Book Review: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law

BY ANNA BROOK

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Mark Herrmann’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law is a short book with two personalities. One is an experienced lawyer giving advice to young associates who are probably overwhelmed by the large law firm environment. The other is an old grumpy lawyer (the titular curmudgeon) who wants things done his way. The first personality is fun to read, the other one is eye-roll inducing.

Let’s start with the positives. The book is conveniently divided into chapters based on various law firm tasks: managing a secretary, writing a memo, preparing for a deposition, going to trial, and so on. Some of these chapters are quite useful. The Curmudgeon describes how he survives a deposition, which is defined as “seven hours locked in a room with a compulsive talker and a sociopath” if you are defending and “seven hours of pretending to be a sociopath while locked in a room with an amnesiac and a compulsive obstructionist” if you are taking the deposition. Several pitfalls that might trip up a lawyer just starting his career are discussed, such as what documents used in preparation for a deposition can be subject to discovery and what is covered by the attorney-client privilege. Interesting stuff for one who has never done this before.

Likewise, the Curmudgeon’s suggestions for how to prepare for trial are helpful for younger lawyers who have no idea where to start. He discusses his outlining strategy, which can come in handy until one can find one’s own way to do things. A trial isn’t exactly moot court and law school preparation won’t suffice.

The chapter about the Curmudgeonly Secretary is a toss-up. On one hand, it is useful because it tells associates that they should utilize their secretaries. After all, the secretary has been at the firm longer than the newbie and can be a great help. On the other hand, the tone of the secretary’s chapter makes her sound like a talking copy machine that gets angry if you kick it when it doesn’t work fast enough. The chapter tries to emphasize that the secretary is a person, but the goal is defeated by the rigid tone.

Now we come to the chapters that were totally unnecessary or would have been better as short blurbs. One of these is “The Curmudgeon on Couth” where the author spends seven pages on how to leave voicemails. As if this wasn’t painful enough, he devotes another seven pages to how to send emails with the proper subject line. Law students are not fourth graders, by now they know to leave their name and number when leaving a voicemail. They even know that they should not have a lengthy greeting for their mailbox. They don’t need to read a rant about how the Curmudgeon hates to lose precious minutes listening to what precedes the beep on people’s voicemails. As regards email, even though you hear about the occasional “reply all” faux pas of a junior associate, 99.9% can navigate Outlook and know that subject lines for emergency documents should not say “hi.”

The book is filled with reminders that if a young associate does not produce first-rate work, the internal market for his work at the firm will dry up and he will be stuck with document review or have to seek alternate employment. This advice is good to read once or twice. Unfortunately, it is mentioned over and over throughout the book. At that point, it becomes daunting. Associates understand they need to do good work, they don’t need to be told again and again and again in the span of 150 pages – they are nervous and scared enough as it is.

The book is worth the hour or two it would take to read, but probably not the $34.95 asking price on the cover. It is best to skim the voicemail section and cut to the parts about practicing law. Advice on writing memos and structuring arguments make this a great book for the First Year Legal Research and Writing program. It is better and more concise than many of the materials used to give 1Ls a taste of real legal work.

Rating: **

Anna Brook, 3L, is a little worried about criticizing the Curmudgeon since he’s a partner.

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