In early 2008, I was miserable with my job as a personal injury attorney in New York City. I was working long hours, and I was winning cases, but it never seemed to be enough to satisfy my boss at the time. I was 100% committed to the job, but every day my boss made sure to remind me how replaceable I was.
So I started looking around for new opportunities. One afternoon, in January 2008, I was sitting outside a Judge’s chambers in Manhattan, waiting to go in for a conference on an appeal. I got chatting with an older lawyer who was also there on a different case. I remember thinking how professional he was, and how pleasant his manner was.
After I’d finished my conference with the Judge, I wished that older lawyer well as I departed. But as I walked off down the corridor, something in my head told me to turn around, to go back, and to get that lawyer’s business card. I don’t often listen to the strange voices in my head, but somehow I did that day. I went back and asked him for his card. I even asked him if his law firm was hiring, and the older lawyer, whose name was Colin, told me that they were, but that they were probably looking for someone with a lot more experience.
I sent my resume to him anyway, and three interviews later, I was offered a position at the ALB Law Firm, working alongside Colin as his associate litigator.
That’s one of those ‘crossroads’ moments, that decision to go back and ask Colin for his card, that appears to have made a huge difference in the direction of my life. I suppose I would probably have found another job eventually, and maybe it would have been through someone that I met at a party one night or something, and that upon reflection I could attach some significance to that. But there was something about that moment with Colin, that felt like it was meant to happen. Something about the way that it seemed the opportunity had passed when I walked away, and yet I went back, because something in my head told me too. It’s moments like those that make we wonder about the delicacy of fate.
When I was younger, I used to think that everything happened for a reason. Then when my brother died, that belief system was shattered. There couldn’t ever be an explanation for that. And so for a while I just believed that nothing happened for a reason, that everything was random. My first marriage and subsequent divorce only strengthened that belief. But then that evolved. I’ve evolved. And now, I probably just believe that not everything happens for a reason.
Anyway, back to the story. This was meant to be a chapter about ALB. It was a big jump up in my legal career from the inglorious trenches of the personal injury world, to the cerebral situation rooms of commercial litigation. The ALB Law Firm was all about real estate, and I was the new associate in the real estate litigation department. Although I had only been licensed for two years, I’d already won half a dozen trials, so I had more experience than most. But the cases I worked on at ALB were far more complex and, well, more sophisticated that anything I’d handled before.
I remember the first case to which I was assigned. We represented a very well-known architectural firm in a lawsuit where it was being sued by the residents of a new warehouse conversion it had designed in Tribeca. I’d only been with ALB for a week when I was told that I needed to go the architect’s office and gather all of the evidence we needed to defend it.
I spent almost a month over in Tribeca at their fancy office. Most of the time it was just me and all the architects. It was awesome, although they were not as organized as I had hoped. That’s why I was there for a month, digging through files and laptops for all the designs and change orders that had been made during this huge construction project. Everyone was really helpful there, and they all treated me with a ton of respect. It was such a nice change.
I did a good job on that project too. Both the client and the partners at the law firm were impressed at how I organized and presented everything, and I was quickly assigned to more cases.
The firm represented a huge company that owned dozens of expensive parking garages in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Anyway they were in a bunch of lawsuits, and they were always getting cited by the City for having too many cars on a lot, or being too noisy or whatever. Most of those cases would end up at an ECB tribunal hearing, a small administrative court that some people suggested had a certain Australian marsupial nature to it. Usually the client would just pay the fine and move on. But then they had one case in the New York Supreme Court, where the judge deferred his decision on whether the parking garage was a nuisance to the expertise of the ECB court. And that meant that if we lost then the garage could be shut down.
These garages make a lot of money so this was a big deal to the client. I was instructed to find a way to beat the citation, and keep the garage open. At the time there were no ECB cases online, so it was virtually impossible to know how these judges made their decisions. I called the ECB and was told that all of their case decisions were kept on one computer in their office. So I figured out a way to request access to those public documents, and I then I spent a couple of days in the ECB office reading and copying them all. Apparently no one had ever done this before.
In amongst the thousands of unhelpful decisions, I found a handful that could work in our favor. These were appeal decisions too so they were supposedly binding on the ECB judges, although most of the judges probably hadn’t seen them. I drafted a variety of different briefs and memoranda of law, and on the day of our hearing, I showed up with Colin and we crushed the other side. It wasn’t a fair fight.
All of the violations against the client were dismissed, and the garage kept operating. After that, the client stopped paying the fines, and for years they would instruct me to go in and contest the citations using my advanced knowledge of ECB decisions.
That was probably my first big success at ALB. And, unusually, they actually told me how impressed they were. For the first time as a lawyer, I felt appreciated. I felt that actually, maybe, I could be good at this attorney thing. For my first two years as a New York lawyer, I’d spent every day trying to convince my old bosses that I was capable. Trying to convince them to believe in me, or just like me. But no matter how hard I worked, or how many times I would win cases, I could never win them over.
As I worked on bigger, more complex cases with ALB, and they continued to place more trust in my abilities, something inside me changed. I think being married to Farah helped too. Before working at ALB, I would always worry about whether people liked me. It would keep me awake at night, and give me anxiety if I thought that someone, anyone, had ill feelings towards me. Working in the hostile atmosphere of the personal injury world only increased that worry. I was losing confidence in myself.
It wasn’t until I was working at ALB for a while, and I’d heard these older lawyers giving me positive feedback, and I had an amazing person like Farah beside me who genuinely believed in me, that I started to believe in myself. I also realized that maybe there are people out there who have their own shit going on. Who will just never be happy. And so maybe I shouldn’t give as much of a fuck about convincing everyone to like me.
I worked with the ALB firm for the rest of my time in NYC. I regularly did battle with the best and brightest attorneys in the city, in front of some of the toughest and smartest judges in the country, improving as a lawyer all the time. I learned a lot from the attorneys I worked with at ALB too. I’m going to tip my hat here to some of them.
Adam, the founding member of the firm, is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He’s a marketing genius and a shrewd recruiter. He has built a team of lawyers around him that is more than a match for any law firm in New York. He is obsessed with winning cases and impressing clients, and that has been a big inspiration.
I worked a lot with Dov, an expert in landlord-tenant law, who might be one of the most creative attorneys I’ve ever met, and I also worked alongside John, a legal encyclopedia. In the beginning I worked with Richard, who was all about attention to detail. He wouldn’t let any document leave the office unless it had been reviewed a dozen times. I’m sure that was maddening for some clients when they got their bills, but I understand why it was important. I still shake my head and think of Richard, whenever I see avoidable mistakes in letters or court documents from other lawyers.
But it was Colin, the man I met outside the Judge’s chambers that day in early 2008, who I still consider the best attorney I’ve ever worked with or against. So many lawyers only have one or maybe two gears – fast or slow. But Colin approached every case differently, and every opponent differently, although always with the utmost professionalism and respect for the law. If I’m ever in a quandary over case strategy, I think to myself ‘What Would Colin Do?’, and usually that will help me figure out the right thing to do.
I did well my first year with the ALB firm. Although I started in the middle of February, I decided that I was going to bill 2,000 hours in the calendar year. The firm had a bonus incentive program related to hours billed, and there was always work to do. That meant that for most of 2008, I needed to bill 55 hours a week to meet my target. So I worked every weekday from 9am until 9pm, and I spent every Saturday in the office, billing, usually by myself.
When 2008 was over, I’d billed exactly 2000 hours in 10 months. But I didn’t get the bonus I was expecting. It turned out that quite a few clients, including the architects, hadn’t pay all of their bills. In April 2009, I decided I wasn’t going to work on Saturdays any more. I was going to spend that time doing something for me. That’s when I started Dear Scotland.
I had the idea to start a blog about Scottish music and sport, and to have a listing of every gig by Scottish bands performing outside the UK. I was inspired by a blog in Edinburgh that wrote about local music called Song, By Toad. And so I spent all my Saturdays trawling through the websites and myspace pages of Scottish bands, and sending off interview questions to musicians. I had some really good friends help me out with regular articles and that’s how Dear Scotland was born.
2009 was a good year for us in New York. I was involved in the Tartan Day parade and spent a day with the Grand Marshall that year Alan Cumming. We saw some amazing gigs like Sigur Ros in Harlem, Fran and Andy from Travis acoustic, and Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at Woodstock. We had Yankees season tickets in their brand new stadium and they won the World Series. I played soccer every Saturday night on a rooftop pitch at Pier 40 on the Hudson River, and I organized a ScotBarNY international soccer tournament. But despite all that, we couldn’t imagine starting a family in NYC.
It was November 2009 when Farah and I made the decision to leave New York and move, not to Scotland, but to Austin. One of the things that made that transition so smooth, was that ALB asked me to keep working for the firm while I lived in Austin. We relocated from Brooklyn to Austin in March 2010, but it was not until July that I was able to take the Texas bar exam, and not until November until I was licensed for Texas. During that whole time, and for another couple of years at least, I continued to work for ALB.
Instead of being the guy that went to hearings, or filed injunctions, I became the guy that drafted the lawsuits and wrote the legal briefs. I’d work from home, basically writing all day, and then once a month I’d fly up to New York for a week, make appearances in court, and remind everyone that I was available for work.
I worked on some of my most interesting cases while working remotely too. I had a case with Maye Musk, mother of Elon, about a mysterious noise that she heard in her Flatiron apartment, and I represented a client in a lawsuit for back rent against a famous psychic from the 60’s. The psychic also happened to own the suit that John Lennon wore on the cover of Abbey Road. He owed a lot of money and when he tried to auction the suit we filed an injunction and recovered the proceeds. I remember telling the judge that surely the psychic should have seen this coming. The judge almost laughed.
But without a doubt the highest profile case I worked on was representing the owners of Cordoba House, or as it became more commonly known, the Ground Zero Mosque.
There were two cases that tried to stop the mosque from being built. Both were motivated by bigotry, we argued, but one was more subtle than the other. The subtle lawsuit tried to argue that the original building shouldn’t be torn down because it was an architectural treasure. The not-so-subtle lawsuit, among other things, claimed damages for the Plaintiff who, when he heard about the proposed mosque, was so “terrorized” that he fainted and fell over and banged his head.
We met the owners of the Cordoba House a few times, and Dov and I even went to a prayer service in the building that was going to be the mosque. I remember feeling slightly nervous about it, but the clients made a point to make us feel comfortable. After a while it became apparent that it was basically just your typical boring church service about love and kindness. I’m convinced that if anyone who was worried about Islam actually went to a Muslim prayer service, they’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about.
Ultimately, both cases were dismissed based on motions and legal arguments that Dov and I drafted together. But last I heard the owners were considering converting the building into condos instead.
I was quite proud to be working on that case. I remember being in a yellow cab going home to Brooklyn one night and the muslim cabbie brought up the lawsuit. I told him about my role, and I asked him if he would ever go there when it was built. To my surprise he said “No way”. I asked him why. He replied in a thick Pakistani accent, “Nowhere to park”. Fair enough I thought.
But it was big news for a while. I was featured in the Scottish newspapers, Adam was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, and we all received a torrent of abuse and even death threats. It was a another emboldening experience.
It was all good experience. Even the tough times with the personal injury firm. But I can’t imagine being the attorney I am now, without having had the background and the mentors I had at the ALB Law Firm. It shaped my legal mind, and my professional demeanor. I learned how to handle myself, and how to manage clients. It continues to give me a big advantage every day as I go to battle against attorneys in Austin. And it’s all thanks to the strange voices in my head that told me to go back and Colin’s card.