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Litigation Journal

Spring 2024 | Joy

Reliving the Joy(?) of Becoming a Lawyer

Kristin Norse


  • No matter how much you know as a lawyer there is always more to learn.
  • There is always room to further hone your craft.
  • If you get sick of one area of law, there are myriad others to choose from.
Reliving the Joy(?) of Becoming a Lawyer
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In writing this article, I regret that I am required to immediately date myself. I became a lawyer in the early 1990s. Much of what I experienced that first year or two in practice is lost to time. But if I take the time to sit back and reflect on those early days, there were moments of specific and intense joy in becoming a real lawyer. The first filing with my name in the signature block, my first successful hearing, the first client who thanked me for what I’d done, not to mention my first paycheck, my own parking space, and—probably the biggest piece of excitement—my own mobile phone (even if it did come attached to a heavy and unwieldy black battery box).

Thirty years on, it’s easy to take the day-to-day practice of law for granted or, worse, to spend some days wondering if you’d be happier (albeit poorer) baking donuts (my husband’s favorite fallback). There are mind-numbing disputes over discovery, ever-changing technology, clients who cannot be satisfied, the inability to take a vacation without fearing that one of your cases will blow up while you are miles away in a different time zone with spotty Wi-Fi access. And as your practice matures, it becomes more complicated and requires marketing and managing, along with the continued work on your cases.

Recently, though, our daughter started law school.

“Did you want your daughter to go to law school?” This is a loaded question I am often asked now. It triggers a host of memories and emotions about the ups and downs of my own path as a lawyer. Would I do it all over again? (Yes, I think.) It also reminds me I get to relive the anxiety of those early days on her behalf with no control over the outcome.

Yet, watching her navigate the same path also provides a life lesson in remembering those things that motivated us (her parents) to become the lawyers we are today—the intangible and tangible benefits of our profession.

Being a Lawyer Means You Learn Something New Every Day

I know a lot of legal minutiae after three decades of practicing law. I’ve fairly committed the rules of appellate practice to memory. I’ve developed over time an understanding of the basic principles underlying a variety of areas of law. But there’s nothing more humbling than having your daughter call you up to try to quiz you on Chevron deference, ask you about a nuance in a specific federal rule of civil procedure, or fret over whether something is procedural or substantive. I cannot tell you the number of times I answer her questions with “This is way out of my practice area. . . .” Every day as a lawyer, I am faced with how much I still don’t know, as well as that feeling you get when a question sparks your curiosity and a sense of anticipation in finding the answer. Even if it were possible to exhaustively learn an area of practice, by the time you could achieve that, the law would have changed.

That’s just the legal side. As a lawyer of today, you’re also constantly learning the technology and the business side of practice. To date, I’ve avoided asking my daughter about her thoughts on generative artificial intelligence, but we’ve discussed how technology and the law intersect. She has some coding experience and understands how technology could be harnessed to improve access to courts. For my part, I share my somewhat basic lawyer tech skills, like generating a table of citations and crafting the perfect Boolean searches (which still work better than any plain-language search, though perhaps not for long). Someday soon she’ll learn about law firm economics, origination and billing (or grant writing and reporting), and all those other concepts near and dear to a seasoned lawyer’s heart.

The reality is that no matter how much you know as a lawyer—even if you have a fairly narrow practice area—there is always more to learn. There is always room to further hone your craft. Or, if you get sick of one area of law, there are myriad others to choose from if you are willing to hit the books and mine your resources to learn them well enough to practice them. This is a gift our law licenses give us.

Being a Lawyer Means You See How Hard Work and Persistence Typically Pay Off

To state the obvious, you do not always succeed as a law student or a lawyer. Sometimes, all the studying you can muster still results in your hanging on the low end of the curve. All the trial prep in the world won’t save you from an uncooperative witness who tanks your case. Some challenges are simply beyond your abilities, no matter how hard you might toil.

There’s no escaping the fact that, in the practice of law, effort typically pays off, though. Law school and the practice often provide rewards for those who throw themselves headlong into the effort—invitations to law review, winning the moot court competition, winning or defeating your first motion for summary judgment, closing the difficult deal. Win or lose, there’s no better day than the day after I’ve filed a difficult brief and know I’ve given it my all. Hearing about my daughter’s early triumphs, and still enjoying a few of my own, is a reminder of how gratifying being a lawyer can be.

Being a Lawyer Means You Get to Effect Change

During a summer internship for a legal services corporation, my daughter was given an assignment for a single case that had much broader implications for the organization as a whole. She researched and assisted in crafting a memorandum for the court that won the day for that client and will also affect future clients and, in some respects, access to legal services generally.

As I heard the sense of pride and accomplishment in her voice, I was reminded of a recent program I attended where a woman judge from Afghanistan spoke about why she had wanted to become a lawyer. She explained that to her way of thinking, being a lawyer was a dream because lawyers could change society as a whole. An engineer, she noted, might change parts of the landscape, or a doctor might help specific patients, but a lawyer could effect structural change for the community as a whole. It was an inspiring way of looking at our profession, and from one who has paid a dear price for pursuing that dream.

Of course, not every case is momentous. But in most of my cases, I know that I have made a difference for my clients, and in some, I have taken part in effecting changes that will help future litigants. Add to that the many professional opportunities we have to shape rules, legislation, or governance and you have the capacity to make a broad impact with your work. It’s this ability to effect positive change that remains an ideal new generations of lawyers are drawn to.

Being a Lawyer Has Its Perks

Let’s face it, another draw of “The Law” is the perks. One of my daughter’s fellow students was so excited to get her own cubicle for her first-year summer internship. Another came to my office to study one day and posted his temporary office view on social media. Mixed with the talk of the types of law that inspire them and the good they want to do as lawyers is also talk about what kind of office they might have someday or what type of car they might drive—depending on the proportionate size of the paycheck and the student loan payments.

We’re not the wealthiest profession, and the money doesn’t come easy. There’s billable hours or unwieldy public interest caseloads and never enough time in the day. There’s the stress of a profession in which you never leave the work entirely at the office, no matter how hard you try. There are also the rewards of being able to earn money—and sometimes very good money—without hard physical labor or risk of injury, in a profession you can work in as long as your mind is sharp and you can handle the emotional toll of taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

And because her parents are lawyers, my daughter had the freedom and opportunity to choose her own path, even if it turned out that path was to follow in our footsteps. She will leave law school with less debt, a by-product of her parents’ lessons in student loans. Along the way, we were able to assist her in obtaining a great education, to counsel her on lessons we’d learned a harder way, and to provide her examples of what her adult life could be.

Being a Lawyer Is an Endless Journey

In a short time, my daughter will don the hood and walk across the stage to get that law degree. She’ll have had a benefit her parents did not have—two lawyers in the family who understand the challenges and can provide valuable advice to overcome them. She is keenly aware of how much help that is and often enlists it for fellow students who don’t have the same advantage.

We’ll suffer together through the bar exam, which I never planned on doing a second time. And then she’ll be there, in her first office, at her first hearing, doing all the lawyer things. She’ll enter the profession with different benefits than lawyers who graduated in 1992 had—like text-searchable files and parental leave—and with different challenges than they faced—adapting to faster changes in technology and addressing persistent inequalities in the practice and in access to justice. Whatever the legal landscape, she’ll continue to grow as a lawyer every single day.

I’m looking forward to seeing that.

Kristin Norse can be reached at [email protected].