Biglaw, Crime, Prisons, Sentencing Law

Law Firm Associates and Federal Prisoners: A Comparative Analysis

Ed. note: This post is by Shon Hopwood, bank robber turned jailhouse lawyer turned law student, whom we previously profiled. As we recently mentioned, Hopwood is now a 2L at the University of Washington School of Law, where he is a Gates Public Service Law Scholar. Check out his new memoir, Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption (affiliate link).

Ever feel like working as a Biglaw associate is kind of like practicing law serving time in a penitentiary? Well, you aren’t too far off; there are similarities.

I spent ten years in a federal prison running a jailhouse lawyer practice for my fellow prisoners, preparing everything from habeas petitions to certiorari petitions filed in the U.S. Supreme Court. It wasn’t the appellate practice at, say, Mayer Brown, but I performed similar work (and got my first cert petition granted).

After having listened to the stories from friends at Biglaw firms, I think Biglaw and Con(vict) Law are closer than you might think….

There are physical hazards to each job. Last fall, I heard a story from a friend working at a Biglaw firm about a woman who suffered from edema because she sat at a desk for 18 hours a day. The edema was so severe that her ankles looked like they were encased inside a waterbed. And we’ve all heard the stories about associates who work 100-hour work weeks until it quite possibly kills them.

Me, I once had a high-ranking member of the Vice Lords street gang tell me that if I didn’t get the Court to grant him an evidentiary hearing, he would stab me in the eye socket (I guess the eyeball wasn’t scary enough so he had to go with the socket).

And I saw a jailhouse lawyer miss a deadline for filing a habeas petition, and the next day he woke up to four Latin Disciples beating him with padlocks tucked inside long knee-high socks that they were wildly swinging like clubs. Biglaw lawyers, too, sometimes fail to file things on time, leading to life and death situations.

Shon Hopwood

Now, we know that Biglaw associates make pretty good coin. But jailhouse lawyers also stack paper — literally. The currency of federal prison is postage stamps, which are used to purchase everything from drugs, to hooch (homemade wine), to dates with other prisoners named Duane Ashley. Most jailhouse lawyers receive donations for their services in the form of postage stamps, so that, in between death threats from their clients, they can get high, drunk, or both — much in the same way that Biglaw associates drink themselves stupid to wind down from the pressure of dealing with demanding partners or clients.

Biglaw associates have bonuses, and so do jailhouse lawyers. An Italian mobster from Chicago, named Vic, supplied me every week with his homemade pasta dishes made from fresh ingredients smuggled out of the prison kitchen, all because I was working on his case.

One of the stories I tell in Law Man is about an Italian who wanted to pay me $10,000 to write his appeal. I passed; padlock breakfast burritos aren’t my thing.

The hardest part about Con(vict) Law is that you can never escape your clients. They are always a few cells away, always wanting to pester you with questions, always demanding that you win their release. Then again, for those of you Biglaw associates who basically live at the office, life is about the same: you’re constantly hounded by partners wanting more billable hours, higher-quality work, and greater gratitude from you for the fact that you have a job.

Ironically, Biglaw and Con Law lawyers are both doing time. The Con Law lawyer serves out a sentence to pay society back for crimes, while the Biglaw lawyer serves out a sentence to pay back student loans. Both keep close track of the exact date when they’ll win their freedom.

One area where Con Law beats Biglaw is in the area of recreation. Even if a jailhouse lawyer is thrown into solitary confinement, they are allowed one hour of recreation time per day — which, to a Biglaw associate, would constitute a legitimate work/life balance.

Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption
[Amazon (affiliate link)]

Earlier: Jailhouse Lawyer of the Day: Shon Hopwood

Shon Hopwood is the co-author of his recently released memoir, Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption (affiliate link). He is currently a Gates Public Service Law Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter: @shonhopwood.

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