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?
Matt Podolnick graduated from an Ivy League law school. Like many of his classmates, he summered at a high-end litigation boutique in New York and accepted a job there post-graduation. After two years, he decided to head to a medical malpractice firm where he’d get more hands-on experience. He tells us why he never doubts taking a 40% salary cut and why he’s hesitant to want to be Superman.
RecruiterEsq: Hi Matt, thanks for speaking to us. You graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2004. After your first and second years of law school, you took associate positions in New York handling litigation cases. Did you always know you wanted to be in New York?
I had never really given much thought to where I’d end up practicing while in law school, but I think I knew that I’d end up in New York. Penn is like a feeder into Manhattan, and I’d estimate that at least 70% of Penn Law grads end up in New York. During my first summer in the city – after my first year of law school and working for Aaronson Rappaport – I lived in the NYU dorms on 3rd Avenue. I had never been to the city before that. It took me about a day or two to realize that this was where I wanted to live. Lucky for me, that’s where most of the work was anyway.
Did you always know you wanted to be a litigator?
As long as I had wanted to be a lawyer – which wasn’t very long – I did know that I’d want to be a litigator. Nothing against the deal-makers, but I’ve always been attracted to the adversarial aspects of the law. I like the challenge of it and the competitor in me enjoys the prospect of beating someone else in an argument while playing by the same rules. Of course, when a case is a loser, it’s a loser, but litigation allows you to dispute damages, too. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have some unhealthy lust for arguing – but it does bring a challenge to the job and keeps it interesting.
How did you get your position at Otterbourg? For those who are unfamiliar with the firm, will you explain what attracted you to the firm?
I was offered an interview and then a position as a summer associate at Otterbourg after a preliminary interview during On Campus Recruitment (OCR) at Penn. All the major Manhattan firms participate in OCR, as well as some of the lesser-known firms, like Otterbourg. Otterbourg, unlike the more prominent firms, was mid-sized (about 60 lawyers total) and seemed like a place where I’d get more opportunities early on than I would had I gone someplace like, say, Skadden. I felt like I’d be given more attention and responsibility as part of a class of four as opposed to a class of 30.
You stayed at Otterbourg for over two (2) years. Why did you decide to move to Aaronson, Rappaport, Feinstein, + Deutsch, LLP?
Otterbourg wasn’t what I expected it to be. I didn’t like the work and I didn’t like the culture of commercial litigation. I think that to be successful in the field of commercial litigation – to be really successful – you have to love the type of work you’re doing. You have to be wired that way. I mentioned above that I enjoy arguing, but there has to be a civility to it. At the same time, I wasn’t doing much arguing – it was mostly document review and document production. Boring and tedious. To make things worse, I was representing financial institutions trying to recover money or other assets, something I just didn’t find terribly interesting or, more importantly, fulfilling. So I save Wachovia a few million bucks at the end of the day – so what? It’s one thing to sacrifice your social life for the sake of a pay check, but you’ve got to really love what you’re doing to do so for years.
I had spent my first summer at ARFD and loved doing medical malpractice as well as the people in that office. I followed the money when I went to Otterbourg, so after I found out the hard way that money doesn’t buy happiness (it helps, though), I went back to ARFD, prepared to take a massive pay cut in exchange for more interesting, fulfilling work and a change of culture. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What type of hands-on experience do you get at a smaller firm? Have you ever litigated a trial? Do you have more client contact?
I wouldn’t call ARFD small by malpractice firm standards, but I suppose it’s small in NYC standards. Like Otterbourg, ARFD is about 60 lawyers. Unlike Otterbourg, though, where cases are managed by several partners and associates, cases at ARFD are assigned to one partner and one associate. This makes the case your case in a very real sense, and it’s much more fulfilling to handle a case from its inception through its resolution. This also gives me a lot more responsibility, such as court appearances, drafting motions, conducting depositions, client interactions, meeting with experts, and pretty much everything else involved in a malpractice litigation. I am yet to appear for trial, but I look forward to doing that (hopefully) soon.
Right now, you focus on defending medical malpractice claims. Does that mean the majority of your cases are in state court? In practical terms, e.g., convenience of filing or computer systems, how are state court actions different than federal court actions?
Almost all of my cases are in state court; only one is a federal case. Filing is largely unaffected. What is different, though, is how strict the courts are with discovery deadlines. In state court, nothing can get done for months – or years – and there’s really no penalty. The plaintiff will circulate a stipulation to extend the time he or she has to file the Note of Issue and, unless they’re a total asshole, we’ll sign it with no problem. The most the courts will do is threaten preclusion of testimony or other evidence if a deadline isn’t met. In federal court, though, it’s a lot different. Everyone knows that you have to get your shit done immediately. If not, you better get in touch with the judge ASAP and have a good excuse.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There are really three types of days. The first is an office day – a day in which I have no appearances. I usually have some medical records to review or report on, or some demands to respond to, and these types of tasks can keep me busy most of the day. There’s lots of phone calls with plaintiffs and co-defendants, and the day’s mail usually means a lot of work to do, too. The second type of day is when I have a court appearance, either for a motion or a conference. I go to Brooklyn, Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, and (mostly) Staten Island for court, and this takes up my day until lunchtime. After that, it’s back to the office to write a report on what I just did and then finish the day with what I had mentioned above. The third type of day is a deposition day, but those are wild cards. It could be a clueless witness who doesn’t remember a thing and the dep itself takes a couple or hours, or it can be a doctor with a chart two feet high, in which case the dep will take the entire day.
Back to your undergraduate degree, you graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Zoology and Mass Communications. That’s a strange sort of academic path. How did you pick those majors?
When I was 18 and a freshman at UF, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I always loved science and animals, so studying zoology for four years seemed like an easy decision. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that degree, but at that time I didn’t really care. The minor was simply to make my transcript look better.
You took a year off before attending law school. Why did you decide to do that? How do you think that helped you prepare for law school?
I had to wait a year in between graduating college and going to law school simply because I decided to take the LSAT last-minute. It wasn’t until the end of my senior year and a long conversation with my uncle (also an attorney) that I decided to go to law school. Since I took the June exam, I would have to wait a year to attend law school. I ended up teaching the LSAT and SAT for Kaplan during that year while living at home with my parents. It helped me prepare for law school only in the sense that I realized how much living at home sucked. Especially after four years at UF.
During law school OCIs, one of my close friends was asked, “If you could be any superhero or villian from comic books or video games, who would you be and why?” Knowing your interests in comics, video games, and creative writing, I thought this would be a great question for you to answer.
This is not an easy question. Asking which superpower I’d want is an easy question, but to actually be a specific hero or villain is a lot more difficult. Superman can do pretty much whatever he wants, but he’s also an alien who often feels out of place on Earth. Batman is great, but he also saw his parents murdered. Tony Stark battles alcoholism and his father is dead. Spider-Man has a shitty, underpaying job at the Daily Bugle and his boss is a dick. Wolverine has seen more bad shit than anyone can imagine. One of his girlfriends was raped. So I don’t know that I’d want to be any of those guys. So I really don’t know. I guess I could get past the whole being an alien thing in exchange for flight, invulnerabliltiy, laser vision, and super strength, so my answer is Superman. More specifically, the “bad” Superman from Superman III who didn’t shave and liked to get drunk.
If you had to do it all over again, would you go to law school?
Probably not. I absolutely love my job and can’t imagine being happier working anywhere else in the legal field, but I’d probably focus a lot more on writing and see what I could have done with that. I can’t say enough great things about the people of ARFD and I truly enjoy being a malpractice attorney, but it’s not a dream job.
Thank you, Matt! We enjoyed speaking to you!
Matt Podolnick works as an associate at Aaronson, Rappaport, Feinstein, + Deutsch, LLP where he handles medical malpractice defense. You can reach him at his firm.