In this our first interview with a Lawyerist blogger, Andy Mergendahl shares his perspective on life as a contracts negotiator with a major bank and as a writer getting his thoughts down on paper (and publishing those thoughts to a wide audience). He also explains what’s un-American about American lawyers and the wisdom in suffering fools gladly.
Background (in Brief)
Who are you and where are you from?
I was born and raised in Wausau, Wisconsin. I’m a first-generation Sconnie, as my parents are from back east. UW-Madison graduate—the biggest mistake I’ve ever made was graduating from college. I live in Hudson, Wisconsin, and work in Minneapolis.
What’s your area of practice and how long have you been at it?
I’ve worked at my current job as a contracts analyst for a bit over 3 years.
Life as a Contracts Negotiator
You negotiate contracts for a national commercial bank. What does that work involve?
My job is to make sure new contracts with service-providers effectively mitigate legal risk and conform to federal laws, regulations, and directives. I work with finance experts to make sure the business terms and conditions are acceptable. A big company has hundreds or thousands of active contracts at a time. People in the bank who live and breathe these relationships sometimes need help to understand exactly what the parties’ obligations are, what the risks are, and what remedies are available to them.
Describe a typical day.
Two or three phone conferences about new deals that are in the making. Working on redlines. Some administrative stuff, like feeding the database. A bit of legal and regulatory research—the feds are making things interesting for financial institutions these days.
How many matters do you have on your plate at any given time?
A couple of hundred active ones that I manage, and perhaps around a dozen new ones that are in various stages of development.
You used to be a solo practitioner. What type of law did you practice? Why did you stop?
I did mostly criminal defense, along with some other stuff. I stopped because I got a job offer that I felt I would be unwise to refuse.
What was great about life as a solo? What wasn’t so great?
Being free to take or reject clients and cases was fantastic. Having flexibility in setting my work hours was great, especially as I have two kids. I always enjoyed being in court. The worst part was that I had to, daily, stiff-arm people who needed my help but could not afford to pay me. I also hated the fact that there was no separation between working and not working. I didn’t like how when I was at my son’s baseball game, a voice in my head was telling me to chat up the other parents for marketing purposes. That’s just not me. I don’t mind being given work to do and doing it. I admire people who are driven to be their own boss, but I’m not driven in that way.
What led you to your current job at the bank?
A friend who was a fellow judicial law clerk got a job there and lobbied for me for a long time. That’s the best way to get a job—know someone who is respected and who advocates for you. Or get to know someone with the authority to hire you.
What’s great about your work life now?
Every deal has different angles and different personalities involved. I’ve had some very memorable negotiations. I’ve learned a lot about finance, banking, corporate governance, and federal regulation as well as contract law. My boss lets me do my work and helps me when I need it. My office is full of bright, reliable, hard-working, funny people. The pay is pretty good and the hours are very reasonable. I get to work at home two days per week. I’m very fortunate.
What would you change or wish would be different?
I like to do something for a while, master it, and then go do something else. So eventually I imagine I’ll get to that point.
Life as a Lawyerist Blogger
How did you come to write for Lawyerist?
Back in 2007, I saw Sam speak about opening a law office at a “new lawyers” CLE. I started reading his blog. We had lunch. I wrote a guest post. Then later Sam was looking for new writers. I applied, and Sam was foolish enough to pick me.
How long have you written for Lawyerist?
Since April 2011. Earlier this summer, Sam agreed to let me go on hiatus at least until my kids are back in school. I’m enjoying the break. Summers are the craziest time of year.
Do you intend to keep writing for Lawyerist?
I don’t know. I may just start a couple of blogs on my own so I can write about whatever I want. Writing for Lawyerist is great, though, mostly because people read it. Some of them even make intelligent comments. And Sam gives us plenty of rope to hang ourselves.
How do you come up with ideas?
It’s tough—that was one of the reasons to take a break. Even “dry” legal work like transactions is all about ideas and communicating well. If you stay aware of what’s going on in your head, and in the real world, and the intersections between the two, you can usually find something to write about. But not always. I learned to write down every idea that pops into my head. I’ve written a few posts that were not very good because the ideas behind them were not very good.
How long on average does it take you to write a post?
Finding the idea and getting started is the hard part. Once I start writing, it’s usually two or three hours for a post over 750 words. Some of that is writing html code for links, photos, italics, and so on.
What subjects grab your interest and why?
I’m interested in how the law is woven into everything. Lawyers like to try to hide law in an ivory tower that only they have the keys to. I hate that. It’s un-American.
If you could do law school over again, would you? If not, what would you do instead?
That’s a very tough question. I owe a lot of money. And most lawyers are not terribly happy with the work they do. But I love how studying law helped me think critically and analytically while intertwining notions of justice and equity. I feel like I have exactly the kind of education I should have. But I’d tell anyone considering law school to really find out what lawyering is like before signing up for the LSAT.
Do you do any other writing?
My instant messages are hysterical. Does that count? No, I don’t, because writing doesn’t pour out of me. I have to work at it. It’s like running—I like having done it, but doing it is work.
Have you taken a lot of heat for the stuff you’ve written on Lawyerist? Have you learned to handle criticism any better for it?
I think the most controversy I’ve stirred up is with posts about legal writing. That always surprises me, because all I’m doing is repeating what the writing authorities say. I also like to challenge received wisdom in general. That makes some people crabby. I don’t take criticism of my writing personally, because those doing the criticizing don’t know me personally. And most of them are wrong, anyway.
Tools of the Trade
Describe your office space.
At the office I work in the cube I was given. My boss works in a cube, too, so I don’t have any reason to complain. When I work at home I work in my living room. I’ve started to work standing up both at the office and at home. I think everyone should try it.
Paper or paperless office?
All our stuff is on our server or scanned into our database, so I can work anywhere I can get online. But I still prefer to read real paper for the heavy lifting.
What’s your advice for someone interested in getting into contracts?
I took a negotiation class in law school. I recommend doing that—most law schools will let you audit classes for free and you’ll get CLE credit for it. There are lots of negotiation books out there; I haven’t bothered to read many of them. There’s quite a bit of good advice online. But you have to learn by doing. Some people are naturally good at it, but almost anyone can become proficient at it.
Give me salient advice for negotiating a contract.
Know what your client must have, and tell your counterpart about it at the outset. Keep everything else open. Be creative. Be firm, but seek a mutually beneficial outcome. Don’t fight over it if it doesn’t matter. And keep in mind that you are ethically required to be honest. But don’t assume the other lawyer will be.
What is life outside of work?
I love to be outside with my family, hiking, camping, and riding bikes. We cross-country ski in the winter. We all read a lot. I collect music on vinyl. I chauffeur my kids around. We have a Wii and lots of devices, but we also play Uno, Sorry, Monopoly, Checkers, and Chess, and there are several million Lego pieces scattered around, most of which I’ve stepped on at one time or another. I’ve been blessed with a great wife and kids.
What are your favorite spots in Minneapolis?
Before getting married, my wife and I lived in the Lowry Hill neighborhood for a couple years; it was fun. My wife and I loved to walk around Lake of the Isles and say hello to people passing in the other direction. That really freaked them out. It was hilarious—they didn’t know how to respond to these strangers saying hello to them. I think they suspected we were going to ask them for money. When they realized we were just saying hello, they’d shoot an apologetic “hi” over their shoulder as they speeded up to escape.
You like Surly. Tell me about the greatest beer known to man.
Surly is a great brewery, but lately I feel like Lagunitas (Lagunitas, CA) might be the best brewery in the U.S. I’m a hop-head, but I think the trend toward ever-stronger Imperial IPAs is a bad development. There is such a thing as too much. I do hope eventually there will be a craft brew-pub on every corner. But we’ll see how long the interest level stays this high. It certainly is fun right now.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter: @andymergendahl
One Final Question
On your current Twitter profile you’ve written: “Tries to suffer fools gladly, fails.” Can you tell us what you mean by that?
I’ve loved that phrase since high school. In order to be genuinely happy, you must learn to be happy despite being frequently surrounded by idiots (meaning, simply, those who would make us unhappy because they refuse to think, don’t question stereotypes, allow themselves to be swayed by attack ads on Candidate B). You can’t “pursue” happiness, tackle it, and make it hug you back. You have to decide to be happy. I often fail at that. But I’m trying.
Thank you, Andy!
You betcha. And you owe me a beer.