Matt is a student of law.
His ethical compass is always set to “Mother Theresa,” but his aspirations are far from humble. Matt looks to change the world one court proceeding at a time. (Hopefully passing a law against vegetarianism…)
Matthew took time out of his busy day (studying dead people’s lawsuits) to discuss his complex profession with BOJ.
BOJ: How did you decide that law was the career for you?
MS: I simply find it so interesting. We have basic problems in society and we have some not-so-basic problems. A basic problem is like battery: if someone hits you, you will have legal recourse. A less intuitive problem is where brilliant legal minds truly show their prowess. Trying to determine what a corporation’s state citizenship should be when it comes to bringing a private suit across state lines so as to establish federal jurisdiction is not such a “no-brainer”. Watching the courts craft a compelling argument as to the most fair and logical solution to this problem is one of those moments I live for. They’re just so clever. When I see that, it’s amusing in an entertaining way to me; it’s like watching a brilliant athlete at work or watching a master painter craft a masterpiece. Moments like this where I am entertained by the Supreme Court’s logic in tackling a modern issue in civil procedure are those that make me realize that first of all, this is the career for me. Secondly, I’m weird.
BOJ: What kind of law do you practice?
MS: Well, I’m still a student, so I don’t practice at all. Asking about the type of law is a common question for us though and I would correct a misconception: law school is not like undergrad. We study everything because we will be tested on everything for the BAR exam. So there are not overly specific designations like you would see for Bachelors Degrees. The bigger question for us as this point is: what size firm do you want to work for? If you want to make as much money as possible and don’t mind working 80+ hours a week, you prepare yourself to go out for big firms. If, on the other hand, you want to have a family and see daylight from time to time, you may consider going into a smaller practice.
BOJ: What is a day in the life of a lawyer like?
MS: Different lawyers have dramatically different days. Some spend all of their time in the office under a mountain of books while others get to surface from time to time to make courtroom appearances. As for us students, we have more common schedules: go to school for three hours followed by three to ten hours of homework and study.
BOJ: What is the most difficult part of practicing law?
MS: Re-learning how to think. They call it “thinking like a lawyer”. This is a big change. The law plays a part in everyone’s life whether you study it or not. Because of this, we develop our own misconceptions -not only about what the law is- but our ways to think about the law. To us, a law is more than a rule. It consists of the law itself, the jurisdiction, the interpretation (called case law), the statute of limitations, the intent, etc. There is so much more to a law than the law itself. This is why it’s funny to me when people (usually around election season) claim to know what the Constitution says just because they read some bit of it. I assure you, they do not.
BOJ: What is the weirdest case you have heard thus far?
MS: Oh man, there are a lot of strange ones. In my day-to-day, fact is truly stranger than fiction. There are many cases, you finish reading thinking, “Man, you can’t make that kind of crazy stuff up.” There first one of such stories that comes to mind is a case involving a lovers’ quarrel. It started with infidelity, as so many of them do. The gentleman accused this young lady of kissing another man. She confessed to her indiscretion in an angry way. She taunted him by performing a dramatic re-enactment of the kissing in question during which time she stuck her tongue out at the man. So naturally, he bit a nickel-sized chunk out of her tongue. I suppose he was not amused.
BOJ: Are you asked by friends for legal advice?
MS: All the time and it’s flattering as well as strange. I’ll get the couple of close friends who want some legal insight. They share their stories and I share insight I have. I never give legal advice (that’s my disclaimer for liability reasons). What’s strange is that there will be people who I was never really close with, say, back in high school, who are exceptionally open and eager to get my legal perspective on their embarrassingly detailed stories of run-ins with the law just because I’m a law student. Of course, I have the utmost respect for their confidence and would never disclose any of their personal stories. It’s just a surprising feeling to have people eager to tell you these things before you’re even a lawyer. What I can tell you is the recommendation I give most often. If you’ve ever seen that scene towards the end of “Liar Liar” where Jim Carry’s character shouts at a client with his face to the phone, “stop breaking the law … !” Yea, that’s me with half of these people. With most of the other half, I encourage people to know the law.
BOJ: How horrible is the BAR?
MS: Every state has a different BAR exam. Michigan’s is consistently one of the most difficult to pass nationwide. So the answer: horrible – especially Michigan.
BOJ: What is your take on the stigma attached to those who are lawyers?
MS: Those who perpetuate are those who are most hurt by it. Think about it; if you distrust those who have the most detailed knowledge of the law, you tend to misunderstand the law. Those who misunderstand the law tend to break it. Those who break the law tend to need lawyers. You see how this all goes? The shame is that lawyers, like law enforcement or doctors, are just here to help. Many think we’re a good ol’ boy system of crooks and cons whose only joy in life is to sue other people. To them, I would say that we have a whole book (yes, a book) of ethical rules that we must follow or suffer the consequences of disbarment and/or incarceration. And do you know who these people are who bring these charges against lawyers? Other lawyers. So, I’d hope to assuage some worries that all lawyers are unfettered egomaniacs by saying that if there is one person that a lawyer likes to sue the most, it’s another lawyer.
BOJ: What advice would you give to those looking to begin a career in law?
MS: First of all, it’s all about work ethic. The most successful law students all have one thing in common: discipline. Like so many other things in life, your natural talents are extras. The real cost of admission is truly dedicating yourself.
Secondly, if you’re attracted to the study of law because of the money, pick another pursuit. Even the lawyers that make the big bucks would never have survived law school on delusions of grandeur. It’s a hard field. It’s very competitive. If you have time to think about money, you’re wasting time that could be put to studying.
Third, read. Most of what any law student does is read. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not one of those people who will read a novel in a weekend for fun. But, reading is a skill and the more you do it, the better you are. So, the earlier you start, the better.
Lastly, respect. Lawyers are not themselves noble, but the pursuit of good law -of justice- is. The goal needs respect, not your ego. Sometimes, I study an extra note or case not because I’m required to for a homework assignment, but because I want to better understand the law, because what I fail to learn now could, years from now, cost someone their livelihood, their family, or even their freedom. I feel humbled by that prospect. If you’re interested in a career in law, that’s something I’d start thinking about.