Most lawyers enter the legal profession with big aspirations, but for many, those aspirations soon turn to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and burnout. From how training lawyers and billing clients to how serving clients and marketing, the legal system is long overdue for a wake-up call.
Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty, and my next guest is Paul Llewellyn. He’s here with me to talk about and celebrate his new book called, Unshackled: Reimagining the Practice of Law. Let’s look through it.
How an Englishman Came to Practice Law in America
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Welcome back to the show, everyone. I’m so excited to have my friend Paul here, who just launched an amazing book. It’s called, Unshackled: Reimagining the Practice of Law. I’m super excited to have Paul, thank you for joining me today, brother, I appreciate you.
Paul Llewellyn: No, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, this is great. So your book, you know, I’ve had, like I said, about 24 hours or so to kind of peruse through it and flip through it and, you know, and I got to say, it’s a really easy read, it’s easy to engage, it’s pack full of stories and experiences. What was your favorite part about writing the book so far?
Paul Llewellyn: I just think, you know, sort of bring up old stories, you know, I think there’s some entertaining stories like I was edge case in England. To many people, it might seem archaic, some of the traditions. So I think, you know, sort of lifting the lid on the outside world and also, you know, trying to present a blueprint on how we can make a better profession.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s so profound but let’s go back in time a little bit. I want to kind of give our audience a context of who you are to how you got into the profession of law because it is such a big one. I think I’ll be honest with you, I think every immigrant and refugee family in the world wants their kid to be either a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer, right? So you sit that perspective; however, we all come to different things and different ways, and I always think, you know, our childhood, our upbringing, where we grew up, our surroundings, the people that influence us have a way with sort of, you know, navigating that path for us or try to at least.
Give us a little bit of a background scope of sort of where you grew up and how you ended up in law?
Paul Llewellyn: Yeah, no, that’s a good question. So yeah, the answer, like many people, it was the TV show, how I became a lawyer. So I grew up in a city South Coast of England called Brighton. So Brighton, England, it’s about an hour, an hour from London, and there was a TV show, an American TV show, LA Law, and I get more and more blank looks, the older I get like, “What is this show?” You know?
So, it started in 1980s, and it was set at this fictitious law firm in Los Angeles, McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, and Kuzak, and it would show, I remember 9 PM every Thursday, and I started watching when I was about 10 years old and, without a doubt, it was my favorite TV show, and to a certain extent, it’s sort of idealized the practice of law. But every week, it would take on, you know, these cutting-edge legal issues.
Every case would last just one episode, you know, not like real life, you know? You don’t get results, you’ll be in trial about a week later, and I just thought at that moment, that is the job I want. I want to be a litigator in California, and to me that was just an absolute dream and so, you know, finished up high school, and I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and so, in England, you do laws in undergraduate degree.
So I went to Oxford University to study law, and there was a law firm in Los Angeles that had a program where they would take an Oxford law graduate to spend a year at their law firm in Los Angeles upon graduation, and so it was my dream. You know, I cannot believe this, I actually had the chance to spend the year in Los Angeles. So 21 years old and I packed my bags, and I was given that opportunity, and so I spent a year at their law firm in Los Angeles. It was a dream come true, you know? It was exciting cases, I wasn’t practicing law, obviously, I wasn’t yet an attorney, but I got to witness what it was like to be a lawyer in California, and if anything, it just cemented my dream of living there, of practicing law in the United States, and so I went back to England.
In England, there were two types of lawyers, there are solicitors and barristers, and the barristers, you may have seen on TV, they’re the ones that wear the wigs and gowns, and so they’re really the trial lawyers, the barristers. So I wanted to become a barrister, and so you spend a year of what’s called bar school to become a barrister. You know, they teach you things like cross examination of witnesses and negotiation, et cetera, and then you have to do this mandatory apprenticeship which is called pupilage and effectively, you’re a trainee barrister for a year and, you know, it’s competitive to get a pupilage and then at the end of that year, you hope to get what’s called tenancy, which is where the chambers take you on basically for life.
So I joined this great set of chambers, I had a great time. At the end of the year, I was offered tenancy, and I became a full member of chambers, but then the firm that I’d spend a year at, they reached out, you know, about a year later and said, “We have a full-time position, would you like to come to LA, take the California bar and become an attorney in Los Angeles?” And I guess, the fact that we’re talking about this book, you can tell what I decided.
So yeah, that was 2001, so that was 21 years ago, and I took the California bar. I was with them about six years, and then I moved to San Francisco, joined one of the country’s largest law firms. About 11 years ago, myself and another lawyer, Mark Lewis, we founded our current firm, Lewis & Llewellyn, and we’re now almost 20 attorneys, almost 10 years, 11 years later.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Man, what a journey. That’s so amazing. Also, you know, this idea of attracting what you ultimately want and how that unfolds, sounds like that show had a profound experience on you and, you know, this idea of, you know, you talk about this at the beginning of your book, which kind of bringing me to the next phase of the question.
You talk about this idea that, you know, there’s a pop culture sort of image of what we see as what lawyers do, what judges and what the court room looks like. You know, the intensity, the drama, of course, all of these things. However, you know, the unrealistic idea is behind those things, right? It’s that a crime gets solved in one episode, right? 40 minutes. But obviously, there’s more to that in the real world, but what do you mean when you say that there is something about lawyers not holding up this idea of these sort of, the iconography that comes from pop culture, right? You know, what is it about law and the prestige of it and this, you know, this refined human, I guess, truthfulness, experience, and honesty?
I feel, personally, from when I look at the law, I feel that that’s what we hope that it is. However, there are dynamics that sort of shift that perspective into one that isn’t honest, one that isn’t, you know, fully pure, right? And that’s of course, based on human, you know, how we are as human beings just in general. What are your takes on that?
So when you came into this world of law, you started practicing in LA, was it the Hollywood persona, what brought you to this way of thinking now and developing your new ideas in writing a book about how we need to basically rethink law, you know, as a profession? What were the things that started getting to you that weren’t necessarily the way you saw them perhaps on TV?
Paul Llewellyn: No, that’s a good question. I think to a certain extent, I think we have a very difficult task as lawyers because on TV, you know, it’s about dispensing justice and, like you said, every episode, you know, on the most part, justice is dispensed.
Even watching an episode of The People’s Court or Judge Judy and on the whole, yeah, they get it right, and I think, you know, to a certain extent, we struggle with the realities of the real world and really, as I say in the book, you know, the law and justice are two different concepts and I think the realities of practicing law is obviously the cost. There’s the delay, there’s the court congestion.
You know, I’ve given the examples sometimes, people may have done absolutely nothing wrong, but the economics of fighting a lawsuit. I say, “You know what? I’d rather pay a settlement even though I did nothing wrong.” I think they’re these hurdles in the real world and people have these expectations and, in a way, I think, you know, we can’t possibly live up to those expectations.
I also think the public perception of lawyers we’re battling against that. I have a section on the book where I talk about the famous McDonalds lawsuit, and that’s always, you know, trotted out the poster child of frivolous lawsuits. You know, someone’s awarded millions of dollars because she spilled hot coffee over her.
You know, with the butt of late night jokes of articles, you know, pressures for talk reform how this is outrageous and, in the book, I talk about the realities of that case, and it is very different. You know, McDonalds was heating up this coffee to extremely high temperatures whereas, if it did spill on someone, they would almost certainly be guaranteed to burn themselves, and she’d made a demand before trial that was very reasonable.
McDonalds turned it down, it went to trial. You know, a doctor testified it’s some of the worst burns he’s ever seen. There had been hundreds of other people that have been burned you know, in similar incidents, and so you know, you peel back the curtain and the realities are actually, yeah, that wasn’t a crazy lawsuit after all, but of course, that doesn’t create the headline grabbing, you know, pithy one sentence summary over hot coffee and now, she’s suing for millions.
So I think we also struggle with that reality, and then again, there’s client dissatisfaction, the billable hour. You know, I talk about that in the book, how is that the best way to bill our services. Like, for example, you go to a car wash, you wouldn’t pay, “Well, how long is it going to take?” or pay by the minute or someone, or a gardener, you know, motion a law, well, “How many minutes it going to take?”
Yet again, in a way we’re misaligned with clients because clients, of course, want you to be as quick as possible, whereas lawyers make more money, of course, it takes longer. So straight away, you have this inherent tension there, and so you know, throughout the book, I sort of, I try to identify areas of dissatisfaction for lawyers, for clients, and the public at large and try to present a blueprint.
Look, just because it’s been done like this forever, how can we present a better path forwards? It doesn’t have to be like this just because it’s, you know, it’s always been done like this. To me, that’s the defeatist approach, and as lawyers, I think we owe it to ourselves, “Hang on a sec, why are so many lawyers dissatisfied here?” Why is there so much, you know, substance abuse and depression and suicides? Why, as a profession, are we unhappy? Why aren’t we serving our clients, how are we marketing ourselves, how should we bill ourselves, how should we train our lawyers? I try to take each of these areas and try to present a potential path forward, a better way.
The Problems in Law that We Must Face
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s so powerful, and I’m so glad you were able to like, look at these things and a very honest perspective and say, “Hey, look, I’m in this profession every single day. I see the ins and outs of everything behind the curtain.” But the reality is, things can be way better, and you’re right.
Like, you know, it’s funny. I’ve had doctors on this show, lawyers, you name it, man, remarkable people like such as yourself, and they’re always seeking ways to obviously not improve… not just improve themselves, of course, but also the profession, and they have such beautiful ideas like you do and propose to them in such a unique way.
Talk to me about this, like why do you think, in such a sort of, you know, this profession that we all look up to, right? Whether you follow justice, law, whatever, like, you know, there’s obviously success in it in the sense of money, right? Like, I think my refugee parents wanted it to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Man, take a pick.
I guess, but the reason why it’s, of course, I came from poverty, man. I was a refugee, I was a byproduct of war, like these things happen in the world, but that mindset of like, this prestigious degree/job, gives you not only status, right? And in your, whatever, but also this ability to help people and serve the community and all these things, right?
There’s all these beautiful sentiments to it. However, if you will look under that blanket, man, these people are overworked, you know, just like in the medical world, right? They’re overworked, they’re doing way, way more than they’re getting paid for, and if they are getting paid, it’s not making them happy, you know?
Because, like you said, there’s substance abuse, and they’re just at the office all day every day, and then because it’s really rigorous, because the cases in the work, the types of cases that I am sure you’re constantly working are very intense, and there’s just too many variables to make a, I don’t know, I guess a happy ending at the end of every case, right?
So why do you think that is? Why do you think that is sort of a curse of being in that profession? You know, this idea of how we used to do things and what’s your proposal, how can we do things a little differently? For example, billable hours, what’s your take on maybe looking at that differently and charging it differently?
Paul Llewellyn: Yeah, so on the first point, I think one of the inherent problems we have as lawyers is people usually come to us when it can often be one of the most stressful times in their life, and so straight away, you know, it is like a doctor. You know, someone comes to a doctor typically because they are sick and again, so in the law, for example, they’ve been sued or something terrible has happened to them, and they’re the one there, the plaintiff. They’re bringing a law suit, they go into a divorce, their business is collapsing, they’re facing bankruptcy.
So inherently, we start off in this relationship where you know, to most people, it is one of the most significant things, if not the significant thing in their life, and as lawyers, our job effectively is to take their problem and put it on our shoulders. You know, our job is to try to solve their problem, and that is not something that you can just do to be successful in law. This isn’t a nine to five job where now I’ll switch off, I’ll forget about everything. You know, it is very hard to take on other people’s problems and then, “Okay, 5:00 I’ll switch off.”
I think also nowadays, and even since I’ve been practicing law, I’ve noticed this change, and you know, clients are text messaging a lot more. You know, the boundaries between weekends or evenings and early mornings, it is like it’s almost a 24/7 job now.
The third thing is, it’s relentless as well, and that’s because it’s never stops. You know, the one case may be quieter for a bit, and another case is getting busy. So it’s not like, “Okay, I am going press pause for a week, catch my breath, and think about everything,” you know? You close your email, open an hour later and there’ll be 20 more messages you have to do.
So I think that sort of, you know, that relentlessness and I don’t know, that doesn’t mean that, “Oh well, let’s all give up and you know, we’re destined to be depressed and drink too much.” And you touched upon billable hours. So you know, generally at large law firms, there can be an incredibly high billable hour minimum. You know, it is not uncommon 2,000 hours a year, where you divide that by, you know, 50 weeks, and that’s eight hours a day, five days a week, and that’s billable time.
Now, of course, all time in the office is not billable time, and so to bill, you know, eight hours a day, you are probably working 10, 11 hours a day. You know, you’ve got to – you have your lunch break, you’re talking to colleagues, et cetera, you are dealing with personal issues. So just number one, the hours of that imposing. So look, there are other ways.
You know, one thing I talk about in the book is, “Well, what about if we did things on a fixed fee basis?” A lot of lawyers who’re adverse to that, they’re risk averse, but my come back is, “Look, you can build an airport, a nuclear power station, a skyscraper on a fixed fee, you’re telling me I can’t write a letter or a motion on the fixed fee?” You know? So I think again, I think often the mindset is just because the way it’s always been done and that doesn’t mean you have to do like that in the future.
I talk about how we train lawyers. I think very little of law school relates to the practice of law in the real world. For example, how do you market yourselves? How do you get clients? How do you deal with difficult clients? How do you deal with different opposing council? How do you deal with ethical issues? Yes, they teach contracts and trusts and thoughts, et cetera, and of course, need those basic fundamentals.
But also law school is not equipping people how to be a lawyer. So someone comes out of law school, they pass the bar, they’re a lawyer on day one, and it might be that’s the time you really start to learn how to actually be a lawyer because I don’t think law school is training people for that task very well.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I mean, I can’t agree with you more because here’s the thing, I went to school for architecture, right? During architecture, I’ve learned how to be an architect, meaning I learned how to, of course like you said, draw up the plans, draw up the section, draw up all the things that the engineers might need, the rendering, the presenting our case to the clients, how things – you know, where the light comes in, the studies, right?
You study the act of being an architect. However, you going to be an architect and graduate is dealing with people, right? Like 90% of it, you are talking to a human being that’s either helping you do something, that’s either trying to get your permit going, or there is so many aspects in how you deal with people based on, you know, your personality, who you are and all of these things start to play a role with how you know, this overarching, right?
So I understand that from my perspective, right? Since that there’s a human element that isn’t being taught, right? You know, how you carry yourself and, like you said, I feel like I think that’s why we see in movies, right? In TV shows like how a lawyer is acting, right? It is an acting profession, right? In this particular, right? But how they’re acting and carrying themselves, whatever, in your mind, you think that’s how lawyers should be.
But the reality is no one trains them to be that way and, you know, this idea that you got an apprenticeship, right? Where you basically work at a firm for a year, I think those are such powerful things, right? Because you get to see behind the curtain what actually goes on behind these things, right? To be an architect apprenticeship, to be a woodworker, like all of these things lost their abilities to attract young people to work for a year, two years under someone else, right?
Learning under someone else is so beautiful because you get to have a personality that you bring to the table, a uniqueness, would you agree?
Paul Llewellyn: Absolutely, and actually I think the pandemic has made it far worst because now, fewer and fewer people are coming into the office, and I look back, you know, first as a trainee barrister in England is called being a pupil barrister or when I came to America as a young attorney, so much of what I learned just by, like I said, by seeing people do it to watching them in court, watching them in deposition, impromptu meetings.
Now, you know, someone working in their bedroom, you know, perched in a little desk or Zooming, you’re not going to learn how to be a lawyer, and just going back to your earlier point about the realities of the profession, I saw a meme the other day, and it was someone’s face and is like the moment when you discovered that 90% of being a lawyer is being on the phone and responding to email.
I think, you know, that’s not how it’s portrayed on TV. You know that everyone is like reading Supreme Court briefs or arguing in courts, and that’s of course, yes, you do that, but that’s not the bulk of the profession. Like you say, it is dealing with people, how do deal with people, and again, that is not a skill that is being taught.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, it is very powerful, and I love that you really bring that up in your book. You talk about creating that culture, you know, all these kinds of things that you need in an environment to have. Health is a very unique thing to think about all throughout all of these things, right? To have a healthy environment in which you can work from and learn from is probably the most crucial element because everything else is teachable, right? Everything else you could pick up at school, you know, all of those things. So that is really powerful.
What do you hope to do with your new book, in ways of creating impact in the profession?
Paul Llewellyn: So number one, really start a conversation so that you know, there is 1.3 million lawyers in America, give or take. So there is a lot of us, you know? I think change begins within. You know, I think if we start this conversation, look, you’re right, how are we treating each other? How are we serving the public? How are we billing our services? How are we marketing ourselves? How is our court system operating? Is there a better way?
So I think the more people we start to have these conversation, we start to step back, you know, I think that’s number one and number two, I think people who feel they’re stuck in a job that they don’t love. They dread Mondays, they crave the weekends, they are unhappy. You know, it doesn’t have to be like this. You know, if you are in that law firm or in that in-house job and it isn’t fulfilling, if you then, you know, hopefully it’s a wake-up call to people. Look, you don’t feel you have to do this, there is another way to practice law, and those other ways are out there. You just have to search for it, or as myself and Mark Lewis did: if it doesn’t exists, create it.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: So powerful. I love that, that last bit too. You’re right, if it doesn’t exists, you can go out and create it, which definitely requires all of you in more ways than one. However, you go out there, you team up with the right people, and you really commit to the type of environment you want to create, the culture you want to create in new innovative ways that you bring to the table is really, will such differentiate you.
I think this is the cool thing about all of this is that because you’re introducing this conversation, that conversation alone can stir the pot, right? You know by having multiple conversations, you start to, you know, stir the bigger pot, and when we question what isn’t working or what has worked for a long time, it doesn’t work anymore, AKA, I think our educational system could use a revamp, I think why not our judicial system?
You know, it is 2022, this is the reality of things, and we as human beings have evolved more I feel like in the last 20 years and probably in the last hundred is because of technology and how fast and how much access we have and so I think you’re right on, man. I really love your approach. The book is fascinating. Paul, I learned so much. If I were to read this entire book, I’m a lawyer, and I am in your audience, what would one thing be that you’d want me to take away from this book, right?
Whether it be carrying on the conversation or bringing it into my firm and introducing these ideas to my colleagues, what would your thing, you know, you hope like this book would do in the world?
Paul Llewellyn: I think really some self-reflection. Am I contributing to the problem here, or am I contributing to the solution? Am I accepting the status quo here, or am I one of those firms, “No, culture does matter in our firm?” How we treat clients does matter, how we treat each other, how we treat opposing council. Again, am I contributing to the problem, or am I presenting a solution here?
So I think that is one aspect and then number two, really some, you know, in a larger sense, am I satisfied in my profession? I literally, I wake up in the morning, I cannot wait to start work. I want every lawyer to feel how I do and not just in your legal profession. I think, you know, a broader respect in life generally, you know? If you’re not fulfilled, then chase it, discover what really fulfills you and, you know, don’t settle. Go after it. Like I was a kid from England, once I saw this TV show and that’s the life I want, you know? I want everyone to have that passion for their career and their life.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I love that so much, by the way. I think, tying this back together, do you think that your life now sort of resembles the TV show you once fell in love with?
Paul Llewellyn: You know, to a certain extent, I find it more exciting, you know?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Oh, that’s so good. I love that.
Paul Llewellyn: You know, it sounds like a cliché, but I literally feel I have the best job in the world. I absolutely adore my job. I love litigating. I’ve got tremendous colleagues, and I seriously can’t imagine doing anything else.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Wow, that’s so powerful, and look at that, it all started at the age of 10, turning on the TV, and falling in love with a TV show made in America.
Paul Llewellyn: Exactly.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Here you are, man. Here you are, and you know what’s cool about it all? Is that here you are seeking ways to improve that, seeing ways to improve that experience because obviously, it changed you and it moved you both physically, literally like moving here, but also I’m sure emotionally. So again, man, Paul, what a great experience. The book is called, Unshackled: Reimagining the Practice of Law. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you Paul?
Paul Llewellyn: Yeah, sure. So my firm website is lewisllewellyn.com. I also have a separate website for the book, unshackledlaw.com.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Well, thanks again for your time today. It was an absolute pleasure learning this from you. I think your book out in the world is going out to help people like yourself, lawyers, young people, I think it is going to create a huge impact. So thank you for taking the time to sit down and write it and put your wisdom down. Thank you so much.
Paul Llewellyn: Thanks so much for having me, Hussein, I really appreciate it.
Juicy AF* – Kay Allison