Kopf: A Letter to a Young Practicing Lawyer

Letters to a Young Scientist was written by Edmond O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning biologist and the foremost expert in the world on ants. If you get nothing else from this post, buy and read that book.

I thought I might try my hand at writing something roughly similar, albeit far less beautiful and far harsher. If you are a young practicing lawyer, I hope that this post will curl your toes, but resonate with you too. Consider please the following advice from an old, straight, white man who was once a practicing lawyer.

Dear Young Practicing Lawyer,

You are young and immature. You instinctively know that you cannot comprehend what your youth and immaturity mean. So, I am going to mentor you from the vantage of 70-plus years. Don’t be mad or sad. Just read and reject or accept as you think best. After all, you are alone in this immense universe. In the end, the choice is yours and yours alone.

First and foremost, even though you passed the bar exam, you are unfit to represent real people. That is not entirely your fault, although you are partly to blame as you took the bar exam and passed despite instinctively knowing the truth. Unfortunately, your law school professors and those who now surround you tell you not to worry, but they are wrong and manifestly so. You don’t know what you don’t know and you will not know what you don’t know until many years have elapsed.

In short, you have a long and tough path before you. Try hard, please, to understand that you are basically a moron when it comes to the practice of law. Only age and experience will make you wiser. There is no educational substitute for a good hard kick in the most sensitive parts of your anatomy to help you along the path to becoming what you claim to be. And this is vitally important: Try desperately not to hurt your clients in the process.

Moving on, if you do pro bono work (and you should), accept at least one case for a client whom you despise or, at least, who makes you uncomfortable. That is, take on a client that causes you to itch. By doing so, you will learn a lot about yourself, intellectual honesty and what it truly means to be a practicing lawyer.

Additionally, don’t complain about a work/life imbalance. Your clients are what matters. Your spouses and kids are secondary. If you don’t agree, get out of the practice of law. If your kid complains that you missed his or her ballgame or dance recital, tell the narcissistic little monster “too bad, so sad,” and then cuff him or her about the head.

Still further, don’t loathe your adversaries. They suck as much as you do. Beat them fairly and squarely, but don’t spurn them. Once in a while, buy them a drink.

Another thing, if you still believe in “justice,” then you are an idiot. You are insufficiently trained and educated to determine what is just or unjust. Perform your job and let justice take care of itself. That is, do law, not justice.

Here’s a rare gem: Understand that there is no sin in making money, and the phrase “public interest lawyer” sometimes translates to “utterly incompetent lawyer.” Greed is good. If you think otherwise, you are, frankly, a dolt. But greed must be tempered by a moral compass. I have no clue where you will find that lodestar but you must find it or you will suffer a flesh-eating cancer.

Moving on, be kind to underlings like your “assistant,” and by that I mean, for example, your secretary. She (or perhaps he, although that makes me giggle) is a valuable resource and, more significantly, a living and breathing human being. Nurture these people like hothouse orchids. Most importantly, never punch down.

On sartorial issues, dress the part. Short and low cut dresses and stiletto heels or French cuffs with gold cuff links and a Rolex mark you as poseur rather than a practicing lawyer. It is never, ever, about you.

Next, model General Eisenhower not General Custer. Don’t die on hills you cannot take and hold. Custer was a stupid and vain asshole. Far more importantly, he sacrificed his troops (your clients) for the sake of his reputation.

Lastly, remember that the bar associations, particularly the ABA, are like unions but without the intellectual heft and honesty. Go ahead and join (you may be forced to anyway), but it is your solemn responsibility to snicker at the gunners who try desperately to become “leaders of the bar.” Never take a bar association seriously, particularly when it comes to ethics. Legal ethics are to ethics what military music is to music.

Go forth and prosper. On reflection, I am not at all sure I mean that.

Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)

65 thoughts on “Kopf: A Letter to a Young Practicing Lawyer

  1. Edward Brumby

    Family matters more than clients. If you don’t understand that, get out of the practice of law. You will never be able to truly understand the human client in front of you.

    1. SHG

      Prisoner A: So how long did ya get?
      Prisoner B: Life plus cancer.
      Prisoner A: Holy shit, what happened?
      Prisoner B: My lawyer was supposed to prep for cross of the key witness, but his kid had a dance recital and he had to go. So he blew the cross and they nailed my ass to the wall.
      Prisoner A: Wow, that sucks. So your lawyer totally fucked it up?
      Prisoner B: No, no. Not at all. He truly understood me as a human.

      The lies we tell ourselves to rationalize doing what we prefer to do are still lies. Family is wonderful, and if we’re careful and thoughtful, we can usually work our lives so that we get to enjoy our family to the fullest. But when a conflict arises, and something has to give, the duty of a professional is to put his obligation first. That’s why people entrust us with their lives. You are undeserving of that trust because you lie to yourself.

      1. Matthew K.

        That is more of a diligence issue than a priorities issue, and does not necessarily support the blanket assertion that “clients matter more than families.” It is a casuistic balancing act based on the priorities and needs of individual cases.

        Blowing a discovery deadline to go to a dance rehearsal? Bad.

        Putting the phone down and refusing to talk client through their endless questions regarding why the Clerk was mean to them to go to a dance rehearsal? Perfectly acceptable.

        Platitudes are bad in the law.

        1. SHG

          You’ve missed the point. There are times when conflicts arise and choices have to be made. Hard choices, not platitudes.

          1. Matthew K.

            You’re right, and those choices are already built into the way we operate as attorneys. It is never appropriate to place family above client when it will result in malpractice. However, it is not necessarily the case that placing family above clients is bad when it will not result in malpractice. Therefore, the statement that “always placing client before family is mandatory” is false.

      2. Jordan

        This is true.

        If you don’t like it, do something else.

        Practicing law means clients come first and everything else comes second. It’s a whole bunch of suck, and not for everyone.


  2. B. McLeod

    If the ABA is like a union, it is a union for law school faculty and administrators. It sure as Hell isn’t doing anything for lawyers in general, and hasn’t for a long time.

  3. Jeffrey Gamso

    I was first sworn in, down in Texas, by Hal Woodward, the federal judge for whom I was clerking my first year out of law school. “And now,” he said after administering the oath, “you’re eligible to commit malpractice.” Best damn warning I ever got.

    Still, I do often wear French cuffs (though my cufflinks aren’t gold ). No Rolex, though. No bespoke suits, either, Your Honor, though you didn’t mention those. But my shoes are getting kind of shabby, so maybe I’ll try those Stiletto heels.

    Still, my shoes have seen better days.

    1. B. McLeod

      Take care of the uppers, and you can have heels and soles replaced as they wear out, for about half the cost of a new pair (and they’re already broke in). You can keep a good pair of shoes looking right for 30 years.

    2. phv3773

      Once when I was on jury duty, one of the attorneys was wearing a corduroy suit that brought a lot of comment among the prospective jurors, none of it favorable. Don’t go too down-market.

      1. Richard Kopf


        Is a J.C. Penney suit down-market? In my neck of the woods, certainly not.*

        All the best.


        PS The famous east coast litigator David Boies of Boies, Schiller & Flexner reportedly wears JC Penney suits. To be clear, I have never been to Westchester County, New York. So, I can’t personally confirm that this reportage is accurate.

        1. SHG

          I met Boies in Chicago a few years back. His suit fit…well. It may have been from Penney’s, but his tailor wasn’t.

    3. Richard Kopf


      I like Stiletto heels, but I never wear them in court. So with that limitation, I urge you to try them out particularly as you walk the streets on the east side of Toledo out near the rail yard where I used to work. All the best.

      All the best.


  4. Jake

    Great read Judge. If I may be so bold: That you are old, straight, and white has no bearing on your authority to speak on the topic at hand. Furthermore, as you are a United States Federal Judge, your demographics can be quite safely assumed.

    1. Richard Kopf


      Fair enough. But, for writing purposes, sometimes it helps to make such things known up front if only to help the reader evaluate the POV of the author without having to do research and, more importantly for this post, to be utterly transparent about things that appear to matter to a large segment of the culture in general and young lawyers in particular.

      All the best.


      1. Jake

        I’ll leave what matters to lawyers to you and the rest of the experts here. As for this:

        “But, for writing purposes, sometimes it helps to make such things known up front if only to help the reader evaluate the POV of the author without having to do research…”

        …Accepted as good advice for my own career as a non-lawyer-writer. Thanks again.

  5. MonitorsMost

    Thank you for the letter, even if I’m not directly the target audience. I was revved up to die on a hill I couldn’t hold come Friday. I will need to reevaluate my approach. I also need to stop taking these cases where I am passionate that the court doesn’t do it’s job on the given issue.

  6. John Lynch

    An experience with a bright young hire at our firm who had been a Federal Court of Appeals clerk may illustrate some of the Judge’s point. A new case came in (a civil case) and this young man was added to a team of several regulars to work on it. Amidst the first team meeting to outline an overview of the case the young ex-clerk said, “Oh, we’re going to lose!”

    After the meeting was concluded, I asked the young man to stay a moment to make the point that this was a real client willing to pay us real money to solve a real problem. If we were on the short side of the odds under some case law it was up to our firm to find a way to solve that problem by recasting the issues into a more favorable posture so the client might prevail or at a minimum a palatable settlement could be achieved. More of that should be taught in law school.

  7. Richard Kopf


    I once was a young (but not very bright) former law clerk to a federal appellate judge so I can relate to your story. The man who hired me as an associate and subsequently became my law partner was and is known as Ed (E.A. Cook III). I came to love Ed more than my late father.

    In the beginning of our relationship (and even thereafter), when I said really stupid stuff like the cocky kid you describe, Ed did what you did. Your young man is very lucky.

    All the best.


  8. Scott Jacobs

    This letter makes me happy in places and ways that, were I Catholic, I would have to tell a priest about in confession.

      1. Richard Kopf


        Really, I didn’t know that OJ was a Catholic priest. Fascinating. Which brings to mind another question: Are dispensations like pardons?

        All the best.


  9. Wormwood

    Dear Judge Kopf (or should I say “Uncle Screwtape”,

    Thank you for the sound advice, the Patient better watch out.

    Your Nephew Wormwood.

    1. Richard Kopf


      How did you know that I am a fellow of Magdalene College? I have tried very hard to keep that and other things a secret.

      Anway, I am glad you are learning the importance of consigning young lawyers to eternal damnation. It is great sport.

      All the best (despite the heat).

      The Devil

  10. Francis X Santore, Jr.

    Judge Kopf:

    God bless you. First, you don’t have “Black Robe Fever!” Second, I agree with everything you say except the part about our first duty is to our clients. Our first duty is actually to the Bench and Bar, because, frankly, our clients are the first to screw us. People hate us, until they need us, and then if, for some reason, we do not perform to their satisfaction, then it is cause for a malpractice action, a bar complaint, or a 2255 action. I think that, as we swear our first fealty to the legal system, then, logically, we can discharge our fiduciary duty to our clients.

    Other than that minor disagreement, I agree with everything you have written. One would hope that all newly – minted attorneys would read your pithy remarks.

    Francis X. Santore, Jr.

    1. Richard Kopf


      Thanks for your overly kind note.

      You make a very interesting point. Slightly reinterpreted, you say the first duty of a lawyer is to the legal system–the Bench and Bar–and then to the client. I agree but with reservations.

      A lawyer should not choose the interests of a client by lying to a judge. Other similar examples come to mind. Where I am hesitant, however, is in certain areas of legal ethics (the ABA’s Model Code’s obsession with imposing cultural values on how lawyers must practice) and in certain customs.

      For example, many years ago, out my way, a lawyer would never move for a default judgment because another lawyer failed to file a timely answer. The first lawyer would call the second lawyer and say, “file a damn answer or else.”

      Now, this custom generally did not hurt the client. But one can imagine circumstances where you could make a default judgment stick.

      Again, thanks for your comment. All the best.


      1. Jeff Gamso

        The judge is too kind. (Don’t feel bad, Your Honor. You’re not always too kind, just this once.)

        He didn’t point out that being hated by your client doesn’t mean that the client’s interests don’t come first. He didn’t point out that the fact that a client may claim you were ineffective or violated some rule that you didn’t violate means you have less of a duty to that client. He didn’t, that is, point out that it’s not about you and your image and your good feelings and your prestige among your peers (and the judges who judge you and your peers).

        Sure there are ethical restraints on what we do. That’s why it’s about zealously representing the client “within the bounds of the law.” And sure, there’s no rule that even suggests going around being an asshole because clients like that when it won’t help – and may hurt – the client’s interests. But beyond that? Client’s interest wins.

        I now return you to your ordinary curmudgeons.

      2. SHG

        When I read Francis’ comment, I pondered whether to respond to it or let you get first crack, Judge (since, after all, this is your post). Had I responded, I would have kicked Francis in the balls and told him to apply for a job as assistant manager at Dairy Queen. He cannot be a lawyer.

        You are far more genteel than I am. But then, you’ve attempted to gently shift what he said toward a different place. I submit that not only is this too far a stretch, but it’s not possible without ignoring one critical, and disgraceful thing:

        Our first duty is actually to the Bench and Bar, because, frankly, our clients are the first to screw us. People hate us, until they need us, and then if, for some reason, we do not perform to their satisfaction, then it is cause for a malpractice action, a bar complaint, or a 2255 action.

        Francis hates clients. Perhaps Francis’ clients hate him. Perhaps with damn good reason, given his attitude toward them. Perhaps the reason Francis’ clients are the first to “screw us” is that Francis is the worst lawyer ever, lazy, stupid, dishonest and worthless. We’ve all had client issues, but that’s just an ordinary part of the job. Not for Francis.

        Protecting and zealously representing clients despite how they feel about lawyers is the sine qua non of being a professional. We put them first. That was your point, Judge, and Francis responded that we’re a guild of plumbers who put our self-interest first because clients are scum.

        As we are all aware, our duty to zealous represent clients is “within the bounds of the law.” We have a duty of candor to the court. We don’t get to lie, cheat and steal to win. But those are merely the working constraints of law, not a duty to the “bench and bar” before the client. Francis is wrong. Completely totally wrong. There is no gentle nudge that will save a lawyer who hates clients. There is absolutely nothing he said that should be agreeable to any lawyer. To even suggest otherwise is to fundamentally undermine the message of this post.

        And he doesn’t deserve the job at Dairy Queen either.

        1. Richard Kopf

          SHG and Jeff,

          Both of you remember the classic, The Practice of Law as Confidence Game: Organizational Cooptation of a Profession (1966) by Abraham S. Blumberg. The essence of that book is what I was concerned about when I responded to Francis. Or as Scott too kindly put it, I tried to “gently shift what he said toward a different place.”

          For what it is worth, Blumberg’s “different place”– where prosecutors, CDLs and judges unwittingly conspire among themselves to make their lives easier at the expense of the accused–is far more concerning to me writ large than Francis’ personal expression of anger at clients who turn on him.

          Now, I share your passion for representing people zealously whether you like them or not and, far more importantly, whether they threaten to sue you or not. Long ago in internet time, I wrote about my personal experience while in the practice with that exact issue. The post was entitled, The smell of a sociopath, Hercules and the umpire, (July 17, 2013). I should have written something similar to Francis.

          All in all, I should have been more clear. Although your criticism of Francis was too vitriolic for my tastes, I can’t say you were wrong in lighting him up. My guess is that Francis would not argue otherwise once he got over the sting. (There I go again!)

          All the best.


          1. SHG

            Fair enough, Judge. And if you thought that was vitriolic, you should have seen what I wrote before I took all the bad words out.

            1. Jeffrey Gamso

              What Scott said (both parts).

              Though in response to what Scott said before, I’ll note that customers at fast food places can be as annoying as our client. Consider the guy who just threatened to shoot up a Steak ‘n Shake ’cause the egg in his sandwich was runny.

              Here’s a link if you’ll allow it. http://www.morningjournal.com/general-news/20170719/south-euclid-police-customer-threatened-to-shoot-someone-over-bad-steak-n-shake-sandwich

              [Ed. Note: Runny eggs are gross. I totally understand.]

  11. Brian Cuban

    Ironically missing from this given recent public conversations about addiction/mental health in the profession is the need for young(and and old) attorney to take care of themselves in order to be able to be able to serve clients to the best of abilities. Without that, it does not matter how smart, you are, how great of a litigator you are, etc, you won’t be able to effectively serve your client. This illustrates why there is such resistance to seeking help in the profession.

    1. SHG

      You, more than anyone I know, realize the importance of lawyers dealing with their addiction/mental health issues, and what a fine line it is to take care of yourself so that you can best serve your client. I struggle with how best to express this, to draw the line. Most on the “take care of yourself” side care only for the lawyer at the expense of the client.

      I know that’s not your view, but it’s very difficult to explain where the line falls in a way that doesn’t create resistance but doesn’t sacrifice the client.

      1. Brian Cuban

        Thanks Scott. Unfortunately, that line is often only discovered when a client has been malpractices etc, We both have seen it as I suspect every lawyer who reads this. As you probably known I am not referring to “mindfulness’ and such. I am talking about base line mental health issues that if not dealt with make everything in Judge Kopf’s narrative moot.

        1. SHG

          I agree about the outcome (a lawyer can’t zealously represent his client if he suffers from unaddressed addiction/mental health issues), but how to draw the line remains my problem. I don’t have a good answer.

      2. Jordan

        Good comment. I wish I had more to add.

        Law is an odd profession. You have to take care of yourself in order to effectively serve your clients. At the same time, you have to be willing to put your clients’ problems ahead of your own in order to be an effective attorney. Dance recital or prep for tomorrow’s cross? The latter wins out if you want to be a good lawyer.

        From a purely selfish perspective, it comes down to what you want out of life. I was sitting in court yesterday listen to two attorneys discuss a guy who just had a heart attack:

        “He was a great lawyer. Had encyclopedic knowledge about [some stupid obscure area of the law].”
        “Yeah, he really was an effective advocate. I remember that time he won summary judgment…”

        All I could think was “I’d hate to be remembered like that. I don’t give a fuck about any of that stuff.” If people remember me for my knowledge of the UCC, my life was wasted.

        Someday we will all die. Some of us will go down as great lawyers. Others will go down as great people. And others, well, no one will care about one way or the other. But one way or another, we’ve got about 80 years here on this planet, and what we do with that time is our choice.

        If your goal is to be remembered as a great professional, the law will afford you that opportunity. Maybe you’ll learn the UCC in and out, and be able to argue any case about a copier that was wrongly taken by a bank. You can die behind your desk and all your colleagues will say what a great lawyer your were.

        Maybe your goal is for your family to know you as a guy who showed up to every dance recital, and raised kids with an active parent. Your family will rave about what a good father and husband you were.

        Either way, it’s your choice. Devote your life to your profession, devote it to your family, devote it to your hobbies. Do whatever you want.

        If you want to practice law, your life is devoted to serving your clients. They come first. If you don’t like that, well, you can do a lot of other things with a law degree/

        To quote Eminem, “It’s your life. Live it however you wanna…”

    2. Richard Kopf


      Thanks for making the point.

      To emphasize what you have said, I make no secret of the fact that I have long suffered from a major depressive disorder that has required me to consume medications since my early thirties. I am also not worried about admitting that long ago I became addicted to one of those medications (a barbiturate that was supposed to help with migraines). Thank the God(s) for the skillful physicians and therapists who have helped me deal with these issues successfully.

      Want some irony? It is absolutely true that I just got back an hour or so ago from seeing my provider for a med. check.

      All the best.


    3. Beth Bell

      Brian, I agree. In the past two years in this small town, two close friends have lost their practices, their licenses, and been convicted of felonies. One is now serving jail time.
      Everyone knew. Everyone talked about it. No one did a thing. Becoming so focused on winning at all costs has its consequences. If you don’t take of yourself, you can’t take care of your client. Or anyone else. And everyone suffers.

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  13. Turk

    Judge Kopf:

    I’ll take issue with your “lastly” snark at bar associations and to “never” take them seriously.

    The ones I belong to (trial lawyers) do a terrific job of lobbying legislators on issues regarding the civil justice system. Many legislators are often clueless as to the contents of bills that are on their desks, or of bills they may even be co-sponsors of.

    Sometimes we get bills passed that protect consumers, or stop bad bills from becoming law. And those “leaders” have often sacrificed much time from their offices in order to further that goal.

    This active participation in our democracy should never be dismissed, and young lawyers in particular may better appreciate the existing as well as changing laws when they see how the sausage gets made in their state legislatures.

    To the young ‘uns who may still be reading this far deep into the comments, don’t be too quick to lump all bar associations together simply because one may not like the ABA. Some are doing the hard grunt work of helping to shape our legal system.

      1. Turk

        No reason to believe mine is special, as I assume many others do the same.

        But the fact that there may be preening and self-importance is some corners is no reason to slam the rest.

        Young lawyers should take the dismissiveness of Judge Kopf on that one final point with a a few grains of salt.

        1. SHG

          It’s the 99% that make the 1% look bad. I’m pretty sure it was a generalization, based primarily on the ABA, and as such, is true. I’m similarly pretty sure that it wasn’t directed specifically at your bar association. Should someone from each and every bar association nationwide make their pitch that theirs is wonderful, unlike those sucky ones they hate?

    1. Richard Kopf


      I think I know something about your bar association consisting as it does of a certain segment of trial lawyers. It is really a union. I like unions.

      All the best.


      PS By the way, I belong to an association of federal judges. It, too, is really a union.

  14. Lee

    “Moving on, be kind to underlings like your “assistant,” and by that I mean, for example, your secretary. She (or perhaps he, although that makes me giggle) is a valuable resource and, more significantly, a living and breathing human being. Nurture these people like hothouse orchids. Most importantly, never punch down.”

    Amen to that. And don’t forget to be kind to the Court’s clerks and staff. Not to curry favor, but because they have to deal with asshole lawyers every work day of the week.

    (Lawyer and former legal assistant)

  15. Jordan

    “Additionally, don’t complain about a work/life imbalance. Your clients are what matters. Your spouses and kids are secondary. If you don’t agree, get out of the practice of law. ”


    I don’t have kids, but that’s why I got out of private practice.

    You’ve got to sacrifice yourself or your clients. If you’re not willing to put other people’s problems before your own, you’re not doing it right. Your clients’ needs come before your own. Period.

    While that sounds mean and hurtful, would you want your heart surgeon to say “I understand you’re having serious chest pains and might die, but my son is playing the violin tonight so it will have to wait until next week. Cool?”

    Prepare to sacrifice if you want to practice law.

    If your goal is work / life balance, it’s not a great field. It’s just not. You’re helping people with very serious problems, often which are time sensitive, and challenging. There is a reason lawyers get paid a lot of money – what we do sucks. It’s stressful. It’s time consuming. It’s thankless. You can get sued for malpractice and have bar complaints filed. The practice of law can be a whole lot of suck.

    Me? I work in house. I have a position that pays well and allows me to work from home if I feel like it, no billable hour requirement, jut results. I work relatively normal hours, for relatively normal people. But even my job often requires me putting my one client before myself.

    On most days, I’d rather be bartending like I did in law school…

  16. Kari

    I enjoyed this read and generally agree with much of it because 20 years of practicing law has certainly been one hell of a post-law school education. You nailed that one Judge–that there is no substitute for experience. However, we part ways on your views about the family. Mine will always come first and I recognize that living that principle comes the responsibility of simultaneously honoring clients needs as well as or even better sometimes than those of my family. Perhaps I hold this view because of the working mother and wife lens through which I’ve seen about 15 of my 20 years of law practice. I hate the phrase “work life balance” and have strived to live more in “work life harmony.” As a manager of other lawyers I now try to model my work life harmony concept to all of them whether or not they have (or even want) kids. I’m lucky to lead a group of lawyers who take pride in doing good work & serving clients well. Simple respect for others lifestyles goes a long way in so many contexts and it’s easily applied here to.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!
    By the way, I don’t know if you wrote them but I just adore the rules of the comments given below the “Post Comment” box!

  17. Jordan

    Someday day I’ll write more about this…

    I remember one morning I woke up at 5:30am. I hop in the shower, and start shaving. My phone starts buzzing…

    “Jordan!! Did you print the stuff out? We have court at 9am!!! Are we going to argue that thing we talked about? I called you last night at 11:45pm and you didn’t pick up. Is everything okay? We need to talk!! Call me!!”

    Jesus fucking Christ. Enough. For two seconds. I’d like to shave and shower. Just leave me alone for 20 minutes. 20 fucking minutes is all I ask for.

    That’s sort of what every single day for me was like in private practice. I woke up each morning to text messages, emails, Facebook messages, and all kinds of other communications. Saturday, Sunday, Monday, holidays, it all sort of blends together. Life was just a constant barrage of sending “I’m in court, I’ll get back to you when I’m out.” My days start at 5:30am and end… never. Everyone’s problems are my emergencies.

    Friends? Family? “Sorry, can’t talk.” “Sorry, busy, call you next week.” But I never did. I missed all kinds of events, parties, gatherings, etc. “Sorry I can’t go camping”, “Sorry I can’t go to your daughter’s thing, I have too much work to do.”

    Because clients come first.

    One morning I woke up before an injunction hearing, trying to shave, and hearing the phone going off like crazy. All I could think to myself is “Why do I put myself through this? I don’t need the money. I could make $30k a year bartending and be perfectly happy. I have no kids, my mortgage is nominal, and yet here I am. I don’t have time to get a haircut, and yet I’m rushing into court over something trivial.”

    Is this worth it to me? Honestly, it’s not. I’d rather keep my health and sanity than fix the problems of other people for money.

    What’s the practice worth to you?

    1. B. McLeod

      I have a flip phone, and that’s my compromise with the world. Right now, it’s on my desk upstairs, so leave a message.

      I stop at reasonable. I’ll return a call same day. I’ve got email. Some client calls me at 2:00 a.m., chances are I’m awake, but I’m gonna make an informed judgment whether to immediately respond to that. There needs to be a damn good reason.

  18. Richard Kopf


    On every day, I’d rather be a bartender. But, I must admit that, unlike the practicing lawyer, my gig allows me to achieve the perfect work/life balance.

    That’s why I like sentencing so much. That is, I get paid no matter the quality of the result as every convicted offender is doomed no matter what. However, unlike you, I can’t work from home, but I am thinking about Skype sentencing.

    Wathcha think? Don’t answer.

    More seriously, I respect your intellectual honesty. Additionally, the heart surgeon analogy is a good one, particularly for criminal defense lawyers.

    All the best.


  19. Fred Smithvale

    Judge Kopf:

    Years ago, I was a regular reader of Hercules and the Umpire. I deeply admired the thoughtfulness of most of your posts, especially the ones about criminal sentencing. It was, and it remains, clear to me that you are deeply invested in the integrity of the office you hold.

    Given that, I do not understand why you are continuing to share your views on the appearance of young female attorneys in your courtroom. When you expressed that view in 2014, it prompted strong reactions from many people, a great deal of whom expressed the view that your comments called into question your ability to judge the arguments female attorneys made fairly. To your credit, you wrote about some of those reactions on Hercules and the Umpire after the fact, and expressed regret for the way the post had played out, going so far to say that you were “deeply ashamed” that your post had elicited one particularly strong reaction from a public defender.

    And yet this post returns to the same subject. Indeed, it goes further than your 2014 post. In your 2014 post, you took pains to clarify that the attorney you were writing about was an excellent lawyer. Here, you write that dressing in ways you disapprove is the mark of a “poseur rather than a practicing lawyer.” That comment suggests that you think less of the arguments made by attorneys who do not dress the way you prefer.

    I agree with you that personal expression is less important than the work of the law. But I am genuinely curious as to how you reconcile that view with your continued comments about the way attorneys in your courtroom dress.

    Warm regards,
    Fred Smithvale

    1. B. McLeod

      Maybe he holds to the (apparently) antiquated view that a federal courtroom is not a bordello. But of course, I merely speculate, and do no doubt he can amply explain for himself.

    2. Richard Kopf


      I thought a lot about the issue you raise before, during and after writing The Letter. By the way, unlike the earlier post at Hercules, the post at SJ was edited.

      Scott suggested I remove some language (unrelated to the paragraph you are talking about) because the language was intemperate. Upon reflection, I agreed. Scott is a great editor respectful of the author but aware of the sensibilities of his audience. In my writing style, I sometimes (often?) misread how the reader will perceive what I wrote. So, with this in mind, consider the following.

      In the most recent post, I make the point that both males and females need to dress the part as a lawyer whereas the post you refer to in Hercules was centered around one example involving a female attorney.* More importantly, back then and again now I wanted to emphasize how important it is, particularly in the courtroom, to understand that for good or ill a lawyer’s appearance matters. When it comes to appearance, the fact is that male lawyers and female lawyers offend the sensibilities of juries (and judges) differently. That is, their plumage is not the same. I know not how to honestly address the issue without candidly referring to that difference in a descriptive sense.

      Now, should have I returned to the general subject of how lawyers dress in the most recent post given the earlier controversy at Hercules? I think so. I took the thoughtful criticism to my Hecules post to heart. That has not changed. If this post on SJ repeats the same error that I made at Hercules than I have erred again. If that is so, this time I have no execuse.

      Thanks for writing. All the best.


      *I had a reason for that singular perspective in the Hercules post–a controversy at a law school in California about a male administrator’s well-intentioned memo to female law students about the proper attire at their summer intern gigs–but that is water under the bridge.

      1. SHG

        We’re at a very dangerous crossroad in law, Judge. It might be easy to chalk it up to the confluence of progressive academics and narcissistic children, but then, look at the ABA’s obsession. They lie to themselves about what it means to be a lawyer to conform to their self-serving bias, they can’t take a joke at all and they go into a frenzy over every perceived offense, no matter how absurd.

        It’s not that the vast majority of “old lawyers” aren’t shaking their heads, but that the young lawyers feel empowered to believe whatever lies suit their feelings, and anyone who tries to tell them otherwise is some flavor of hater. One kid, a law student, responded (on the twitters) that you (we) were belittling and condescending. Imagine, a law student called a federal judge condescending. That’s the future of lawyers under the current regime.

        1. Richard Kopf


          I don’t mind the young lawyer saying I was belittingly and condescending. I was and intentionally so, but not solely to be nasty, as you well know. Truly, I thought the post might provoke some young practicing lawyers to think more deeply. If some reacted like children that is a cost of doing business that I can easily absorb. By the way, at least he or she didn’t call me a “baby killer” like the thousand or more emails that I received after the second Carhart opinion.

          But what has stunned me was the nerve I hit regarding work/life imbalance. And that brings me to the point of your comment as well as your Short Take: Second Banana.

          Scott, you have put it so very well:

          “It’s not that the vast majority of ‘old lawyers’ aren’t shaking their heads, but that the young lawyers feel empowered to believe whatever lies suit their feelings . . . . That’s the future of lawyers under the current regime.”

          Brutal intellectual honesty coupled with even more brutal introspection into one’s motivations used to be the hallmark of every decent practicing lawyer, both young and old. Putting clients before self is the natural consequence of such hard thinking and analysis. It is becoming apparent to me (I am a slow learner) that clients are, to repeat a word I used in my post, “secondary.” That is the sound of the legal profession dying not with a bang but a whimper.

          Lastly, thank you for editing and publishing what I wrote. I have the greatest respect for your commitment to our beloved profession even as it seemingly dissolves into massive and insidious self-indulgence. The losers in all this are the clients, but they no longer matter much. Dance recitals and ball games are rapidly becoming the raison d’être for lawyering.

          All the best always.

          Rich Kopf

          1. SHG

            You may not mind being called condescending, but I mind that some snot-nosed law student feels he’s entitled to view it that way. If he wants to be “respected,” let him earn it. Sorry, but this is part and parcel of the attitude problem, telling children their every feelz is valued until they actually believe they’re entitled to say something like that. It’s not okay, even if you don’t mind it.

            And you’re welcome, but you know that.

  20. Jordan

    An average day in the life of a litigator..

    5:30am: Alarm goes off. Or maybe that’s a client sending a text message. Or maybe it’s an ECF notification. Who knows? Either way, good morning. Fuck. It’s morning. Not again… what day is today? It doesn’t matter.
    6:00am: Email from client, call from client, second call from client, third call from client, text from client, and a notification that Trump did something about something that I’d like to read. Another call from client. It would be nice to shower and shave in peace.
    6:15am: Put the phone on vibrate and try to shower and shave in peace. I can hear the damn thing vibrating.
    6:30am: What’s on the agenda today? Court at 9am. Documents are printed out. Cool. Something due at midnight. Deal with that later.
    7:00am: Send out emails. “I’m in court today. I’ll give you a call when I’m out. Not sure when it will be done.” I send this same email about 20 times.
    7:30am: Uber.
    8:15am: Arrive at courthouse. Drink coffee. Send more emails and text messages. “I’m in court today. Will respond when possible.”
    9:00am: Show up to court.
    9:30am: Still no judge, but not allowed to use cellphone.
    10:30am: Still no judge, but now allowed to use cellphone.
    11:00am: Step out to “use bathroom.” Missed texts: 20. “Jordan, where are you? Is everything okay? I texted you an hour ago and haven’t heard from you. It’s really important.” Missed emails? I don’t even want to know.
    11:45am: Judge takes bench.
    12:15pm: Begin examining witnesses. Text message: “Jordan, it’s really REALLY important please call me NOW.” Response: “Live witness on bench. Call u later.” Apparently that’s “not an excuse.” Missed calls: 12. Missed texts: 20.
    2:45pm: “Hey, it’s me. Sorry I couldn’t talk this morning. I had a live witness and a court hearing. What’s up?” “This thing happened in my case. It’s so unfair! Can you believe the other side did this thing? Do I need a new lawyer? I tried to call you like 20 times this morning and you didn’t respond.” “Yeah, I was busy.” “I get you’re busy but I’m busy too. I might need a new lawyer.” I might need a new profession.
    3:15pm: Back at office. I’m spent but this brief is due by midnight. Fuck.
    3:30pm: Client calls. Life is so unfair. Other side is such a bad person. Can we talk about it?
    4:15pm: I’d like to cook a healthy dinner and go to the gym, but all I have time for is UberEats. Yay me. Pizza.
    5:30pm: At least the phone has stopped ringing. Oh wait, it hasn’t. Joe Client is calling again. Again again.
    6:30pm: Call with Joe Client is over. He owes me money. Ah fuck, I missed my personal training session. It doesn’t matter, I have shit to do.
    8:30pm: First draft of brief done. Cool.
    9:30pm: Second draft of brief done. Cool.
    10:00pm: Brief ready to be filed. Ah fuck, the e-file website is down. Now what? Goddamnit. Check text messages. “Hey Jordan, haven’t heard back from you all day. Wondering what you’re up to. Are you mad at me? You never return my texts.” I miss being a normal human being who returns my friends’ text messages, but this brief has to be filed tonight by midnight. My friends all think I’m mad at them, or I’m too important to return their calls. In reality, I’d like nothing more than to see them.
    10:20pm: Website is back up. Brief filed. What’s on the agenda for tomorrow? Court at 9am. Fuck. Gotta start preparing.
    11:00pm: Home. Watching Netflix. Feeling guilty that I’m not working on Joe Client’s brief due next week, and anxious that I won’t get it done on time. I should be preparing for court tomorrow, not watching a documentary.
    11:20: Send out emails, print out documents for tomorrow. Try and sleep, but I can’t stop thinking about the hearing tomorrow at 9:00am…

  21. Jordan


    “Jordan, what do you think the other side is thinking?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “I know you have to say that because you’re a lawyer, but what do you think they are they thinking?”
    “I don’t know. They might have filed this motion with a purpose, or they might just be billing hours. I really don’t know what’s in their heads. All we can do is respond accordingly.”
    “Do you think they’re trying to do XYZ?”
    “I don’t know. Maybe.”
    “Do you think they’re trying to do ABC?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “What do you think the judge thinks?”
    “She’s probably just going to rule on the motion that’s before her.”
    “But do you think she’ll think that…”
    “I don’t know what she’s going to think. In the past, this is what she’s done with similar motions…”
    “But what do you think she’s going to do with this one?”
    “I don’t know. That’s how she’s acted in the past. Each case is different.”

    [Hours later]

    “Jordan, I was thinking… this is what they’re trying to accomplish…”
    “Could be. All we can do is respond in due course.”
    “Can’t we sue the judge?”
    “No. I told you that yesterday.”
    “But I want to sue the judge.”
    “Doesn’t work like that.”
    “The law is so unfair.”
    “I know. It sucks.”
    “We should contact the media!”
    “They won’t give a shit. There are hundreds and thousands of cases unfairly decided each day.”
    “But we should contact them!”
    “Ok, call them.”
    “You should do it, you’re a lawyer.”
    “I’m in the middle of writing your brief that’s due 5 hours from now. I can’t focus on that right now, and I need to get off the phone.”
    “Are you sure you care about my case? Do I need a new lawyer? My friend’s lawyer said he always gets his cases in the media, and that you should have filed a different motion.”

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