Steinhart & Falconer

I’ve now written more than 250 columns at Above the Law; I’m invoking a point of personal privilege.

Neil Falconer (of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco) passed away last week at the age of 91. He was an extraordinary lawyer, a fine man, and a mentor to anyone who had the sense to listen. Between 1984 and 1989, I learned from Neil what it meant to be a lawyer – “be a sponge; soak up the law;” “never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose;” “you take as long as necessary to solve the problem; let me worry about the bill” – and I later dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law to him. I expected to shed a tear when I read his obituary, but I didn’t expect to be dumbstruck. Words are a terribly feeble way to encapsulate a life. And sometimes you’re paid back, years later, for even the smallest of gestures. Here’s a link to Neil Falconer’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. Rest in peace, Neil. And thank you.

Thinking about Neil caused me to reflect on the decision that I made, 30 years ago, to work at a small firm (of 20 lawyers) on the West Coast.

Everyone told me that I was nuts: “You can always move laterally from a big firm to a small one, but you can’t move laterally in the other direction!” “You can always move from a big New York firm to a firm in California, but you can’t move west to east!” “You have to start by getting the ‘big firm experience.’ Then you can always move to a small firm.” “Go to a big firm! That’s how you keep your options open!”

The conventional wisdom isn’t always right . . . .

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Yeah, yeah: That title caught your eye.

I thought about titling this column “Litigation Aphorisms,” but who the heck would have read it?

So I went instead with the first of three critical things you should know about litigation, all of which I learned from Neil Falconer when I practiced at the 20-lawyer firm of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco back in the 1980s. (I also dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Neil. He wasn’t a “mentor”; he just accidentally taught young lawyers by osmosis what it meant to be a lawyer.)

Neil’s first aphorism was this: “Never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose.”

Why does that matter?

Or maybe I should start with a more basic question: What the heck does that mean?

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I am not a mentor!

Never have been. Never will be. Don’t care to be.

I’m a lawyer. I’m a co-worker. In some cases, I may be a friend. But I’m not a mentor; I have no time for that crap.

When I was clerking (for the Honorable Dorothy W. Nelson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit), my judge was (and remains) a delight. She was a warm, engaging person who treated everyone as an equal. She was living proof that you don’t have to give up on human kindness just because you’ve become powerful. She taught, by example, many lessons about work-life balance and the meaning of humanity.

But a mentor? They hadn’t invented the word “mentor” (at least with its current connotation) back in 1983. I don’t think Judge Nelson gave the idea a moment’s thought….

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