We recently caught up with former Bitter Lawyer writer Michael Estrin to chat about his new book Murder and Other Distractions. Considered one of Bitter Lawyer’s founding—and most popular—writers, you should not miss Michael’s book or his posts.
Here’s what Michael had to tell us about murder, drinking, writing, Bitter Lawyer, and his new book.
You seem like a rational, grounded guy. You didn’t go to law school, did you? What’s your background?
I did go to law school. Total mistake. I got to rub elbows with a lot of future ADAs, doc reviewers, and ambulance chasers. But mostly, I cut class because I was really into day-drinking, which was frowned upon back then.
Did you graduate?
I think so. I never got my diploma from Brooklyn Law School, but I passed the California bar. I’m pretty sure someone would’ve raised a red flag if I hadn’t earned the degree.
You used to write for Bitter Lawyer. When was that?
I started at Bitter Lawyer pretty close to the beginning. Rick Eid and Mark Thudium had just produced Living The Dream, and they were building a website to anchor the video content.
What was it like?
Awesome and incredibly hard. The awesome part was that Rick encouraged us to try different kinds of content. We did lists, and man-on-the-street videos like the time Mark and I interviewed some really shell-shocked people coming out of the California Bar Exam.
I even wrote some fiction for the site, but that was a temp gig.
Why was it hard working for BL at the beginning?
We weren’t well-known. Actually, nobody outside of the legal blogosphere knew who the hell we were. At first, the legal blogs all thought we were idiots or jerks because irreverent humor can be a hard fit in such an earnest space.
It took some time to get going, but the early interviews helped a lot with credibility. Landing former lawyers like Robert Parker (founder of The Wine Advocate) and Joe Escalante (front man for The Vandals) was big. Suddenly, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog was linking to us, and then everyone else just kind of followed the leader. Those interviews helped us raise our profile enough to attract guys like Jay Bilas and Mike Leach. Both of those interviews got picked up by ESPN, which really raised our profile. Somehow I even landed an interview with Elizabeth Wurtzel at a time when Gawker and Above The Law were slamming her for working at Boies, Schiller, even though she had failed the bar twice. That was a fun interview, but a little depressing.
Why Bitter Lawyer?
They were hiring.
Mark placed an ad on Mediabistro looking for a journalist with a legal background who wanted to try his hand at writing humor and entertainment.
Did you have a writing background before BL?
Yes. I had been a reporter for about five years. I had optioned a screenplay that ended up going nowhere, and I had written a TV pilot on assignment. But that show never went.
Did writing for BL destroy your reputation and writing career?
You’ve written for California Lawyer and Super Lawyers, two legitimate legal publications. How did you hide the fact you had written for BL from those magazines?
Those are legitimate publications? Honestly, they knew about Bitter Lawyer because there’s this new thing called Google. Editors are the same the world over. They don’t care where you’ve been published, just that you have a good idea and that you can execute that idea on deadline.
Any good war stories from your time with either publication?
When I wrote for California Lawyer, my editor used to say that I owned the bizarro beat. Surprisingly, the only assignment that didn’t have a real war story was a feature on porn industry lawyers. Most of them are just 1st Amendment geeks, and it’s not like they’re on set telling their clients that a threesome is cool, but a gangbang may risk an obscenity prosecution.
So tell us some war stories, will you?
On assignment for California Lawyer, I ate eggs that had been made with marijuana butter. The story was actually about the rather hazy—pun intended—legal situation that’s come about in Los Angeles, where local law enforcement (and sometimes the feds) are cracking down on the hundreds of pot shops we have.
The edibles didn’t make it into the final version of the story, but eating pot eggs definitely gave me more credibility with my source. At the end of the day, I wanted to be able to talk about how poorly-drafted laws and very selective enforcement have lead to an incredibly hypocritical situation. If you read the story, I think you’ll see that I got a rather compelling scene to open with, which gave me more than the standard, medical pot advocates say, but law enforcement counters… kind of stuff.
How did the cannabis scramble taste?
Did you get high?
Let’s talk about legal journalism. How has it changed over the past 4-6 years?
It’s gone to shit. The money is in puff pieces and rehashing original reporting. But that’s true of all journalism, not just the legal stuff.
Honestly, you get what you pay for. Publishers were stupid to convince their readers that news is, or should be, free. But they did it, and now we’re all doomed because it’s hard to get people to pay for content when you’ve been telling them for a decade that it’s on the house.
How has the flood of unemployed, young attorneys impacted it?
The flood of unemployed, young lawyers has bored editors to death. In 2008, it was interesting to write about BigLaw layoffs and law school grads without jobs. But that gets old fast. For one thing, it’s depressing. But the longer those unemployed lawyers stay unemployed, the less relevant they are to anyone covering a legal beat. Eventually, those unemployed lawyers become Starbucks employees, unpaid bloggers, or in-house counsel to a friend’s shady Internet marketing company.
You wrote a book, “Murder and Other Distractions.” It sounds like a non-fiction autobiography about your time at BL. Is that correct?
No. I tried to sell a tell-all about Bitter Lawyer, but Rick’s lawyer bitch-slapped me. So I wrote a novel instead. Murder and Other Distractions is a dark comedy set at a website where getting clicks is the only thing that matters. The website is a little like Gawker or Above The Law, both of which are pretty awesome at getting you to click on a meaningless story that you’ll regret reading.
So what’s it about?
That’s kind of a stupid question. Why don’t you just read the synopsis?
Is that really how you want to end this interview?