Advice

Here’s an unsurprising newsflash: young people have student loan debt, old people have student loan debt, and they have no idea what to do about it. With student loan debt having surpassed the one-trillion-dollar mark, we’ve officially reached a point where the media is calling this the crisis du jour.

We’ve discussed the dangers of incurring student loan debt time and time again throughout these pages, but it seems that people still don’t get it. They’d like some more — hmm, how shall we put this? — “sage” advice. They’d prefer to publish their woes for all to see on “the most popular and widely syndicated column in the world.”

They’ve chosen to go to Dear Abby for the answers….

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I gave my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at Schnader Harrison’s annual retreat last Saturday and then had the opportunity to moderate a panel of six (counting me) in-house lawyers. Three of the gang were from QVC, one from Endo Pharmaceuticals, and one from the Graham Company. Being a rabble-rouser at heart, I started the discussion by posing the question that I often considered during my time as an outside lawyer: How can a law firm that wants new business displace a competent incumbent firm?

My co-panelists were quite good, but I must say that their natural instinct when confronted with this question was to evade. Each panelist started by saying something that was not quite responsive to the question. Only after some follow-up questions did our panel finally tell the audience how to displace a competent incumbent.

Let me start with the evasions, saving the real answers for the end . . .

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Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

My client is finishing her 1L year. She’s bored.

“I study. Then I study some more. Then I go to sleep. Then I get up and study again. It’s the same for everyone.”

At least, I proposed, the subject matter was interesting.

She demurred. “Yeah, I guess… but — really? I mean… Property law? Contracts? Torts?”

Her demurrer was sustained. She had a point.

Maybe it’s your turn to demur. The subject matter of law schoollaw itself — not interesting!?? That’s unthinkable. It has to be the school’s fault — my client must be attending some fourth-tier degree mill, with subpar teaching, and a dull-witted student body….

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Here at Above the Law, we frequently sound gloomy notes about going to law school. In the past week or so, for example, we’ve written about one recent law school grad on food stamps and another one with almost no employed classmates. We’ve discussed the bleak market for legal jobs and the crushing burden of student loan debt.

As I’ve said before, our criticism of law school does not spring from malice. Rather, we want people to make an informed decision about whether to invest three (or more) years of time, and $100,000 (or more) in money, in pursuit of a law degree.

In today’s post, we’d like to talk about the other side of the coin: law school success stories. Let’s hear from people who went to law school and have no regrets — or even view going to law school as the best decision they ever made. Perhaps you might be one of them?

We’ll prime the pump with a few law school success stories, to get the conversation going….

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A couple of decades ago, a friend was defending a case that involved a corporate entity named “LHIW, Inc.” The case seemed defensible for a while. Then, during a deposition, opposing counsel thought to ask a witness what the heck “LHIW, Inc.,” stood for.

Suffice it to say that it’s tough to defend a transaction that involves a shell company named “Let’s Hope It Works, Inc.”

Ten years ago, a company was spinning off the piece of its business that was saddled with product liability exposure. The transaction would create one new, clean company and one tainted company that would spend its days defending itself or paying claims over time. Did the internal corporate documents really have to refer to the two new entities as “GoodCo” and “CrapCo”?

Why did I flash back to those memories? Because I recently ran across a situation where someone cleverly named an investment vehicle “SNP, Inc.” That was fine and good until someone thought to ask what “SNP, Inc.,” stood for. Naturally: “Should Not Participate, Inc.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But I have a proposal on this front . . .

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Tom Wallerstein

The attrition rate in Biglaw is legendary. Since the recession hit, associates are less likely to voluntarily abandon a six-figure job and more often believe that you don’t get up and go until they throw you out the door. On the other hand, since the recession hit, associates are less likely to have any choice in the matter should their firm feel the need to reduce headcount. But especially during the boom years when I began practicing, associates frequently left their firm gigs to do all manner of things, from going in-house, to starting a private practice, to hiking across the country, or moving to Nepal.

I worked in large and medium-sized firms for nearly a decade, and during my tenure, I saw an awful lot of associates come and go. Rarely if ever was I surprised to hear the news. In fact, I was usually surprised that others were surprised. In my experience, there are certain tell-tale signs that an associate is crafting a farewell email….

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For every matter that we handle, we need one “unifying mind.” We need one person at the helm; that person must either personally know everything that’s happening in the matter or, at a minimum, know where the knowledge lies. (Extraordinary cases may be beyond the capacity of a single unifying mind and may require two or more. But those situations are exceptional, and they pose challenges beyond what I’m thinking about today.)

The unifying mind might be found anywhere in the hierarchy, depending on the type of matter involved. At a law firm, the unifying mind can be a partner, if the matter is large and the partner a hands-on type. Or the unifying mind can be an associate charged with monitoring and tracking all events. But everyone on the team should know who’s at the helm, so everyone knows the person who should receive copies of correspondence, alerts about upcoming events, and reports about how things are going.

At an in-house law department, we, too, must have a unifying mind for every matter. In the litigation world, a corporation may have several line lawyers whose job is to supervise cases on a day-to-day basis. The line lawyer primarily responsible for overseeing a particular case should typically serve as the unifying mind for that matter. Outside counsel should communicate with that person, and everyone in-house should know that’s the lawyer to call if they need detailed information about a lawsuit.

That’s all fine in theory, but two things often screw this up in practice. What two things?

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Judge Jerry Smith

Above the Law readers weren’t particularly fond of Judge Jerry E. Smith’s “homework assignment” for the U.S. Department of Justice. In a reader poll, about two-thirds of you expressed disapproval of the Fifth Circuit ordering the DOJ to submit a three-page letter discussing judicial review. (The order came in the wake of, and in apparent response to, unfortunate comments on the subject by President Obama.)

But let’s say that you’re among the one-third of readers who view Judge Smith as courageous for calling out a former Con Law professor for making misleading statements about judicial review (statements that, in fairness to the president, he subsequently clarified). Let’s say that you’d like nothing better than to clerk on the Fifth Circuit for Judge Smith.

Well, aspiring law clerks to Judge Smith, there’s something you should know….

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Suppose you’re doing business in a country that is perceived as being corrupt. For example, Myanmar, North Korea, and Somalia take the bottom three slots in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Okay, let me rephrase that: Suppose you’re doing business in a country where it’s actually lawful to do business, but the country is perceived as being corrupt. Cambodia or Zimbabwe might fit the bill. (On reflection, it strikes me that my own company may actually do business in those two places. If we do, then I, naturally, love the judicial systems in Cambodia and Zimbabwe. If my company is ever in court in one of those places, please don’t hold this column against us. It’s just that terribly unfair perception of corruption that gives you guys a bad name.)

How do you conduct business there?

Very carefully, of course.

As a matter of compliance, your company must implement policies that forbid payments that are customary in the corrupt place, but forbidden by U.S. law. And your company must enforce those policies, perhaps by having a regional group that approves third parties with whom you do business or otherwise strives to comply with the law.

But that’s the front end. What do you do at the back end, if you find yourself in a dispute in the corrupt place?

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I’m still trying to figure out the appropriate way to “take credit” for the decline in the number of people taking the LSAT. Currently, I’m consulting with a red-haired chick on the procedure for calling me Lightbringer.

But my work is clearly not done. The big news today is that the new numbers released by LSAC show that the decline in LSAT takers disproportionately affects top performers on the LSAT. Basically, fewer high scorers are taking the LSAT, while the number of people who can’t even break 145 remains strong.

Doesn’t that really match our anecdotal beliefs that people applying to law school in 2012, with all the data and the publicity about the bad deal you get at an American law school, are just dumber than those who came before?

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