Some words mean the same thing like “Curmudgeon,” “Practicing Law,” and “Mark Herrmann.”

Mark Herrmann is a lawyer, and the best-selling author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, ABA Publishing (2006).  I was pleased when the publisher asked me to review the book, although I now see that I have taken on a daunting task.

Inasmuch as the book was first published in 2006, there are a lot of reviews of this book. So far as I can tell, all of them praise the book to high heaven. Indeed, when an organ of the Wall Street Journal says nice things about a lawyer’s book and then prints serial excerpts from it you know (1) someone paid someone else off or (2) the book is damn good. I have no concrete proof that Herrmann paid anyone off.

HerrmannWho the hell is Mark Herrmann?

First, it is obvious from his name that Herrmann, like me, finds his roots in the rich comedic soil of the “Vaterland.” Second, Herr Herrmann is a graduate of Princeton in 1979 and the University of Michigan Law School in 1983, n/k/a Harbaugh Hall. Third, Herrmann clerked for the highly regarded Judge Dorothy W. Nelson of the Ninth Circuit. After a stint at a relatively small law firm in San Francisco, Herrmann served as a trial lawyer and became a partner at Jones Day in Cleveland (the perfect places to hone one’s funny bone). He wrote this book in 2006, and not too long thereafter told Jones Day to shove it. He then became Chief Counsel and Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, a provider of risk management services and other fancy stuff I don’t understand. He also took on the task of writing a column for Above the Law. See here for an example.

Sadly, this last New Year’s Eve, at an ATL party gone completely wrong, Herrmann died of an uncontrolled heart flutter. He did so while admiring the tattoos of another ATL writer, shortly after David Lat served him exquisitely aged cheese imported from beautiful Buffalo, New York. (I made up that last two sentences, I think.)

What the hell is this book about? Here is how a real curmudgeon, Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice, summarizes Herrmann’s book:

The Curmudgeon’s Guide is the sort of book that can be taken two ways. On the surface, it’s just a darn good guide to some very basic rules for being a good lawyer. Mark covers the essentials clearly and succinctly. While some might think this is some Biglaw roadmap only, it’s how every lawyer should do the job. These are the fundamentals of good lawyering that law school should, but never will, teach. That’s why we have guys like Herrmann to fill the gap.

But on another level, the subtle humor and good nature of its presentation was brilliant. For those associates who still watch Spongebob Squarepants, it probably won’t make a dent. You’re not ready for it. But for anyone who has shoes older than most first year associates, the wry wit that permeates the Guide will bring a twisted smile to your face.

It’s not laugh out loud funny. It’s the sort of humor one finds from having lived, watched and experienced years of young lawyers who think they know it all get the occasional well-deserved smack. Somebody has to tell them that they’re not as wonderful as their mommies have been assuring them all those years, and Herrmann does the job admirably.

Every law firm should have a partner like Mark Herrmann to mentor their youth and avoid the necessity of having to redo everything. There aren’t enough Hermann’s to go around, of course, which is why this Guide is so important. For solos, read it because nobody every told you how to be a lawyer. For Biglaw, buy a few hundred copies so you can hand them out to the next generation. Don’t buy too many, however, since there’s no telling how long you’ll be around and it would be a shame to waste them.

Greenfield is dead on.

By the way, I used a block quote from Greenfield–I didn’t break the quote into separate parts of 49 words or less. Admit it, you didn’t read it! Don’t lie. You didn’t read Greenfield’s f…… summary of this book that I so carefully selected in an effort to educate you young and dumb SOBs. Lazy little beasts, all of you!

In the book, Herrmann warned me that you wouldn’t read a block quote. And, he wrote many additional truths in the very first chapter of his book, “How to Write: A Memorandum from a Curmudgeon.” Every young lawyer should memorize those instructions. Next, each special snowflake should read, “How to Fail as an Associate,” detailing the top ten things that will assure doom. The remainder of the book proceeds apace full of elegantly simple but superbly smart advice written in an amusing tone.

For older lawyers, the book is extremely useful also. It is a mentor’s guide to mentoring. Beyond that, it will show you how to screw with the fragile minds of associates in ways that are fun in a knee slapping Germanic sorta way.

Despite being penned in 2006, the book is timely and will remain so as far into the future as I can see. Just ’cause I’m old, don’t discount my abilities as a futurist. I was an early adopter, and remain a committed user, of IBM Mag Card Selectrics.  (Admit it: You have no idea what they are. See!)

In short, if you want to become a real lawyer (or mentor a young’un to become one), and you really don’t know how, then this is really the book for you. Really, I’m not kidding. But, what the hell do I know? Really!

RGK

“Pleasing the Court With Intrigue”

I reviewed David Lat’s first novel Supreme Ambitions. I gave it glowing praise. I was interested, however, in what a real reviewer would write. Now, I have my answer.

Alexandra Alter has written a review for the New York Times of Lat’s novel. (“[F]or an elite niche — consisting largely of federal judges and their clerks — ‘Supreme Ambitions’ has become the most buzzed-about novel of the year.”)  The review is well worth reading, particularly because Ms. Alter is a journalist with chops and a fascinating personal background to boot.

She was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and grew up in Dhahran. She earned a college degree and master’s degrees in journalism and religion from Columbia University. She worked at The Miami Herald, covering local and national religion news. Before coming to the Times this summer, she wrote for The Wall Street Journal for the past five years. She focused on features and analytical pieces in the paper’s Friday arts and culture section. She profiled authors from Stephen King to Don DeLillo.

It seems that brother Lat has hit the big time. That makes me happy for David, and for young lawyers who are also aspiring writers.

RGK

David Lat’s first novel, “Supreme Ambitions,” deftly dissects judicial power, how to get it and how to use (and abuse) it

David Lat is a champion of judicial transparency even though he is a slightly monstrous one. If you read his first novel, and I heartily recommend it, you will understand my choice of words.

The annoying thing is that Lat is young. If you don’t know about his first blog, you have not been paying attention to the federal judiciary. Entitled  Underneath Their Robes, and written under the pseudonym Article III Groupie (because he was then a junior federal prosecutor and federal prosecutors are typically plodding and illiterate and constitutionally unable to rock the boat), Lat wrote snarky, terrifically funny, sometimes shocking, and always utterly revealing pieces about federal judges and their law clerks including especially those at the Supreme Court. These offerings were not made up. He had real sources and they leaked everything to him. Highly regarded federal appellate judges sought him out for coverage. He wrote in a female voice, and his fashion sense was as acute as his other skills.

It took a kid’s courage, a scamp’s mind, and boatload of diverse talents equivalent to a dangerously packed Filipino ferry to do what he did. Did I mention Harvard, Yale law, a clerkship with the brilliant Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit, a stint at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz and an appointment as an AUSA under (bad word choice) United States Attorney Chris Christie (yea, that guy)?

Lat was born in 1975, just like my second daughter Lisa. That makes me want to kill him.

Lat was born in 1975, just like my second daughter Lisa. That makes me want to kill him.

Lat revealed his identity in a November 2005 interview with Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker. After that, he left his prosecutor’s position in New Jersey to enter the literary world, founding, among other things, the everything-about-law-site, Above the Law.

And now we have the wunderkind’s first novel. It will be on “book stands” in hard cover around December 1, 2014, but you can (and should) pre-order now. The list price is $22.95, but Amazon will sell it at a pre-order price of $17.21. Published by the ABA, Lat titled his book Supreme Ambitions.

Lat’s novel is a cross between a serious look into the heart of darkness and an insouciant study of Manolo Blahnik footwear. It recounts the story of a young women, Audrey, who is half-asian. She is beautiful, poor, a gunner without being a mean girl, and a Yale law graduate. Audrey serves as a law clerk to a ruthless female federal appellate judge on the Ninth Circuit who is also of Asian origin. Our heroine desperately wants to clerk for a Justice of the Supreme Court. If Audrey plays her cards right, her Ninth Circuit boss, with more than a passing interest in the Supreme Court herself, can fulfill the waif’s supreme ambition. But what if Audrey must sell her integrity to get what she wants? For the rest of this captivating story, buy the book.

In no particular order, here are a few of my thoughts:supreme-ambitions-cover (1)

  • The novel is more about truth than fiction. This is legal realism at its finest but told in the highly unusual and difficult form of a a well-crafted novel. Concentrate on the details as you read this piece. It is Lat’s attention to that detail–the manner of speaking, the fixation on appearances, the guardedness, the obscene opulence of appellate judicial chambers, the hard, hard work that appellate law clerks are required to put in, the silly and ultimately unwarranted hero worship of federal appellate judges by law clerks just out of law school, the horrid egotism that runs unchecked and unchallenged among so many federal appellate judges, the use of words to hurt and demean for no reason other than to feel the sharpness of the blade cut sinew, and the pettiness, oh, the pettiness–that both brings this novel to life and gives it more than passing significance.
  • Especially for me, the book brought back memories. Long, long, long, long ago, I served as a law clerk to Judge Donald R. Ross on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the best job I have ever had. Lat’s novel reminded me of that wonderful period when high drama appeared around every corner. When my judge secretly flew out to the east coast on a private jet during the midst of Watergate, the fact that he had formerly been Vice Chair of the RNC, the fact that he had been the arrangements chair for the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, and the fact that he was the lawyer who dumped Barry Goldwater and his acolytes from power within the GOP, punctuated the point that some federal appellate judges remain unseen national power brokers even after they take the bench. My memory fits perfectly with Lat’s intriguing narrative.
  • Lat is a taxonomist of the first order. He divides federal appellate judges into two camps. The CEOs who manage cases, but who find little interest in the nitty-gritty of the law. They are said to see the big picture. Alternatively, there are the judges who are technicians who love the law, and the nitty-gritty that goes with it. They are said to be the intellectuals. While this division does not always hold true in real life, my experience suggests that Lat’s taxonomy is generally accurate. For what it is worth, my view is that the perfect appellate judge is the one who blends both attributes. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of those judges.
  • If you are expecting something from the likes of John Grisham, look elsewhere.
  • There is a hipster quality to the book, but it is not overdone.
  • Snark? Oh, of course. Do you know what TTT stands for? It stands for “Third Tier Toilet.” Snotty appellate law clerks from elite law schools use TTT to describe law schools like the University of Nebraska College of Law, my law school. At times, the novel has a very sharp edge to it.
  • Lat’s use of his real life blog Underneath Their Robes as an important element in the story initially annoyed me because it seemed needlessly self-promotional, but the device ultimately ended up being brilliant.
  • Until the end, there were not enough white guys. I’m kidding, but only sorta. As you reach the end of the novel, I think Lat wants you to think about Chief Judge Kozinski (a former law clerk to Warren Burger, Supreme Court of the United States, 1976-1977) and his independence, his brilliance, his weirdness, his powerful writing, his love of the law, his understanding of power, his terrific sense of humor and his intellectual honesty. Lat hints that such men (and women) are there if only the political will exists to put them on the upper rungs of the federal judiciary. And so it is, as the 281-page offering ends, that Lat provides me with a glimmer of hope.
  • The novel is fun for the gossip potential too. If you know what to look for, you can find references to present day Judges and Justices, although their names are changed. There a several nods to Lat’s old boss, Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit, but, of course, under a different name. Of particular interest to me, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Steven Colloton is favorably mentioned as “feeder” judge to the Supreme Court but under another name. Later, he is mentioned as a likely candidate for the Supreme Court. By the way, I know Steve (just a little) having sat with him on the Court of Appeals and worked with him on other projects. Lat’s speculation about the upward trajectory of this young Iowa federal appellate judge from flyover country fits my guess-work. That said, and while I like and respect him an awful lot, Steve would be well advised to polish his interpersonal skills with other judges. Just sayin’.
  • In the book, Lat uses court cases as stage props, but he gives us realistic cases to ponder. Because the novel concentrates on the tension between judges of different jurisprudential stripes (“conservative” and “liberal”), Lat is forced to describe the arguments for and against the competing alternatives. His analysis is balanced. Indeed, there are portions of the novel when the characters are getting down to the cases where Lat’s book might serve as a fun “hornbook.” Again, the detail Lat provides gives the novel a feel of reality that would be impossible to achieve without it.
  • I continue to thank the God(s) that my law clerks (Jan and Jim) are career clerks. Lat accurately describes the kids just out of law school who populate the ranks of federal appellate clerks. Sure, they are brilliant. But the acne that still dots the faces of many of them highlights their immaturity, and the ultra strange fact that important decisions are substantially shaped by children scares me.
  • Lat pens dialogue reasonably well for a first timer. Some of it is even marvelous. Dialogue is not, however, his strength. Because Lat is such a wonderful observer, I hungered for longer strings of dialogue but that is not found in Supreme Ambitions. Good dialogue is impossibly hard to write without years of practice. He will get better with time.
  • Next time around (and I strongly encourage Lat to continue writing novels), I would like David to concentrate on the TTT of the federal judiciary, the federal trial courts. There is a drama there as well as a desperate need for transparency. Again, the great value of Lat’s work is that he gives us legal realism in a transparent and knowing manner while using the unusually difficult but terrifically engaging device of a novel. Lat can become the master of this powerful new way of describing our opaque federal judiciary. I sincerely hope he continues.

RGK

The Marble and the Sculptor

downloadI received a review copy of Keith Lee’s* The Marble and the Sculptor, ABA (2013). While I was pretty sure I would like the Keith, I was inclined to hate the book. After all, Keith is a fan of Peter Drucker and other management gurus and those folks turn me off. In fact, I have always detested “how to” books.

Keith’s book is about studying and then practicing law. It is intended for law students and “young” lawyers. That David Lat and Scott Greenfield, two legal superstars, praise the book to high heaven piqued my interest. Heretofore, I have always found “how to” books recipes for disaster, irrelevant or mostly wrong. Since neither Lat nor Greenfield is a whore or an idiot and they have made their excellent reputations the hard way, I wondered why they would lend their names to the book jacket and forward. So, I read Keith’s book over the weekend.

What did I find?

First, Keith can write. Unlike many law books of this or any other kind, the words and sentences are short and the meaning unmistakable. There is a refreshing sense of wide-eyed honesty. Lee is not afraid to reveal himself and by so doing his book comes alive to reveal the machinery that is the practice of law.

Second, Lee is very big on hard work and very opposed to whining. That he is a martial arts expert (with a black belt) tells you much about his willingness to work like a demon at his craft. And, make no mistake, the practice of law is a craft. When he recounts his experience at a Chinese monastery being beaten on the back and taught the meaning of laughter with a mirror, I broke out laughing with him. The simple story is worth the price of the book ($24.95) and, perhaps, law school tuition as well. If nothing else, the vignette captures what it means to be a practicing lawyer. Unrelenting hard work at shitty pay, the mental and physical discipline of a SEAL team leader gone off the deep end, soul searing pain when you lose a case for a client you love, awful boredom, malpractice terror and gales of twisted laughter.

Keith Lee. The perfect image of a practicing lawyer.

Keith Lee. The perfect image of a practicing lawyer.

Third, the book is full of good and practical suggestion for practicing law. He writes knowingly about fundamental skills,** clients and client services, and professional development. For many, these parts of the book will be the most informative and helpful. Since I will never fill out a goddamn time slip ever again, I found Keith’s discussion both nostalgic and nauseating. The practice is hard, very hard. Who says you can’t remember pain? Keith forced me to relive it with the accuracy of a documentary film maker.

Fourth, Keith writes about law school and for old guys like me who care desperately for the survival of the profession this is the most significant part of the book. He starts his book with this advice: “Do Not Go to Law School.” Law school he explains in rich detail is not what applicants have in mind as they fill out the entrance applications. Lee tells the truth about law schools and that becomes the perfect introduction to what the practice of law actually entails. Indeed, if law schools wanted to be truthful about what they are selling, they should make every admission seeker certify that before mailing their application they have read Keith’s book. I am perfectly serious.

The Marble and the Sculptor is a praiseworthy “how to book.” That Keith Lee was able to write a “how to book” that I would call praiseworthy is a measure of how much I enjoyed the book and how very good I think it is.

RGK

*Keith Lee practices law with the Hamer group in Alabama. He is also the founding editor of the highly regarded blog, Associate’s Mind, one of the most popular legal blogs in the US. He will have a new book out in 2015.

**When Keith wrote about George Orwell, I completely forgave his reference to Drucker. See my post entitled Orwell lives.

 

 

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