NJ Online: Interview for Asshole Attorney

Posted December 3, 2018

Editor’s Note: This story contains some graphic language. 

Gil and Rhoda Wood were an army family who moved from base-to-base every three years.  Doug, the youngest of the couple’s three children, was born while Gil served in Korea. They were stationed in Hawaii when Gil retired in 1960. Doug was in fifth grade when the family moved to Rutherford, their mother’s hometown.

It was a shock. From transparent purity of Oahu waters to the putrid Hackensack and Passaic Rivers; from dressing in colorful, comfortable clothing to restrictive long pants, plain shirts, socks, and shoes.

And snow. Doug Wood had no memory of having ever seen it but, “It took me less than a minute to realize I hated — and I mean really hated — snow and everything it represented.”

Their new neighbor was a lawyer who always seemed dapper, happy: “He carried a big, important-looking briefcase and always said hello,” Wood said. “Becoming a lawyer seemed as good a career as any to fund my escape from New Jersey back to paradise. When you’re 11 years old, such impressions hold.”

And so it was that Douglas J. Wood became an attorney. With three law degrees. He still lives in New Jersey, and practices entertainment and media law with a New York-based firm.

When Wood was starting out, it was advice from an elderly Southern lawyer that inspired “A****** Attorney.” In a final telephone conversation with the opposing lawyer at the conclusion of a case, Wood commented that neither client would be particularly happy with the outcome and would blame them, the attorneys.

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The other gentleman drawled: “Doug, I been practicin’ law for 50 years. And I learned a long time ago, there ain’t no such word as ‘attorney’ or ‘lawyer’. It’s ‘a==*** attorney’ or ‘f****n’ lawyer.’

“A****** Attorney,” from Plum Bay Publishing, is Wood’s observations and reminiscences from the perspective of a 40-year legal career. It is wry, sharp, full of insight, optimism, gratitude and compassion. And it’s funny. Very funny.

Scope of pop culture

Question: You pepper the book with timely references to pop culture. As an entertainment and media lawyer, you see the abuses up close. Have you always had that interest?

Doug Wood: Always. I’m a fan of Faith Popcorn, her observations. She’s a pop culture icon, founded BrainReserve, wrote The Popcorn Report. And I’ve worked with out-of-control stars and controversial cases. It’s interesting how pop culture has been so influential in our lives. 

It’s been going on for almost a hundred years. A child actor named Jackie Coogan became the most famous boy in America in the 1920s. His parents ripped him off, took all his money, ruined him financially. That precipitated the 1939 Coogan Act that safeguards children in the entertainment industry until adulthood against parents living vicariously, and very inappropriately, through the child’s earnings.

Pop culture is always changing — from Elvis to Beatles to Four Seasons to Lynyrd Skynyrd up to Adele. But it was manageable. Today, it lasts for five minutes. I regret that the Alpha Generation (children of the millennials) will never really be able to experience pop culture the way we did.

It’s far worse with all the internet icons and influencers. It’s become too overwhelming, too quick, crazy. Young boys and girls have millions of followers, all sorts of money and deals. Their parents don’t recognize the harm they’re doing by allowing their children to turn into automatons more narcissistic than anything you can imagine, more interested in how many followers they get.

Question: Click farms – usually operating out of developing countries – arrange for thousands of cell phones to ‘hit’ subscriber sites many thousands of times.  So the coveted ‘views’ count might be completely artificial?

Doug Wood: The level of fraud in these places is in the billions of dollars. And a lot of that money is siphoned off to very bad organizations. Hacking too. I had a conversation with a hacker who had worked white-hat and black-hat. He told me, “I don’t how many hackers you hire, the bad guys will hire more and better because they’ll pay more money.” It’s a never-ending battle.

Data and artificial intelligence

Question: Tell me about your new novel about cyberwar and financial terrorism.

Doug Wood: I just finished the manuscript. I do a lot of research for my novels and this one is based on the advances in genetic engineering and self-creating artificial general intelligence. Data is manipulated in ways no human possibly could that anticipates behavior, how you think, how you act. The theory in the book is use of social media by terrorists who control exactly what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it.  And you have no awareness it’s not you.

One fairly recent study determined whether somebody was manic-depressive based upon their posts. Statistics show that manic-depressives are more reckless, bet more, lose more, than people who are not, so they matched them to see whether they were in Las Vegas. Casinos peppered the manic-depressives with ads and promotional offers which lured them to Las Vegas where they lost a lot of money to the casinos.

There’s a lot of science about cognitive machine intelligence and how they’re mapping the brain (e.g. IBM’s Watson Program) the same way the human genome was mapped.  Machines teach themselves by extrapolating from one fact to another; decisions are based on complete logic without emotion, like Dr. Spock. That notion is very scary.

Question: That entity might decide we humans are not very useful – The Law of Unintended Consequences. And isn’t that how you make a living?

Doug Wood: Exactly. As a lawyer, I love unintended consequences. Clients will make decisions then come to me to pick up the pieces. I guess that makes me the ‘a****** attorney’ right?

Question: What was your most interesting case of unintended consequences?

Doug Wood: Probably the whole 10-year insanity with Belvedere Vodka.

(Eddie Phillips, liquor tycoon and philanthropist, became one of Wood’s most memorable clients. Phillips’ mother Pauline was Abigail Van Buree, née Pauline Esther Friedman, who founded her “Dear Abby” column in 1956. Pauline married Morton Phillips, son of Phillips Beverage Company founder Jay, in 1939. It was grandson Eddie who introduced Belvedere vodka to the U.S.)

Question: An entire chapter, almost 60 pages, chronicles ‘The Story of a Lifetime’ and efforts to introduce Polish vodka to the luxury market. It reads like Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. And you lived it?

Doug Wood: Here you had a great man, Eddie Phillips. I said, “Eddie, no one is going to buy a $40 bottle of vodka.” He said, “I think they will.”

The unintended consequences were both positive and negative. Eddie revolutionized the vodka business, made millions and millions — that was the positive side. Negative — Lawsuits in 70 countries, bodyguards, hijacked trucks, death threats, burned cars. All intimidation… and if you’ve been to Poland, it was pretty intimidating. The sadness was, at the end of the day, when we finally won and were the last men standing, Eddie developed leukemia and died in 2011.

Eddie and I became very good friends. It wasn’t in the book but I now back on our relationship through the prism of a letter I wrote to his children in 2007. It illustrates the many great lessons we can learn from men like Eddie.

Professors and mentors

Question: Great men. You had some astonishing professors and mentors — and some unbelievable luck. What differences do you see in the graduates coming into the firm now?

Doug Wood: The good news is, they’re highly technically talented. What they lack is the ability to write. It’s atrocious. And while their technological skills are advanced, they lose the context. Just because your research leads you to a conclusion, that is not necessarily the right conclusion. They lose perspective of the elliptic nature of a client relationship.

Franklin Pierce Law Center (now University of New Hampshire) was founded by Robert Rimes. He was great. I will never forget one question: you and the opposing attorney are sitting at a table with your clients. How many clients are in the room? The answer:  three — the two clients and the deal.

Young graduates don’t realize that 99.9 percent of clients come to you for a solution, not an adversarial position that won’t lead to one. That means decisions, compromises. And a great lawyer will tell you that. They are not taught, educated about solutions. That’s something we have to teach them. They’re further and further away than ever before. But they’re coming around.

I also think the problem in government today is that it’s no longer solution-oriented, willing to take small steps to progress.

Question:  You launched Party of We in 2011. One post cited, “The latest national SAT scores are the lowest in 40 years.” How much of that do you attribute to the proliferation of social media?

Doug Wood: It was earlier days, but I only started Party of We to try to explain the negative power of social media. It is incredibly divisive and disruptive – it did all the things it said it didn’t do: actually destroyed conversation, destroyed relationships.  Voices on cell phones had taken a backseat to typing. I posted research that supported social media was disengaging. It’s gotten many times worse.  Since the technological revolution, there’s a non-existent learning curve. No one needs to learn, or wants to learn – they just Google the question. There’s no process by which we learn grammar, classics, math, history in a logical fashion.  Many schools are focused entirely on increasing their scores. But it’s too late; you’re not going to turn it around.

Although , , , when the Beatles came to America, my parents were convinced the world was coming to an end. If you had hair over your ears, society was doomed. So I’m hoping, as an older person today, that my observations about social media are as unfounded as were my parents about the Beatles.

But I don’t know. There was some level of censorship then.  Now the messages are totally unfiltered.

Question: What are your views on fake news?

Doug Wood: Here’s the conflict I have. I am an absolute, militant, ardent believer in the First Amendment. It sets us apart from every other nation in the world. It gives us ability to hear really stupid stuff and judge based on stupidity or intelligence. If, for whatever reason, you start to put limits on it, that is a very dangerous place to go.

Because I feel that way, I hope and want to believe that the American public is intelligent enough to understand the difference. But in my new novel, I’m indicting the philosophy that the First Amendment should be protected as much as I want to protect it. I can’t deny that in today’s world, where people are so quickly influenced by nanoseconds of information that they take as ‘true,’ that is a very difficult issue to reconcile with my philosophy of open communication and a robust First Amendment. It’s like a lapsed Catholic. And I don’t have the answer. No one can deal with the volume. And that includes the companies who are under fire.

Wood is a partner at the New York-based Reed Smith LLP and practices entertainment and media law. He is author of the award-winning Samantha Harrison political trilogy (Presidential Intentions/2014, Presidential Declarations/2015, and Presidential Conclusions/2017) and two other non-fiction books, “Please Be AdVised” and “101 Things I Want to Say.”

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