Part I: Considering Drake
There’s a story about a lawyer, well known in my part of the country. I’ll call him Drake. A born entrepreneur, Drake ran a successful personal injury firm. Drake’s practice was so successful, in fact, that his biggest problem was where to purchase his next vacation home. He couldn’t decide between Aspen or Hartford, Connecticut. It was an important decision, but not the sort of lives-hanging-in-the-balance decision to which Drake had become accustomed to making as a big-time personal injury lawyer. As he played one realtor off another, negotiating like the pro that he was, Drake reported to his friends that he was becoming bored with his life. He made this unexpected claim with just a hint of self-pity, tipping his head slightly to the left and then looking down at the floor. It wasn’t an easy thing to watch.
It was at about this time that our local federal court announced a job opening for U.S. Magistrate. Given Drake’s unmistakable signs of distress, it’s no wonder that all his friends urged him to apply. Then something unexpected happened. Drake was thrown into such a fit of indecision about this sudden opportunity—should he apply for the magistrate position, or not—that he did nothing for weeks. The thing that worried him the most, of course, was the possibility that he would apply for the job and then lose out to someone his colleagues considered “inferior.” What would that do to his reputation? This was the question Drake posed to his closest friends at the local tavern where they would meet in the late afternoons every day after work.
Though Drake was an important man, the atmosphere in the tavern was casual, and his friends liked to tease him every now and then by referring to him as “Mr. Smartypants.” This was a reference to Drake’s intelligence, which was considered top-notch even though he was just a lawyer. Day after day, Drake would ask his friends at the tavern what they thought he should do about the magistrate position. Each time he asked, at least one of the participants would steer the conversation off course by jokingly addressing Drake as “Judge Smartypants.” (No matter what federal magistrates are called behind their backs, they are invariably called “judge” to their faces.) Though no one claimed the “Judge Smartypants” joke was very funny--thinking back on it later, most admitted it was pretty stupid--it would always cause the entire bar to erupt in laughter. The laughter wouldn’t stop until Drake left the bar. This he began doing earlier and earlier in the day until he finally stopped showing up at all.
The deadline for applying for the magistrate position unceremoniously passed, and another lawyer was appointed to the post. Not very long ago, the new federal magistrate was bumped up to the position of district judge. Now she’s a judge for life. As for Drake, he was finally able to pull the trigger on his other big decision, opting for Aspen over Hartford. It was a wise decision, but he became so embarrassed about the federal magistrate fiasco that he refused to return home, and his “vacation” has become permanent.
What was the problem that caused Drake to turn opportunity into disaster at the very apex of his career? Thankfully, the problem is an easy one to diagnose. What Drake lacked was a circle of advisors.
A circle of advisors is a group of trusted confidants to whom busy lawyers can turn in times of crisis or indecision. Although opinions vary as to what makes the best circle of advisors, one thing is certain: the advisors must be sober. This was another one of Drake’s failings. Any drinking conducted by a lawyer’s advisors must be kept within the legal limits, especially during times the lawyer is suffering from extreme stress (e.g., after receiving notice of bar complaints, learning of unexpected indictments, and the like).
Since the advisors are often required to tell the lawyer precisely the opposite of what he wants to hear, the lawyer’s circle of advisors should always include both a spouse and at least one parent. Sometimes, a lawyer’s colleagues are chosen as advisors. When this happens, the lawyer-to-layman ratio should be maintained at 1:1, mostly as a check on the typical lawyer’s tendency to make decisions too rashly while juggling several other crises.
It is not necessary that the circle of advisors meet together as a group or even know one another. But they must all be available at a moment’s notice to provide serious advice to the lawyer. Upon receiving notice of a problem, all giggling, shaking of the head, rolling of the eyes and the like are forbidden. Even the best advisors adhere to this mandate, even if they choose to gossip just a little behind the lawyer’s back. Although this too is frowned upon, it is known to occur every now and then, especially on the coasts.
Next week: Part II: The Circle of Advisors Compared and Contrasted to Various Imposter Groups, All of Which Are Known to Give Very Poor Advice to Lawyers: Namely, the Gaggle of Yes-Men, the Group of Drinking Buddies, the Posse, and the Entourage.
Author’s Note: The character of “Drake” is a composite. The composite was not assembled with great care. If you recognize yourself in the portrayal, I apologize in advance. Please don't bother me with threats of lawsuits until you've taken the time to draft a complaint.[Like this post? It's one of many included in my book How to Feed a Lawyer (And Other Irreverent Oberservations from the Legal Underground). Details here.]