea what direction that wheel is turning—this is a big part of why people leave the law in the first few years. If all you are doing is due diligence, drafting officers’ certificates or preparing affidavits of documents, and you don’t know what you are doing to serve your clients, associate life can be a very empty existence. I want my associates to feel like they are part of the process with our client, not that I am the client.
What I love about my job is that it is a constant teaching process for me now, just as it was a constant learning process for me in the early days. Still, I don’t want to give the impression that the learning is over. Not a day goes by where something does not come up that makes me feel like I don’t know what I am doing. Any time a client calls me, I think, “Now what?” That sounds like a tough problem, and I understand why they need lawyer. The main difference between me today and me ten years ago is that today I have a deeper store of information and experience to draw on when I try to solve that problem.
One of the interesting things that I have noticed in the past few years is that I actu- ally have more demands for me to be in the office! As a fifth- or sixth-year lawyer, I had a lot more flexibility to do my own thing. I would travel and had my laptop. I was really able to work on my own stuff at my own pace—I had earned the freedom and flexibility, because people knew I would get the work done. Now, I am feeling a greater imperative to be at the office, because people need me. They feel that sense of security with me there.
One of the reasons that I need to build a great team is because I still need to get out of the office and meet with customers and potential customers. The practice of law is no less a business than any other. It is the middle of April, and I just qualified for elite status. This year alone I have been to London, Cannes, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and Washington—at least ten trips this year. I go to industry conferences and spend time at law firms in other cities, trying to find sources of cross-referral work for clients who are operating outside their countries. It is not all power lunches—I give talks on legal developments in my field. Still, there are lunches, dinners, and drinks. At a conference, my day may start at 7:00 a.m. and end with drinks at 3:00 a.m.
These days, a very small percentage of associates make partner. The attrition rate is very high, but this is more the associate’s choice than ours. The hours are tough. Many don’t want to work that hard. The mountain looks too high to climb. Some never even intended to be partner, which is a dynamic that has only shown itself in the last five or six years. It used to be that there really was not any question that everyone wanted to be partner.
Today, a shocking percentage of associates come in with lifestyle expectations that are not realistic. There is a reason why associates need to work 14 hours a day, 6–7 days a week, 50 weeks per year. It is because the economic model demands it and the clients demand it. Clients don’t care that you want to see a baseball game. Clients don’t care that your cousin is in town and you want to take them on a tour of your old law school campus. It is not a 9 to 5 job that you can leave and forget about it. I can’t forget about it, because people have entrusted me with some pretty big problems that they can’t solve on their own. People pay a lot of money for a team of dedicated professionals, who they believe has a team that can solve that problem.
Jeremy Shinewald is the founder of jdMission, an admissions consulting firm that helps applicants get into law school. This article is excerpted from his book, The Complete Start-To-Finish Law School Admissions Guide.