Sunday, May 13, 2012

Turning Lawyer Applicants Into Indentured Servants & A Serious Lesson in Business Etiquette

So, if you've done your homework before reading this blog you know that I have 2 different core audiences in the professional world: attorneys & entertainment professionals. This one's going to have something for both (though this is still ultimately the place where I can be myself; if you're fortunate enough to do this, you really should).

First off, NY state is soon to be the very first state in the US to require all new attorneys to undergo 50 hours of pro bono work before being admitted to the bar & provide certification of this to the bar examiners. This article is a good overview on the issue & addresses some things.

However, I feel the need to comment since I don't think it goes far enough & doesn't cover things I've said:

1. You may know I'm doing my first stint of Monday Night Law this year. If you read one of my earlier entries, you read about a conversation I overheard about someone being turned down for pro bono work she actually wanted to do & cared about b/c the organization only wanted BigLaw attorneys trying to meet their pro bono requirement.

Now what about these aspiring lawyers? They're not going to have malpractice insurance to cover them. If these organizations are so strapped for cash, they can't cover experienced attorneys volunteering then how are they going to cover these new folks?

2. Why should new attorneys get to be involved in programs to "get experience" when there are tons of unemployed attorneys who could use it? What about the attorneys who actually WANT to be there getting the experience & feeling good about doing it? Don't they count?

3. Let's expand on that that whole "reluctant volunteer" issue: many of these volunteer projects won't take new attorneys. Monday Night Law doesn't take attorneys admitted less than 2 years. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts won't take you unless you've been a lawyer for 7 years (I'm heading into my 5th year, even though I've been doing far more in this business than their majority BigLaw volunteers probably have; reading Yelp reviews of them also makes me adamant about never recommending anyone I know there). Presumably, you want to take on pro bono work that might have relevance to what you want to do, right? Or maybe you'd like to do something you'd actually, oh I don't know, ENJOY?

What if there's no opportunity for that? Then what? Are we now subjecting people who can't afford legal counsel to bitter, miserable law students/graduates who are only there to get this pro bono requirement met & could care less about their problems or them as people? The requirement doesn't say "50 hours of pro bono work where you built rapport with clients" or "50 hours of pro bono work where you helped clients w/their matters." It just says "50 hours of pro bono work." Not a word about the quality of it.

I would hope that the students commenting on this article are right about people caring about using their schooling to help others but I can't help but wonder about the elitist types who don't want to be there, are miserable & will take it out on any organization they work with as well as any clients walking in the door. You know there are some.

I personally CHOSE what I did & don't regret it. Working at my school's legal clinic proved to me that I wasn't really cut out for the politics & craziness of a law firm. The helping people aspect was great (and that makes a lawyer feel better since if you're not in charge or a veteran lawyer, you're often made to feel useless, incompetent & like you've got a permanent case of two left feet or foot in mouth disease). The life lessons & war stories were great truths I use to this day. However, the stories I heard about law firms & the time I was yelled at by one of our professors in the second phase of my work there were enough for me to say "Nope, not happening for me."

There are some projects I would have no interest or desire in doing. Helping someone convicted of many sorts of crimes is one (rape, animal abuse, neglecting children, hate crimes, etc.). Anything dealing with illegal immigrants is another. I have some very personal beliefs on these subjects that would make representation by me not only ineffective but verboten under ethics rules (attorneys can't take cases where they will not be able to provide zealous advocacy or effective counsel due to personal biases, religious beliefs, etc.). If you have to subject someone to a more rigorous screening process than you would for something where you don't have personal biases, then you can't effectively counsel him/her.

These are some of the individuals lawyers come in contact with & the people society doesn't like or approve of do need legal counsel. However, I know there are certain cases I can't take & certain projects I wouldn't be a fit for. I'm sure there are attorneys who wouldn't be able to deal with some of the matters I have but that's why there's a little something for everyone. At least, when you're licensed.

4. Some schools apparently have some very competitive clinic & internship/externship programs. Fortunately, I didn't attend such a law school but I've read about places where if you aren't on law review or top of the class you won't get into any of the law school programs. If you're in that boat, then what do you do? Again, there's that problem of not getting the opportunity you want & being forced into something where you & everyone around you will be miserable.

I have to wonder if this is a "do good" way to project yet more elitism into NY bar admissions. No one's going to say "Oh, it's a bad idea to require lawyers to help the less fortunate," but if you're dealing with a lower ranked student at one of these schools with a competitive clinic/internship/externship program who then has no ability to meet the requirement (presuming the outside organizations also try instituting grade requirements, which isn't uncommon at some places & especially considering nearly all the decision makers in the legal field view GPA/class rank as the only way to determine one's value as a human being), you've just shut out the attorneys who are ranked lower in the class. You see where I might get that notion & why it could raise hackles?

5. Then, to get away from the issues I took with this requirement was the point brought up by many about the whole notion of indentured servitude of lawyers. In case you haven't heard, the legal job market sucks for new grads. Even BigLaw isn't taking all the top GPA/law review members & starting a business without money, contacts, etc. is extremely hard. Some of us are good hustlers. Some of us are great at networking. Some of us can get breaks by doing this stuff.

However, you can be a good networker & still have problems in this economy. You can't MAKE someone give you a job or an opportunity. You can't make someone do something they don't want to do. Plain & simple.

So I do think the people pointing out this being indentured servitude that the folk imposing this aren't going to have to do personally do make a good point. It does seem like you shouldn't outsource your own pro bono duties or even duties to help society/your fellow man in general to the attorney applicants, who really have no say in the matter & can't object.

In sum, I think it's a noble idea but misguided. You can't really force anyone to be a good citizen. It's either there or it isn't. Kind of like what my law school Ethics professor said in class. He said he couldn't instill Ethics into us as 20 somethings & either we had ethics or we didn't. Same goes for this. You've either got a sense of altruism & care about helping people or you don't. I don't think this requirement is going to make a selfish, elitist scumbag become Mother Teresa all of a sudden.

Plus, the people imposing this requirement ignore the issue of classism among the poor. Those people will know in a second if some aspiring NY bar applicant is being patronizing or just there to collect hours vs. really caring about their issue, empathetic to that client & "gets" it. It is a different world & if you don't brief people on it, they will give off a terrible impression to the client + may even discourage that client from ever seeking out a lawyer again. We know not everyone involved in pro bono projects cares about the work or the people coming for help.

So, that's a special lawyer issue that is definitely important to the community at large & I'd love to know what non-lawyers think about it, especially those who'd likely have to go to these organizations to get legal representation. I wonder if the Chief Justice is taking statements from those people directly; if not, he should consider them.

Now, we're going to look at business etiquette. Consider the following scenario:

You have an e-mail account that is not available to the general public. The only acceptable way someone would get the address is by A) getting your business card or headshot/resume (most likely from you), B) being a member of a bar association or networking group you belong to i.e. an attorney or entertainment professional, C) you initiating contact with the person.

I say "acceptable" to mean a method where it was okay for the person to reach out to you. Those who have this e-mail also know not to pass your information along without asking you first. The majority of your contacts are attorneys, entertainment professionals working behind the scenes or people you've told not to spread your info around without asking.

Attorneys & entertainment professionals generally don't share your info without asking since they get hassled enough by strangers & if they share your info without asking, they know you could (and probably would) do it right back to them. If they do it to lots of people, they will effectively get blackballed. Everyone knows this.

Another fact about this e-mail account: your full name is not associated with it. That means if you sent an e-mail to someone using it, they would not get your name unless you put it in there. You're extremely conscientious & paranoid about giving out your name to strangers since you come up first in a Google search. So, this account is one of those insider things.

Rule #1: Do NOT use a "secret" e-mail, phone number, fax number, screen name or social media account to contact a stranger. Assume a 98% chance that you will piss off that stranger. This is why getting lists of contacts for the entertainment industry doesn't really work if you don't have a personal friend/contact of that stranger that will vouch for you.

The same goes for lawyers who don't have law firms. Don't contact lawyer/film execs through a secret means. Secret means you wouldn't find it in an online search & have no one to vouch for you.

Rule #2: If you spam someone, be prepared to tell the person how you got that secret means of communication, apologize & take what's coming to you. You ARE in the wrong. Make no mistake about it.

Rule #3: If you're going to send your newsletters/updates/impersonal correspondence to a stranger, be prepared to accept any such correspondence that stranger may send. This includes information about fundraising campaigns for films, newsletters & any other business correspondence. If you want someone to care about YOUR company/updates/life, you'll have to do the same for your recipients. This is life.

Rule #4: If the stranger reaches out to you about networking & says you may be a useful contact (especially where that strangers is someone who could hire your clients), you seize that opportunity to be friendly. If that person was someone you chose to target with your materials, any rational person would conclude that you are open to networking with said person. After all, why waste your time with people you don't see an opportunity in dealing with?

Rule #5: Follow up with people who could hire your clients or otherwise help your business. To only look at the present time & not the long term future is stupid. For those in the entertainment field: not networking with entertainment lawyers is stupid, presumptuous & will screw you sooner or later.

Most entertainment folk know better than to snub lawyers; even your newest actors tend to be at least polite to entertainment law attorneys. As one person told me once, we serve a useful & important function. Don't you fucking forget it; if you're going to do anything professionally in entertainment, you will need us. It's just a matter of time. Find someone who makes a living in the entertainment field who doesn't have a lawyer or an agent/manager who is a licensed attorney. I dare you.

And as you don't piss off entertainment lawyers in general, you don't piss off someone who knows a lot of attorneys & has extensive contacts in entertainment law. Guess who most of my lawyer contacts are? Entertainment law attorneys. Common interests, people.

I also look out for my friends & if I hear they're going to be working with someone I know is a jerk, I'll be saying something.

Back to the scenario:

You get a newsletter from a total stranger in this "secret" e-mail account. It contains your full name in the Recipient line. You don't know the name in any context. This isn't a LinkedIn contact, a member of a LinkedIn group, a business contact, a lawyer or someone who'd have a legitimate reason to have your e-mail. Nor did this person acknowledge that they're sending you this thing & don't know you.

In doing your homework, you learn this person could be a good contact & might be able to answer a simple informational question. Sort of a cross between informational interview & "What's it like to do X?" inquiry. You get a response by phone then send your info so the person can do their research on you.

You hear nothing. Then, you take an opportunity to meet this spammer/potentially useful contact in person. Figuring maybe this person's busy, you're not too phased with a lack of response to your e-mail. After all, you know people in this stranger's line of work tend to be busy.

When you hear this person speak, you get an impression of competence & the person does have some sense of humor.

However, you ask this person directly about what you wrote in e-mail & guess what the stranger does? The stranger attempts to recruit you for one on one time & charge you money for it.

Remember, this person reached out to YOU & had no way of having your private e-mail account. You asked everyone who had that personal e-mail that may have dealt with this stranger & no one knew this person. Presuming professionals aren't going to send out your info for you to get spammed & that these individuals have no personal animus toward you to get your name added onto a spam list, you have to conclude that the stranger is not only a spammer but a total asshole. This was NOT you making first contact & then trying to get a freebie.

Who was this person, you may ask? Well, as I feel it's my duty to inform those I know in the business about professionalism & counter the BS where I can I'll tell you. That would be Jenn Lederer of The Dream Management. Her competence is not a concern for me (the typical reason I'd not work with someone in this business). It's her lack of business etiquette.

I also wonder how much respect she actually has for lawyers considering when I saw her speak, she told actors to see about getting a writing to get reel footage for student films but that the filmmakers could choose at their leisure whether to give it up or not. Not wanting to announce to the entire room my entire resume or background, I thought loudly "That's a contract! If these people don't act, the performer could sue & maybe even get an injunction against the film getting a distribution deal, going to festivals, etc. At the very least, they might be able to get some money. Depends on what this contract says & what you include or not."

I've also told people not to waste their time with anyone who won't sign contracts or freaks out when you mention discussing the work with your lawyer or manager since that shouts "unprofessional." Even on my company's no budget, no name films you'd better believe there were contracts. That "smile & a handshake" stuff doesn't cut it if you want to be a working professional in entertainment. No professional I've met has EVER said this to an actor & or devalued lawyers in this way.

This leads to Rule #6, which is especially for renaissance people: various careers or sides of a person don't exist in a vacuum. If you think I'm not going to use knowledge I get about you in the context of my film company work or legal work, then woe unto you. Treat me like shit in some other context & like every single other professional who works behind the scenes in entertainment, I will take notes & make sure you're not subjecting my team to your crap. We have no patience or time to be magnanimous, nor should that be expected of us. Demanding it from us definitely won't get you anywhere. That's why such complaints don't impress me.

My lawyer side doesn't vanish just because I'm doing an acting gig. That producer trainee/film exec side doesn't go away if I'm at a lawyer event. I watch how you conduct yourself, how you treat people, what you say, etc. Renaissance people are the people you'd better be impressing hardest since we ARE doing so much stuff & probably have more contacts among so many areas than the average person. We could help you or we could ruin you.

I'm hardly an unreasonable person, overly sensitive or insist on ego stroking but don't you find that screwed up? I don't even know of an attorney charging law grads, new lawyers or anyone else for informational interviews or networking meetings (and you'd expect that from the dreaded lawyers; hell, I could make a fortune from it if I were an asshole). I could guarantee most lawyers' busy schedules would put her own schedule to shame, no matter how busy she is. I also wrote her the next day to mention these truths to her (I also mentioned being from NC & having friends + family living there considering she'd claimed people in NC had no souls during her talk to see if she gets that maybe I'd find it offensive).

If she apologized, it would be all good but since she has not, I'm afraid her actors won't be working with my company. After all, if she's that disrespectful to me a.k.a. "the enforcer," how's she going to treat a producer or director? Is she just going to further actor/director conflicts vs. helping find a solution? That's what I feel like she'd end up doing.

I should however, thank the acting coach who had her speak since I likely wouldn't have been able to have that conversation in any other forum & it saved me a lot of time and headaches. John Pallotta, you're awesome (and he is, really).

So kids, you violate business etiquette at your own peril. If you think you don't need to learn it, think again. Remember, I'm one of those easygoing, non-asshole lawyers who acts like a real person. Imagine how I'd react to this if I were a stereotypical lawyer. Imagine if she were a law firm associate pulling this mess with a law firm partner.

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