job satisfaction

Some of the legal stuff I do at Mozilla1 is fairly dull, painstaking contract work. What makes it worthwhile (besides the paycheck) is seeing that something good came out of it. So it was nice to see this blog post – I only played a small part in getting the new data center up and running (at most a couple workdays rather than months of my life), but it still gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside to know I helped out.

  1. really, much of the legal work most lawyers do []

software for massive document collaboration?

As part of my new role at work I’m going to be working on writing and editing some legal documents that I’d like to get both public and private feedback on.1

real text is edited in black and green (picture: Zenith Z-19 Terminal, by ajmexico, used under CC-BY)

I’m trying to wrap my head around the available options, and none of them seem quite ideal. Some thoughts, first, on my requirements:

  • ease of use: I’m going to be collaborating with (among other people) lawyers, managers, etc.- i.e., non-technical people. So the solution should be easy to use, or at least have one face that is easy to use.
  • large-scale collaboration: this has to scale to input from lots of people (at least for commenting- editing will be a smaller group.)
  • maintaining the canonical version: somewhere other than my laptop should hold the canonical version of the text, including revision history.
  • commenting: it should be possible to open up a version of the document to the public, and to have them be able to comment on specific sections of the text- ‘I don’t like this paragraph’, ‘I suggest replacing A with B’, etc.
  • editing: I don’t need a massive multi-user text editor; we want feedback from many people but only a few people will be empowered to actually do edits. Ideally, though, I’d love to be able to review public comments, delete (or respond to) the bad ones, and integrate the good ones, all within the same tool. It should also be possible to do private revisions.
  • diffs/versioning: I need to be able to show the differences between two versions of a document; ideally with commentary on the reasons for the change, and with output that looks less like diff and more like an editor’s redline.

So what options do I have? These are the tools I’ve thought about so far:

  • a markup language + revision control: this would give me a lot of what I want, but it totally fails the ease of use test, and it isn’t clear that it handles the commenting role terribly well. Potentially great for canonical versions and diffs, though, especially if word-level diffs are an option and if I could figure out a way to produce good-looking diffs. With a distributed RCS this approach has the bonus of allowing for some work to exist in a non-canonical branch when changes are still being discussed/debated.
  • traditional word processors: traditional word processors can be great at diffs/versioning, and obviously they exist to edit, but they aren’t very good at scalable commenting and collaboration- things break down very quickly when you’re emailing around files, and expecting someone to merge them all together. odf-svn seems like it deals with some of these problems, at least conceptually, but development seems very stalled. I will also look at abicollab, but many of my collaborators will be on Mac- which AFAICT is not supported for newish versions of Abi. :/
  • stet/co-ment.net: Stet was great at handling mass commenting; its successor, co-ment.net, seems to be similarly good. But they don’t really allow you to do diffs between versions, so at best it could be only part of the solution.
  • wiki: no wiki that I know of can handle commenting like co-ment.net can. This is a shame, since they are great for showing revisions and (small-scale) collaborative editing. Also, doing ‘branches’ to propose changes that may get rejected is not possible in any wiki I’m aware of. Would love to be proven wrong on this one.
  • etherpad: etherpad is even slicker than wikis for showing revisions, and obviously superior for collaborative editing, but no facility for commenting on texts. Also lots of uncertainty about the maintainability/supportability of the code base.
  • bespin: this is so code-focused that it may not pass the ‘user friendly’ test, but hg integration is nice, and it may be sufficient for collaboration on plain text.
  • wave: this is almost exactly the kind of problem wave seems designed for, but it is such a constantly evolving product (not to mention a ‘run on someone else’s server’ problem) that I’m a little reluctant to use it. And of course since it is in semi-private beta it can’t do public commenting.

So far, I’m leaning towards gathering comments via a co-ment.net instance, using hg + markup (or even plain text?) to store the canonical version and generate revisions, and using etherpad, bespin, or a wiki for collaborative editing when necessary. But that still feels like a pretty fragile solution to me- lots of file transitions where things could go wrong, especially between hg and etherpad/wiki. I’d need to find a markup which can transparently/reliably go in and out of the editing tool from hg (or just admit defeat and use plain text), and the diffs from hg would almost certainly need some processing to make them look good.

So does anyone have suggestions on other tools, or specific suggestions on how to make this toolchain more robust and/or powerful?

  1. Sorry, no details quite yet on what the project is, and no prizes for guessing… []

useful notes on resumes and free software

Gerv Markham (of Gerv-fame) has posted some useful notes on putting Free Software experience on your resume. It is probably  most useful for people who have gotten at least somewhat involved in free software communities, but are not yet at the point of expertise where they are looking for jobs directly in those communities- in other words, you have to use the resume to communicate that you’ve done something useful to resume readers who aren’t completely familiar with how free software communities do things. If you’re in that situation, this is highly recommended reading.

five months unasked for ‘free time’- suggestions?

It looks like the job I thought I was starting in September 2009 is actually not going to start until January 2010, or maybe March.

[Edit later: actually very late March; so basically nine months from end of bar exam to start of job. Additionally, I am definitely not assuming that the job will actually be there in nine months, so more long-term suggestions/offers/etc. are also welcome.]

I’m definitely not whining here, or asking for sympathy. I’m very conscious that I’m waaaay better off than a lot of folks- I sincerely wish good luck in finding what comes next to all those who really get laid off today and tomorrow. The economy really is bad, so I understand why the firm did it, and lots of people have it much worse off than me, so I’m grateful for where I am.

Because of the stipend, Krissa’s job, and because I’ve got some money put away, I’ve got some flexibility, and this might be the last time in a long time I’ve got five or more months that I can use outside the traditional regimen of a job. So I’m looking for advice from friends on what to do. There are some obvious options, but I’d like to make sure we investigate everything we can.

Some current options I have on the table, from most conservative to least:

  • most conservative: We stay in NYC (though moving to a smaller place), Krissa stays in her job as long as makes sense, I work at some pro bono task- presumably SFLC but other worthy causes are welcome to make themselves known :)
  • I work a full year at some sort of pro bono firm on a stipend from my firm, if that is an option- not clear yet.1
  • we move someplace cheap where we live on our savings, but isn’t pure vacation because we have some purpose that will be useful later in life- for example Costa Rica (Krissa learns Spanish, I polish mine) or maybe some place where she can learn more about small-scale farming (WWOOF?) or I can learn more about technology use in education or the developing world?
  • least conservative: we say ‘screw it’, pack our beloved Eagle Creek backpacks, find cheap around the world tickets, and hit the road for five months.

So I’m wondering if my (creative, insane, what have you) friends have any better ideas with what I can do with my time. Got an idea? email me, put it in the comments, whatever.

  1. This is less conservative because of a common presumption that despite making this an option, the firm will look on this as a sign of lack of gumption/interest/etc. Partners who wish to reassure me that this is not the case know where to find me. :) []

what I have been up to

Lots of people I saw in Boston were asking ‘what have you been up to’ instead of the usual ‘sounds like things are good from your blog’ :) I guess I’ve been a little quiet here about me, personally. So some updates:

  • School is generally good; the first two years ended up being very successful (low honors first year; high honors last year.) This year I planned to throttle back to have more time for outside projects, so I am taking fewer credits than ever. Unfortunately, I seem to have chosen those credits poorly so I am doing more work than ever. Hence, not much time for outside projects :/
  • Will spend the summer studying for the bar; location TBD (since Columbia throws me out of housing a few days after graduation.) Yes, the bar is hard. Not that hard- Columbia alums pass the California bar at a 90+% rate. But obviously no one wants to be in that 6-8% so of course everyone studies like crazy. That will be me.
  • Have accepted a job at Orrick Herrington Sutcliffe starting early fall ’09 in their Silicon Valley office. I look forward to it- excellent firm, excellent people, probably will not implode in the next year. :) Current plan is to work about 50-50 on startups and technology licensing, but obviously the economy may dictate a different balance. Silver lining of the economy may be more time for pro bono projects, of which I obviously have a long list I’d like to work on.
  • Am not getting married at GUADEC. ;) Probably a low-key family-only affair followed by big, fun parties in Miami and Boston (or New York?)
  • Krissa and I are trying to enjoy NY as much as possible before leaving, which includes lots of live performances (Jazz at Lincoln Center, ‘In The Heights’, Deblois, Nutcracker), lots of eating (Caracas Arepas, dinner at a not-so-expensive place with Steve Martin and a guy who looked a lot like Paul Simon at the next table), and lots of family visits and East Coast travel (I’m in week two of a six week stretch with family or travel every weekend- all four-plus parents, Summit, and a lecture at Duke.)
  • Krissa is good- loving her job still; enjoying NY; looking forward to going home to California. Currently in Turkey biking with her mom, else she’d have been in Boston and in Durham next weekend.

So yeah, life is good. Crazy, but good. Not sure I’d have it any other way.

Apologies to everyone who I said I’d see this morning at Summit; unfortunately I had to change my train to a pretty early train and overslept, so pretty much ran from hotel to train. Next year…

observation on my office and the dominance of Word

blogger discussing how his lawyer used the Open Document Format instead of .doc:

The type of documents they produce in that [law] office, as in many other offices if not most I’m sure, is just pure text with a little formatting. They really have no reason to keep buying licenses for MS Office for this.

Now, disclaimer: this guy’s law firm is different than my firm. He says it is basically three lawyers plus some assistants; the firm I’m at this summer is around 1,000 lawyers with significant offices in the US, Europe, and Asia.1

So there is a bit of apples and oranges here, but… for better or for worse, what we do isn’t just ‘pure text with a little formatting’. That means we’re pretty deeply tied to Word. First, the tools around what we do are pretty sophisticated. The modern law firm has a suite of tools for document management. Among other things, these tools save all files to a central server automatically, provide revision control, automatically scrub documents to remove comments (albeit not always well), etc. These tools are not standalone- they integrate into Office.2 Second, it isn’t just ‘a little formatting’. Courts can be very picky- they’re perfectly happy to reject your documents if the margin or spacing is wrong. So, again, the tools are very important. Finally, time is quite literally money for lawyers- every moment usually counts. I don’t want to waste time thinking about formatting, and the client doesn’t want to pay me to waste that time either.

This isn’t to say you couldn’t replace Word. Obviously, some firms have done it, and many more will do so- not just for ODF, but also for markup languages or hosted software where no one ever sees a “file” in the old fashioned sense. But the switch isn’t nearly as easy as it might seem at first glance- lawyers often do fairly complicated things with text and are loathe to switch tools, often with good reason. So don’t expect that an overnight change is in the offing any more than you might expect all the vi users to switch to emacs tomorrow :)

  1. Larger firms are a global trend- people tend to like them because you can get many services and specialties under one roof. []
  2. If anyone knows of a way to tie OpenOffice/ODF to an RCS automagically, I’m all ears. []

if the mountain will not come…

[Today was the last day of classes- so after this I crawl into my exam hole for two weeks.]

The more mobile startups get, the harder it would be to start new silicon valleys. If startups are mobile, the best local talent will go to the real Silicon Valley…

–Paul Graham

I love New York, but after much thought, I’ve decided that I’m going to Silicon Valley this summer, to work at the law firm of Orrick Herrington. (wikipedia) (Assuming I pass their conflicts requirements, of course.) I’m really excited- Orrick has great people and a strong startup and licensing practice. It should be a great place for me to start my career.

This was simultaneously a very hard and a very easy decision- very easy, in that there was no ‘wrong’ answer, but also very hard, in that there were a lot of great options with various, competing strengths. I spent a lot of time wrestling not just with them, but with myself as well, trying to understand not just what they offered but what I wanted and needed. Orrick came out on top, but I literally went down to the wire, and I think very highly of the other firms that I filtered out along the way, especially the last handful.

I wasn’t the only one involved in this decision. I’d like to thank the various lawyers in my life- I got a lot of great advice. Much of it was conflicting, but that was the nature of the beast :) And yes, Krissa is excited about the possibility of going West again, though she’ll be in New York for the summer.

[And yes, before anyone mentions it to me for the third time in the past 24 hours, I’ve seen the bubble 2.0 video. I even got shown it in a class today! The video is exactly correct- we’re absolutely in a bubble… and yet, per Graham, I think I need to make the pilgrimage anyway. Who knows… the explosion might be fun.]

[Oh, and if any Orrick people stumble across this, make sure to check out my blog Q&A.]

my blog: the Q&A for law firms and other interested parties

the executive summary:

Nutshell: if you’re a law firm considering hiring me, and you stumble across this blog, please don’t get nervous. Instead, talk to me, and/or read the rest of this post. I’m eager to explain why I blog, and why I think it may make me a better lawyer and a good addition to your firm.

[Image by Hugh Macleod of Gaping Void fame; used with permission under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 1.0 license. For more on why Hugh licenses his images this way, see here.]

the full story:

Continue reading “my blog: the Q&A for law firms and other interested parties”

thoughts on a summer at Red Hat

I realized a few nights ago that posting about interviews for my next job, without mentioning this past summer, might have given the wrong impression about Red Hat- that I didn’t enjoy it, so I was interviewing elsewhere, or something along those lines. So here goes a quick clarification.

I really, really enjoyed working at Red Hat- I got to work with great people on great projects that were interesting and that took good advantage of my skills and background, and you can’t ask much more than that.

And it wasn’t just that it was good for me- after a summer there, I think very highly of the company. It isn’t perfect- no company is- but it genuinely seems to try hard to walk the walk, and I like that. I would recommend it to friends- which is about the highest praise you can give a company. So I made the right call deciding to go to Red Hat, I think it is a good place to work overall, and I’d certainly consider going back at some point.

But right now there seems to be a strong consensus among all the lawyers I’ve spoken to (including the ones at Red Hat) that I should go work at a firm, so that I can learn more about what it means to be a lawyer- the skills, the lingo, the shared experience, so on. And I’m pretty intrigued by the greater variety of cases and broader resources that you can draw upon in a big firm- I can definitely see myself enjoying that aspect of firm life.

So, while I may well end up in-house at a small tech company again at some point, I do think a traditional firm is the right place for me to be right now and for the foreseeable future. I hope everyone (including my friends at Red Hat) will wish me luck finding the right one. :)

the madness of the law firm hiring process

The more involved I get with the law firm/law school hiring process, the more boggled I am by the inefficiencies of the process. Some great/horrifying numbers:

of students offered summer jobs by “big” firms (> 250 lawyers):

  • just 28% accept
  • 40% of whom are gone by their 3rd year, and
  • 62% of whom are gone by their 4th.

From an Adam Smith, Esq. post.

I know I’m spoiled because I tend to think of hiring as something that is done only after building up an extensive, volunteer-based relationship, which is obviously difficult to do in law. Still, the situation described in the Adam Smith post, and in this American Lawyer article, is pretty brutal- lots of time spent for very poor results. (Anyone who is curious about the process I’m personally about to go through starting next week should skim the American Lawyer article- it mentions Columbia’s process a fair bit.)

The article suggests that some firms avoid a more rigorous interview process because they think it would scare off potential hires, but frankly, if I knew a firm had a more rigorous interview process, I’d be much more likely to interview with them. I’ve had lousy co-workers before, and any firm that is working to weed those folks out before they set foot inside would be immensely appealing to me.