(Ed note: The following was written for the Clark County Bar Journal — a magazine for Las Vegas attorneys. Whether you’re a lawyer or not, you might find some of its life lessons interesting.)
Every day it seems, my respect for my chosen profession sinks a little lower.
I picked up the State Bar Journal yesterday and was disheartened to find, yet again, another three seasoned attorneys getting either disbarred or suspended from the practice of law. This is no longer a surprise to me, as it seems every month I see a familiar name of a practitioner being disciplined by the State Bar of Nevada.
These aren’t rogue lawyers or “bad boys” who got in over their heads (e.g., Nancy Quon, Rob Graham, et al), but experienced attorneys, with decades of practice under their belt — folks who get caught siphoning funds and taking advantage of clients. They aren’t wet-behind-the-ears newbies, but long standing members of good firms, or practitioners of (formerly) high repute who get caught up with either a difficult client, personal issues, or tough financial circumstances (usually a surf and turf platter of all three). Then, they start dipping into money that doesn’t belong to them, and their downward spiral becomes uncontrollable.
For these practitioners (and those who might learn from them), I offer a few words of wisdom.
1) Never, ever get sideways with a client. And when you do (it’s inevitable) cut your losses and run. So many bar complaints happen when a practitioner is owed money from a difficult client, pushes to get paid, and then gets a bar complaint thrown at him by a jerk who will say anything to get out of the debt. Many times their complaints are groundless, or perhaps there was something you should have done, but either way, the last thing you want is a team of lawyers dissecting every move you made to see if you breached some ethical tenet, or forgot some legal maneuver. The money isn’t worth it – either negotiate with the client and deeply compromise the bill, or walk away and say good riddance.
2) Quit trying to be rich. Lawyers are one of only three classical professions — the clergy and doctors are the other — and the point of all three is that we are granted a privileged license and are supposed to serve a higher power other than just making money. As with the ministry and doctors, our livelihood is supposed to be secondary, even tertiary, to the protection of the interests of our clients. Doctors and lawyers and ministers are supposed to be comfortable (so they are free to attend to the needs of those who need them), but we were never intended, as a profession, to be rich. So many attorneys lose sight of this as they scramble up the practice ladder — seeking ever bigger salaries and payouts — all the while ignoring the fundamental calling of our job. Show me a lawyer who got disbarred for money mismanagement (or worse), and I’ll show you someone who wanted to be wealthy.
3) Get help. Whether it’s with your personal life or being in over your head with cases and clients, every bar association in America has a myriad of ways to help a struggling practitioner. This is the hardest one of all, because lawyers, by temperament, don’t like being told what to do. And most of our egos are so big, we always think we can figure it out, and work our way out. Many of us can (I know I did, but it took years of struggle and a little luck), but the problem just gets worse as you get older — making an admission of weakness all the harder. When you combine a big ego with substance abuse, large debt, and sloppy business practices, you have a recipe for disaster…especially if you think you have to make $300,000 a year.
4) Don’t be shy. Pay attention. Be a friend to your fellow attorneys. Look for signs of distress and don’t be shy about intervening if you think someone needs help. Many times you will be rebuffed, sometimes you may even lose a friend, but make the offer. I’ve personally known eleven lawyers who have committed suicide (including the man who gave me my first job as a public defender, and one of my former partners), and there was probably nothing I could’ve done to prevent any of them. But for a few, I kept my distance (out of respect, embarrassment, timidity, who knows?), and I deeply regret it to this day. Lawyers are also very good at hiding things like drug abuse and financial troubles, so the signs are often not there until it’s too late. But if you see something, or sense something, speak up….either to the person themselves or someone close to them.
5) Get a mentor. I never really had a mentor. I think my personality makes me mentor-averse. Wise old mentor types probably looked at me through the years and thought I was too much trouble, or not pliable enough for their wisdom. Or maybe I just didn’t fully appreciate what others had to teach me until it was too late. Either way, most of what I’ve learned as an attorney I picked up with my own wits, not because any senior attorney took me by the hand and showed me how to do something. I am both proud of this fact and wistful for what might’ve been had someone taken the time to show me the ropes. By not having the safety net of a more seasoned attorney around, I was pretty much on needles and pins every day of my life for three straight decades. “Is this the right way to do this?” “Is there a better one?” “Am I missing something” “Making a fool of myself?” These were nagging at me almost daily…and at times drove me to drink, drug, or womanize myself into oblivion. (Two divorces in the 90s didn’t help matters.) What I needed was a steadying influence; what I got was a lot of cheap thrills that kept me on my back foot for most of my career. I don’t care if you’re twenty-five or fifty, find someone you can talk to, about your cases, clients, and yourself.
6) Calm the fuck down. Easy to say, hard to do….especially if you’re a trial lawyer. (Please note: I’m not talking about “litigators.” Litigators are a dime a dozen. Litigators move a lot of paper and take a lot of depositions, and make a lot of money, and don’t know shit about trying cases in front of judges and juries. I’m talking about real trial lawyers who have stresses litigators couldn’t handle if their lives depended on it.) I don’t try many cases anymore (I stopped counting my jury trials after doing 125 of them, 20 years ago), but I know my way around a courtroom as well as anyone. Back in the day, I approached every case like a gladiatorial fight to the death, and my insides roiled with the stresses and nervous energy needed to engage in such combat. If I were to do a jury trial now, I think I would be much more effective. I’d still want to win, but calm reflection — on my case, my opponent’s case, the witnesses, etc. — would replace me being a strutting peacock who had something to prove every minute. Once you remove your ego from any situation, you deal with it much more effectively. This is true whether you’re trying a case, making love, or frying a steak. It is really true when you’re knee-deep in acrimony with another human being in the midst of a trial. Calm the fuck down. You’ll be a much better lawyer. And if you can’t calm the fuck down, go buy a fucking farm. You’ll be much happier.
After 40 years of legal practice (33 in private practice), I feel like the ultimate, battle-scarred veteran. The profession has changed greatly since 1977, and like our politics, it’s become cruder, more polarized, and money grubbing. Civility and nuance no longer count for much. In the civil arena where I practice, it’s all about the process these days (endless rules and procedures and fighting over minutiae), and all of the incessant pettiness seems to exist for its own sake. I used to give a speech in seminars that began with “You are not in the litigation business, you’re in the problem solving business,” but that statement is belied by everything I now see, in and out of court. I talked my youngest son out of going to law school six years ago, and I don’t regret it one bit. There really are too many lawyers, and too many of us are paying the price.
John A. Curtas is a former President of the Clark County Bar Association, and has been practicing law in Nevada since 1981. He is currently a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Las Vegas.