General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice GuideThe Compleat Lawyer, Spring 1996, Vol. 13, No. 2
From the Editor / The Times They Are a-Changin'jennifer j. rose
jennifer j. rose, a sole practitioner in Shenandoah, Iowa, is editor-in-chief of The Compleat Lawyer. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; and by fax at 712/246-5533.
Overheard in an overly hip Palo Alto bookstore: I need to find a lawyer who's not afraid to get mean and dirty. I grimaced, but I'd heard the refrain before. After all, when was the last time any of us heard "I want a nice, clean and ethical lawyer"?
Our success depends upon our ability to beat up the other guy. And after a day of humiliation, we're supposed to slap our fellow counsel on the back in the name of professionalism. More often, we'd rather give 'em a good punch in the snoot. The same adversarial skills that make us successful create havoc in our personal lives. Brutish lawyers, cantankerous judges, and demanding clients transmit viral discord that many of us inflict upon the innocents in our lives. "Bucking up" has led lawyers to unusually high levels of clinical depression, alcoholism, and addiction; the same dispassionate attitudes our profession prizes prevents us from admitting our problems.
If we care too much about the law, we forget about the client. If we focus upon the client, we're social workers. If we care too much about the bottom line and the billable hour, we're beancounters. When we talk about the integrity of the judicial system, we're called pompous. And if we talk about some holistic blend, then we're treated like Martians. As a profession, we think of ourselves as social architects and guardians; in practice, most of the time we're just firefighters.
I look at lawyers who fall into ethical morasses, who lie, cheat, and steal in the practice. Most start out with a core of decency, but something pushes them over the edge. Something happens that transforms good lawyers into monsters. We're trained to be overachievers, but most of us can't keep pace with the Rolex-wristed and BMW-driven people in our lives. Much less find time to learn Java, sing the Messiah, and skydive. Balance and centering are much easier concepts to talk about than implement.
The only solution is to do what we love and love what we do. And find peace with ourselves for doing it. I knew that I'd become one of the Crones Practicing Law when (1) I began to pick lint off opposing counsel's jacket, and (2) I patted opposing counsel's hand and said, "Now, now, there are some cases you just can't win." But then I used to cry during heart-rending testimony. (I still do, but now I don't care if you catch me teary-eyed.)
Some 60 percent of American lawyers wish they'd picked another field and hope their children don't follow in their footsteps. So much for the legacy of the profession. Does our dissatisfaction with our career choices really differ from that faced by other professionals, or are lawyers simply overly analytical? Is there something about the law that attracts malcontents? Does lawyering breed nastiness and despair? Or are we just a bunch of whiners?
Simplifying or downscaling became an ethos of the nineties as some of us got too old, tired, and lazy to continue the pursuit of lawyerly lust. We started to talk about Quality of Life and Getting a Life. Lots of talk about living with less, accepting lower standards of living, developing outside interests, exercising and eating broccoli. For many of us, these are empty promises we make to ourselves. Some of us are lucky if we can settle for Quality Moments.
Bringin' It All Back Home
General practitioners have it rough. They're expected to know everything about everything. Solo and small firm practitioners are expected to do it all and by themselves. We aren't loved by our clients (and we really shouldn't love them back), we aren't respected by the public, the judiciary treats us like errant children, and our families only keep us around for lack of a better alternative.
Perhaps we're just caught in a trap of thinking too much about our own lives. When you get down to it, nothing's stopping us from opting out. Despite our dissatisfaction, we stay in the profession because (a) in our hearts and minds we really love the law, (b) we're afraid to leave it, or (c) we can't think of a meaningful option.
And now for relief. Let me make one contribution to your quality of life. Published by law schools or the government, many legal websites are really boring. Here's one that I can heartily recommend: The 'Lectric Law Library at http://www.lectlaw.com. Rated the most complete law library on the Web, its 2000+ eclectic, useful, and admittedly bizarre collection of legal outlines, software, forms, and consumer protection materials mixes idealism with humor. This throwback to the sixties makes me value our profession. And it'll make you proud to be a lawyer.