ROLE MODEL: Tricia Dennis tells hard truths about running her personal-injury practice. (Youtube)
“I’m attorney Tricia Dennis, and I can turn your car crash into lots of cash!”
Dennis, a personal injury attorney in Chattanooga, Tennessee, knows that her television ad — complete with a rhyming jingle of her office phone number — is tacky. But she says tacky attracts clients in her competitive plaintiffs market.
Dennis candidly discusses her career challenges and consolations during the “I Am The Law” podcast, a weekly dose of reality produced by Law School Transparency, a nonprofit organization. The 20- to 30-minute podcast features a different attorney discussing his or her area of law, to give prospective and ­current law students an inside look at lawyer career paths. “This is about trying to get people into the legal profession who belong here and who are not going to leave because it’s not what they expected,” said Kyle McEntee, the organization’s executive director.
The podcast’s hosts — Deborah Merritt, a professor at Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law; Aaron Taylor, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law; and law school admission consultant Mike Spivey — get personal: How much money do you make? How many hours do you work? How do you find clients? Are you happy?
Aspiring lawyers need that insider information, said Josh Zaslawsky, a 24-year-old Alabaman negotiating acceptance offers from six schools for the fall.
“I never really had a chance to learn what attorneys do,” Zaslawsky said. “My parents and siblings aren’t attorneys. To be honest, asking for informational meetings with attorneys is a little intimidating. But the podcast feels like you’re just sitting across the table talking to them. There’s no agenda there.”
The podcast didn’t exist when P.J. Podesta won a scholarship to the University of Virginia School of Law in 2013, but he met with lawyers to discuss their jobs. One former corporate transactional attorney likened his work to accountancy. A government lawyer who prosecutes polluters — seemingly a dream job for an aspiring public-interest lawyer like Podesta was at the time — didn’t inspire.
“His job is very hard to get, and still my sense from the meeting was that his day-to-day work was uninteresting — not just to me but to him as well,” Podesta said. Ultimately, he passed on law school and now works for an education ­nonprofit.
Since debuting in January on www.lstradio.com and iTunes, “I Am The Law” has spotlighted a small-firm family lawyer; a former public defender from Georgia; a discovery attorney in Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr’s back office in Dayton, Ohio; and a solo real estate attorney in North Carolina, among others. The podcast leans toward guests who work in small firms or as solos — to rectify what McEntee sees as a disproportionate focus on BigLaw, where only about 15 percent of the country’s attorneys work.
McEntee (left), who produces the podcasts, co-founded Law School Transparency as a Vanderbilt University Law School student in 2010 and has spent years advocating for better information about law school’s costs and job prospects. Still, “employment statistics don’t mean anything if you don’t know what your career objectives are,” he said. “I wanted to figure out a way to get the qualitative information into the hands of prospective students so they can figure out what they want to do,” and find which schools fit.
The podcast also aims to balance a law profession glamorized in television shows such as “Law & Order” and “The Good Wife,” McEntee added. “I think we’ve all been inspired by those shows. But it’s not how the world works. ‘Law & Order’ doesn’t show you what the rest of time [outside court] is like. It doesn’t show them searching Lexis or Westlaw trying to find that one case.”
Merritt has encouraged colleagues at Ohio State to incorporate “I Am The Law” into their classes to bridge legal theory and practice. Hearing Dennis detail her vetting process for potential auto injury clients would certainly illuminate a first-year torts class, Merritt said. “It just gives so much context to what people are studying.” Law students are more knowledgeable than their predecessors were about legal careers, salaries and law school options thanks to better job statistics and media coverage of legal education said Luke Bierman, dean of Elon University School of Law. The podcast adds to the growing list of resources for students. “I’m a fan,” he said of the podcast. “The more we can do to show people what it’s like in all the different practices in the legal profession, the better.” An unvarnished look at the down side of the profession is OK, even if it drives people away, he added.
In one episode, for example, former public defender Laurie Landsittel discusses the staggering caseload, limited upward mobility and emotional toll of representing defendants in desperate circumstances. She describes a homeless 16-year-old girl jailed for using her aunt’s phone card. “She didn’t have anywhere to go when she got out, so I had to get her charges dismissed, find her a house that she could live in, and I took her some toiletry essentials to her new house. It was just really sad, but that’s what public defenders do.”
Dennis shared insights from her nearly 30-year legal career to help students understand the practical realities of lawyering, she told The National Law Journal in an interview. During her podcast, she points out the satisfaction that comes from representing people hurt in car accidents, but also the sexism she faces in court and the hustle required to keep her practice afloat.
Advertising alone sucked up more than 40 percent of her gross practice income in 2014. “You cannot make money in this business without cases. You cannot get cases unless you are advertising,” she says in her podcast.
“This was my way of telling people that it’s very difficult to start your own legal business — and to be aware that it is indeed a business, like selling office equipment is a business,” Dennis, who embraces the term ‘ambulance chaser,’ said. “I want people to understand what they’re getting into. This is not ‘L.A. Law.’ ” It’s more like “ Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff about struggling defense attorney Jimmy McGill, who works from a back room in a nail salon, she said.
Podcast host Spivey said he wishes “I Am the Law” had been around when he was career services dean at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law more than a decade ago. “The more we can teach students about the lay of the land, the less shell-shocked they’ll be in their first or second year of practice,” Spivey said.
McEntee hopes to build a catalogue of podcasts that will serve as a reference resource for aspiring lawyers, and also for practitioners contemplating moving into new fields. He doesn’t anticipate wrapping the project anytime soon. “It’s not like the one immigration attorney we interviewed from South Texas will represent the experience of every immigration attorney in the country,” he said.