Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Edits the Legal Briefs in Big Law

Jesse Katz made a living as a journalist for 24 years, fifteen of which were spent at the Los Angeles Times as part of a team that pulled in two Pulitzer Prizes for spot news reporting. The other nine were spent at Los Angeles magazine, where he wrote features on everything from animal shelters to the homeless and, on the side, a self-reflective book, titled The Opposite Field, about fatherhood and baseball.

O'Melveny editor Jesse Katz and his son Max.

O’Melveny editor Jesse Katz and his son Max.

Today, in a challenging media landscape and as non-lawyer staff at major law firms expand, Katz has found himself occupying a notably different job: He’s an editor in the Los Angeles office of the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where he works with lawyers to improve their writing in all aspects, from helping the firm’s chair craft an internal announcement of partner promotions, to suggesting changes to yet-to-be-filed legal briefs.

“I have to admit, I was a little intimidated stepping in here,” said Katz, 53 years old, who first landed the role in 2010 after being laid off from Los Angeles magazine as fissures surfaced in the print journalism business. “I come from the scruffier corners of journalism. I did a lot of street reporting on the lives of marginalized people. To enter O’Melveny, I literally had to go out and buy a new wardrobe to be part of this environment.”

More than a change in dress code for Katz, his move has brought a shift in how some O’Melveny’s lawyers work. Though lawyers aren’t required to use Katz’s editorial services, some have chosen to lean on him to make a written argument more persuasive, concise and easy to understand, before filing a brief in court.

His role was first described at the Big Law Business Summit in Los Angeles last month, when Brad Butwin, the chair of O’Melveny, used Katz’s hire as a selling point to talk about how the firm has reduced legal costs and improved efficiency in what is an otherwise cumbersome writing and editing process, bogged down by associates.

 

 

“If I’m a client, you don’t really like seeing the bills that say, from a first year associate, ‘draft brief, draft brief, draft brief,’ then a mid-level, ‘edit brief, edit brief, edit brief,’ then a senior partner maybe says ‘re-write,'” said Butwin.

“During the financial crisis there were some pretty good Pulitzer Prize winning journalists available,” he continued. “They don’t know a lot about stare decisis, but they know a lot about declarative sentences, and muscular prose, and transitions. And we hired one as a pilot program, and he edits the briefs. Costs a fraction of what associates do.”

The firm declined to provide Katz’s salary and how it compares to that of an associate, or a detailed financial analysis of overall cost savings. For reference, first-year associates at O’Melveny earn a $180,000 salary, like at many other prominent U.S. law firms, while senior associates, after eight years of work, pull in $315,000 pre-bonus, according to the legal blog Above the Law.

 

Joining O’Melveny

When Katz first joined O’Melveny in 2010, he was one of 700 applicants for the editor position. At the time, he recalled that he “needed a lifeline” as an unemployed journalist, but O’Melveny’s reputation in the Los Angeles community also made the job a draw. He cited Warren Christopher as an O’Melveny alum who chaired an investigative commission into police brutality in the wake of the Rodney King beatings.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (L) speaks before the Pacific Council on International Policy on December 15, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (L) speaks before the Pacific Council on International Policy on December 15, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It also helped that the job was open-ended, he said. “There was not a definitive idea or pre-conception of what an editor would do. Whoever was going to fill that position, the firm felt, they were going to leave it to that person to help define the role and perhaps show to the firm how an editor can add value. The fact that it wasn’t completely spelled out for me when I started was part of what made it enormously attractive.”

Soon after joining the firm, Katz knew that he would need to earn the trust of partners and associates, who he met with in individual and group meetings. To raise his profile in the firm, he also created a monthly newsletter called The Editor’s Toolbox, which he would send to staff and attorneys to share insights he had gleaned over the years as a journalist and “riff” about “mystifying conventions” that he found in legal writing.

He recalled backlash over one memo, in which he wrote about how lawyers “incorrectly put two spaces after a period, where the rest of the publishing world knows that the only proper punctuation is one space after the period.”

That assertion, he said, “set off all sorts of controversy and turmoil.” Without naming names, some partners, he said, minced no words in telling him that they questioned whether he would have enough legal knowledge to add constructive edits to their work.

“I wasn’t trying to change the system and I understand that in the legal world, you expect two spaces after the period… but those discussions and raising writing to people’s consciousness is what helped break the ice,” he said.

Eventually, Katz said that he shut down the monthly newsletter project because he quickly became inundated with work as a result of his marketing push, however controversial it may have been. “It kind of became a victim of its own success,” said Katz. “I would get an avalanche of feedback. People would dispute my perspective and it would be an ongoing dialogue. It would introduce me to new corners of the firm and I would get so much work coming my way that it became phased out.”

Getting Established

Soon, Katz developed a rapport with some lawyers who put him through an audition period, in which they tested him out. Through this process, Katz found himself having his hand in a range of confidential client matters as well as pro bono cases. Asked for examples, O’Melveny did not produce client specific litigation cases, but disclosed some of the general advice he has given lawyers throughout the firm.

In a Powerpoint presentation he has delivered to O’Melveny lawyers, Katz points to The Curse of Knowledge, or the idea that, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.” He pulled the quote from Made to Stick, a 2007 book about why some ideas stick more than others. In other slides, he pulls one-liners to encourage brevity with phrases like “BLUF: bottom line up front,” and “Choose action over existence” and “Simplicity breeds clarity.”

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Not surprisingly, Katz said more junior lawyers struggle with succinctness in writing more than senior attorneys.

“More junior lawyers, to the extent they struggle with something, it’s being overly complete and comprehensive where they want to get every possible fact and case and caveat and twists and turns crammed into a document,” said Katz. “What I see with more of the experienced lawyers… is a natural style, authentic voice — sometimes even conversational.”

He also said that he tries to put himself in the judges shoes when editing a legal brief.

“I always treat the judge as a very bright and careful reader who doesn’t care about this case as much as we do,” said Katz. “Even though a judge may understand these issues and be aware of the case law, you need to tell the court a story: What are the stakes and why does this matter? In the end, the judges want to do what they feel in their gut is the right thing.”

Butwin, the firm’s chair, said now, many of the firm’s lawyers are more frequently relying on Katz.

“I don’t think there is a piece of writing that can’t be improved by a solid editor, including my own,” said Butwin. “So we were pleasantly surprised at how our lawyers, especially partners, embraced having Jesse in the editing process.”

Butwin also stressed, “There is no ego in being edited,” meaning that lawyers have come to accept the advice of a non-lawyer. “Ultimately, we think we have a stronger product for our clients, for less time and less money.”

Potential Conflicts?

Organizationally speaking, Katz sits in a position within O’Melveny that’s akin to what he described as a paralegal role. An outlier in the firm’s structure, Katz doesn’t sit in the firm’s communications or business development department. Instead, he sits in the litigation department, where many of the firm’s lawyers use him as a resource — though he said he is often consulted by lawyers outside of the litigation practice and in multiple offices.

“Word just got around,” said Butwin, of Katz’s expanding role within the firm. “Jesse went office to office and spoke about his new role. A few people started to use him and see what a delight it was and how user-friendly he was, and before you knew it, he was a very busy person.”

One of Katz’s frequent collaborators is Richard Goetz, who hired Katz after holding a writing competition between finalists for the position. “In essence, it was, ‘Take this brief and show us what you would do with it,'” said Goetz.

Goetz declined to say which client matters Katz has worked on, but Goetz’s online bio shows that he’s defending Amylin Pharmaceuticals in litigation over a diabetes drug, and Kia Motors America in class actions over defective vehicles. He is the co-chair of O’Melveny’s consumer class actions, product liability and mass tort practices.

“I can meet with him and discuss the story that I think matters and he runs with it,” said Goetz of his working relationship with Katz. “I did that most recently in a complaint we filed and I have done it in a dispositive motion. It’s good because we can get bound up in legal issues. If Jesse doesn’t understand what we’re talking about, I fear a judge won’t either.”

Katz is currently the only legal editor at O’Melveny, though Goetz said he feels “there is room to have more people in Jesse’s role.”

Asked whether there are rules to ensure that Katz’s hands on the firm’s legal work doesn’t constitute the unauthorized practice of law, Butwin said in a statement that clients understand the value of Katz providing editorial assistance “to the lawyers who supervise and direct all of his work” and that “he does not perform legal analysis or exercise legal judgment.”

Another thing that places Katz in an unconventional position is that he continues to work as a journalist, writing on a freelance basis and appearing in GQ Magazine and Los Angeles Magazine. That work, Katz said, is separate from firm matters and he writes about subjects that don’t pose a conflict of interest. The firm does not direct what he writes about.

“We have our own internal screening process to make sure there isn’t even the appearance of a potential conflict,” said Katz. “The firm has been very enlightened in recognizing my continued involvement in the world of journalism, which keeps my creative juices flowing and adds to my credibility here in-house for attorneys. When they see it in print, they enjoy it.  It makes the rounds in-house or gets posted on Facebook.”

One of his recent pieces included a 2014 feature about Yasiel Puig, his defection from Cuba and journey to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he plays right field.

Given his time constraints with his full time role at O’Melveny, Katz said he takes on one or two magazine features per year.

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