I’ve been a lawyer for nearly 22 years. But I’ve had fun being a lawyer for only a little over four years. That’s how long I’ve been a lawyer in Las Vegas.
Don’t get me wrong. I take my job seriously. And I am good at it. Or so my clients, and even, on rare occasions, my boss tell me. But until recently, law had pretty much been just a way to pay the bills while pursuing my fiction writing dream. That has changed. Now I find myself in a profession that also offers high entertainment value. Things are different here in Nevada.
Take the bar exam, for example. Regardless of previous experience, every lawyer who wants to be licensed to practice law here must take the Nevada bar exam, a two-and-a-half-day examination that tests legal knowledge and skills. Roughly 65 percent of takers fail the test, a result that, as you might expect, vastly decreases the chances of finding a job. You might expect that such a serious and important examination would be conducted in a suitably somber and quiet atmosphere, right?
Wrong. This is Vegas, baby. I took the Nevada bar exam in a casino.
On three blistering hot July days, I walked onto the smoke-filled gaming floor of the Tuscany. I traversed a maze of table games, slots and video poker consoles, heading for a staircase in the corner. I climbed the stairs to the cavernous chamber above, showed my hideously unflattering identification photo, and sat down to answer arcane questions about the separation of powers, covenants that run with the land, community property and attorney ethics.
In all fairness, I could barely hear the constant ping of the slots. My asthma inhaler saved me from annoying my fellow test takers with gasps for air in the smoky atmosphere. Plus, my chagrin at losing my lunch money at video poker during an ill-spent break took my mind off the seriousness of the exam.
A few months later, having received word that I had passed, I found myself being sworn in by a kindly judge who took the opportunity to assure me that I needn’t worry about Harry Reid being a Democrat, because he wasn’t one of the “radical kind.” I haven’t had any cases in front of that judge, and I am glad. He certainly hadn’t judged me very well, if he thought I wouldn’t prefer a radical Democrat!
Soon, I began my new career as a Las Vegas litigation attorney. I quickly learned that procedural rules here are rather often treated like the Pirate’s Code – more like guidelines than actual rules. Take deadlines, for example. Sometimes they are enforced; other times they are extended indefinitely. That can be frustrating – until you find yourself on the wrong side of a rule. That’s when the advantages of flexibility really become apparent.
The elasticity of those rules is actually nothing more than a reflection of the small size of the legal community here. Until quite recently, the pool of lawyers in Las Vegas was rather small, perhaps because until the Boyd School of Law opened, all lawyers were imports. Since there were few lawyers, their names, faces and personalities quickly became familiar. When you know that you’re going to meet up with the same lawyers again and again, it makes sense to maintain civility and professional courtesy. Cutthroat law may flourish in larger legal markets, but here in Vegas, cutting the other lawyer some slack now and again – when doing so won’t compromise a client’s interests, of course – will yield dividends that benefit clients in the long run. Frankly, law is friendlier here.
The downside of that small legal community is that for a long time there wasn’t enough competition to weed out incompetence, allowing a few attorneys to thrive despite, shall we say, less aptitude than might be desired. Every new year, I resolve to suffer fools more gladly. Nevada has granted me more opportunities to test that resolve than ever before. The most recent example involved an allegation that my client had violated a local code provision. Upon investigation, I discovered that the code provision cited in the complaint didn’t, in fact, exist.
A few local judges have also provided some amusement or, at least, bemusement. Nevada chooses its judges by popular vote, a system that can lead any judiciary into very troubled waters. Remarkably, Nevada actually has plenty of bright, hardworking, thoughtful judges. In fact, the district court judges here in Clark County work harder than just about any judges in the country, since their caseloads are huge – over 2,700 each. But all those diligent, hardworking, but otherwise rather ordinary judges aren’t the ones who show up in news stories. Instead, we are treated to stories about the one judge who made her bailiff rub her feet, and another judge who insisted his court staff buy him a train for Christmas. Who can deny a guilty fascination with these stories?
Another advantage to practicing law in Las Vegas is that my clients tend to be interesting sorts. Not that I can claim to have worked for the mob like, say, the mayor, Oscar Goodman. Instead, I work in commercial litigation, which is a nice way of saying that my clients are wealthy people who aren’t getting along with other wealthy people. Since this generally means contract disputes, it really ought to be tediously boring. But it’s not.
Maybe I am warped, but I actually enjoy representing a country club that has a joining fee higher than my salary, especially when the guy on the other side ended up in federal prison for fraud. And I rather relish the irony that an hour of my lawyerly services costs my client less than it charges for bottle service at its fancy nightclub. And hey, who would have thought this geeky, overweight egghead could ever boast of having worked for one of the most sophisticated strip clubs in Vegas? (And to think, I had never even heard the term “titty bar” before I moved here.) My current ambition is to represent a brothel. I can only imagine the jaws dropping when I announce that I work for a house of prostitution. I hope I am wearing my most severe suit at the time.
All fun aside, law in the land of neon has its ups and downs. And if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d give it up without a thought to pursue that writing career because, frankly, I do put my clients ahead of my writing, which has slowed that fiction dream down. But if I must practice law, I can honestly say there is nowhere else I’d rather do it than here.