How Tending Bar Can Help You to Better Serve the Bar

Vol. 16 No. 1


Syeda Davidson is staff attorney at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Clinton Township, Michigan.
She can be contacted at sfhdavidson@

By day, I’m an associate practicing family law. Due to the economy, it took almost two years to find my position. Like many recent law school graduates, for two years I was a solo practitioner. And like many recent graduates, I also have an obscene amount of student loan debt. That’s why at night I work as a bartender.

I make fancy drinks, simple drinks, shots, and retrieve beer and popcorn. I get to see amazing local and national artists where I work. I met Dick Dale and Gilbert Gottfried, and I saw Tracy Morgan and Blanche for free. I go into work at 7 p.m. and get home at 3:30 a.m.

If this sounds like something you might consider doing to pay down your student loans, first carefully consider the potential conflicts and ethical dilemmas for lawyers. For example, placing yourself on court-appointed counsel lists is a great way to gain experience in criminal law while supplementing your income. But what if your other job is in a bar or a restaurant? How will you react to learning that your new drunk driving client was drinking at your establishment on the night in question? Worse, what if you served the drinks?

Conflicts also can occur when your nonlawyer co-workers approach you for legal advice, which happens a lot. These can become difficult scenarios, particularly if it involves your mutual employer or events occurring while on the clock. You do not want to unintentionally create a client-lawyer relationship or even create the obligations that attach under ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.18 (Duties to Prospective Client).

One moonlighting attorney remembers one such awkward situation. “One of my co-workers at my second job had been fired,” she recalls. “He called me, said that he needed legal advice, and immediately launched into a tale about the place where we both worked. Once I realized where the conversation was going, I had to immediately put a stop to the conversation. I told him that I was unable to help him and that it was best for me to not even hear the rest of the story. He kept insisting on trying to tell me everything. I finally had to cut him off and hang up. I felt bad, but I couldn’t risk my license.” You must be aware of the potential ramifications of any conversation involving legal advice, no matter who is involved or how the discussion is initiated.

On the bright side, bartending has taught me some invaluable lessons that can be applied to my professional life. For example, law school does not train you to deal with difficult people the way that working in the service industry does. One successful attorney said of moonlighting: “No matter how difficult they can be, I’ve never met an opposing counsel half as menacing as some of the intoxicated patrons I had to cut off and try to prevent from driving when I was bartending. I think that prevented me from being intimidated by aggressive opposition early in my career, which, in hindsight, might have been my most notable—and maybe only—strength as a very new lawyer.”

Moonlighting also fosters another valuable asset for young lawyers: stamina. An eight-hour day at an office feels like a breeze compared to an eight-hour day followed by an eight-hour night. One attorney who used to moonlight says of his current law practice, “I’m not saying I don’t ever need a break and that I want to work every single weekend now, but I can do it for a while without apparent fatigue and without getting discouraged, disillusioned, or bitter.”

Being willing to work a second job in these rough economic times says a lot about the kind of worker you are. It demonstrates that you are willing to make sacrifices to be successful in the practice of law and are a hard worker. When I first got my license, I was slightly embarrassed to occasionally pour a drink for opposing counsel, but I now realize that I have never met a single legal professional who looked down on me for it.

Moonlighting also can teach lawyers valuable lessons about how to treat others. Generally, I never mention that I am a lawyer while working my night job, but once, a very rude young man kept coming to my bar, flashing his bar card every time he demanded something. After the first few times I teased him a little bit, snorting, “Why do you keep showing me your bar card?” He ignored me. The next time he came up and got pushy, I finally said, “Oh yeah? I’ve got one of those, too.” Immediately his attitude changed, and he became more respectful. That night, I decided that if I’m ever in a position where I get to hire someone the first interview will take place in a restaurant. I only want to hire people who treat others with respect regardless of their perceived importance. Take it from a “secret lawyer”:  Be careful how you treat people in your everyday life. You never know who they might be.



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