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In most lines of work, the best mentor is sometimes the gruff one. It can be worth enduring the curmudgeonly testiness to absorb useful nuggets of experience and wisdom.

But even litigator Mark Herrmann can take only so much of his alter ego, the grumbling writer’s voice he uses in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, the primer he wrote for law firm associates that was published last year by the American Bar Association.

That other guy sometimes seems downright mean, though eliciting more chortles than grimaces. Such as when the partner talks to the associate about writing, to wit: “I will read your work and fix your mistakes. This, however, is not my job. It is better for your career if you fix your own mistakes; I do not enjoy fixing them for you.” The boss is blunt and dead-on.

“I realized after writing short pieces of it that the guy is unbearable except for short periods of time,” says Herrmann, a litigation partner in the Cleveland office of Jones Day.

Yet that hasn’t slowed sales of the book. Herrmann is enjoying a lot of attention for his 135-page collection of lessons, observations and, well, diatribes about how new lawyers go wrong and how they should go about getting it right.

A number of law firms are snapping them up for their associates, and it even cracked the “Amazon Top 500.” Though the bookseller’s rankings are ever-changing and top spots often fleeting, on Nov. 1 it stood at No. 484 on a list of about 4.5 million books— an unusual perch for a practice guide published by the ABA. It’s also selling like crazy at the ABA Web Store (ababooks.org).

In-Your-Face Advice

Much of the book has to do with exacting thoroughness and quality, and chapters cover everything from writing a brief and taking and giving depositions to managing secretaries and e-mail etiquette.

Along with granular, how-to information, the Curmudgeon usually brings the lesson home with lapel-grabbers such as this: “When you hand me a memo and I immediately find myself heading to the library to reread the cases that you have discussed, our relationship is beyond salvation. If I do not trust you, our professional relationship serves no purpose.”

That comes in the chapter titled “How to Fail as an Associate.” The Curmudgeon complains that he sees that sort of thing all the time. An associate says he had to rush and didn’t have time to Shepardize, but here are a couple of cases that might be helpful. To which the old guy retorts: “You would rather hand me two cases and an apology than a memo that draws a conclusion that you cannot disclaim.”

When the Wall Street Journal ran a series of excerpts from the book online, the Curmud­geon got a taste of his own medicine more than once, via reader comments posted on the newspaper’s Web site.

For example, when one poster took issue with an example from the chapter “Seven Hours Locked in a Room,” which details dos and don’ts in giving and taking depositions, Herrmann had to respond.

“Ouch,” he wrote in a comment on the comment. “No more, or there’ll have to be a second edition, heaven help me.”

Sidebar

Curmudgeonly Wisdom
Here are some chapter excerpts from The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law by Cleveland lawyer Mark Herrmann.
The Curmudgeonly Secretary

I’ve seen associates come, and I’ve seen as­sociates go; I’ve been a secretary at this firm for longer than you’ve been alive, and I have some advice for you. Now, I know you’re probably thinking that you’re much smarter than I am. And you’re probably thinking there’s nothing I can tell you that you don’t already know or can’t figure out on your own. Get over it. …

If you want me to act like I’m part of your team, treat me like I’m part of your team. If you treat me like a piece of office equipment, I’ll act accordingly. And given how often office equipment breaks down, that’s not a good idea. The Curmudgeon Argues

Don’t hand me notes during argument. Ever. There are only three possible exceptions that help prove this rule. You may hand me one of these three notes, if appropriate, when I’m arguing.

First: “No, no! We represent the defendant in this case!” Second: “No, no! Smith v. Jones is set for argument next week! Argue Doe v. Roe today!”

Third: “Your trousers are on fire!” The Curmudgeon on Clients

When do we send the so-called draft brief to the client?

Never at 5:00 p.m. with a request for comments at 9 a.m. Never on Friday afternoon when the brief is due on Monday. We ruin our own lives; we protect our clients’ nights and weekends.

We also never send the draft at noon when the brief is due by 5. A half-dozen other firms are also sending the client draft briefs at noon for filing at 5 in other cases; how can the client review all those briefs simultaneously?

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