There are many different ways to practice law and many types of law to practice. Law students and young attorneys often don’t know where to turn for advice about their options. Luckily, in addition to his teaching and scholarship, Jonah Perlin, a Legal Practice Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, provides a unique resource for the public through his How I Lawyer Podcast. In this week’s episode, Jonah trades his role as a podcast host for that of a podcast guest. Sitting down with Todd Smith and Jody Sanders, Jonah shares his background and experiences as a law clerk, practicing attorney, and law professor. He also discusses his work with the podcast, which he is using to create a library of law practice advice for students and lawyers looking to learn.
Listen to the podcast here:
Building a Library of Law Practice Advice | Jonah Perlin
Our guest is Professor Jonah Perlin from Georgetown Law School. Thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
We’re glad you’re here too. For our readers, I imagine most of them probably don’t know you. Some of them may know you from Twitter. Tell us a little bit about who you are and your background.
I’m a professor at Georgetown Law. I’m also an alumnus of the law school. I came to Georgetown and joined the faculty as a visitor years ago. I teach Legal Practice, which has different names in different places. It’s formerly known as Legal Research and Writing. My class is dedicated to teaching mostly first year students. I teach some advanced classes about how to write, act and practice as lawyers, small things, as part of the 1L Curriculum. I grew up and live in Washington, DC with my wife and two kids.
What’s the thinking behind the switching of the name from Legal Research and Writing to Legal Practice?
As with anything, there’s a lot in a name. Different places have used different terminology. Traditionally, it was thought of as a skills class, hence the sort of what are those skills, writing and research. The name switch happened before I came back to Georgetown but I always think of it as rethinking what our mission is, in a much broader sense.
I tell students from day one, I only get 40 class hours with them over the course of the whole year. One work week, they’re with me in the classroom. They do a lot of work outside the classroom as well but I am introducing them to the practice of law. As you both know and we all know, being a lawyer is being a professional writer.
There are practice areas where it’s not, where you are a professional public speaker or a professional advisor. For many lawyers, writing is our bread and butter. That’s how we do our profession. That is the core skill of the legal practice class. Other schools call it different things. Lawyering Fundamentals is another title. It allows me to think a little bigger and broader about what I’m teaching my students.
How did you get into teaching? What was your path from law school to faculty?
It’s a question I get a lot from students and from others out there. I graduated from Georgetown Law. I practiced at a law firm, Williams & Connolly, in Washington, DC, where I was a general civil litigator for a year. I was lucky enough to clerk for two incredible judges, Ellen Segal Huvelle, who was a retired judge here on the District Court of DC and Chief Judge Katzmann of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York. He unfortunately passed but he was an incredible mentor and judge to work for as well.
I went back to Williams & Connolly. I thought I was going to be a litigator. I liked litigating, getting to know my clients and the partners I worked with. The firm was fantastic. It was a trial by fire approach to being a civil litigator. The best way to learn how to be a lawyer, in my experience, is to be a lawyer. That was their philosophy. I had three first days at that law firm as a summer associate and then I came back after my clerkships.Being a lawyer is like being a professional writer. For many lawyers, writing is our bread and butter. Click To Tweet
A couple of years in, I started thinking maybe I don’t necessarily want to be a litigator, at least at a big firm for the rest of my life. What might be next? As we would have it, my dear friend from when I was at Georgetown was teaching as an adjunct in the night program at Georgetown. He was teaching a legal writing class on judicial clerkships, which I had a similar background to him. He was lucky enough to get a clerkship with Justice Sotomayor. He said, “Jonah, I know you’re interested in trying this teaching thing out. Would you have any interest in taking my class?”
It was a horrible time in my professional and personal life to take that on. I was busy at work. We just had our second kid, but I had always thought maybe teaching was in my cards. I did a master’s before I went to law school, thinking I might go the Ph.D. route eventually, but I said, “Let’s try it for this semester.” Then realized I liked being a litigator and I loved being a legal writing teacher. I said, “It’s time. I got to find my way to get back into the classroom.”
As luck would have it, Georgetown was hiring for a visiting position. Thankfully, that one semester was enough to get me the visiting position and the visiting position was enough to ultimately let me apply to the full-time position. I truly feel lucky. I get to do something that I love every single day. One moment and one clerkship that wasn’t mine changed my whole trajectory.
It’s interesting how those little ripples come out and have effects on people that you could never even have imagined.
It’s a good reminder. I tell this story to my students a lot. Other people’s success can be a part of your success, even if you don’t know it. The fact that one classroom experience confirmed for me that this was the right path. I tell my students all the time, “Take small bets and do things. At the end of the semester, when you realize what you don’t like doing is teaching in a classroom, you’d never have to do it again.” Having that light introduction allowed me to realize I wanted to do it and gave me the experience that candidly I needed to be a good candidate when a position opened up.
The other thing I’ll add is I had thought if I was going to go become an academic, I wanted to teach Legal Practice, then Legal Research and Writing. I had gone back to my professor who is one of my mentors at Georgetown, Kris Tiscione. I said, “I’d love to do what you do.” She told me “no” three times over the course of years.
She said, “You’re not ready and experienced enough. You’re not going to enjoy it.” She told me all the reasons I wasn’t going to like it. When I came back to her the third time, she finally said, “You clearly want to do this. Let’s figure out how to make it happen.” Those two experiences are what set me on my professional path.
Are there things that you have been teaching for several years? Are there things that you’ve learned on the teaching side of it that you wished you’d known and practiced?
One of the challenges is when you get to practice, especially as a litigator, at least in my experience, I can only speak to that. There’s a lot of learning by doing. That’s how we train. That’s our bread and butter. We don’t have that British model of being an apprentice somewhere. Instead, you’re a barred attorney and the best way to learn how to take a deposition, in my experience, was to have to take one. It’s scary. You don’t want the deponent knowing that it’s your first but it has to have a first. A joke I often make with my students is every pilot that has to land a plane the first time, they don’t tell the passengers that it’s their first landing. You got to be able to do it.
I love that ethos and that’s the right mental model for training lawyers. Having come back to the classroom, what I’ve seen is that there are people who are thinking critically over years and years on how to do this job well. Academics can get a bad rap that they’re so far away from the practice, at least people who teach what I teach. There are a lot of us out there and we’re growing.
Think critically about what makes a good piece of legal writing, not what do I like, not what does the judge that I clerked for like but what writ large makes a good piece of writing and what is a good process on how to do that. There’s a great professor, a guy named Joe Fore at the University of Virginia, who wrote a whole article about how we convey certainty in legal memos. He compared it to a bunch of different other professions. What does the phrase probably mean? Is that 50%, 60% or 70%?
In my experience as a lawyer, no one told me what probably meant in a memo to a client. I made it up as I was going along and learned wisdom of those who came before me. It’s a long answer to the question, but what I’ve learned is that there are people out there who have made this their professional life to think critically about how to be a better lawyer.
The practice could use greater interactions with those people and what they do. There’s a lot of great writing out there about being a lawyer that I don’t think lawyers get to see. I don’t know how to make that happen. I’m trying to make that happen myself through social media, my podcast and my students but it’s a challenge.
One disadvantage of practice is you don’t necessarily have the time or the bandwidth to go seek those things out, especially on the litigation side. It’s putting out fires and prepping for the next thing. The last thing you want to do is sit down and read a legal writing journal, unfortunately, although everyone could benefit from doing it.
Also, who are you going to bill it to? Time is money in the profession and I totally get that. That’s why it’s finding more creative ways than saying, “What was in this month’s journal of legal communication,” but rather, “I need to do X task for the first time. Let’s check to see if someone has already written about how to do that task.” The one challenge of doing it and figuring it out on your own is there’s a lot of inefficiency to that as well. You’re the novice leading the novice, trying to figure out what’s next. Finding those connections and building that community can be super powerful.
We haven’t had a guest who has talked much about the federal clerkship process and tips but we’ve heard from some audience members asking those questions. Can you give us an overview on the federal clerkship process and then maybe some tips for readers who are interested in going that route?
It’s a constantly moving target to a degree. The federal clerkship process has changed several times even since I was applying about a decade ago. I’ve been on as a student and then helping select clerks as a law clerk myself and writing recommendations for my students. I’ve seen all the pieces and it changes a lot. That’s the short answer.
The longer answer is if you want to apply for a clerkship, the idea is there are lots of people out there who want to do this job and who are very qualified to do this job. Judges don’t have the same apparatus that even private law firms have to select who the right people are and they’re hiring for very small numbers.
The process is pretty old school in a lot of ways. Send a cover letter, resume and recommendations. There’s a centralized hub called OSCAR but not all judges participate in it. The other thing I’ll add is every judge has their own hiring process and they are allowed to do that and, in many cases, are encouraged to do that, even if there is a hiring plan. And there is a hiring plan thanks in part to my old boss, Judge Katzmann, which is an effort to make it more normalized, fairer and clearer about what the path is but not everybody participates in it.
You send those materials out. For someone who’s never thought about how this works, I like to think of this happening in two steps. Step one is get your resume from the pile of 1,000. I’ve heard a district court judge here in DC, which is a very popular place to clerk for lots of reasons, who might get 1,000 applicants for 1 or 2 spots a year. Your goal at that point is to send in materials that help you get from 1,000 into the pile of 15, 20 or maybe 50 that the judge is going to read closely.
There are judges I know who read every application. That’s very difficult if you’re getting that volume. That’s not your full-time job. These are people you’re hiring to help you do your job more quickly, not to be the thing that you’re doing late at night and on the weekends. Step one is getting into that smaller pile.One of the benefits of being a clerk is short-circuiting the problem of gaining experience in practice. Click To Tweet
Once you’re in the smaller pile, the judge is going to go through everything. They’ll learn everything they can about you from your written materials and references to pick who they’re going to bring in to interview. In this world, interviews always happen in person. They’re increasingly happening on Zoom, which is fantastic. It’s cheaper for the applicants. It’s not like a law firm where they’re going to pay you to fly out for the interview. It also allows you to interview in two different cities on the same day, which is something that I wish I had been able to do years ago when I was applying.
You have to get for those 1 or 2 spots from that pile of 15 or 20. The key point is that what you do to get from 1,000 to 20 is a little bit different than what you do to get from 20 to 2. What you want to do to get from 1,000 to 20 is standout for that judge. That could be because the professor calls that you’re close with, you and the judge went to the same undergraduate institution, or you list on the bottom of your resume that you’re into Legos and the judge is into Legos. I have two young kids, so Legos is on the brain. It is idiosyncratic.
With that, you can’t help yourself by figuring out which judges you’re going to have the natural affinity with. Don’t waste your time doing that because it’s too hard to figure out, “What judge is going to pick me out of the pile of 1,000 to get me to the pile of 20?” The only way to fix that is to increase your denominator, apply as widely as you can and see what judge’s piles you end up in.
Once they call you back and you’ve gone from the pile of twenty, you can decide, “Do I want to be in their pile of two?” Maybe it’s a judge who doesn’t have the same political background as you, who you’ve heard from other clerks don’t treat his or her clerks very well or it’s the perfect person for you and it’s going to be the greatest setup in the world, but don’t do that before you get into the pile of twenty. That’s a high level of how I explain it to people who have never done this before. If you can have advocates in the process, that can help a lot.
Increasingly, judges are expecting to get calls from law professors. I tell everyone for whom I write a recommendation that I’ll make up to three calls to any judges you want. It’s even better if the judges know those people or are from the same places as those people. The other thing to ask is, “Has the judge hired from my law school before?”
A lot of judges tend to hire from the same law schools. It becomes a way for them to short circuit the system and say, “I don’t need to read 1,000 but I can read everyone who comes from law school X and law school Y, has been a summer associate at this law school or in this city.” They pick these various ways and that’s how it happens.
I’ve seen a little bit of discussion online about clerking where you want to work or not clerking where you want to work. Do you have an insight on that decision?
It’s something that I struggled with. I’m from the DC area. I wanted to stay in DC and then I got this incredible opportunity to interview with Judge Katzmann, who was a dream judge both on paper and even more of a dream judge when I met him in person. We didn’t have any interest in working in New York. I took some interviews for district court judges in New York. That didn’t go so well when I told them I wasn’t interested in staying. Some judges care about where their clerks are going to work. Some judges don’t. Judge Katzmann has a network all over the country.
In terms of benefits for you as the law clerk, I do think there are some benefits if you can find a place to clerk where you also want to practice, if you know where you want to practice. It’s a good way to meet the bar and have local mentors, as everybody knows. Local mentors are great. They can help make that phone call, set up that meeting or help guide you. All of that said, there’s a lot of value from the clerkship that comes from doing the work and that can happen anywhere. Maybe you don’t have a family or a plan and you’re willing to go anywhere for a year.
Being a law clerk, there are a lot worse ways to spend a year than being a law clerk. I had my clerkships lined up three years before I started because that’s how far out the process was when I was applying. I was a first year associate. I was at my wedding. I said to people, “We’re moving to New York in 24 months for me to clerk.” People looked at me like I was a crazy person that I knew I was leaving my job, had another job in between and then we were moving to New York.
In the time between when I got hired to work for Judge Katzmann and when I ultimately clerked for him, I got engaged, got married and my wife was six months pregnant. We had our first kid while I was clerking for him. That’s a challenge for some people. There’s negotiating that happens to make that a reality. At the same time, when I think back about it, it doesn’t bother me at all that I had to plan three years out. I had to work somewhere. Why not spend a fun year in New York doing it for a great judge?
The timeline is incredible. When you do what you did, which is do two clerkships back to back, it does extend things out a long time. Did you know that you were going to come back to Williams & Connolly or were you thinking about other options at that time?
I had no real plan. I was like a lot of people who graduated from law school. I thought I would have these experiences and they would help me decide what I wanted to do next. I said, “I’m going to clerk for two years and I’ll have a perfect plan by the end.” By the end, I still didn’t have a plan. I said, “I liked the people I worked with at Williams & Connolly. I’m going to go back and see what I’m going to do next until I find my plan.”
I do think it is a challenge for the firms, candidly, to have people shuttling in and out for short periods of time. The litigation process and the process to become a good litigator take many years. The jumping back and forth is a challenge. At the end of the day, think of it as time limited opportunities, secondments if you will, into a judge’s brain. There is nothing better for a young litigator than to be a judge’s brain for a period of time or be part of a judge’s thinking process for a time.
The timeline is hard and I will say it is harder often the older you are. My students who come to law school older with families, they end up often not clerking because they have such limited timelines and cities that they’re willing to work with. Plus, there are financial implications as well. The timeline’s not great but as a reminder, and you both know this because you practice before judges all the time, judges like to set their own rules and they often benefit the judges. That’s fine and that’s how it works.
There are a lot of people who are qualified to do these clerkships but the financial side of it does come into play. There are folks who are otherwise interested in doing it but who can’t afford it when they’re given the debt load that they’re looking at coming out of law school. It’s a shame that there are a lot of good candidates that can’t go that path because of those restrictions.
We’ve talked here on our show a lot about different paths to appellate practice. Judicial clerkship is one of those boxes that you want to try and check if you can but not everybody is able to do that for lots and lots of reasons. We’ve emphasized that it is possible to become an appellate practitioner without going that route.
You have to do things like a Jedi’s path, having a great mentor at his law firm and discovering appellate practice after he got into practice. There are lots of different ways to do it but there are different reasons why people want to clerk. There’s, “I want to be an appellate lawyer, so a judicial clerkship is the natural fit. I want to get the highest paying job with the biggest baddest law firm I can get in with and having a federal clerkship is a good way to do that.”
I assume you also have law students who are interested in other clerkships besides federal. Georgetown being in DC, it’s a little different scenario than what we see in lots of other places like here in Texas. Federal clerkships are great but state court clerkships are sometimes undervalued. A good place to be looking if you’re not necessarily one of those who’s going to wind up with the federal district or appellate court clerkship.
It has been a blind spot to those of us who’ve been around traditionally thought of as T14 law schools for too long, that clerkship equals federal clerkship. It doesn’t. Everything I said about the benefits of being part of a judge’s thinking process happens every day at every courthouse in America, no matter how small or how big.
One of my students in the class that I was an adjunct professor for came to Georgetown and had a pretty challenging first year in terms of grades. He’d be fine with me saying that his grades were on the lower side of his first year class and they didn’t get that much better until much later in his law school career.So much of the legal profession is passed on just by meeting and getting to know people. Click To Tweet
He was candidly GPA’d out of being a federal clerk. He said to me in the fall of his 3L year, “I know I don’t necessarily have the grades but I liked your class about clerking. I liked writing a bench memo. I like thinking about this. I’m going to apply for local clerkships.” I said, “Do it. I’ll write you a recommendation now. Let’s make this happen.” He had local family. He wanted to be in the Virginia, Maryland area.
He said, “I’m going to apply to every trial court judge in Virginia, Maryland. That’s as far as I’m willing to go.” I said, “Apply to all of them, make your denominator as big as you can. Same advice.” He ended up getting a clerkship in Fairfax County Local Court, which is the county I grew up in. He has come back and spoken to that class several times about how incredible being a local law clerk is.
You asked a little bit about whether or not it makes sense to clerk where you’re going to practice. If you know you want to practice in a place and you can clerk for the local court or the state trial court, that may be the best job you can possibly have, particularly if you’re not living in one of the big cities because you have gained so much value to being at a small but powerful local law firm.
He would not have been looked at by a ten-person, big Fairfax County law firm but once he had a clerkship, the three law firms in Fairfax County were banging on his door. It’s a wonderful experience. You can talk around your GPA a little bit and tell your story and judges, at least I have found, tend to be willing to take a shot, even if your grades don’t naturally line up at the top of the class.
I spent two years in law school clerking off and on for a state district judge in Houston. It was great because you’d go in. You’d get to watch a trial one week, help read and determine summary judgments. It was a blast because you saw everything and if there wasn’t anything going on there, you’d walk down to the criminal courthouse and there was something going on there or some big high-profile trial in Houston. I got to sit in on all of those things, go back, talk to the judge and have him say, “Here’s what worked and didn’t work. Here’s what I let you know.” I loved it. It was a fantastic experience.
I’ve shown my own bias by only talking about appellate clerkships but both of you have hit upon something not to be overlooked, which is federal district court clerkships or trial courts and other jurisdictions. You get a lot of that same experience as you’re suggesting. You get a peek behind the curtain to see what’s going on, how the process works. There’s so much value, no matter what level, where you are in getting those viewpoints because, as a law student, you sure don’t get it. As a practicing lawyer, you don’t have the opportunity to do this. I’m glad y’all took that approach.
I would add two quick things. The first is Judge Katzmann was notorious for this. He only hired clerks that had a trial court clerkship first and if you couldn’t get one, he helped you find it. That’s because he fundamentally believed that to be a good appellate clerk, you had to understand how the sausage got made at the district court level. He said, “You don’t understand standard of review unless you’ve decided a motion in three hours live from the bench. You don’t understand what it is you’re sitting over as an appeals court judge unless you’ve seen that process.”
There’s incredible value to being a trial court clerk if you want to be an appellate lawyer, which is I know a lot of the folks that tune in to your show. You see things that people who have not been district court or trial court clerks don’t see. I can’t explain what they are but you see them. The other point I would make is one of the greatest parts about being a trial court clerk is trials take time and you may only work on 2, 3 or 1 if you’re at a big law firm and you’re in a huge case like I did. Maybe you’re at a plaintiff side firm where you do 50 cases at a time.
When you’re a trial court clerk, you get hundreds of cases of experience in one year. You don’t have to wait for the trial process to happen. You see complaints and post jury verdict motions when they come in and everything else in between. That’s one of the other benefits of being a clerk because you short circuit the problem of gaining experience in practice, which means you have to wait until you get a case that has that issue. You get a lot more issues. You don’t do every case from soup to nuts start to finish.
Let’s shift over a little bit. One of the things we wanted to get you on to talk about was legal podcasting. You have started the How I Lawyer Podcast. Tell us a little bit about what it is, how you decided to do it, and where people can find it and learn about it.
I started the How I Lawyer Podcast right at the tail end of 2020. As my students know, I like to set audacious goals for myself. Sometimes, I miss them but I’m a big believer that if you don’t set audacious goals, you’re never going to get close. I set this audacious goal of doing 50 episodes in 2021. I published episode 38. Episode 39 is on its way. I’m hoping to hit that number by the end of 2021.
I was not a huge podcast consumer, I’ll be honest with you, but I was interested in doing something public-facing about my practice and interests. I took an online class late last fall about how to start a YouTube channel, so I thought I might start a YouTube channel and talk about legal writing. I might start a blog or a newsletter. I wanted to find a creative outlet for myself that was connected to what I did professionally but was bigger than my students, classroom and scholarship.
Honestly, it dawned on me one day. There’s a show How I Built This by Guy Raz, who’s one of the best podcasters out there. My funny story about Guy Raz is his wife used to work at Williams & Connolly. She’s a lawyer. We were once at a firm gala and I tied Guy Raz’s bow tie for him at the hotel. That’s how I got into podcasting was being that close to Guy Raz. He started this show How I Built This.
I listened to a couple episodes of Tim Ferriss’s podcast and I’ve been a long time Tim Ferriss fan. I said, “I could do this. It doesn’t have to be about me. It can be about other people.” This was the heart of the pandemic where people were feeling like they had lost touch. There are no conferences for me to go to. I can’t even get coffee with somebody. How am I even going to meet them? Where are we going to do it? I have to set up a Zoom room.
Much of the legal profession is passed on in the hallways, by meeting people and getting to know people. I said, “Why can’t we do that at scale? Why can’t I have a conversation that’s me having coffee with an insurance lawyer, with an appellate lawyer or with an education lawyer and have whoever wants at any point can listen in on that conversation?” I publish pretty much weekly. I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain that forever but I publish almost every week with the idea of building a library that people can go back to for years to come.
The amazing part is some of my most listened to episodes are not my biggest names. They’re the ones that I did first. They’ve been out in the world longer and, therefore, there are more people listening to them. I decided to start this show. I interview. If you want to find it, it’s HowILawyer.com or wherever you subscribe to your podcasts. I publish almost every week. It’s my conversation, 45 minutes to 1 hour with a different lawyer. Every episode has three acts. 1) What do you do? 2) Why do you do it? 3) How do you do it well?
Depending on how advanced they are in their career or what their general shtick is, each of those acts may be longer or shorter but that’s how I think about it. Originally, I pulled my network, people who are my friends or friends of friends, then people started reaching out to me on a regular basis. I’ve had to say no to a lot of people. If you’re one of those people, I apologize. It’s not for lack of wanting to have the conversation but I do.
I’m very committed to having a variety of practice areas, a variety of people, how junior or how senior they are. I want to make sure I have people of different genders, races and diversity in every sense of that word featured on the show. Hopefully, over time, I’ll do that. I started episode 001, which means I have to get to three digits and I’m going to make that happen. It has been so fun.
It is exponentially more work than I expected. I do everything myself, soup to nuts. I’m my own scheduler, own editor. I post it every Tuesday night. My wife says, “Guess you’re going to have to post the show.” I’m my own marketer but I’ve learned so much. The fact that I can email almost any lawyer in America and chances are they’re going to say yes, that is an incredible reality. The internet, podcasting and the computer age are remarkable. The fact that you can do that at scale is unheard of and it’s growing every day.
I’m hoping to find more people to interview, engage and ask more questions. It’s helped my professional life, my personal life, build a network, build my own personal brand about things that I care about and connect me to people that I care about. I took some online classes when I was trying to think about what to do in the internet world and one of them was a writing class with a guy named David Farrell.
He talks about finding your personal monopoly. What he means by that is find the 2 or 3 things that you do or you know about that no one else does at that same level. There may be people who know each of those 2 or 3 things at the level you do but you’re the Venn diagram. You’re the middle of those three in a way that nobody else is. You’ll find a community that wants to learn about it because the denominator in the internet world is functionally unlimited.Find more people to interview, listen to, and ask more questions. Building a network helps your professional and personal life. Click To Tweet
My personal monopoly was I taught at an institution like Georgetown, which gets me into any door of any lawyer that I want to. I practice law at a lot of big places and that connected me to a network of people. I had a comfort with technology and social media, which allowed me to do it. When you find your personal monopoly, run toward it because it’s an awesome experience.
I feel a lot of parallels in your story to Todd and me starting this show on a lot of different levels. We have a little bit different focus on ours versus yours but it’s the same thing. It’s been so fun during the pandemic time to be able to reach out and connect with people that we know and we don’t know, use the internet to super-network and be able to reach out to people all over the US that have similar interests and want to come on and talk. You’re right. It is so fun to be able to have those conversations and learn from people that I would frankly never have had a chance to show up and meet in person.
When we were starting, Zoom was just taking off and we walked into it. It worked out for us. The stars aligned. I do feel like you’ve experienced a lot of that same thing where it was like, “My timing couldn’t have been better.” It sounds like yours was driven by the pandemic in some ways. Ours, it was more a side benefit. The pandemic helped us get started. Whereas you, you’re trying to do something that helps people connect at a time that it was difficult to connect.
I’ll tell you the real a-ha moment and I love asking guests on my show, “When was you’re a-ha moment about any decision point.” For me, it was that I wanted to do something creative. This is what I know about. This is my network. My a-ha moment was it doesn’t have to be me as the one talking. That’s what changed everything. A newsletter would have been about my views. My scholarship and teaching, candidly, is about my views, albeit informed by years and years of scholarship before me.
When I realized what I could do was amplify other people’s voices and create a platform and a scaffold for that, that was my a-ha moment that this would work. To add to the personal monopoly point, I should add, the other circle that I had growing up is my mom is a rabbi, one of the first 50 women rabbis in history. What you learn as a rabbi’s son, I imagine in Texas, you may have a lot more pastor’s sons and daughters but as a clergy person’s child is how to talk to people, even if you don’t want to talk to them at that moment. I have a lot of experience talking to people about anything and that happened to fit well with podcasting.
That is a great superpower to bring to podcasting. If you can keep a conversation going, you can always have content.
I’ve noticed you’ve had quite a few Texas connections as guests on the show. Some people that have been on our show, as a matter of fact, I’m thinking of Raffi Melkonian and Carl Cecere. I listened to the episode with Carl and I thought it was great. Raffi, the name speaks for itself as the Dean of Appellate Twitter. It’s nice to see folks we know to come on as your guests.
Whenever I listen, I always learn something. It’s like we say about our own show, we’re learning as much as anybody else is. You’re exposed to these different viewpoints. All you can do to your point about it not being about you being the one speaking all the time. Sometimes all you can do is sit back and let the conversation unfold and then be amazed at the end when it’s like, “That turned out pretty neat.”
As someone who doesn’t have any personal ties to the state of Texas, the state of Texas has been very good to the podcast. Folks are very open to telling their story, which is what I ask my guests to do. People are willing to say, “Here’s my background. If you’re interested in having that story on, I’m happy to tell it.” Some are lifelong Texans. Some of them are transplants but maybe it’s the crossover of law podcasting and appellate Twitter being a little bit Texas centered.
Let’s put it this way. The short answer is before the pandemic, I probably would not have had anyone to visit in Texas. After the pandemic, I’m hoping to be able to get a real party together, although I realize your state is a little bigger than I think it is on my map or in my head. I’ve got to meet some great people that I would never have had a chance to talk to.
Come down to Austin or to Fort Worth, where we can get you a good barbecue either place.
I look forward to it. I truly do. I’m adding Texas to my list for that purpose.
Are there any high level takeaways or lessons that have stuck with you from the podcast that you share with students and attorneys?
It’s one that I think about a lot because I don’t expect that most of my readers read every episode. I think my parents do, my wife does. I do have some faithful audience members. We have one audience member in the UK who tunes in to every single episode and posts a tweet thread about each episode. I’ve never met the man but I love him because I know someone’s tuning in. If I had to pick 2 or 3 lessons that are the threads of all 40 interviews. The people I interview are diverse in every sense of that term.
I’m not afraid of putting somebody on who some people aren’t going to enjoy, is not going to look like them, or is not going to have the same political background that they have. I want to try to get a variety. It’s going to be my personal interest in bent. It’s my show. I can interview whoever I think is interesting. I take that prerogative.
The thing that I hear constantly is that the career path is not a straight one. This is a problem of the resume LinkedIn generation. I love LinkedIn. LinkedIn is how I met a lot of my guests and how I push out a lot of my content. People hate LinkedIn. It’s one of the greatest things for law student networking out there because if you want to find somebody who did what you want to do, you can talk to them.
The problem with LinkedIn is everything looks like when you went from job A, job B, job C to job D that it was a straight line and it was planned from the beginning. Every person I talked to on the show, it only looks like a straight line when you look backwards. Being a lawyer is an awesome profession in part because it allows you to do a lot of different things, but it’s also a challenging profession in part because it allows you to do a lot of different things.
There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of luck and a lot of times where you’re as qualified as the next person and you don’t get the job, you change cities, you find the love of your life and you find the practice area of your life. One is the line’s not straight. The second thing I’ll say and I was surprised by this as a message is that networking is not evil, that networking has a horrible reputation, especially among lawyers of cocktail parties, bad Chardonnay and talking to people you don’t want to.
Law is inherently a communal business. We need clients. We need opposing counsel. We need other lawyers who do other things and so you need to build community in law. When you think of the concept not as networking but as a community, that is a huge mental model shift. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-generation student as so many of my students are.
You don’t have to bring the community or network with you. You bring whoever you have, but you then get the opportunity to build. That could be on social media, sending cold emails or finding an alum from your law school who practices in your area. Lawyers love to talk about themselves. They love it, so give them the opportunity to do it.
Some of the suggestions that I’ve gotten from people like Karen Vladeck on how to think about building your network have been eye opening for me. It’s something that I try to pass on. It’s so funny because I hear different versions among different guests but when you start piecing each of those together, it almost feels like a path. I haven’t got there yet, but I do think there’s some wisdom that we can convey to law students and more junior lawyers about how to find your community in law.The career path is not a straight line. Click To Tweet
This goes to your point about what you’re ultimately trying to do with the show, which is build a reference library. You’ll be able to refer students back to that library. When they come and ask you a question and they say, “How do you develop an Amicus Practice in the US Supreme Court?” You say, “Go listen to the episode across the series and come back and talk to me.” What a great resource that’s going to be for your students eventually. You’re well on your way to that.
I don’t always know what we’re going to talk about once we start talking. I tell lawyers all the time it’s not a deposition, it’s a conversation and we’ll see where it goes. You’re right. It’s building a library of tips, techniques, approaches and mental models. One of the things that’s great to hear is so many people tell me, no matter if I’m a long tenured lawyer or brand new, I learn something new every episode and that’s how I feel on the other side of the mic and I’m sure that’s how you all feel. Once you have that bias toward, “There’s going to be a piece of knowledge. I have to listen closely to figure out what it is,” the process of listening and creating a podcast becomes a blast. You build a library over time.
I had a woman who I met online. I didn’t tell you how it all started. It started because I posted on Twitter. I’m starting this show. I had no guests, no episodes. I didn’t know how to start a podcast. I had nothing. I said, “I’m starting a podcast.” I went on Canva, which is a free design tool and I decided to design a logo, which they do not teach you in law school or law professor school. I’m not a designer. I posted about it. I had hundreds of people message me and say, “Make sure you talk about this. Make sure you get this kind of person.”
This woman reached out to me. She said, “I’m a tech lawyer. I’ve done government. I’ve done in-house. I have some thoughts. I’m a novelist.” I said, “Let’s do it.” Three months later, I interviewed her. I knew very little about her. It’s a great episode. I asked for a piece of advice at the end of the episode. Her advice was, “Just because somebody else tells you to do it does not mean you need to do it. People give you advice about how they either got to where they did or how they think they could get back there if they tried to reverse engineer it.”
That was a real eye opening statement as somebody who’s pushing the idea that listening to other people is a good way to learn how to do it. Her response was more nuanced than that. She would say that I don’t want to put words in her mouth. “You got to listen to a lot of advice because no one person’s advice is going to put you on the right path but if you triangulate, listen to enough and critically think about all of them, that’s how to find your path.”
There are two things that jumped out at me from what you said, Jonah. 1) How I Lawyer is yet another podcast brought to you courtesy of Twitter. It’s what happened with ours and how we got started too. 2) Jody and I want to know how you get your wife to engage with your show.
My wife is also a lawyer but she practices in a totally different area from me. She was a longtime government lawyer and is now in the nonprofit space. She is also interested in the legal profession and very supportive of the show. Even if your wives don’t engage with the show, I imagine they feel like they’re very supportive of it because it is an additional piece of work, one huge value as we talked about, but it’s something else on the to-do list.
I wanted to talk a little bit about some of your scholarship that you’re working on. You’ve got an article coming up on authoring digital presentations. Tell us a little bit about that.
We talked a little bit about what I’ve learned from teaching that I wish I could go into practice. This is something that I learned from practice that I wanted to bring into my teaching. I was surprised when I went to Williams & Connolly, which is classic big law, all litigation, very DC focused firm. I came in. I had been a law clerk. I had done everything that I could do in terms of legal writing in school.
I was ready to be a great legal writer and write briefs, memos and emails. I was shocked that when I got there, one of the genres of communication that I was asked to communicate in on an almost daily basis was PowerPoint. One of the best parts about being a law professor and having students out in the world is that you get to triangulate and hear what they’re being asked to do. I always ask them at the end of the summer to make sure they’re prepared for the next summer.
Lawyers increasingly across the profession are being asked to convey information in these digital design centered forms. There’s a great literature out there on design and visual lawyering but nothing that was targeted at, “How do I make a PowerPoint presentation?” Not in the sense of like, “How do I draw the lines in the boxes and where does the text go,” but “How do I think about this as a document that I’m preparing for a judge, jury, client or internal stakeholder?”
I was asked about that during my interview at Georgetown. My colleague and friend Erin Carroll said to me, and I had never met her before, she said, “What have you done in practice that you’d bring into the classroom?” My gut reaction was, “Teach PowerPoint.” I’ve spent a couple of years trying to figure out how to do that answer for my job interview, thankfully and I worked on this piece, it was a real challenge finishing it during the pandemic with two small kids at home.
That’s coming out very soon in a wonderful journal that’s put out by the Association of Legal Writing Directors. It’s a peer reviewed journal called Legal Communication & Rhetoric, LC&R. It’s publishing my article soon about that. It’s six steps to the process of thinking through how we convey content in this new format.
I think about the number of times I see a PowerPoint weekly because you see it in court presentations, in CLE presentations, in internal meetings because it is a great way, short of briefing, to digest an immense amount of information and turn it into something that is usable and easily referred to.
There’s such a bias against it by lawyers because they think of it as like PowerPoint equals bullet points, corporate speak, bad clip art and bad graphics. You can almost hide behind being a bad formatter when you’re writing a brief or a memo. There’s a lot on social media about how to make a beautiful brief and memo but that’s on the outside. It’s hard to hide a presentation.
It’s harder in some ways to communicate in that genre because you need to make a lot more choices. You need to make some design choices. Do I convey this on three slides or one? Do I give a bullet point, an image, a quote, a flow chart and all of those things? This is what I tell my students. I taught it. Their presentations are on Monday so we’ll see how they come out. You need to know the law like you wrote a memo but you need to be able to present it in four bullet points.
As any lawyer knows, that’s not easy. The audience needs to trust you that you have all the receipts to back everything in that presentation up. That’s why I wanted to go to first principles. Thankfully, the business community has taken a very different approach. There’s a lot of writing out there about how to write a good business presentation so I use some of those folks, plus the visual lawyering experts as my source material. I also use my experience of having had to do it, learn it and teaching it.
That’s such a needed piece of scholarship out there because you’re right. Ineffective PowerPoints are miserable to have to sit through.
It’s all about your audience. It’s like any other piece of legal writing or legal communication. The bad PowerPoints are the ones that start by thinking about who’s the audience. Often, they think of the audience as the person speaking and that’s wrong. If you’re using your PowerPoint as a teleprompter, you’re doing the wrong thing. You have to think about what is your audience’s expectation. Are you going to be voicing it over?
One of the things that I do a lot in practice was I would create PowerPoints and send them to the client. They would never be presented. That was the document that they read. That’s a very different purpose and audience than a PowerPoint that I’m using to give a CLE or to teach a class. Step one of my process is know what the purpose and who the audience is. I can’t tell you how many times that will solve 50% of bad PowerPoints. Once you make the person creating the PowerPoint realize they are not the audience for the document, the document changes significantly.
I’m glad you said it because I don’t know that I’ve ever internalized that concept but when you say it, it’s kind of the a-ha moment. You talked about that totally clicks.Just because somebody tells you to do something does not mean you need to do it. Click To Tweet
I’m excited about that article coming out. I could use some education on how to do a proper PowerPoint. Let’s be honest.
I’ll say this publicly, which will hold me to it. I have this idea of once it comes out, maybe between Thanksgiving and the holidays when people are a little more available of doing some free online Zooms about the article and PowerPoint for law professors, practitioners and students to spread it in a different medium and not bore any audience with it but be able to push this scholarship out. We talked about it at the beginning.
The scholarship could sit in a journal and I’m grateful to the journal for publishing it, editing it and for being there. It’s my job to get it into the hands of people who need it. It’s not that hard to make that happen. I’m committed to trying to find ways to connect to the right people who need more advice on something I’ve been thinking a lot about.
If you’re ever interested in doing a remote CLE on that in Texas, I have a feeling that Todd and I could probably find some ways to make that happen. Let us know if you feel like you want to do that. We probably could get some resources for you on that.
I’m excited about it. Before long, I’m going to turn into a Texan by hanging out with all these people on appellate Twitter.
One other project that I’m curious to hear a little bit more about is empathy in judicial writing. Tell me about that.
One of the things they tell you when you become a professor is you need to decide what your area of scholarship is going to be or what your scholarly agenda is going to look like. That’s one of those things that is hard to do before you start experimenting with projects. The area that I’m excited about is thinking about legal communication and audience. That’s why the PowerPoint presentation article fits in. It’s a new genre with a new audience.
The next audience that I want to look at in my upcoming scholarship is about the audience for judicial opinions. There is a lot of great scholarship out there about opinion writing and the content of opinions. There’s also a lot of scholarship on what it means to be an empathetic judge. That goes back to the chief justice’s confirmation hearing where he talked about balls and strikes. It goes back to Senator Obama when he was running for president saying, “We need empathetic judges.”
What I’m interested in is less about the judges and their empathy and more about what makes judicial opinions and judicial writing empathetic. This comes back candidly to my mentor, who passed away, Judge Katzmann, who early on in my clerkship said to us, “No matter what, I want people who interact with me, with the second circuit or with my opinions to feel like they are heard, the law is coming from a reasoned position and that they are feeling respected. That doesn’t matter if they lose or if they have total disrespect for the law. The law has to show empathy and how we convey information to the many audiences of judicial opinions.”
The audiences of judicial opinions have changed. We don’t live in the world anymore where the only people who read an opinion were the parties. Maybe some lawyer in the middle of the night that opened a book and found the opinion and is going to cite to it. Opinions are read widely. They’re posted on Twitter. They can be read by anybody. You don’t even need a Westlaw account anymore to read judicial opinions.
As our audience has changed, and this is my personal bias, writing needs to change. How we convey the opinion may need to change but before we say, “How should it change?” what I’m looking at is what it means for writing, specifically judicial opinion writing, to show empathy, to at its highest level, put yourself in the various reader’s shoes. I’m thinking and reading about that. I hope I have some answers before too long. At the very least, as with all scholarship, it’s about starting the conversation. Shifting the focus from empathetic judging to empathetic judicial writing is an exciting project for me.
I’ll be very interested to hear where you go with that because that is something that is needed and you’re right. As we have changed the consumers of judicial opinions, we have also seen a shift in the way that those are written. Not always for the better but you can see judges writing for a different audience than even maybe 10 or 15 years ago when I started practicing.
Maybe that’s good. Maybe they are shifting and writing to a new audience but if we don’t think critically about what that audience wants, needs and deserves, then we’re doing a disservice. If a judge ultimately ends up deciding to go a different way and chooses to write in what I might call an un-empathetic way, that’s their prerogative. At the very least being able to think through, “If I wanted to think about my audience better, what would I need to think about?”
We’ve gone a little over our usual time but with great conversations. It’s been worth every minute that we don’t want to let you escape without complying with our tradition of asking our guests for a tip or a war story as a parting thought. Do you have anything for us?
As someone who only practiced for a short period of time, I’m going to go the tip route as opposed to the war story route and I’m going to connect it to my practice and my scholarship since that’s what we were talking about. My tip is to be a good lawyer, you need to know who your audience is. That could be as a writer. That’s something I learned very early on at Williams & Connolly. Your audience isn’t always the judge. It can be the opposing counsel, the client or the opposing business entities of that client.
The audience can be a lot of different things in legal communication. That’s true also for who you spend your time with, who’s your audience for your everyday successes. This is how I met you, on social media. One of the things I love about social media, specifically Twitter, law Twitter and appellate Twitter, is how everyone is so supportive of everyone’s successes.
This idea or as I think about it like the rising tide raises all ships, which is the exact opposite of what’s so much of lawyering lore is about of the zero sum game and the people tearing pages out of the textbook. My suggestion is know who your audience is. If you don’t have an audience, get one. That’s true for someone who’s just starting law school or someone who’s been practicing for 40 years and feels like they’re in a rut. The greatest way to jumpstart your professional life is to develop an audience.
We live in a time when you can do that with real ease, if you’re willing to be empathetic, kind, thoughtful and willing to go out on a limb a little bit and share about your own experience, share about yourself, your wins, losses and build in public. Those are all things that will increase your audience as a lawyer. I’m taking a bet that being a lawyer in the 21st century will be better if you do it with an audience.
That’s a great place to wind up. Jonah, thanks for spending the time with us. We enjoyed visiting with you. We know our readers will enjoy knowing your thoughts on all these topics too. We appreciate it.
Thanks for having me both of you. Hopefully, we’ll make this a home and home and get you guys to come on How I Lawyer at some point, maybe sometime in 2021. I look forward to it. Thank you.
- Jonah Perlin
- How I Lawyer Podcast
- How I Built This – NPR
- Raffi Melkonian – Previous episode on How I Lawyer Podcast
- Carl Cecere – Previous episode on How I Lawyer Podcast
- Legal Communication & Rhetoric
About Jonah Perlin
Professor Jonah E. Perlin teaches legal practice and advanced legal writing. Before coming to the Georgetown Law Center he worked for several years as a litigator at Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, D.C. where he specialized in complex civil litigation in the United States and abroad. While at Williams & Connolly he also taught advanced legal writing at the Georgetown Law Center as an Adjunct Professor. Professor Perlin clerked for Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Professor Perlin received his J.D., magna cum laude, from the Georgetown Law Center in 2012, where he was an Articles Editor for the Georgetown Law Journal and a law fellow in the Legal Research and Writing Program. He received his A.B., magna cum laude, from Princeton University and his A.M. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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