Love Thy Lawyer – Mark Shaiken – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:05
Hello and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I’m a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect!
His background is in bankruptcy law. He has worked as an associate in a large firm and as a partner. More recently, he has transitioned to being a published author and perhaps his most useful professional knowledge is of jazz and barbecue joints in Kansas City, Missouri. He now lives in Denver, Colorado. Mark Shaiken, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Mark Shaiken 00:57
Thanks very much, Louis. I’m really excited to be on your show.
Louis Goodman 01:03
It’s a real privilege to have you. You are someone who has managed to escape the gravitational pull of the legal profession, and I’d like to explore a little bit about how you got to the legal profession and how you got out. The bulk of your practice has been involved with bankruptcy law, is that correct?
Mark Shaiken 01:24
Louis Goodman 01:25
And where are you from originally?
Mark Shaiken 01:27
Born in Queens and we lived in Queens and then Long Island and then high school was in New Haven, Connecticut.
Louis Goodman 01:34
Oh yeah? What high school did you go to?
Mark Shaiken 01:36
Richard C. Lee high school, which no longer exists. It’s now the Yale nursing school.
Louis Goodman 01:43
Well, how was that experience at Richard Lee?
Mark Shaiken 01:46
It was actually, it was, I enjoyed my high school experience and Lee high school was a great place to get all the different kinds of education that one should be getting when they’re in high school.
Louis Goodman 01:57
And when you graduated from high school, where’d you go to college?
Mark Shaiken 02:01
I was really lucky. I got into Haverford college, which is on the main line outside Philadelphia.
Louis Goodman 02:06
How’d that go?
Mark Shaiken 02:07
That was quite a different experience, going from a very urban, inner city high school setting, where I was busting to achieve integration to mostly a preppy kind of college being fed by some of the, you know, the best private schools in the country, which I didn’t go to. So it was also an educational experience and I had quite a bit of catching up and getting up to speed to do.
Louis Goodman 02:28
Besides academics, what sort of things did you participate in, in college?
Mark Shaiken 02:33
I played basketball for a couple of years and ran track for a couple of years. And I thought both of those were getting in the way of the academics, to be honest. And so somewhere around junior year I got much more serious about why I was in. I mostly wrote and photographed for the newspaper, the school newspaper was my main outside academics activity.
Louis Goodman 02:57
At some point you went to law school. Did you take some time off between graduating from college and going to law school or did you go directly?
Mark Shaiken 03:04
I took a year off. I had no idea as I was reaching my senior year in college, what I was going to do when I graduate. And when I graduated, I still didn’t have any good idea what I was going to do. So I got a job. I got a couple of different blue collar jobs while I was sort of sorting all this out, which was an unusual path, I suppose, for having gotten to such a fancy dancy college. The main blue collar job I had was I drove a forklift on the graveyard shift at a frozen bakery. And then I got engaged and decided to go to law school because I figured that would give me three more years to figure out what I would do.
Louis Goodman 03:38
Where’d you go to law school?
Mark Shaiken 03:40
I went to law school at Washburn University, which is in Topeka, Kansas. My wife, who had just gotten married when I started law school, got into veterinary school at Kansas state, and so off we went to Kansas to get her trained and get me this three years of figuring out what I would really do with my life.
Louis Goodman 03:57
So your path into the law really involved giving yourself more time to decide what you want to do?
Mark Shaiken 04:05
Yeah, I was kind of an accidental law student and you could argue I was an accidental attorney for 38 years while I continued to try to figure out what I was really going to do with my life when I grew up. But I didn’t… Law school was filled with different kinds of paths into school and there are other people, I wasn’t the only one that kind of went to law school because that was the best thing they could think of to do, not because they really wanted to be a lawyer. That was me. You know, there were plenty of people in law school from a young age, they knew they wanted to be a lawyer and there they were in law school to achieve that. That wasn’t me.
Louis Goodman 04:37
Well, when you graduated from law school, you did some clerking for a bankruptcy judge, and that’s kind of how you got into the bankruptcy world. Is that correct?
Mark Shaiken 04:47
That’s 100% correct. You know, back in those days there was no internet, we didn’t have electronic devices and so there was a three by five card that the bankruptcy judge put up at the placement office in the law school. And so this is the first semester, third year of law school, I still had no idea what I was going to be doing with myself, you know, shortly after I graduated. And this card went up and almost on a lark I applied, because I hadn’t taken the bankruptcy class in law school and I loved him from the first time I met him and the dean led me into an already full bankruptcy class, so I could pull all of this off. And that’s really how I got introduced to bankruptcy, also completely accidentally. I had thoughts that if I was going to actually be a practicing lawyer, I’d be a tax lawyer. And instead I got my two plus years of intense bankruptcy training, you know, at the judge’s footsteps and the rest is kind of history. That’s just all I’ve ever done.
Louis Goodman 05:45
Well, what was the experience like going into the big firm?
Mark Shaiken 05:48
The bankruptcy part of it was wonderful. The cases were amazing. I’ve often joked that I peaked at a very early age. I mean, I get to Texas, I’m 28 years old and humongous companies are filing chapter 11 bankruptcy cases, and the phone never stops ringing. There isn’t any need to go out and try to generate business for the partners that can’t handle the business that they’re getting when the phone is ringing. And you know, the courts couldn’t handle it either. Their backlog in the Southern district of Texas was spectacular. There were hearings where the judge was in the courtroom and the lawyers on motion day couldn’t get to the courtroom. And so the judge would call a case and the hallway was filled with the lawyers. And so somebody would have to yell out, you know, who’s got the Brown vs Jones case. And whoever had that is running from the back of the hallway to get into the courtroom, to have the judge tell them there isn’t going to be a trial because he’s backed up for the next year. So it was a remarkable experience at a time when the rest of the country really wasn’t doing badly economically, but the oil and gas sector of the economy had simply tanked.
Louis Goodman 06:55
Now, you wrote a book called And Just Like That, that by the way has nothing to do with Sarah Jessica Parker or anything having to do with the Sex And The City remake.
Mark Shaiken 07:09
What a shock! I was waiting for the royalty checks to start rolling in from the TV show.
Louis Goodman 07:15
And you talk in great detail about what it’s like to be an associate at a big firm. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and some of the feeling of it that you outline in the book?
Mark Shaiken 07:31
You know, law school, well it does a wonderful job of teaching how to think like a lawyer. Still doesn’t do a very good job of letting you know what it’s going to be like should you go into a law firm setting and, you know, be the lowest person on the ladder. It was a surprise. They certainly get their pound of flesh, they being the firm.
Louis Goodman 07:50
You talk a little bit about this frightening process of moving from being an associate to partner. Tell us a little bit what that’s about, because again, that’s something that is totally outside my realm of experience.
Mark Shaiken 08:08
You know, when you come up for partner, your name gets debated on a Saturday, at least that’s how the Kansas city firm did it. And then the partners all vote and they vote, you know, typically if you get put up for partner, that’s because they know you’ll probably get the votes necessary. So you get the phone call that you’re in and it’s exciting. And then you realize the next day that nothing’s changed. You still have lots of people above you on the totem pole. And it always struck me that there were really three kinds of partners in a law firm, you know. Partners in training, which in the book I called PITs, partners in charge, I call those PICs, and then the partners really in charge; the handful of partners that are running the firm, that when they tell you to do something, that’s the gospel. And those, I called PRICs in the book. And that was always my impression. Later in my career I guess I became one of those PRICs. And I tried to remember that it was possible to be a PRIC and still be kinder and gentler, but you know, you could see the concern and worry in people’s faces when a PRIC comes into an associate’s office or even a young partner’s office and closes the door behind them. But it’s very hierarchical. And I think that’s a function of the really big firms. They just, they all do it and they all have it and they all have these different types of partner folks.
Louis Goodman 09:38
When you’re an associate, obviously the big problem you have is being overwhelmed with work, research, writing, projects that are assigned to you. When you’re a partner, what’s the big problem?
Mark Shaiken 09:54
Lots of work, still, because there’s still people giving you work, especially if you’re in the lower categories. And you know, in a bankruptcy group, whenever there’s a bankruptcy case that comes in, somebody in the bankruptcy group is going to do it. So you don’t really get the opportunity to say that your plate is full.
Louis Goodman 10:11
With respect to the partners who are really in charge, are they primarily concerned with getting new clients, rainmaking, so to speak and being able to bring in the business that can keep the firm afloat?
Mark Shaiken 10:26
Yeah, well, hopefully by the time they become a partner really in charge, they have the book of business because they probably would never have gotten to be the partner really in charge without it. So what they should have been doing is cultivating a network and cultivating a client group when they become a partner in training and just continue to build on it because that doesn’t really happen overnight. That’s a real process.
Louis Goodman 10:49
You spent a long time practicing law. And it strikes me that you’re a bright guy, you could have lots of opportunities to do other things if you so chose. There must be something about practicing law that you really liked.
Mark Shaiken 11:05
It was intellectually challenging and intellectually exciting.
Louis Goodman 11:09
If a young person was coming out of college and thinking about a career move, would you recommend going into law as a career move?
Mark Shaiken 11:17
That’s a really interesting question. I’m not smart enough to know whether somebody else should go to law school and whether they’ll have a great career or whether they’ll go to law school and hate it.
Louis Goodman 11:28
What do you, think’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Mark Shaiken 11:31
Yeah, that’s another really good question. So I remember when I was finishing my clerkship that the judge took me out to lunch and he looked at me and he just nodded his head knowingly and said, “You know, the practice of law isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” And I should have taken his advice and then had him expound on it, and I didn’t.
Louis Goodman 11:52
Do you think the bankruptcy system is fair?
Mark Shaiken 11:56
I do. I think, you know, it’s a huge code, it’s not quite as big as the tax code, but it’s massive. And it’s been around, we’ve had a uniform bankruptcy code since 1898. So we’ve had a lot of experience with it. We went through a big revision in 1978. But it’s necessary for a society like ours to provide a safe… for debtors and to have a system that is fair. And I’ve often encouraged associates to go to court and sit there and see who’s going into that courtroom and decide, as you’re telling me that bankruptcy is unfair, whether you would want to trade places with a single person that you just saw walk into that courtroom. I really do think it’s important and it is fair.
Louis Goodman 12:45
At some point you decided that you weren’t going to be the PRIC and go into the field of writing and you resigned from the firm and decided to be an author, and you have two books that are out and published and you’re working on a third. What prompted that career decision?
Mark Shaiken 13:11
That’s really what I wanted to do when I graduated from college.
Louis Goodman 13:16
Yeah, but at some point you decided towards the end of your legal career that you wanted to get out of the law and go into writing. And I’m curious about what that process was like and how the people around you, your wife, other family members, friends, perhaps, how they saw that move and how you saw it?
Mark Shaiken 13:40
The easy one is my wife. She was super supportive. I mean, she had to listen to me every night for 38 years come home and say, “That’s the last day. I’m not going back tomorrow.” So for her, that wasn’t a heavy lift, to be supportive. The firm, it was very interesting. I was concerned about how the firm was going to react and they actually reacted really well.
Louis Goodman 14:04
Let’s say you came into some real money. You and your wife came into 3 or 4 billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Mark Shaiken 14:15
Wow,! It’s hard to imagine. I would be giving it away just as fast as I could to the organizations that I love right now that, you know, get a lot less money from me. But if I had billions, they’d get a lot more money from me.
Louis Goodman 14:27
Let’s say somebody gave you 60 seconds on the Super Bowl. You could put out any ad, any message, anything you wanted to a really enormous audience, really big microphone, really big platform. What is it that you would want to say in your 60 second ad on the Super Bowl?
Mark Shaiken 14:50
Yeah, so right after I would say “Go Chiefs!” I guess, right after that message, which would be terribly important, I would then have to then have to sort of almost quote Rodney King during the riots, after he was roughed up by the police significantly. He said, “You know, can we all just get along?” So I don’t think it would take me 60 seconds, but maybe I could come up with a video to go along with that. Cause that’s how, and maybe it’s because I’m getting old, but that’s how I feel, that we don’t get along. And we right now don’t seem to have any interest in getting along.
Louis Goodman 15:29
Mark, if someone wants to communicate with you, get ahold of you, talk to you about writing or bankruptcy or your books. Is there a way that people can contact you?
Mark Shaiken 15:44
Yeah, I think the easiest way is to go to the webpage, which is markshakenauthor.com and there you can connect with me pretty easily. You can sign up for a mailing list if you’re so inclined. I am pretty active on social media, so you can find me on Facebook and LinkedIn. And you can find my email address there too to connect if you’d like to. It’s very interesting. I get emails from, for the first book I get emails from lawyers all over the world that I don’t know, who’ve read the book have questions, comments. Oftentimes they wondered if I could talk to them for a half hour. I’m not a career counselor, but I’m happy to, and we have a phone call so that’s been very unexpected, very unexpected.
Louis Goodman 16:30
Your whole book was kind of unexpected to me. I read it, you know, primarily just in preparation for this interview, which when I started reading it, and then as I started going through it, I really ended up slowing down with it and saying, “Wow, you know, this is really interesting. This is something people should know. This is something that is a real inside look at an aspect of practicing law.” And it’s not the law that I practice. And as you said, there’s lots of different people practicing law, there’s lots of different ways to practice law, but this was such a great inside look at a certain type of legal practice. And I really appreciated the book. I thought it was extremely readable and really fun to take a look inside that world of the big firm.
Mark Shaiken 17:27
Well, thanks. It was a laborer, no question about it. I actually started writing a couple of the pieces and I mentioned in the chapters, which ones I had started, you know, 25 plus years ago, riding the subway in Philadelphia to get to work, which was an interesting way to write, to start writing a book. And then I just wasn’t mature enough or ready in that point in my life to really go through with it, so I set it aside until an after I finished with my firm. But it’s interesting because all professions are difficult. You know, surgeons, super high stress engineers, all the professions are rough, but there’s something about law that has an add on. At least it did for me. And you know, that phrase about the jealous mistress that one of the Supreme court judges coined, “The law is a jealous mistress”, and it is. It competes, it’s almost animated. It competes for your attention. And it’s hard to turn off, or it was for me.
Louis Goodman 18:26
I think it’s very, very true. You know, I talk to a lot of lawyers for this podcast. I think you have to have some really compelling reason to be a lawyer, you know, beyond just earning a living, that there’s something about the law that gets in us. There can be a lot of love in it, there might be some hate in it once in a while, but there is something about practicing law and being a lawyer that is a tough, difficult, sometimes really rewarding experience. And it’s a way of life that is not for everybody.
Mark Shaiken 19:06
A hundred percent agree, and it’s a necessary profession. You know, I know that many people in the world will quickly say they can’t stand lawyers and lawyers are the root of all problems and things like that. But it does have the ability to latch on and not let go. And that’s also changed. Let’s see if you agree with this. When I started out, you know, the fastest way to get ahold of me was the phone or a fax. Those were the options. And when I went home, which at times was, you know, 10 or 11 o’clock at night, but when I went home that was it. There was no other way to get ahold of me, I didn’t have an iPhone. Today, especially as I was ending my career and I was working on the biggest debtors case I’d ever had, as I was finishing up that case and that was going to be the springboard to then pack it in. You know, people would get ahold of me at 11 o’clock at night by texting me. Now I didn’t have to look, I could turn the sound down so it wouldn’t ding, but it was remarkable what was going on. You know, there were 6 thousand creditors and they all had my phone number. They could all text me anytime they wanted and they did because they wanted their damn money. And, you know, that’s a different, and that’s kind of the add-on, I was talking about. Not only does the law get its tentacles into you and doesn’t let go, but as much as technology is wonderful, it makes the practice of law all the more difficult, because it further takes away from that wall that you try to have to have some form of life.
Louis Goodman 20:36
Mark Shaiken, it has been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.
Mark Shaiken 20:45
Thanks very much for having me on, it’s been a blast. I really have enjoyed it.
Louis Goodman 20:49
That’s it for today’s episode of love by lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and subscribe to the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. I promise I’ll respond. Take a look at our website at lovebylawyer.com, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs, and information. Thanks as always to my guests who share their wisdom and to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman
Louis Goodman 21:32
How many bar exams have you taken?
Mark Shaiken 21:34
Louis Goodman 21:35
Mark Shaiken 21:36
Yeah. I had Pennsylvania, Texas, Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado. Colorado was the one I said that was my choice because I wanted to move here.