“No other profession inspires so many intelligent, articulate, and dynamic people to work hard and succeed like law does. It’s just that it often inspires them to succeed in some other profession.” — Lawyer and Comedian Greg Collett
It’s hard to pin down Greg Collett, whose career as a lawyer has moved from Sidley & Austin to big-time banker to political campaigning. He’s currently a stand-up comic and one of the founders of Comedians-at-Law, a group of six lawyers turned comedians who are set to launch the national comedy tour Lawmageddon 2012. Lawmageddon begins tonight in Washington D.C., and continues on to five other cities, including Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York. On day one of the Lawmageddon tour, we sat down to talk shop with Collett.
Law school and year of graduation?
George Washington, Class of 1997. But I mostly attended a satellite campus called the Toledo Lounge in Adams Morgan.
Did you do the whole law review thing or were you one of those closet legal clinic dudes?
I wasn’t on law review. I think I might have done a legal clinic, but I can’t really remember because I was having such a good time with my friends. Just like you’d expect in law school.
Any comedy work back in law school?
I agree 100% with something I’ve heard Jerry Seinfeld say. When asked if he was always funny, he said that, when he was younger, he and his friends were all funny. He just kept it up.
How did you end up at Sidley & Austin?
The back door. After law school, I went to work for a government agency called the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and learned about the laws governing the commodity futures markets. When you know obscure stuff like that—stuff that’s really useful to a small handful of banks and hedge funds—a big firm will take you even if you weren’t Order of the Coif.
After Sidley, where’d you end up? Straight to comedy or something in between?
I’ve done a lot since Sidley. I was an in-house lawyer for a major multinational bank. And then I worked as a banker for the bank. And then I left to manage a campaign for Congress. And then I said to myself, “I’ve worked in law, banking and politics. I think I’d like to finally work in a profession that people don’t hate.” So I started doing stand-up.
It’s is a group of current and former practicing lawyers who are also professional stand-up comedians (Yes, some of us have fully escaped!) On our own, we all do stand-up on all sorts of topics. But, as Comedians-at-Law, we perform for lawyers, law students, and bar associations, and we talk about law, politics, current events and the world of work. I think we’re what you’d get if the staff of The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher show all went to law school.
Who came up with Lawmageddon Tour idea?
Comedians-at-Law is really a group effort. We all work hard and contribute equally. With that said, Lawmageddon was my idea.
Are you doing a set in all six cities?
I’ll be doing the show in all of the good cities, but I’m skipping the ones that suck.
So, basically nothing west of Columbus Avenue?
Funny! You’re hired.
So, let’s say all of you Comedians at Law are hanging out backstage. How do you fit in with the group? Are you the rebel? The suit? Something else?
I’m definitely The Suit. Mostly because I wear a suit.
So what do you call yourself now? A former lawyer? A stand-up comic? Something else?
The great irony of all this career-switching is that, after going from lawyer to banker to political operative to stand-up comedian, I recently started my own law firm. I don’t want to work in a profession that people hate, but I REALLY don’t want my family to live under the Brooklyn Bridge. So now I’m both a lawyer and a comedian.
What’s your practice focus?
I mostly represent defrauded investors. There’s absolutely nothing funny about that.
Advice for law students or lawyers who want to break out and do something else?
Absolutely. Here’s the key: When you’re doing a lot of one thing (like practicing law), it’s hard to think of other things you might like to do. So if something looks remotely interesting to you, just do it. I hate to use a Nike-sponsored cliche, but it’s true. The best way to find new things you might like to do is just to try those things.
In my experience, lawyers are awful at trying new things because their schooling and training have made them too risk-averse.
First, they were the good students in school, so they’ve mostly succeeded by being told what to do. When they grow up, they continue to be really good at being told what to do, which is a horrible trait if you’re trying to find things that you’d really like to do. In short, stop being a wuss!
Second, lawyers are risk-averse because they spend so much time buried in minutia and occasionally getting burned because they’ve failed to perfectly comply with all the minutia. Again, that’s a horrible way to be if you’re trying to break into something new because, when you try something new, you’re not going to be very good at it. So, you need to be tolerant to making all sorts of mistakes and not doing things perfectly. To summarize, stop being such a wuss!
Just curious, what happened in the political campaign you managed?
My candidate got killed. Here’s a tip: If you’ve never managed a campaign for Congress, and a candidate asks you, of all people, to take over his ailing campaign, he’s not going to win. The race was in a district that covers Brooklyn and Staten Island, and it was a Democratic primary. There’s nothing democratic (small d) about New York politics. Elected officials are essentially appointed. So, the campaign was like being handed the controls of the Sully Sullenberger jet that went down in the Hudson . . . after the plane had hit the geese.