What does a lawyer do when he discovers he really doesn’t enjoy practicing law? It sounds like the beginning of just another lawyer joke, but attorney Sean Carter took the joke seriously and turned his profession upside down, by becoming a comedian who makes his living telling jokes not just about lawyers, but for lawyers. In fact, Carter jokes his way through seminars on a variety of ethical issues with the goal of helping his fellow attorney think about legal ethics in a new way.
Carter will give a series of three one-hour presentations on legal ethics and professionalism on Saturday, April 26, at 9 a.m. at the DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel in Mt. Laurel. The sessions are sponsored by NJICLE (New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education) and continuing education credits are available for attorneys who attend the presentation. Cost: $209. Register online at www.NJICLE.com.
Carter never planned on a career in comedy. “I was having a mid-life crisis and it was cheaper than having an affair,” he says in explaining his career switch. Once he had decided to try comedy he expected to tell jokes about lawyers — not for lawyers — but his rather unusual view of the world and his chosen profession made offering continuing education seminars to lawyers seem like the perfect solution.
When he first switched to comedy, he planned to go the usual route of comedy clubs and nightclubs, “but I found out that lawyers pay more than drunks,” he explains.
As he tells it, his career choices have mostly been a series of attempts to try something new and different. Some people might call it work avoidance. Others would say that Carter just thinks outside the box. Carter grew up in southern California, and as a typical 18-year-old he decided to “get as far away from my parents as possible when I went to college.” That turned out to be Brown University in Rhode Island, where he majored in computer science. After four years of studying computers, he decided that “obviously I should go to law school,” and was accepted to Harvard.
“Unfortunately, the thing I learned in three years of law school was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” he says. So instead of practicing law, he spent a few years trying to find himself. After three more years, “what I found was that I was broke.”
A desire to eat on a regular basis brought him back to law. “I decided I had this degree so maybe I should be a lawyer.” He went to work for a Boston legal firm which he describes as being incredibly similar to the firm in the television show “Boston Legal.” It had the same strange characters, unusual clients and dubious legal ethics, he says.
A few years later he moved back to southern California to take a position with a large law firm, and that’s when he discovered his gift for comedy. “I began writing the company newsletter. It started out as a report on the firm’s basketball team and it became more and more elaborate, and strangely enough people liked it,” he says.
The law firm put him in charge of the directing the associates’ skit at the holiday party. “One day my colleagues informed me that they thought I was so good at this comedy thing that they had decided I really should pursue that instead of law. It was actually one of the nicer firing speeches I’ve ever heard,” he says.
He didn’t immediately take his colleagues’ advice, however, but spent a few years as an in-house lawyer “for a tiny company called New Century Mortgage,” one of the largest sub-prime mortgage lenders in the country. He left the firm in 2005 when the call of comedy became too strong to ignore. “At the height of the sub-prime mortgage boom I looked like the biggest idiot. I left a job with a good salary, health benefits and a million in stock options to become a comedian.”
Time, however, has proved he made a good choice. It took a few years, and a few attempts at a more traditional comedy career for him to find his way back to the law. “I was doing what every starting comedian does, working anywhere I could, bar mitzvahs, baby showers, you name it.” He had no intention of going near lawyers, when an attorney approached him and suggested he speak for a local bar association. “I said no. Then they told me what they’d pay me, and about 300 talks later here I am.”
What began as strictly a comedy routine turned into something more. While he does give the usual keynote speeches, he also found that there was a need for someone with his background to give interesting and informative continuing education seminars.
Legal marketing. In an increasingly crowded legal marketplace, lawyers are discovering that effective legal marketing is essential to a thriving practice. He illustrates his talk with video examples of the best and worst of television legal ads. One of the worst examples he shows is a rap-inspired commercial aimed at accident victims. An attorney’s zeal to promote his services, can’t override his code of conduct, says Carter.
While most attorneys’ advertising is several light years ahead in taste from the rapper ad, there are still ethical implications that lawyers must address when using seminars, columns, and blogs as marketing tools, but the need to advertise should not mean stepping over the bounds of good taste and ethical practices.
Civil suing. “Increasingly, lawyer civility is becoming a thing of the past,” says Carter. “But civil litigation does not need to lead to all-out civil war.” Lawyers have an obligation to act professionally. Zealous advocacy does not require you to be a zealot, he says. It’s possible to be courteous, kind, and accommodating while still effectively representing a client. “In fact, it’s absolutely necessary for the continued well-being of the profession,” he says.
Avoiding ethical problems. Carter has some simple advice for lawyers on how to avoid a disciplinary hearing. He calls it, his “10 Commandments of Avoiding Ethical Problems.”
“The code of ethics is an 80-to-100-page document, but it really is very simple,” he says. “You can sum it up with ‘Keep your hands off the money and off the clients.’” While he makes light of the issues with titles such as “Thou Shalt Not Lie,” “Thou Shalt Know Thy Stuff” and “Thou Shalt Calleth the Client Back,” Carter is serious about ethics, and about making sure the lawyers who attend his seminar leave with more than just a paper certifying they have received their necessary continuing education credits.
“Let’s face it, nothing is more boring than a continuing education session on legal ethics. I believe if I can make it interesting someone will actually remember what I have to say and take something away from the presentation,” he says.