The very large woman taunted me from behind bulletproof glass. I could almost hear the mockery when she pointed at the iron gate separating me from my car. Listen now, Mr. Dallas Lawdog, law don’t go ’round here, savvy? TJ’s Towing Service had my car, the big lady guarded the gate, and I either forked over $140 and my dignity, or I walked around Dallas for the rest of the summer while studying for the bar exam.
As I snatched my receipt from the sliding metal tray, two things occurred to me. Actually, three. First, Madame TJ’s drawl was so vicious that she turned the word “car” into a three-syllable assault. (Can you use it in a sentence, please? “I don’t care if you’re gonna sue my ass, ’cause we got your ka-AW-er.”) Second, it now made perfect sense why the bulletproof glass looked like it had been tested.
It was the third thought, slow-roasting, that started something more important for me. This can’t be right. How can some company drag my car miles across town and hold it for ransom? Then a little stronger: These are bad people. How do I nail ’em? And then the epiphany: Whatever it takes, I will.
MY FIRST-EVER SETTLEMENT CHECK—$640 from ol’ TJ himself—arrived on the very day I started work at a large Dallas law firm. Good thing, too, because it paid for both of my suits and the empty leather briefcase perched on my new desk. All through the three-day orientation, I felt like I could throw on my costume in a phone booth.
Face it. Times are grand for a new lawyer at a big firm. Money, a sense of empowerment, idealistic dreams of justice, money—they flow from the cup when that offer lands after a summer internship. And, listen, nobody really goes into the job thinking he doesn’t have to work hard. The few geniuses who actually think their poop don’t stink after the recruiting romance usually weed themselves out long before the partnership distributes the first year-end bonus.
The truth is that most young lawyers at White & Shoe* really want to work, and they expect to bust their butts right off the bat. The majority are proud of conquering law school, eager to crank out top-notch work, and willing to suck up the long hours in return for the starting salary and long-term prosperity. I was no different. I craved a full case load and a full briefcase, and I hit the ground running. I was a trial lawyer. TJs of the world, bring it on.
IN MY SECOND MONTH AT THE FIRM, THE BAR results came in. I passed. That night, all but an unlucky handful of first-years at the large firms hit the town hard. Legitimacy came with a massive but well-earned hangover.
Two weeks later, we all faced the required “New Lawyer Orientation,” a rite of passage to suffer through while skipping a full day of work. A cozy morning of coffee and the Dallas Morning News’ SportsDay in some auditorium actually sounded good for a Friday.
But after a few lectures on ethics (Don’t double-bill your clients) and more ethics (Don’t help your clients double-bill their clients), a middle-aged guy took the stage and told the first five rows of new attorneys to stand up. I was safe in the back row, watching 20 percent of the audience drop their bagels and stare at one another nervously.
“Everyone, take a good look,” the man said as they rose. “These are your colleagues, your co-workers, your friends. And before your career is over, they will all be alcoholics or drug addicts.” Nervous pause, stunned silence, mayhem. What the hell was he talking about? I folded my SportsDay.
“I am a lawyer, and I am an alcoholic.” He continued, appreciating the stir: “So are 15,000 other attorneys in this state. The Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program is here for you.” I felt like I needed to ice down my groin.
Over drinks that night, our crew of lawyer buddies discussed the full-frontal delivered at the orientation. Shock value, right? Must have been, because we knew lots of lawyers and didn’t know any addicts. Surely it couldn’t be that horrible to practice law. It’s a time-honored profession, and why should ours be different from any other? Maybe those figures were just national averages. By closing time, we decided that the addicts among us needed to suck it up and rub some dirt in it. Life just isn’t that bad.
LIFE GOT PRETTY BAD A FEW WEEKS LATER WHEN a partner I had never met sent my first real assignment by e-mail. Lucky day. I was nominated for the Document Review Team on a large merger involving Client A and Behemoth B. In Ohio.
To the uninitiated, a “document review” sounds like just that: a review of substantive documents, with attorneys poring over them to prevent mistakes, ensure compliance with the law, develop legal strategies, and add value to a client’s business venture. But “document review” is a term of art. If there were an entry for it in Black’s Law Dictionary, it would read:
Document review (n.)
1. A legal phenomenon composed of lots of paper, stored in lots of boxes, containing information nobody understands.
2. The art of charging a client to review lots of paper, stored in lots of boxes, containing information nobody understands.
3. See “indumbnification.”
The Cliff’s Notes version is that a document review is the quintessential ass-whip of a young lawyer’s career. It taxes the soul and leaves the lawyer dumber for his effort. How could this be happening to me? I had wrongs to right, for God’s sake, and this was no way to go about it.
James Worth, another first-year at the firm, was a “cc” on the document review e-mail. I called him to discuss our plight and figure a way out of it. Unfortunately, James was a good guy with a can-do attitude, and he pointed out that we had no other cases that required our immediate attention, no street cred at the firm, and hours to bill. We were screwed.
So the 14-hour days in an Ohio Marriott began. Though I have blocked out most of that experience, suffice it to say that after several weeks and 340 boxes of paper, James and I finished cleaning the stable. We were tired, pissed off, and measurably dumber, but at least we made it. I brought that knowledge home to Dallas with a badge of honor, a little chip on my shoulder, and hundreds of billable hours in the bank. Yet one thought nagged at me: during the entire experience, I had not taken a single step toward becoming a real trial lawyer.
JAMES WORTH WAS THE THIRD ASSOCIATE FROM the litigation section to leave the firm during our fourth year of practice. He completed his stint with several more document reviews, one deposition, and no hearings under his belt. James was married and had two kids, yet he quit before he had even lined up another job. “Home Depot will give me a name badge and a tool belt,” he told me, and he was serious. He was tired of working nights and weekends, sick of “hot grounder” assignments from partners on Friday evenings that sat on their desks for two weeks. He was fed up with phrases like “hot grounder.” And, most of all, James hated the idea that big-firm lawyers never go to trial.
James was right. Many lawyers at large firms make partner without ever trying a case in front of a jury. We were fast becoming settlement lawyers—preparing cases to settle through mountains of paperwork that run the cost of litigation sky high. Commercial clients run businesses, and in the business world, the bottom line rules. Too often Right v. Wrong and Good v. Evil result in the Compromise Settlement and Mutual Release on the eve of trial. At the end of the day, only Risk v. Reward is consistently tried.
Worse, a young lawyer might have no input in settling a case other than drafting legal briefs at a partner’s bidding. At large firms where client relationships carry the day, the partner on the case often covets the client contact, the depositions, and the hearings. All the fun lawyer stuff. Nothing is as demoralizing as cranking all night on a research memo only to hear Partner tell Client about the great idea he’d come up with. Now get back to your document review.
And that’s what the firm didn’t seem to get. Young lawyers were leaving in droves, some within a year or two of making partner. Few, if any, left to take jobs at another large firm. Many joined small plaintiffs’ firms to try personal injury cases, and others switched careers entirely. Why? “Couldn’t hack it.” “Not willing to step it up.” “Sense of entitlement.” None of that was true.
It was Purpose. Associates want a sense of purpose from the practice of law. If you have it, you can tolerate all the other crap. Long hours. Bureaucratic managers. Vindictive supervisors. Credit hogs. Just an ounce of participation in real-life justice and those daily beatings seem worthwhile.
But you can’t find Purpose in the library or the warehouse doing document review. You sure as hell won’t find it helping Partner settle a case for Faceless Client at Nameless Corporation for eight to 10 years. That brutal reality drives talented lawyers out of our industry and drives others to the bottle.
When James Worth stopped by my office on his way out the door, I swear he was two inches taller. I decided right then that if I was going to make it as a trial lawyer, I had to find me some Purpose.
I NEVER DID FIND PURPOSE. INSTEAD, LIKE MOST good things that happen in my life, Purpose found me. It landed right in my lap in my fifth year of practice as I was staring out my office windows, wondering if they opened.
“John Savage.” I always answered my phone very officially, just in case a magazine reporter or Partner Supervisor rang.
“Johnny, it’s Todd. Need your help with something.” Todd was a young partner in our real estate section who had recruited me to the firm, and he had been at my bachelor party that summer. I owed him for his friendship and his silence. “I have a client I did a lease for my first year who needs a litigator, and he can’t pay our rates. Got any referrals?”
“Sure,” I said. “Send him down and we’ll talk about his problem, no charge. I’ll find someone for him.”
When Joseph Daniel and his wife Sue stepped into my office five minutes later, I never suspected my life was about to change.
The Daniels owned four convenience stores in North Dallas. When they opened the first, they plunked down all their cash and took out a second mortgage. Joe was a hell of a salesman, Sue dominated the books, and within two years they had paid off their loans and bought two competitors. Jo-See Mart was negotiating the purchase of its fourth location when Dr. Abbas came calling.
The Good Doctor proposed a business partnership that would take Joe and Sue to new heights. He owned 26 stores across the city and drove a Bentley. Through his corporate office at 210 Lincoln Center, Abbas had a management staff that would take over Jo-See’s operations and pay the Daniels into retirement. All they had to do was sign a purchase and management agreement that gave day-to-day control to Abbas, and he would take care of the rest. Joe and Sue signed both the agreement and a nasty noncompete.
When Jo-See Mart’s four stores showed huge losses at the end of the year, the Daniels realized they were in serious trouble. Worse, Abbas blamed their accounting and claimed that Sue had doctored the books to trick him into the purchase agreement. Abbas was forced to sell Jo-See Mart to something called the Convenience Corp. for a loss. And now he threatened to sue the Daniels if they even thought of opening a competing store.
What could I do? My hands were tied. The purchase agreement was airtight, and this nice couple had no money to pay our legal fees. When Joe offered his son’s college fund to pay us a retainer, I politely declined. That wouldn’t pay for one week of litigation at White & Shoe.
I gave Joe a list of three small firms in town that might take a $5,000 retainer to negotiate the Daniels out of their noncompete, but it truly seemed hopeless. The family didn’t have enough money to open another store, even if they wanted to start all over. When I walked the couple out to our elevators, I could sense what they were thinking. But instead of being angry, Sue shook my hand.
“Thanks for listening,” she said.
Those words were still in my ears as I scoured the web site for the Texas Secretary of State that night. I figured I could at least help get them a referral and run a conflict check. Who was the Convenience Corp., anyway? And what kind of “doctor” was Abbas?
When I pulled up the franchise tax form on the state web site, all I learned was that the Convenience Corp. ran its operations from 210 Lincoln Center. Well would you look at that. What a coincidence. That lying doctor now owned 30 convenience stores in our city.
I MUST HAVE SEEMED DESPERATE, OR A LITTLE crazy, when I sat across the desk from the firm’s senior litigation partner the next morning. For all my preparation and rehearsing, my pitch to take the Daniels’ case on a contingent-fee basis was nothing but a plea to the man’s heart. It made no financial sense, and I couldn’t explain why this case should be different from the dozens of others the firm turns down every month. But it was. And the partner sensed it. And he said yes. At that moment, all the hours, all the years, all the document reviews were worth it. I was going to be a lawyer after all.
DR ABBAS WORE THE MOST EXPENSIVE SUIT I have ever seen. When he took the witness stand before the jury, it was obvious his four lawyers had coached him well. His testimony was concise and polished. He flipped through piles of documents and spoke a financial language no one understood.
When I stood to cross-examine him, I wondered whether the jury could tell that I had no idea what to do. I was outclassed. Years of drafting documents and scouring contracts had not prepared me to expose the true nature of a man before his peers. I couldn’t even speak.
I looked back at the Daniels. They were holding hands so tightly that their knuckles were white. Then I remembered that this trial wasn’t about me. I turned back to Abbas and forgot everything I knew about the law.
“Good morning, sir,” I said, looking Abbas in the eye.
“Good morning,” he responded. He waited for my next question, but I didn’t ask one. I just looked at him, for a good 30 seconds. Finally, it happened. Abbas moved in his seat, cleared his throat, and adjusted his glasses. His hand was shaking. It was time to move.
“Are you a doctor?” I asked. I don’t know why I fired off that question; it wasn’t part of my script. But I guessed it wasn’t part of his script either.
And I was right.
Abbas took a few seconds, looked over at his cadre of attorneys, and finally responded.
“What do you mean?”
“Are you a doctor, Mr. Abbas?”
The “doctor’s” five-minute answer failed to produce a “yes” or “no.” He was lying, and the jurors knew it. From then on, he was mine.
THE DANIELS MAY NEVER COLLECT ON THEIR multimillion-dollar judgment against Abbas, though they now own a good number of his stores. The firm may never see a dime of its contingent-fee percentage. And I may never get to trial again. But at least I found Purpose in the strangest of places, and my firm gained a real attorney.
Lawyers define the law firm. I define the lawyer. Not the other way around.
Now, who owns all these towing companies, anyway?
*All names and certain details of the story have been changed.
The writer is an associate at a large Dallas law firm.
How We Did It
D Magazine mailed postcards to 2,500 Dallas attorneys, asking them to go to our web site (www.dmagazine.com) and vote for lawyers under the age of 40 who represent the best of the profession. Anyone with a valid Bar number was eligible to vote.
We posed the following question: which young Dallas lawyer, of those whose work you’ve witnessed firsthand, would you rank among the current best? With that question in mind, lawyers were asked to provide three names—one from inside their firms and two from outside their firms. Nominations could include co-counsel, lawyers they have observed in court, and opposing counsel.They had to vote for two attorneys from outside their own firms for the same-firm votes to count.
That said, we took great pains to prevent any bias in favor of large firms and to prevent ballot-box stuffing. A large number of same-firm votes didn’t guarantee a best listing. Only ballots signed by the attorney with his or her State Bar number were counted. We also enlisted the help of a panel of well-respected local lawyers to review the list. At the recommendation of the panel, to ensure the integrity of our list of the Best Lawyers Under 40, the managing partners of the biggest law firms in Dallas were asked to approve the list of top vote-getters from their respective firms. (This means the managing partner at Akin Gump, for example, approved the top vote-getters from Akin Gump. No managing partner saw the entire list.) The list was finalized after this second round of reviews.
Baker Botts L.L.P.
Michael P. Aigen
Lackey Hershman, LLP
Complex Commercial Litigation
Winstead Sechrest & Minick P.C.
Commercial Real Estate
Hermes Sargent Bates, L.L.P.
Commercial Litigation and Health Law
Jeffrey O. Anderson
Edwin T. Aradi
Jonathan J. Bates
Amy Davis Benavides
Gregory D. Binns
C. Mark Brannum
Cheryl S. Camin
David E. Colmenero
John T. “Trey” Cox III
Patrick K. Craine
Ryan D. Dry
Peggy L. Facklis
Michael B. Farnell Jr.
W. Ross Forbes Jr.
Michael S. Gardner
Laura Benitez Geisler
John T. Gerhart Jr.
Geoffrey S. Harper
Jonathan K. Henderson
David F. Johnson
Jeffrey W. Kemp
Douglas M. Kubehl
Christopher W. Lewis
Anthony H. Lowenberg
Jeffrey S. Lowenstein
Daniel J. Madden
Patrick F. Madden
David R. McAtee II
Mitchell S. Milby
Todd A. Murray
Ann Marie Painter
Scott H. Palmer
Baker & McKenzie LLP
Mark A. Platt
James Prince II
Tonya Moffat Ramsey
O. Rey Rodriguez
Matthew J. Schroeder
Matthew R. Scott
Michael L. Smith
R. Kevin Spencer
Bill J. Stovall
Shad E. Sumrow
Ellen Van Meir
Victor D. Vital
Peter K. Wahl
A. Michael Warnecke
Bryan J. Wick
Jason E. Winford
Robert J. Witte