Books, Crime, Prisons, Pro Bono, Public Interest

Unbillable Hours: A True Story

Ian Graham is the author of Unbillable Hours: A True Story, which was published earlier this month. The book is a memoir of Graham’s time at Latham & Watkins, where he spent about five years as a litigation associate.

Unbillable Hours is not, however, a Latham exposé (which I’d eagerly read, by the way). Rather, the book centers on Graham’s work on a major pro bono case. The book’s publisher describes it as follows:

Landing a job at a prestigious L.A. law firm, complete with a six figure income, signaled the beginning of the good life for Ian Graham. But the harsh reality of life as an associate quickly became evident. The work was grueling and boring, the days were impossibly long, and Graham’s main goal was to rack up billable hours.

But when he took an unpaid pro bono case to escape the drudgery, Graham found the meaning in his work that he’d been looking for. As he worked to free Mario Rocha, a gifted young Latino who had been wrongly convicted at 16 and sentenced to life without parole, the shocking contrast between the quest for money and power and Mario’s desperate struggle for freedom led Graham to look long and hard at his future as a corporate lawyer.

Yesterday I chatted with Ian Graham about his book, his time at Latham, and how he made the transition from a legal career to a writing career.

ATL: Can you give us an overview of your own educational and professional path?

I grew up in Washington, DC. I went to Sidwell Friends for high school, then to Rice University for college, graduating in 1997. Between college and law school, I worked on Capitol Hill for the House Ways and Means Committee. Then I went to the University of Texas for law school, graduating in 2001. From there I joined the L.A. office of Latham & Watkins, where I was an associate for a little over five years. After that, I went to Quinn Emanuel for a few months.

Then I left the law firm world to write my book, which I’m currently on tour to promote. Last semester I taught as an adjunct professor in Loyola Law School’s juvenile law and policy clinic. I also consult and work on a few outside cases of my own. I focus on juvenile cases, which I have a soft spot for, but I’m interested in any case where something went wrong or there’s an obvious injustice.

ATL: Cases like that of Mario Rocha, who was wrongfully convicted of murder at age 16, and who served a decade in juvenile detention and prison before you secured his release. Do you still keep in touch with Mario?

Yes. I’m in D.C. now for my book tour, and Mario and I are going to do a radio interview, and then an appearance at a Barnes & Noble here.

After Mario was released from prison, he and I spoke at Sidwell Friends, my high school. It had such an impact on one of the students, who went home and told his parents about it. The student’s father was a dean at George Washington; after he met with Mario, he arranged for Mario to receive a full-ride scholarship. Mario will be a second-semester sophomore at GW in the fall.

ATL: I’m guessing that most interviews you do are focused on Mario and his extraordinary story (recounted in the Washington Post, among other places). But given the audience of Above the Law, we’re interested in your insider’s take on Biglaw. How much dirt about Latham & Watkins appears in your book?

I certainly am straightforward and honest about my associate experience, which I believe is relatable to almost every associate’s big law firm experience. I hope it doesn’t come across as dirt or snark. I firmly believe that if you’re going to practice law at a large firm, Latham might be the best place to do it. It’s just the nature of these big firms – there really isn’t anything they can do about the associate meat grinder.

I talk a lot in the book about the summer associate experience and the way I felt about it; it’s a seduction. You don’t really know the day-to-day reality of working at a firm because law school doesn’t teach you about document review and due diligence. You’re taught how to “think like a lawyer.” Then, when you show up at the firm, your first project is to review a thousand boxes.

I stayed at Latham through my fifth year. I represented someone who was wrongfully convicted of murder, and I represented corporations in their battles with other corporations. It’s a fact of life that at the big firms you’re not always on the side of the angels.

As my emotional investment in Mario’s case grew, it became difficult in my fourth and fifth years to get really excited about the billable work. I did what I could, but my billable hours were lower than many of the other associates in my class.

ATL: You wrote, in a piece for the California Lawyer, that in 2005 you got a warning about your billable hours being low. How did that interaction go down?

Mario’s case started to eat up big chunks of my time when we had a week-long hearing in court. Preparing for that and writing the briefs ate up a lot of time. There were years when I would bill over 500 hours to Mario’s case. I don’t know exactly what my total was, but it certainly ate up large chunks of my time.

It was a tense time in Mario’s case when I got called down for my review. They told me that if my hours didn’t improve, it would affect my career at the firm.

ATL: You left Latham in 2006, well before the Biglaw bubble burst. Have you followed what has happened in the world of large law firms since then?

I believe I left Latham around the summer 2006. I still follow the large law firm world because I still have lots of friends who are practicing law at firms. When I came out of law school in 2001, the tech bubble had burst, Brobeck had gone under, and everyone was panicked. Because Latham had a really broad practice, there was a sense that they’d be able to ride it out, and they did.

This latest recession has been a more sustained and serious downturn. At one point Latham was offering new recruits stipends to not show up.

What it really does for associates is it makes the microscope lens focus more clearly on associates who might not be superstars. You can be doing very well, hitting your hours and doing good work, but when the bottom line is getting affected, it spells trouble for associates who aren’t superstars or partnership material. They may be nudged out the door.

ATL: Is there anything you miss about your time at a large law firm?

I didn’t really enjoy the day-to-day legal work very much. I did have good friends at Latham, and lots of the attorneys there I admire for their intelligence and how good they are at their jobs.

There are small victories you can feel really good about, like when you win a motion, or the first time you argue in court. There are things you can feel really good about accomplishing. It teaches you a lot about how to operate, not only in the legal world, but also the business world.

I wouldn’t tell anybody not to go to a big firm as long as they go in with their eyes open. It can be interesting for some people, and it can be a great springboard into doing something else. If you have a Latham or a Gibson or a Skadden on your resume, that looks pretty good.

ATL: Now, you have Biglaw in the blood — as Cooley partner Michael Stern noted in his review of your book on Am Law Daily, your father was a partner at a D.C. law firm. Which firm? And did your father’s career give you insight into what law firm life would be like?

My father retired as a partner from Skadden, where he practiced international trade law for a long time. This gave me insight to the extent that I knew lawyers at law firms worked very hard, and it can be intense. My father worked until 8:30 or 9 at night during the week, and he sometimes worked on weekends and on vacations. That was the reality. As far as the day to day work, what my father did exactly, I didn’t know too much.

ATL: Congratulations on the publication of Unbillable Hours. What’s next for you? Would you like to do another book?

Yes. I’d like to continue to teach law and write, and work on cases I believe in. The book tour and interviews are keeping me busy through the first week in June. Then I’m going to take a breath and see what I can take on going forward – whether I want to work on another book proposal, or teach, or do something else.

I was just talking to a friend of mine, who started at Latham and is now at another firm. He was saying that his workload and the lack of predictability can be frustrating. But he gets a paycheck every two weeks. I enjoy what I’m doing right now, but I’m always thinking about what to do next.

ATL: One last question. What advice would you give to young lawyers who are now where you used to be: working at large firms, but with outside interests and dreams they want to pursue?

I would say go for it. I agonized for months over the decision to leave a big firm. It’s a prestigious job, and you get this nice big paycheck. Maybe you want to buy a house or a car. The decision really kept me up at night, for months: Am I really going to do this?

But within two weeks of leaving, I thought: I can’t believe I did that for five and a half years. I hardly had any of the anxiety that I thought I would go through.

If you really are unhappy with the work at a big firm, you’ve got to give yourself the chance to try something else.

Unbillable Hours: A True Story [Amazon]
Life Beyond Big Law [Am Law Daily]
Life Beyond a Big Firm [California Lawyer]
After prison, GWU student pursues second chance [Washington Post]

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