Interview: Attorney Daniel Muessig Discusses His Transition from Hip-Hop to Law

Pay him now, thank him later.

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Image via Complex Original
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"You keep your trap shut, and I'll keep your trap open"

With those now famous parting words, Pittsburgh attorney Daniel Muessig became an instant viral sensation, endearing himself to potential clients and anyone with a sense of humor through a clever commercial promoting his services. But with its blatant comedic overtones, the spot has elicited criticism from other lawyers who believe Muessig's approach has tarnished the profession. Though he anticipated the disapproval, Muessig argues that it was simply the best way to reach his target audience, as well as the fruit of hispassions—hip-hop and law—intersecting.

Muessig, 32, toured the world as a rapper under the name Dos Noun after graduating from Temple University. Weary from the rigors of traveling, he elected to apply the principals that made him a respected battle rapper to a new career: law. After earning his J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2012, Muessig has been practicing as a criminal defense attorney in the area since last year. He hasn't retired his mic, either.

In the wake of the storm created by the ad, Complex spoke to Muessig about its reception, his foray into law and why people are thanking Dan.

Though it’s hilarious, there’s obviously been backlash to your ad. Do you feel like people aren’t getting the joke?
I think that’s why older people are trippin’ out so hard on it. There’s a big generational disconnect, especially with lawyers. Younger lawyers get it because they’re younger people. Older lawyers, they take themselves so seriously; it’s so sacred to them—the profession—and it’s not like it isn’t sacred to me, but their sense of humor simply doesn’t allow them to comprehend that you can joke about something like that.

Right. They wouldn’t have thought of it, but then again, why would they have?
Exactly. They wouldn’t have thought of it, and they don’t understand why other people think it’s funny.

You’re en route to Japan right now. What are you headed out there for?
I have five shows out there because I also rap. I have like, a little tour that had been set up a long time ago. Truthfully, the timing of when I aired the commercial and the tour is completely coincidental. 

I think the most moral thing you can do is defend somebody who’s accused of a serious crime, despised by society and doesn’t have a friend in the world.

What pushed you into law?
After I got out of college—I went to Temple University; I graduated—I was mostly just rapping. I toured a lot—I went to Europe, Japan and all over America—and was making a living off of it, but it didn’t feel like I was really moving forward. Especially around the middle of the decade with the decline of physical media. Back in the day, you could go on tour and eat off that. But it was getting harder and harder to sustain it, and it was getting to a point where I was spending seven months a year on the road. I wasn’t making a lot of new music; I was spending all of my time trying to book shows. I wanted to do something else with my life, frankly, and law just seemed like something that matched my skill set because I wasn’t really Internet savvy, I wasn’t good at math and I was never going to be a doctor. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do, but I could read, I could write and I could talk, so at the time, it seemed logical[laughs].

I assume you wanted to be a defense attorney in order to help people. There’s always going to be the stereotype of the scumbag lawyer like Maury Levy on The Wire and Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, but do you feel like prosecutors have that much moral fiber or defense attorneys are innately amoral because they help criminals?
No, not at all. That’s why [my commercial] was satire and a send-up. A lot of defense attorneys took exception to what I did, but I don’t think they realize that it was a play on the trope. I think the most moral thing you can do is defend somebody who’s accused of a serious crime, despised by society and doesn’t have a friend in the world. You’re the person in the schoolyard who sticks up for the person who’s being isolated. I guess prosecutors would say that person’s the bully, but that’s why we have different opinions and there are different perceptions. But in my mind, you’re coming to the aid of the underdog; the person who was written off.

Can you feel the backlash? Are other attorneys and judges ice grillin’ you in the courthouse?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’d say the support has been overwhelming from most people, but there’s definitely a subset in the profession who are really unhappy with it. That was to be expected, but the extent of the backlash is probably predicated on how viral the video went, which I couldn’t have predicted. With that said, I understand it and I respect it; people are entitled to their opinion. I wasn’t doing it to denigrate the profession, fight with my colleagues or disrespect anyone in the system, I was just trying to connect with people who I thought would be my clients and that I could help.

How has it affected your practice?
The trap’s on smash right now, dude. A lot of people are hitting me up; there’s a lot of emails and a lot of phone calls coming in. I was by no means doing bad before; I work with an older, more established attorney named Pat Nightingale who’s like my mentor, so it wasn’t like I was doing nothing before and spinning my wheels. I had a good amount of work, but wanted to do more and I think I’ll be able to realize that opportunity with some of the notoriety that [this] has brought me, and that’s really all I ever wanted to do—help more people; do more work. When I got into hip-hop, I was just as committed—I wanted to be the best lyricist I could be; the best freestyler I could be. I was really intense and into it, and whether you like my music or not, I don’t think anybody could fault me on my effort or commitment to the culture.

It’s the same thing with being a defense attorney. I really am into it. I like it, even the stuff people would consider boring, like writing. That’s the reason that I made the point in the video that I make jail visits and stuff like that —I even like those aspects of the job that people consider kind of odious. I’m up for all of it; I really enjoy it.




Are you concerned about judges and prosecutors being less flexible with you in the immediate future? 
Yeah, that’s definitely a concern. I had to weigh it and thought that, in the end, I had to do what I needed to do to try and connect with people. I understand that there are going to be people, perhaps, that will be inflexible. I will make this point, though: there is a distinct reason there’s just me and actors portraying sketch comedy and people being criminals in the commercial. There are no judges, there are no prosecutors in the commercial. There’s no law enforcement officers, because I have the utmost respect for all those people. There is a purposeful omission of those people out of respect for their position in the system. I wasn’t going to throw anybody else in there, because I understood that what I was doing was a little bit edgy. So while people are obviously going to feel how they’re going to feel, I hope that if you look at it from that perspective, you can see that I crafted it from a place of respect.

Do you think the satirical tone of the commercial will be detrimental to the clients you serve and ultimately want to help?
Not necessarily, honestly. I think that our society is moving forward, you know. The most popular and critically-acclaimed news show is run by a comedian who portrays a conservative journalist who then like, mock interviews important policy makers. My demeanor in the courtroom is not the same as—look, I’m a character, man. I’m gonna be me. I’m definitely verbal, and I’m definitely colorful everywhere I go, including the court. But when I'm in court, it’s all business. I’m serious. I take my clients super, super seriously. In the end, I think that the services I can provide and the level of commitment and care I can bring would far outweigh any of the backlash that can be directed towards my clients. 

I’m definitely verbal, and I’m definitely colorful everywhere I go, including the court. But when I'm in court, it’s all business.

The video also seems to make a conscious effort to not perpetuate racial stereotypes in terms of your client base. There are black people in it, and there are white people in it as well.
Absolutely. A lot of that has to do with reality. I’m a streetwise dude and I know people on the street—there are black, white, Hispanic and Asian criminals; male and female criminals; gay and straight criminals. Your clients come from all slices of the demographic and socioeconomic pie. Also, Pittsburgh is a lot like Boston; there’s a lot of entrenched areas of white poverty that are still in the actual city. Most of my advertising was focused on Pittsburgh and Western, P.A. because that’s where I’m based out of, so if I was going to be accurate to my market, I would certainly have to show Caucasian criminal offenders in my commercial. I don’t play up the stereotypes, because, one, if I played up the stereotypes, how could I exist? [laughs] And two, I’m just being honest about the composition of my city and who I’m trying to talk to. If I put all black criminals in there, I’d be excluding a lot of people in Pittsburgh.

Do you have any advice for young attorneys?
I would say that post-Recession, after that great crash in 2008, the legal job market essentially disintegrated. That prompted the way I hustle to grab clients and do what I do—nobody was hiring. You have to do what you have to do to create business. I would tell people that you don’t have to hustle the way that I hustled, but if you can’t go out and bring in your own business and create value either for yourself or your employer, it could be a very, very difficult situation for you trying to progress and obtain any type of long-term employment. But you have to hustle now. Just getting good grades on your finals and writing the perfect briefs and perfect paper is not gonna get you on like it did, and they don’t tell you that in school because it worked one way for like 200-plus years and just stopped working that way a couple years ago.

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