A Review of Alex Wellen's Witty Memoir, Barman
By GERALD RUSSELLO
Friday, Sep 19, 2003Barman: Ping-Pong, Pathos and Passing the Bar (Harmony Books 2003)
Alex Wellen was a bright young engineering student at Rutgers when he decided to go to law school. It was a decision born initially of resentment: a lawyer friend had told him that his idea for a double-sided table tennis paddle was not worth the effort to patent. Wellen thought differently, and embarked on what he thought was a simple plan: He would attend law school, patent the paddle himself, and live off the royalties. The plan turned out to be more difficult and challenging, but also more exciting, than he imagined.
Law Schools, Tiers, and Careers
Barman begins when Wellen decides to attend Temple Law School in Philadelphia, where he is accepted onto the law review and is president of the law student body. As he quickly learns, however, status is the lawyer's obsession. His particular skills and the varied strengths of Temple Law are simply not as important, in the eyes of the profession, as the fact that Temple is rated as a "Tier 2" school in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. (While Wellen probably exaggerates the importance this magazine has with the elite law firms, there is no denying that the top national law schools have a career starting power that the other schools lack.)
Wellen chronicles the frenzied job searches he and his fellows undertake to get summer positions - a real feature of most law school educations that should not be overlooked, particularly in years in which the job market is tight. This stressful experience colors Wellen's outlook as he begins interviews for a job during his second year summer.
Thanks to his undergraduate engineering degree, Wellen is able to land a position with "Nickel & Reed," a pseudonymous New York firm specializing in intellectual property. He still plans to patent his paddle. But the glamour of law firm life gets to him first. Wellen takes on some exciting work, and experiences the boat trips, baseball games, and other perks of summer associate life. This, he feels, is where he wants to be, and we share in Wellen's joy when he gets the offer letter to join the firm after graduation.
The Glories and Pains of the Bar
The centerpiece of Wellen's story is his studying for and taking the New York bar exam. Upon leaving Temple, he learns (apparently for the first time, though he surely must have known while in law school) that the test is the all-important bridge connecting graduation and employment. So Wellen holes himself up in his parent's house in New Jersey and gets to work.
Well, not completely: As seems to happen to Wellen often, a love interest appears in the shape of fellow bar-course student Gwen, who distracts him from the all-important business at hand. (Gwen follows the mysterious Molly, a Columbia student Wellen meets in New York while interviewing. She is interested in public service, and disdains Wellen's big-firm ambitions. While undoubtedly included for some drama, Wellen's relationships with these two women don't seem to go anywhere.)
Fortunately, Wellen does a better job depicting his family than he does his love interests. The portraits he draws of his close-knit family - his mother, father and younger brother (whom he calls the Oracle, Optimist and Child Prodigy, respectively) are charming and true to life.
In addition, Wellen provides pretty good descriptions of the legal issues raised in the bar exam, and of the study patterns he used to get through the test - which, fortunately are not too arcane to diminish the interest of the non-lawyer. He seems to have exhausted himself in studying for the bar, even to the point of physical illness. But he finally makes it through the exam, passes the bar, and joins Nickel as an associate.
So when a friend offers him the chance to form a production company and a TV show based on high-tech crime, Wellen jumps at the chance.
A Memoir that is Uneven in Places, but Still Worth a Look
The experiences Wellen relates in Barman will be familiar to anyone who has been a student and young lawyer in the contemporary legal environment. The book is thus worth a read; it would also make a gift to the aspiring young law student, to let him or her know what the future may hold.
Unfortunately, Barman is not quite the book it could be. It is uneven in places, and some of the characters are left hazy, or presented merely as the objects of jokes. And it is hard to believe that Wellen could remember verbatim conversations happening at loud parties or in interviews - yet the book presents them as such. Still, the book conveys a sincerity about Wellen's experiences that mostly overcomes these deficiencies.
Despite its light style, the book offers some strong criticisms of the current legal culture and the way it trains its younger members. Wellen writes: "I just decided the 'deal' no longer interested me. I was unwilling to endure daily drudgery in exchange for a highly lucrative job and an extravagant lifestyle." This is a compromise every young lawyer with ambitions like Wellen's needs to consider before deciding whether to begin.
Gerald J. Russello is a lawyer in New York, and won't say which tier law school he attended.