In this new series, we are profiling legal professionals and J.D.s and asking them the hard questions that don’t always get answered in law school. For example, how did they find their job? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? And, was law school a worthwhile investment?
Our first profile is about Matthew Emmer, J.D. turned writer and editor. Matt’s experience in media dates back more than 25 years, including stints at CNN and the Federal Communications Commission. After law school, he worked as a communications lawyer/lobbyist in DC, mainly representing cable companies. He stayed at the same firm throughout his legal career, first as an associate, then as a partner.
Around three years ago, Matt changed directions and started his own business, Matthew D. Emmer Communications. Today, he uses the writing and editing skills he honed as a lawyer to assist clients with their writing and editing needs. He handles everything from online articles to blogs to graphic novels, and even video game design and development. As LA County Political Buzz columnist for Examiner.com, he covers issues of interest to California, including the 2010 elections, global warming, hybrid and electric vehicles, marijuana legalization, and same-sex marriage.
RecruiterEsq: Thanks for speaking with us Matt! So, why did you decide to go to law school?
Matthew Emmer: I had worked at a law firm one summer during college and enjoyed it, and then I worked at CNN the following summer. I had a real passion for communications, and CNN offered me a permanent job, but at the time, they were starting everyone as low-paid video jocks. My interest was not on the production side of things. So I thought that combining my communications and law interests would be a good solution.
Did you know you wanted to practice media/communications law when you went to law school or how did that come about?
I knew that’s what I wanted from the get-go. One reason why I went to Boston University for law school was that B.U. also had an excellent College of Communication, and a longer joint J.D./M.S. Communications degree program that involved both schools. I applied and was accepted into the program, but when I asked attorneys about it, all of them said that it would be better to graduate law school on time with just a J.D. and get out into the real world. So I did that, although I took as many electives in the College of Communication as I could, got law school credit for them, and really liked those classes.
Media or communications law is one of those ‘sexy’ practice areas. As in, it sounds cool to say, “I’m a communications lawyer.” I assume you get to work with hot issues that are more interesting than municipal tax, for example. For this reason, I’d think it would be tough to find a job in law school in this practice area. How did you get your position as a law clerk at the FCC?
It was tough. At the time, there were only about 1,500 members of the Federal Communications Bar Association, who practiced in this field. Now there are probably ten times that amount. I applied for the FCC job, and I’m sure the previous CNN job and B.U. Law School/College of Communication classes stood out somewhat as both academic and real-world experience.
Is that what led to your first associate job? Was it through connections or did you apply with a formal cover letter?
I applied with a formal cover letter, with various firms, companies, and organizations that were involved in communications, mostly television. And then, after taking the bar exam, I went off on a bicycling trip down the coast of California. When I returned, I had some messages asking me to schedule interviews. So when people ask me how I got my job, I say that I went on a bike trip. I’m not sure if that helps them too much.
Funny! Well, I’m sure the exercise took your mind off the pressures of job-searching. So, at this time, you’re a recent law school graduate beginning your legal career as a media/communications lawyer. For people who are interested in this field, what did you do on a daily basis?
It was a mix of several things. Part of it was lobbying and policy work, especially before the FCC, as well as the U.S. Copyright Office. Part of it was transactional work, such as sales and mergers. And part of it was regulatory compliance. The most enjoyable part for me was persuasive writing, which I got to do every day, whether that was in a 3-page letter or a 200-page policy paper.
Without breaching any confidentiality and speaking in general terms, who were your clients and what were the issues they faced?
They were mostly large and mid-sized media companies, many with very recognizable names. They faced large policy issues, for example, the creation and then implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which affected everything from cable television content to the then-burgeoning Internet. They also faced many business disputes, such as some of the high-profile cases you read about now involving television content providers turning off their signals to cable operators, usually right before major sports events like the baseball playoffs, because the two sides can’t agree on price. And the clients faced many day-to-day compliance issues, such as how high their antenna tower can be so that airplanes don’t crash into it.
After 18 years of practicing, how did you decide to transition to a full-time writing career?
As I indicated earlier, persuasive writing was my favorite part of my attorney job. I had also acquired rigorous editing skills along the way, which you usually can’t help acquiring if you’re a lawyer. Moreover, I had been doing the same thing in the same city for a long time, at a time when multiple career changes for adults were becoming much more commonplace. And finally, you may recall that the 2008 recession didn’t happen all at once. In many industries, there had been a slow decline for a number of years, which affected many people in the legal and communications fields, as well as many others. Just take a look at the stock market during the years leading up to the recession. So everything kind of came to together in a perfect storm. I ended up not only changing careers, not only working for myself, but also moving across the country from the Washington, DC area to the Southern California beach, which is something I had dreamed about doing since that bike trip.
That’s an awesome story arc. No wonder you’re a writer. As a writer and editor, what is a typical weekly schedule for you?
It varies each week depending on the workload, deadlines, and even late-breaking developments. I try to set my own hours where possible and work when I’m most creative, which includes late night hours. I’m sure I work 6 days a week on average, including covering and attending certain events. But everyone I know works hard, which is why I think it’s important to work on things that you feel passionate about, whether it’s the law, teaching, or something else. Last week, for example, I covered the L.A. Auto Show on Press Day, focusing on the new hybrid and electric cars, and edited a video game development document tied to a sci-fi, futuristic graphic novel. It was a lot of work, but lots of fun too.
Writing is a competitive field. It’s definitely not easy. Do you think your legal background is an asset when working with clients?
When working with clients, my legal background is a most valuable asset. In particular, negotiation becomes second nature for many attorneys, and it did for me. Likewise, I think law school and legal work gives many attorneys skills in clear thinking, analysis, and level-headed judgment. Those skills are invaluable not just in working with clients, where it’s important to stand your ground and be assertive, yet not turn every disagreement into a fight, but in everyday situations as well. Buying a car. Handling a dispute with your phone or credit card company. I’m extremely grateful for my legal background.
How does your experience as a lawyer help you in your writing career?
For example, in my side project as the L.A. County Political Buzz reporter at Examiner.com, many of the issues I write about are generated from developments in the law, such as California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, or court cases, such as the ongoing “Proposition 8″ case regarding the legality of gay marriage in California. I was recently interviewed on a podcast regarding the Prop 8 case. I don’t see how a non-attorney, even one who regularly covers politics, could possibly read, digest, and quickly and clearly explain new developments regarding legislation or court cases the way someone with a legal background can.
Here you are, you practiced law for almost 20 years, then you decided to start your own business. What skills did you have to learn from scratch?
As with many people running their own business, I am not just providing the underlying service, but I am also my own head of marketing and my own IT guy. I certainly wouldn’t work without having a second, backup computer, in case something goes wrong technically when I’m on a deadline, which has happened.
What did your legal background NOT prepare you for?
Did I mention marketing? That’s something that lawyers in private practice have to do, it’s something that many people in many fields nowadays have to do, but not everyone receives training in this area. I do think that many workers in numerous fields, including attorneys, need to think of themselves as entrepreneurs who, beneath it all, are selling themselves as a product or brand. With our modern economy resulting in frequent corporate changes, long-term careers at one organization are mostly a thing of the past, and, for most people, those marketing skills will be called upon sooner or later, probably sooner.
Do you think law firm marketing materials – web copy, brochures, lawyer profiles – should be an in-house or outside job?
Of course, I think it should be an outside job. Then again, I may be biased, since law firms can hire me to do it.
As a writer and communication strategist, what would be your advice to law firms regarding their online presence and content?
If you’re not in the 21st Century, it’s time to get there. I’m sure things are improving, but I fear that some lawyers and law firms still like to do things the old-fashioned way, and by “old-fashioned,” I mean 18th Century, with powdered wigs. I read and/or write enough online articles and blogs each day to know that most consumers, including clients for legal services, are quite used to modern, even edgy, forms of communication and marketing. Thus, while I’m sure there are exceptions, it could be quite off-putting for consumers to spend time on the Internet each day, and then see law firm marketing materials that look like something from a Charles Dickens novel.
Thank you again for speaking to us!
Thank you, that was very enjoyable!