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Benefits of a Small Legal Firm, Career in Law and Hiring

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"Within 48 hours after the lawsuit was filed, the case was settled," he said. "It was actually a lot of fun as well as rewarding."

A 1978 graduate of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, Russ is the founder and managing partner of Russ, August & Kabat in Los Angeles.

Q: What should law students do while still in school to prepare for their careers?

I picked an area I really liked, and I tried to get a job in a law firm that emphasized that area. So I had some real hands-on experience as a law clerk while I was going to school. That helped me in two ways. One, it helped get me through the boring periods of law school that happen in the second and third year. The second thing is that by the time I graduated from law school, I was pretty well known in the area I wanted to practice in.

Q: What do you look for when hiring?

I look for good communications skills, excellent writing skills, and a certain style and personality that tells me this person has some ambition and wants to accomplish something with their lives. And it's not just about making the most money. It's somebody that I have some confidence in the ability to develop relationships. Developing relationships is all about success, whether it's attracting clients or convincing a jury that the story you're telling is right.

Q: So did you get Wylie Gustafson to yodel for you?

(Laughs.) Well, one of the interesting things we had to have him do before we settled the case was he had to commit to doing a two-minute yodel so we could submit it to the copyright office and get a copyright on his yodel.

Q: It seems like the types of cases you handle—things like the Internet and video game companies—would involve treading some new ground in law.

As you can see from reading the paper, almost every day, the entire area of copyright is in flux right now. There's a real challenge to figure out whose rights should really be preferred—the manufacturer's music, the consumers who want to be able to share music content, the manufacturers of the electronic devices.

All of these interests are competing in our society, and we're trying to fit the advances nicely and neatly within a framework of laws that were passed over a hundred years ago. And the advances in technology are evolving faster than the law is. So we're trying to play catch-up.

Q: What's something they don't teach in law school but should?

Law schools need to focus a lot more on persuasive writing, not just legal research. The case is won and lost on the papers most of the time. Federal judges don't provide a lot of time for oral argument these days. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they've made a decision before they've even reached the bench. So the written paperwork is what it's all about. Organizing that paperwork in a cohesive, persuasive whole is an incredibly complicated task. Not enough time is devoted in law school to teaching young lawyers how to put together a persuasive group of documents.

Q: What are some common stumbling blocks for new lawyers?

Law students could use more practice learning how to take a deposition, prepare for a deposition, how to prepare for a hearing. Taking a deposition, for example, is a skill that sometimes can change a case. These are skills that require a lot of practice. Unfortunately, in today's world, when a young lawyer goes to a large law firm, they're not even starting the process of taking depositions until they've been out four or five years. In a small firm, a young lawyer may be forced into taking many depositions when they have no idea how to take them and the small firm doesn't have the time to train them. Law schools could really do a great service by providing more practice for them.

Q: Who inspired you to go into law?

I went to [University of California] Berkeley as an undergrad. At that point, law was very much in the forefront. There were a lot of people in the free speech movement that were very inspirational. Thurgood Marshall, to me, is one of the critical contributors in our century in terms of changing the way the Supreme Court looked at education in this country.

Q: Any other advice for students and grads?

I would avoid going to the largest, most prestigious law firm in favor of the medium-sized or even smaller firm. The larger the firm, the more prestigious, you don't get the professional experience that you dream about when you're going to law school. Basically, you're in a back room writing papers and doing mundane tasks that you never thought you'd have to do.

One of the biggest problems we've seen as a smaller firm is lawyers that have practiced all their lives at large firms and have been paid very, very well. But 15 years into their practice, they don't have any client relationships. If something happens to their law firm and they have to seek a new job, they have nothing to offer a smaller firm. That is an extremely dangerous thing to happen to an experienced lawyer.

Russ August & Kabat

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