For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple and completely wrong. —H.L. Mencken
At this moment I am attempting to recall the various words that have been used to describe Scott Greenfield. “Inimitable,” which means so good or unusual as to be impossible to copy. “Curmudgeon,” which people often think means bad-tempered or surly. Those who know better think of a curmudgeon as one who gives it to you straight. The truth, in other words, even if the truth is difficult to hear.
Allow me to add some words myself: Greenfield connects the dots. This is plain to see in his writings on his award-winning blog Simple Justice.
It’s no secret that one of Greenfield’s “passions,” besides connecting the dots on Simple Justice and his work as a criminal defense lawyer, is taking baby lawyers to school. I put “passions” in quotes because that’s not the word he’d use to describe it. He’d use something far more snarky.
If you make the mistake of not reading all Greenfield has to say here, I’ll leave you with 5 lines taken directly from this interview. Read them and feel free to be on your merry way.
- Tenacity. I think I can find a viable solution to any problem if I just keep thinking hard enough.
- Dwelling on past achievements is a waste of time.
- Never use 119 words to ask an eight word (tops) question.
- There is no piece of being a lawyer that you can do half-assed and get away with. Everything matters. Everything.
- Believe in something. Be responsible for something. Give a damn. Then you’re living.
(Oh, and if you’re hoping for a tummy rub, you might want to look somewhere else.)
About the Lawyer
Who are you and where are you from?
So you want to know my favorite flower? I was a poor black sharecropper’s son, raised in the deep south (of New Jersey), who walked ten miles to school every day, up hill both ways, in the snow. Sure you don’t want to know what kind of tree I would be?
Where did you go to law school?
No one has asked me that in 30 years. No one.
What type of law do you practice?
I practice criminal defense. Sometimes I do it for nice corporate executives in major multinational corporations under federal investigations for financial, corporate or regulatory offenses, but it’s still just criminal defense.
Where do you practice?
My primary office is in New York City, but I go where I’m needed.
How long have you been practicing?
I was admitted to practice in New York in January, 1983.
What were you in a prior life?
I left high school to become a symphonic timpanist. I was a drummer in a rock and roll band on the side. From midnight to 8 in the morning, I was a “warm body” at a small nuclear reactor (which explains why I still glow a bit at night). I tried to keep busy.
A Day in the Life
Describe a typical day.
I have no typical days.
How many hours would you say you work per week on average?
I would say 129, but I would be lying. How long must a man’s legs be?
How many cases do you have on your plate right now?
None of your business.
How often are you taking cases to trial?
As often as they need to be taken to trial.
What’s been your worst encounter with the cops? Prosecutors? Judges?
- Cops: A defrocked DEA agent threatened me in the hallway of New York DEA Headquarters on 57th Street after I accused him of being a lying sack of shit. He might have killed me, but another agent talked him off the ledge saying I wasn’t worth it.
- Prosecutors: A sweet young prosecutor in the New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office put a cop back into the grand jury to immunize him from prosecution. He had already testified, so no further testimony was needed except for the purpose of granting him transactional immunity. Problem was, the prosecutor only did that because I was engaged in commencing a collateral investigation against the cop for misconduct. My efforts in this case resulted in the NYPD Dirty 30 scandal.
- Judges: Every sitting judge is fabulous. Get it? But as for judges who are no longer on the bench, I was arguing a bail application before a state judge, who I accused of being biased against my client due to his nationality. She said she would never consider a defendant’s nationality unless there was absolutely no other reason to detain him.
What’s been the craziest case of injustice you’ve seen perpetrated on a client?
First, I don’t use words like “injustice.” Second, I would never think of any “injustice” as “crazy.”
But if you meant to ask what the craziest thing that ever happened to a client in a case was, I represented a Fujian man in a federal case in the Southern District of New York, and we were engaged in a hearing to suppress his statements to the agents. Our allegation was that they read him the Miranda warnings in Mandarin, but while he spoke Cantonese, he didn’t speak Mandarin.
The judge had our expert/interpreter on the stand, and after examination was over, asked him to recite the warnings in Cantonese. Then he asked him to recite the warnings in Mandarin. After a few moments, the judge announced, “Sounds the same to me. Motion denied.”
Are they all guilty? Do you care?
No, they aren’t. No, I don’t.
Why did you become a lawyer?
I quickly learned my future as a symphonic timpanist was limited due to my personal talent challenges. It was the only other thing I could do without skills.
What do you think is your best trait or quality as a lawyer?
Empathy. Only kidding. Tenacity. I think I can find a viable solution to any problem if I just keep thinking hard enough.
What could you work to improve on as a lawyer?
What’s been your biggest accomplishment as a lawyer?
Whatever I accomplish next. Dwelling on past achievements is a waste of time.
Taking Baby Lawyers to School
Describe this urge you have to take baby lawyers to school.
There is a primary dichotomy of discussion on the Internet. On one side are the trolls, angry and offensive without purpose. On the other side is the Happysphere, the chorus of well-wishers and fans who applaud every burp and fart of their friends or anyone who says anything remotely consistent with either their beliefs or their self-interest.
There is a dearth, however, of critical thought, and it’s endemic. As a curmudgeon, I get to question and challenge the silly, the shallow, the superficial, to do better. They won’t show me the love, but I have broad shoulders and can afford hate.
Baby lawyers have become inured to existing with this dichotomy, and most come to places like the Puddle to validate their childish pretensions and hide from the harsh scrutiny of critical thought. They wear their fragile self-esteem on their sleeve. This is very dangerous for lawyers, who can’t afford to let their personal delicate sensibilities impair their duty to clients to be tough enough to withstand scrutiny. They may not want to hear (or read) someone saying things that burn their ears (or eyes), but they have to get over it. Their obligations as a lawyer demand it.
The problem is not that baby lawyers hold naive views, make fallacious arguments, get butthurt. That’s what one expects of people who have yet to experience the harsh world of lawyers. But it is a problem that they can’t handle being challenged or questioned without lashing out, whining or running away.
There are very few people who both care enough and are willing to risk the ire of the baby lawyers to bear the consequences of being curmudgeonly. I’m one of them, and I’m good with it.
Is there any characteristic that you find particularly disturbing in baby lawyers today?
You mean aside from entitlement, unwarranted yet fragile self-esteem and a slavish adoration of logical fallacies? Why yes. Yes there is.
They lack a tolerance for ambiguity. While they may realize intellectually that the lawyerly answer to most questions is “it depends,” they can’t stand such ambiguity in their own lives. Their Menckien* need for “an answer” compels them to prefer a overly simplistic, totally wrong answer to no answer at all.
*H.L Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple and completely wrong.”
Those who follow you and read your blog will know that you’ve made up your own name for Lawyerist. You call it the Puddle. The closest I’ve come to understanding why you call it that is what you wrote in one of your blog posts:
At the Puddle, kids throw parties for themselves, celebrate their fabulous business savvy, for having survived a year in practice. That makes them experts, worthy of teaching the profession their magic secrets of success.
In other words, new and young lawyers read Lawyerist and come away with shallow advice, stepping in a puddle of rainwater and walking into court with mud on their shoes. Is that a fair characterization of your view?
Sorry, I fell asleep in the middle of reading your question. You wanted to know my favorite flower? I will give you a suggestion, however: Never use 119 words to ask an eight word (tops) question.
If you became editor-in-chief of Lawyerist, what would be your first decision? Second?
First, fire everyone. Second, rehire Sam.
You can be the unpaid intern who fetches coffee. Maybe.
Why do you often comment under the handle “static”? You alternatively use your initials SHG and the handle static. Is “static” another comment on the type of content circulating on Lawyerist?
You mean the Puddle?
In your view, what might be the No. 1 thing we could do at Lawyerist to improve (other than shut down)?
What is the answer for a baby lawyer to hear that might make that baby lawyer begin to believe there is such a thing as long-term success as a lawyer?
Any baby lawyer can enjoy fabulous success. Every baby lawyer cannot. Do what you have to do to be the one who achieves success. There is no magic bullet, no simple answer, no fortune cookie/blog post solution. Grow up. It’s hard work, it’s everything you do. There is no piece of being a lawyer that you can do half-assed and get away with. Everything matters. Everything.
Blogging at Simple Justice
I see some of your posts are published very early in the morning. I can only assume that you’re getting up early to write so that you can kick ass in the courtroom in the morning and afternoon.
I wake up every morning around 5 naturally. I write because I like to write.
How long does it take you, generally, to write and publish a post?
About 10 minutes, but I don’t include the time I spend reading other stuff that motivates me to write. I write stream of consciousness, spellcheck, then publish. Then I move on.
What is your writing process? Do you let an idea simmer for awhile or do you get it off your chest immediately?
I tend to get ideas or read posts that interest me and put links in an email, which I send to myself every night before I go to sleep. When I wake up, I look at the email and see what still interests me. But if I see something in my feed that interests me more, then that makes the cut.
Why do you write in the first place? Why do you maintain Simple Justice? (As many baby lawyers don’t know, blogging is generally not a great form of marketing, at least compared to focusing on doing good legal work that generates word-of-mouth referrals.)
I started SJ one day when I didn’t have enough to do and my wife was annoyed with me hanging around. She told me: “Start a blog,” to get me out of her hair, so I did. I write. It’s what I do. I did it before the blog and expect to do it afterward. And no, it’s an awful form of marketing, appealing mostly to “clients” I would never take on. The absolute worst thing any caller can say to me is “I found you on the Internet.” Nothing good ever comes from that.
Your blog has been archived by the Library of Congress, as Robert Ambrogi recently pointed out. I’m guessing that made you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Are there any other blogs you feel should make the cut?
I wouldn’t say warm and fuzzy inside, but it was interesting that somebody at the Library of Congress felt it worthwhile to archive my posts. As for who else should make the cut, everybody on my blogroll.
You’re trying your hand at something other than legal writing and blogging by submitting to the ABA Journal/Ross Contest for Short Fiction.
Do you regularly pursue fiction writing outside of law practice?
You obviously didn’t read my submission. Just so you know, I can be a bit snarky at time. No really, I can.
Do you feel that any sort of writing is good practice for the average baby lawyer?
No. Good writing is good practice for the average baby lawyer. Bad writing is just bad writing, and it’s not helpful to reinforce bad writing. And lest I ignore the obvious, poor writing betrays poor thinking.
Should young lawyers be blogging at all? If so, what should they blog about? What topics should they stay away from?
If they want to write, they should write. It would behoove them to have a bit of humility about the value of their opinions on subjects about which they know nothing, such as law. They should consider avoiding giving advice on any subject not involving video games.
What are the most important skills baby lawyers should actively be acquiring?
Practice competency first. Basic business proficiency second. Contrary to the popular view that law is a business, it is a profession that includes a business component. But it is always a profession first. The difference is putting the client’s interests above our own.
Criminal Defense Practice
If the practice of law can be “soul-crushing” at times, why do it at all? What would motivate a lawyer to continue practicing instead of packing it in and giving up?
Nothing, except the will to fill the void needed by society. People need lawyers, as much as they may hate lawyers, and when we do our jobs right, we serve those needs. If you don’t have that desire, find something else to do. And there is nothing wrong with admitting the law isn’t for you. Everyone, you, me and any potential clients, will thank you for it.
In the face of defeat, in a system that isn’t necessarily fair to criminal defendants, what is it you hold onto that keeps you going? What principles? What rationales?
If someone doesn’t keep up the fight, then all is lost. We do it because someone has to do it. Too many baby lawyers feel no greater purpose to their life than just surviving and maybe making enough money to buy a second beer. That’s not a life. Believe in something. Be responsible for something. Give a damn. Then you’re living.
Any preconceived notions or myths about criminal defense practice that you’d like to dispel?
Not all of us dress funny. But it’s true that all criminal defense lawyers are particularly attractive to the opposite sex. And puppies love us. Not so much kittens, though, and I don’t really know why.
What is the surest way for a new criminal defense lawyer to get up to speed? To become competent?
Spend ten years paying very careful attention.
Are there “classes” or types of criminal defense lawyers (like those who cop a plea and make a buck versus those who get crushed when the jury returns a guilty verdict)?
Of course. Criminal defense lawyers are kinda like, well, real people. We come in all flavors.
Is there an ideal type of criminal defense lawyer?
The one who wins your case. Seriously, tough, honest, fearless. This is not a practice area for sissies or whiners.
What would be the daily habits of your ideal criminal defense lawyer?
Good hygiene, especially if you’re sitting in the seat next to me during trial. Please?
Do you feel that you make a difference in your clients’ lives by virtue of the way you approach law practice? How do you approach it?
I try to leave every client better off than when he or she came to me. Often, their legal problems are by-products of other, more significant problems, such as mental illness.
While I may not be capable of healing all that ails them, I can use my position in their life to do everything possible to make them and their lives better for the long term.
So you know, I do not take cases where I don’t think I can help someone.
What do you love about your job?
Who said I loved anything about my job? I love two-word verdicts, though. A lot. I love cross-examining witnesses. I love when I make an agent tear up on cross. I love when some guy comes up to me on the street and tells me I represented him 20-something years ago, and straightened his sorry butt out, and that he’s now living a happy life. I love donuts and bacon.
Are donuts and bacon related to your job?
Yes. Are you really a lawyer, Chris?
What do you hate about it? (Or wish would be different or would like to change?)
It drives me nuts when people ask my advice, I give it them, they do what they want, screw everything up and then come back to me to ask my advice again. I hate when people are late for appointments or court. I hate when people promise to do something and don’t. It’s a matter of honor with me to do what I say I’m going to do, and I expect the same from others. I’m often disappointed.
Could you supply Lawyerist readers with a short list of your favorite books/practice guides?
- Terry McCarthy on Cross Examination (if you plan to step foot in a courtroom)
- Carolyn Elefant’s Solo by Choice (first edition, not the second) (if you want to open your own practice)
- Keith Lee’s upcoming The Marble and the Sculptor (if you’re a baby lawyer trying to figure out why your life sucks)
- Nathan Burney’s The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law (every lawyer must read this)
If you could do anything else other than criminal defense, what would it be?
Timpanist. Nah, that was a lifetime ago. I would love to teach, provided students weren’t a bunch of entitled teacups these days. I would love to write more serious and thoughtful commentary and have someone pay me exceptionally well to do it.
If you do any “marketing,” what is it?
Everything I do is marketing. But I do no marketing. Get it?
You wanted me to ask you about your favorite car and why.
Ah, my 1964 Austin Healey 3000, Mk III, Series 2.
The reason I asked you to bring this up is so that I could offer some ideas on the significance of this old car for me, and what it could mean for baby lawyers.
First, lawyers need hobbies, things to do far outside the law to keep their heads on straight and forget the pressures of work. This is critical to maintaining sanity and avoiding burnout.
Second, for any guy with a son: I spent many a day at a car show with my boy, the two of us polishing the Healey, talking about stuff, hanging out. Those are days I cherish, especially now that he’s off to college and he doesn’t call home nearly enough. I realize this is horribly sexist, but there just aren’t many women at car shows, and even fewer interested enough to work on a straight 6 engine. But if you are, I tip my hat to you.
Third, there is nothing better after a really miserable day than to hop in the Healey and take a ride. I can’t help but smile. It’s good for a lawyer to be able to smile. Never underestimate the value of anything that makes you smile.
Your favorite computer program is WordPerfect 5.0.
Any other favorite pieces of software or hardware that you use that truly facilitate your practice?
What do you do for fun outside of work?
Besides the Healey, I’m a big antique collector. I collect 1960-70s tool watches, Heuer dash timers, Georgian sterling silver, and art. I read quite a bit. And I write some too.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
Why in the world would they want to? I’m mean, I don’t give tummy rubs, and chances are pretty good that I will say something to hurt their feelings. But if they still want to get hold of me, they can email at SHGLaw@aol.com. That’s right. A. O. L. Someday, you will understand.
Do you generally invite baby lawyers to reach out to you for advice?
Never. But I will always take the call of a lawyer who needs to speak with me, hold it in confidence if that’s what he or she prefers, and do what I can to help them. Always.
One Final Question
What might turn a baby lawyer into a great lawyer one day?
Again with the silver bullet questions. Every baby lawyer can become a great lawyer. All they have to do is work hard, think hard, maintain their integrity. Always maintain integrity, as it’s the one thing if lost you can never get back.
Thank you, Scott Greenfield!