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From the Executive Director’s Desk: Letter to a Newer Media Lawyer

By George Freeman

As astute readers of the LawLetter hopefully have recognized, we have added a number of new features to our monthly offerings. Just as weekly magazines no longer can just give news summaries of last week's events, we thought we needed some new angles over and apart from our compendium of litigation developments, many of which you probably have already learned about.

Thus, in our last two issues we have had a roundtable of experienced media lawyers and academics discussing recent issues – drones and the Sandmann v. Washington Post case; a book review; a feature article by Lee Levine and Steve Wermiel, co-authors of a book about Times v. Sullivan's progeny, about Justice Thomas' provocative concurrence seeking reconsideration of the Sullivan doctrine; and a new feature on career advice to newer media lawyers. Chuck Tobin and Jonathan Anschell both wrote very useful, interesting and personal advice columns which I hope did not go unnoticed by our readers, especially our younger ones. So as to highlight this feature and because I had some of my own thoughts on the matter, I thought I'd use the space for my regular column to address the question.

My advice centers on two aspects: First, KNOW YOUSELF; don't be moved by the PREVAILING WISDOM. Second, in an interview or on a big case, TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU'RE AN EXPERT AT, not what the interviewer's specialty is; and if you're working on a case with a big team, figure out a part of the case nobody is expert at, and own it. Let me explain, based on personal experiences.

The decision I made which led to my career in media law was a risky one – but not so risky because I knew what I wanted and what was good for me – even though it was counter to the prevailing wisdom and, indeed, significantly decreased any chance I had at partnership. But I knew myself well enough to know that, for me, at least, being partner wasn't the end-all; working on interesting stuff was more of a priority.

I was a junior associate at Cahill Gordon, a big NY firm, still one of the top litigation firms in the country, which prided itself on its lack of structure – no departments, no associate rotations; just planned chaos where partners called upon any associates who generally were to agree to work on a case unless they were really full-up busy. One day I heard one member of my associate class after another paged to go to the office of the senior labor associate. I was about the 15th called. When I went to his office, he explained that the labor/employment work at the firm was being handled by him and an aging partner; that when they called for associates to help them, they invariably were turned down because neither had any power in the firm and so associates thought working for them was hardly a career enhancing move; and so the firm had allowed them to recruit an associate whose primary responsibility would be to work for them. Would I like to be that person?

I thought quickly: clearly everyone else in my class had turned them down – hence, they were still going down the list. Their obvious lack of power, even respect, at the firm would hardly help my chances of becoming partner (still 5-6 years down the line). But, first, the group's clients were The New York Times, NBC, Columbia University and the New York Racing Association – many times more interesting than the accounting firms and financial institutions which were the main clients of the firm. Second, it was a very small group, so inevitably I would soon get more responsibility and experience than were I to be the bottom person on the 5 or 6 lawyer teams which (wo)manned the big cases – I thought I'd  soon be taking and defending depositions and writing briefs, rather than simply writing memos and answering interrogatories. Third, most of the cases were Title VII cases, many class actions, which were interesting to me, not NLRB/labor cases; after all, on my 12th or 13th birthday, even though I don't think I was, or am, a nerd, I asked for and received 1960 Census Surveys as a present, so deep was I into demographics which were a large part of those cases. Fourth, it was a life raft; I figured that when I received a call at 5pm on a Friday night asking me to work on a tender offer case through the weekend, I could now say, with some credibility, no I can't, I'm the labor person and I'm busy with my employment work.

As I sat there, actually thinking about pulling the trigger on the deal, I quickly realized that I had all the leverage in this negotiation – and I should use it now. The Times, NBC and Columbia all were the clients of Floyd Abrams, though, I correctly suspected, he wasn't really involved in their labor work. So I bargained, if I had any free time, could I use it to work with Mr. Abrams on media law matters? They assured me that was fine, and so the deal was done, and my new career path set.

To be sure, within hours word had gotten out. A friend walked into my office and said: "You idiot. You'll never make partner. That's the Siberia of the firm." Others followed with similar analyses. But, it turned out, things went pretty much as I had hoped: I was soon doing deps alone; I was writing briefs, not memos; I found the work interesting; the biggest cases were two class actions against the Times, which took me into the Times building on an almost daily basis – and indeed, allowed me to carefully study things like Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal's files and the salaries of all Times reporters and editors; I composed expert reports for a former Census Department executive; I escaped from unexpected last-minute weekend work; and in the spare time I had, I worked on cases such as Herbert v. Lando and Arrington v. New York Times with Mr. Abrams. And, needless to say, all that linkage with the Times led me to a job in its Legal Department, where I had the privilege of working for 31 years.

So by knowing myself, what I really wanted out of my life at the firm, rather than going with the prevailing wisdom that becoming partner was the be-all and end-all, I made a decision which paved the way for the rest of my career. (I also calculated objectively the tiny chances of becoming partner even had I gone the more favored route.) And that was despite the fact that I'm generally pretty conservative in life moves – 31 years at one job, only 3 places to live in over 40 years, etc. So it really wasn't a risk; it was throwing ego and what others were saying out of the picture, and just relying on what I saw as the right move for myself.

Second, when you are dealing with others, whether it be an interviewer or colleagues on your team, figure out an area you know more than them about and talk about it: you'll look smart, interesting, valuable, neigh needed – all qualities which should enhance your career prospects. The easiest example is the job interview. Typically, the interviewer will spend most of the time talking about his firm and his cases. He generally will have worked at the firm for decades and worked on the cases he is enthusiastically describing for years. How are you, who knows next to nothing about his cases, going to impress him? Certainly not by commenting or asking a question about a case he has spent days and nights thinking about.

So the strategy to make the interview successful for you has to be to move the discussion to something you know more than her about. Find a segue to connect the conversation to a case you are working on or an experience you had. When I was applying for summer associate jobs, I put on my resume that I was Assistant Dean of Vermont Law School. It happened to be true – how a 1L became an Assistant Dean is a story for another time, but involved a bizarre owner/Dean of Vermont's only and brand new law school who said, while whipping up a gourmet meal at his hotel's kitchen a stone's throw from the law school, that I needed a title (I was assisting a two-person faculty in teaching a required summer course for incoming students) – and it certainly engendered many questions at interviews. So precious interview time was spent not on my interlocutor's exposition of his latest antitrust case – to which I would have nothing intelligent to add – but to my story about my interesting job, which at least made me look somewhat clever, humorous and different from all the other associates who had come marching by.

A pithier example came in an interview at a big NYC firm, still around today. The partner was regaling me with stories about all the benefits of working at the firm – 4 weeks vacation, Friday night parties, an hour of tennis a week in a bubble (he didn't realize he had the perfect foil for that one), box seats at the Jets game since they were a firm client. Passing on asking why that was relevant since doubtless those seats weren't going to first year associates, I immediately interjected with, "I can't believe they punted on third down in yesterday's game." He said he was at the game, agreed with my cogent analysis, and 90 seconds later said, "I think you're exactly the kind of young man we're looking for," and gave me an offer. Move the conversation to what you are expert at!

The same principle works in the context of working with colleagues at a firm or law office. Find a slice of a case or matter which is or will become important and which no one else seems to be an expert in ... and own it. Whether it's the law or the facts, if you can become indispensable on one aspect of a case because of your detailed knowledge which no one else on your team has, you will become more valuable and your star will rise. If you just mirror your more experienced colleagues and know a little about everything in the case, I doubt you will have the opportunity to stand out.

A version of this strategy fell into my lap back in my Cahill days. As I described above, I was working on Title VII class actions against The Times. Floyd Abrams was the partner in charge, but was at the height of his First Amendment practice and really hadn't focused on these big discrimination cases. But a time came, perhaps after our summary judgement motion was denied, when settlement talks commenced or as we approached trial, when he had to get involved. So it fell upon a lowly associate, me, to get him up to speed on the law, the facts, both strong and weak, our strategy, prognostications as to what might happen, and so on. I was always pretty good at talking non-legalese – a trait that held me in particularly good stead when I went in-house – so I did pretty well in explaining an otherwise complicated and largely statistical case to Floyd.

However well I made Floyd familiar with a summary of the case, I certainly played a more important and useful role than as an associate on a libel case where there was virtually nothing I could have taught to the country's leading practitioner. (And I say this despite that fact that of all partners and clients I ever worked for, Floyd listened more carefully and responsively to what associates said than anyone.) So I always felt that the time I spent with Floyd on these employment cases went a long way in his forming a positive impression of me, and just perhaps may have led to some good words to the Times when they were thinking about hiring me (though I've never asked him if that's the case). I certainly wouldn't have had the same opportunity to be needed or to shine by talking with him about the footnotes I was drafting on our Herbert v. Lando brief or a libel case.

As you can see from my examples, some opportunities happen serendipitously. But sometimes you can influence events to make it more likely that you will have opportunities such as the ones I discussed here. So make career decisions based on what you really want for your future and your life, not on what your ego, your colleagues or the prevailing ethos is telling you. And try to get a role in a case or a part of an interview where you are the expert and can impress others in areas where you know more than them.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not the MLRC. We welcome responses at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; they may be printed in next month's MediaLawLetter.

 
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