On a recent Saturday, I met Jeff Lee at his law office at 1303 Madison Avenue. He showed me around and talked about his approach to his work.
Here are the interview notes from that meeting:
Jeff: I’ve got some promotional items for you: a bullet keychain, a pen, a postcard. When I got a big box of these key chains, I was trying to twist them, and I said, “These are all broken!” I didn’t know you pulled them. And Lindsey, my girlfriend, was like, “Let me see one,” and I said, “Don’t worry about it because it’s broken.” [laughs] So Lindsey’s the one who figured out how the key chains worked.
She also designed this for me. It’s a postcard that shows the floor plan for 201 Poplar. [201 Poplar is the Memphis jail downtown.]
Betsy: This is handy.
It’s funny. People will pay $100,000 for a bond, but then they lose it because they can’t find the right courtroom. It’s ridiculous. There are no maps at 201. If you go to their website: again, no maps. It is so user non-friendly. There’s nothing to guide people around.
I spend probably 15 minutes a day in court saying, “I’m headed that way. Walk behind me.” People need a map! So now I’ll mail them out to the families of people who got locked up.
I troll through Just Busted for people with really serious charges. I find out their address online, and I send them my postcard with the map. It’s really for the family members, and then hopefully they’ll say, “This map was really useful. I like this guy. He’s looking out for us.”
And then I have pens. Do you want a blue one or a gunmetal one?
Did you see this ridiculous ring I bought? [He flashes a gold and diamond horseshoe ring.]
I was going to ask you about that.
I told Lindsey, “I’ve got the funniest nineteen dollar ring I bought from Amazon,” and she was like, “Don’t wear that for your picture.” But I intend to use this to impress clients.
Like you’re a big-time Philadelphia lawyer?
Yeah, Lucky Lee.
And this is my American flag pin because who can argue with that? [laughs] Who can argue with America?
Right! No one can!
I put that pin on right before trial.
[I take a few pictures.]
Your office is great. I like the exposed brick.
I really like my office, but I had a client come in one day, and I’m thinking, “Oh, he’s really eating up the atmosphere.” And the guy says, “Jeff, you did a great job on my case, and don’t worry, one of these days, you’re going to have a beautiful office.” [laughs]
This kid came in once. He was a really nice 13-year-old boy who was out of school and trying to find some pick-up work, and he said something like, “Is the person in charge here right now?”
And I said, “I’m the only one here.”
I should have told him I was the one in charge, but I didn’t want to be like, “I’m in charge! I’m Jeff Lee, and when you walk in this door, I’m the one who’s in charge.”
So you let the kid leave?
Some large law firms in Memphis have a gazillion people working for them. On your website, you market yourself as a one-man shop who’ll give your client personalized attention.
Yeah, if you go with one of these lawyers on the TV commercials, you may never talk to them. People are always surprised when they come in, and it’s me sitting right here. I don’t hide behind a secretary. They provide a good service, but a lot of attorneys use them because someone is mad at them, and the secretary is the gatekeeper. But people can come in, and I’m right here. And I give them my cell phone, and of course they call day and night, but yeah, I market my accessibility.
I kind of like to think of myself as the light cavalry. Someone says, “I need someone tomorrow morning. I should have hired somebody six months ago.” I say, “Fax it all to me. I’ll read it tonight, and I’ll be prepared in the morning.” That’s one thing the big firms can’t or won’t do.
Have you ever had a client get mad at you about a verdict?
I’ve never had anyone get mad at me. They may be mad at the situation, but they don’t ever bear a grudge against me. I have had people say, “Oh, I should have gotten Leslie Ballin.” [laughs] People complain, but I never take it to heart because I never think it’s a valid complaint. If they said something like, “You didn’t know the facts enough to present that,” then I would feel awful. But if they’re just saying, “You stink!” then I’m like, “OK.”
They might say, “I knew I should have gotten a high-priced lawyer,” and so I’ll say, “Well, you can pay me more.” [laughs] They never offer.
You actually have a good record for winning cases or arguing them down.
Yeah, I do.
What’s a typical day for you?
I usually go over to criminal at 9 a.m.
Where is criminal?
At 201 Poplar. And then, opposite there, at 140 Adams, is civil, and I’ll run over there and do a couple things. Usually by 12 or 1, I’m done with court.
What are you doing when you’re there? Are you filing paperwork?
No, you appear in a court setting and give the judge a status report on where you are. You know, bail hearing, bond or doing a guilty plea. I mean, it’s not like a jury trial. There are a lot of little hearings. I’ll come back to my office at 12 and eat lunch, and then I have a lot of appointments in the afternoon. Or if I don’t have many clients that day, I have plenty of writing to do on appeals.
How late does the work go?
I probably work until 9 o’clock at night. Every night, I remind my clients to come to court the next day or else I’ll be standing there without them. You don’t want to treat people like children, but everybody needs a little reminder.
Texting makes it easier, I’m sure.
I do a lot of that. Like, “I’ll see you tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Division 12, and I don’t really want to talk about it. [laughs] Don’t forget to bring the money.” [laughs]
And then at night, I really will troll Just Busted. I’ve got like 5,000 of these postcards.
Look at the awesome cover of this book. [He shows me a book called Drama Games, which is a guide to using psychodrama in the courtroom. The cover of the book has a decidedly 1980s look and feel, from the font to the color palette.]
That’s great. Did you read it?
Uh…yeah! They’ll have an exercise, “I am a feeling,” so then you’ll get up and present that feeling.
How many times have you used psychodrama in court?
I’ve done it at least ten times. I’ve acted from the perspective of bags of money, guns. I’ve done a hotel room.
How do you act like a hotel room?
It’s kind of hard to physically.
So you’re standing there, as a hotel room, describing a scene…
I’ll stand very still, and I’ll say, “I am room 228.” [laughs] If you look inside of me, you’ll see a bed, you’ll see…” And it’s just more like a story device. And then you’ll step away and say, “There were no human witnesses to this event, but the stories that room could tell…”
I used to think of being theatrical as having a negative connotation, you know? Like, “That’s a very theatrical lawyer,” and then I realized those are the guys who are interesting; they’re winning cases. So now I’ve learned that if you’re talking about the sale of goods, if you’re talking about medical malpractice, if you’re talking about breach of contract, if you’re talking about something unpleasant, you can at least be interesting. That’s where psychodrama comes in.
Just curious: Do you know your Myers-Briggs profile?
Yeah, I’m an INFP.
Really? I’m an INFP with some E tendencies.
I read this thing that said, “The perfect trial lawyer is an ESTP.” I thought, “Great.” When people say to me, “Oh, you’re not anything what I expected,” I take that as a compliment. It’s not always intended to be one. People want a certain thing, and if they want someone to be really aggressive, then I’m not a good match. But people aren’t always looking for that, and they’re pleasantly surprised.
I just finished reading the book Quiet, which is about introverts, and it talks about people who are out in the world doing things that require them to be very social, and then you hear that they’re an introvert, and you think, “How could this be?” and apparently what’s key for these people is that they’re acting like an extrovert in the service of something they believe in. They’re able to perform for the role that’s so important to them.
That’s a good point. For example, in high school, I didn’t want to be in theater. I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention. But when you get in front of the jury and it’s somebody else’s life, you’re like, “OK, get over yourself. You can’t sit back and hold it against the audience if they want to be entertained.” If they want to be entertained, then I’ll be entertaining—for my client. But I don’t go home at night and think, “I want to do stand-up comedy” because I don’t have that desire to be up in front.
There are so many lawyers who are extroverts, and they’re ready to shoot from the hip. I’m not like that. By the time I’ve done this, I’ve felt stupid about it, I’ve practiced it, I’ve talked to people to death about, “Am I really going to do this?” And then I go out there, and I know if I do it and it’s going to work at all, I’ve got to commit 100 percent. I mean, it’s a calculated move if I’m going to do something so far outside the comfort zone.
Back when I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I thought that I would be transactional: draft contracts, wills, trusts… And I remember when I was a first-year law student, and I worked at this firm in East Memphis. It was really funny because there were two groups in that office, and the lower floors were the transactional lawyers, and the higher floors were all the litigators. And there was such a different power scheme. I mean, all the people on the lower floors were only interested in having a mayonnaise sandwich. We were ready to go to lunch and, otherwise, just drafting, and you would never see us come out except to use the bathroom.
And then the litigators were throwing their jackets on the shoulders and saying, “I’m going downtown!” [laughs] And they were basically in charge of the firm, and everyone was in awe of them.
And there was a moment when I thought to myself, “Thank God I’m not going downtown.” [laughs] I didn’t care if it made me a second-class citizen in that office, so long as I didn’t have to go downtown.
But now I’m getting comfortable with this trial work, and I enjoy it.