The Room of Great Lawyers

My old pal, the Texas Tornado, has forsaken his exemplary blawg, Defending People, in favor of his occasional substack, which is an odd way to start a year whose word is “write.” But blawgs are old, long, boring and take effort to read. Is there really any interest in reading something longer than a twit?

Mark Bennett was obviously way ahead of me, as reflected by the fact that I’m writing this blawg post and he has a substack, which I do not. Then again, I’m older than he is and still feel the need to write thoughts down at some length. But Mark is kind enough to have me on the list of recipients of his substack, so I still get to enjoy and learn from him. This morning, he struck a nerve with me when he wrote about the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

In about 1998, Troy McKinney and I started the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association listserv on Topica.com. I was young and starry-eyed, in practice three years, serving my first of three terms as HCCLA’s Vice President. The 28-year-old organization had maybe 150 members, had suffered several years of lackluster leadership, and was mostly broke.

Things changed that year. HCCLA brought Terry MacCarthy down from Chicago to lecture on cross-examination (the recordings are available on iTunes), Lloyd Oliver’s presidency shook some more reputable members into action, and we adopted the listserv, which would be a selling point for the organization for the following two decades.

Over the years the list moved from Topica to Yahoo to its current home at discourse.org. And it grew from 100 members to maybe 600. The organization had explosive growth (reaching as high as 800 members, which made it the largest local criminal-defense bar organization in the country) largely because membership was a ticket to the listserv.

Practice-related bar associations became a thing back then, and the HCCDLA became one of the best. We have something similar in New York City, as well as the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, both of which I was a member of for a time. These associations were formed with a purpose and, as organizations do as they become increasingly popular, forgot their purpose over time until the only putative reason for their continued existence is self-perpetuation and the opportunity for younger lawyers to get elected to bar association offices so they can tell people they were president.

And that’s a problem. About 200 is the maximum size for a community of equals to function—for everyone to know everyone else well enough that there aren’t strangers in their midsts. I don’t like the direction the organization has taken (about which more perhaps later) and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it within the HCCLA system. So I’m letting my membership lapse, and starting something new and smaller, not a trade association but a place for criminal-defense lawyers to talk about criminal-defense law with no strangers in our midst.

I remember well sitting in board meetings listening to midwits drone on about nonsense. I got tired of arguing, explaining, cajoling, and leaving meetings with absolutely nothing useful accomplished other than whatever cathartic benefit making noise provided the members who needed to talk as much as humanly possible.

Thankfully, this was before the metamorphosis of criminal defense bar associations into the social justice wing of the progressive party, which I suspect is what Bennett is talking about with the “direction the organization has taken.” As I’ve made abundantly clear here, I am not a fan of fantasy solutions to politically correct problems. I just want to save real people from real problems. That means there’s no place for me in the boardroom anymore, where radicals figure out which laws with disparate impacts must be repealed and which new laws are needed to make sure the day’s bad dudes get life plus cancer.

What this means, unfortunately, is that serious lawyers can’t talk amongst themselves anymore. Arguing with baby lawyers isn’t much fun or particularly useful, and since they know far more than we old guys know, they have no interest in learning, or even discussing, but consider it their duty to lecture those of us with decades more experience about how the new world order should be.

Chatting on twitter with randos isn’t the same thing, no matter how passionately they feel about law. Sometimes the comments here are useful, although non-lawyers often sidetrack actual thought because they’re interested and inexplicably believe their stories and questions are really fascinating.

Bennett figures the problem is numbers, with 200 being as many people as can engage in any useful discussion. Why isn’t entirely clear to me, and that seems like a lot more people than can engage in any useful discussion, but that’s not my concern. My concern is that these organizations were formed and run by lawyers of some accomplishment, experience, skill, gravitas.

I remember when, as a baby lawyer, I was first invited into the board room to sit at a table with legal heroes, gunslingers, men and women who could cross to kill. I shut up and listened, as these were the real deal, and I learned at their knees. Where are they today? We get pimple people on twitter, the worst of whom is some legal lunatic Seth Abramson, but where are the serious people who amassed accomplishment through skill, hard work and tenacity? Those are the people I want to talk to. I want to be in a room with great lawyers again. Where is that room today?

37 thoughts on “The Room of Great Lawyers

  1. Turk

    Why not make a room yourself? A private listserv. No fees. No organization behind it. A closed society where you can only gain admission if you know someone already in. You start with 10 friends you know and trust and can swap thoughts and ideas with about law, local judges, experts, prosecutors, etc. I’ve been part of one for over 10 years on the PI side. It usually works.

    If the problem is the organization, why not just dump the organization?

    1. SHG Post author

      Some people like to be organizers. They tend to relish the officialness of it all. Some people do not. My thing is to do SJ. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

      1. LocoYokel

        Much as it would pain me to lose the daily reading and education here, you could close SJ and make it subscription only and limit that to those you care to discourse with. Of course that would also drastically limit the impact you have on the world at large, and I would bet that impact is greater than you know.

        1. SHG Post author

          SJ exists because I like to write, not because I’m trying to make it a business (I could have sold ads all these years, but didn’t) or complicate my simple country lawyer life. But most of my communications with readers isn’t in the comments, but in emails and other communications. I’ve been able to help a lot of people along the way because of this, and that matters far more to me than being the boss herding feral lawyers.

          1. Hal

            Scott Greenfield… simple country lawyer? Somehow I doubt if one googled “simple country lawyer” your picture would come up.

            Not that I’m, in any way, disparaging simple country lawyers. Sam Ervin taught Richard Nixon a lesson about country lawyers and while I wasn’t yet old enough to vote, I was paying attention.

          2. Anthony Kehoe

            I am definitely not a lawyer. I do like to read scotus opinions and other opinions when they are either big cases, recommended through things I read, or generally OMGWTF opinion on the twitters. I’ve yet to read an opinion where the decision or the dissents don’t seem generally compelling. I appreciate SJ in helping to understand why things seem to turn out the way they do when I don’t fully understand why.

          3. LocoYokel

            I didn’t say “paying subscription” you could have still used a free/donation based financing model but limited the readership, or at least the commentership with a subscription model.

      2. TK

        I wish I knew where to find that room. I’m a baby CDL and it has been difficult to find those opportunities to learn. My state association listserv has the occasional piece of knowledge, but it takes sifting though hundreds of useless emails to find. The only person in my office with any experience has no interest in interacting with anyone, much less mentoring. I read what I can find, but that’s limited.

        One of the best learning opportunities I’ve ever had was watching a traffic ticket trial out of Texas, which was being streamed on YouTube. Bennett led a live tweet thread about it, and there was a lot to learn from his insights.

        I appreciate that you share your thoughts and insights into matters. They are a valuable learning opportunity.

        1. SHG Post author

          Mentoring is a critical, and sore, subject. I’ve written about it here years ago, but the TL;dr is that mentees became too high maintenance, sensitive, fragile and a pain in the ass. Older lawyers want to mentor, but if you think we’re going to waste our time being told by snot-nosed little shits what words we can say, or how we have to wrap advice in a compliment sandwich, or to worry about your feelz, or to have you interrupt in the middle of a meeting or court appearance, then it’s a problem.

          I mentor numerous lawyers today, but they come to me to be their mentor because they want to learn, not because they want me to validate their feelings. If something is great, I tell them so. If it sucks, I tell them so and how to make it great. But if that makes them sad, tough nuggies, and I don’t care to argue about it.

          1. TK

            Let us know when you’re opening up applicants spots.

            “Taking on new mentees. Woke, thin-skinned, and commonsense-less need not apply.”

            1. SHG Post author

              If you want it, make it happen. Don’t wait for someone to offer. If you’re in TX, tell Bennett he’s got a newbie whether he likes it or not, and he better get off his ass and start menting you.

            2. Charles

              That’s the problem with calling it “mentoring”: everyone assumes the mentor is supposed to do the heavy lifting.

              It’s not our host’s job to set up an application process, interview candidates, and plan events in which to mentor baby lawyers. He’s not hiring “mentees.”

              If you think of it as “I want to sit at someone’s feet and learn” and put the burden on yourself (like SHG indicated in his reply), then you’ll have a better perspective as to how to be mentored successfully.

              You want to be mentored? It’s your move.

  2. B. McLeod

    It’s great to have nice places for shop talk, and for that, perhaps the local Senior Lawyers division of the local bar association is a suitable venue.

    As far as focused practice associations, a main purpose of those used to be providing a venue where baby lawyers could learn to avoid substantial professional errors. Now that baby lawyers are smarter than everybody else, this function has fallen from relevance.

  3. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I bet you’ll be disappointed when you find out that Substack is just another blogger website.

    1. phv3773

      Substack is a paywall for writers. (This is a 1-sentence summary of their “About” page.) It’s for people like Popehat who have been read on Twitter and a blog by an audience of, say, 10,000. The average discussion level is pre-1L. The monetary return is negligible.

      With Substack, the audience is reduced to, say, 250, and few of them are trolls. The discussion level is 3rd-year or above, and monetary return is greater. He calls it The Popehat Report.

      All numbers here are my guesses.

  4. Tom Donahue

    It’s the room that’s holding The Federalist Society meetings. (Not the student meetings, the regular meetings.)

  5. Mark Bennett

    I’d’ve thought that yesterday’s post would have disabused you of the notion that “substack” means “short.” It’s like blogging, without the pesky commenters, and with a paywalled section where I can write in more detail about things like the direction the organization is taking—about which you are of course correct.

    1. El_Suerte

      I’m glad you’re doing ok, as I was worried when your twitter account vanished.

      Also glad you’re still writing because I always learn stuff from your work.

  6. Bryan Burroughs

    (While giggling at “Criminal Lawyers Association)
    I, for one, find refreshing that an association of lawyers is willing to admit they are criminals. It’s a step in the right direction.

  7. Natalie

    This may not be exactly responsive to your post, but I love this blog like I’ve never loved another. Your writing is so thoughtful and engaging that I have found my own opinions shifting many times after reading one of your posts – and that’s not something that happens often or easily.

    Thank you, Scott. I hope you stick around.

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