Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why Be A Lawyer?

When I was eleven years old I decided to be a lawyer. Although my parents were in favor of encouraging their daughter to pursue a profession they could point to with pride, there were many naysayers out there, especially among established lawyers.

“Don’t do it! Don’t go to law school!” they would exclaim. “There are already too many lawyers in the world. Besides, we're all unhappy!"

Then there are all the people out there who openly hate lawyers; all the lawyer jokes and the pejorative names like “ambulance chaser,” “shark” and “shyster.” Of course, most people only hate lawyers until they actually need one themselves. And then they like THEIR lawyer, at least until they get the bill for services rendered.

Although I was suspicious of these lawyers' reasons for trying to dissuade me from the practice of law, now that I have been a lawyer for a number of years I can see what they were talking about. The truth is it is not easy to make it as a lawyer. Whether you work for yourself, in a big corporate law firm, for a company, legal aid or the public defender's office, the practice of law can be very demanding and stressful. People usually need a lawyer when they are in crisis or have a distressing or distasteful problem they need help solving. A lot of pressure is put on lawyers to come up with the right answers and to win cases. That requires long and sometimes tedious hours. If you work for a firm, there is the constant pressure to bill the hours. If you work on your own, there is the constant struggle to bring in and manage business and to collect the fees so you can keep your office going. Many demands are put on attorneys by clients, judges, opposing counsel and the Bar itself. A lawyer can really feel the pressure of having the fate of a person’s future on her hands. While some clients are very grateful for all you do, other times no matter what you do, you can't make your client happy. They say that lawyers leave the profession as quickly as they enter it, and that lawyers suffer one of the highest levels of divorce, depression, substance abuse and suicide of any of the professions. So why then would anyone in their right mind want to be a lawyer?

The other day, when driving a carpool, I overheard one of my daughter’s friends telling her that she wanted to be a lawyer some day so that she could be rich.

“Whoa, slow your roll, Chick-a-dee!” I thought to myself.  Although I can certainly understand the “lawyers are rich” perception with the billboards and the publicized huge corporate salaries and the high-profile billion dollar settlements of which the lawyers get their thirty percent cut, the fact of the matter is that the practice of law is like any other profession or job. A few really successful people make a lot of money (paying for it in blood, sweat and tears and putting in 80 hour weeks, mind you), but a larger number of lawyers--at least the ones who are able to get a job or attract clients--are solidly middle class. A starting public defender salary is usually in the range of a starting public school teacher salary (around $35,000 to $40,000 per year). On the other end of the spectrum and depending on the market, those who graduate at the top of their class at top law schools can have a starting salary well into six figures in some big cities like New York, D.C. and Los Angeles. However, the average mid-career lawyer income range is probably more $50,000 to $100,000, which, although I acknowledge is respectable, doesn't go very far when providing for a family and trying to save for the future. For most lawyers, the practice of law is not amazing wealth. While some do very well, others barely eke out a living.

So then why go to all the trouble to be a lawyer if not for the money? This is why: Lawyers can really make a difference in their community and the world. They help people in crisis, like my friend Robert Johnson, who is the Executive Director of Brevard County Legal Aid or my friend, Wendi Adelson, who has worked with victims of human trafficking as an immigration lawyer. There are many lawyers out there doing important work standing up for people’s rights, making sure that everyday people don’t get picked on, bullied and taken advantage of. Being a lawyer means participating meaningfully in the process that keeps America free and provides for checks and balances among the three branches of government. Lawyers make sure rules get followed and that people are held accountable. They make sure their clients get fair treatment and due process under the law.  In short, practicing lawyers manifest the dream of our forefathers who, by the way, were mostly lawyers, and their dream was that our country would be a place where we the people among other things would establish justice and ensure the blessings of liberty.

When those lawyers would pooh-pooh me and say that there were already too many lawyers in the world, my parents, ever my champions, would retort, “There is always room for another GOOD lawyer.” Although we didn’t go into the definition of what constituted a “Good Lawyer,” I took it to mean that there is always room at the Bar for a lawyer who did an excellent job. Now I believe a Good Lawyer is more than that.

After all, what ultimately made me want to become a lawyer by the time I was 11 years old (before realizing this would be acceptable to my parents) is this: At a young age I had personally been picked on and bullied and watched other kids being picked on and bullied and I wanted to pursue a career that would empower me and others to stand up to the bullies of the world. I wanted to solve problems; help people; make a difference. I liked to read and write and speak and from what I could tell, this is what lawyers did. And here we have refined my definition of a Good Lawyer: A lawyer who uses her intelligence and skills to solve problems, help people, and live a life of purpose.

I know this isn't how a lot of people think about what it means to be a lawyer, but I enjoy pointing out that the original job description of a lawyer was to be a healer of societal rifts and advocate for civil order, for preventing "trial by battle" and peaceably resolving disputes. It is said that lawyers actually appeared back when hunters and gatherers started settling in villages. When disputes would arise, the oldest and wisest members of the community were called upon to make decisions regarding the disputes, with others in the community acting as representatives trying to bring peace back to the community. When people think about what it means to be a lawyer, I would like them to envision the many famous lawyers throughout history who have contributed to the advancement of rights and freedoms in our society, such as Marcus Tullius Cicero, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln (and 25 other United States Presidents), Mahatma Ghandhi, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall (and all of the Supreme Court Justices), More than ½ of the United States Senate, and perhaps most important, 35 out of 55 of the Founding Fathers who took part in the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

People should realize that without lawyers, there are no courts, without courts there are no rights, no third branch of government serving as a check and balance on the executive and legislative branches. Without checks and balances there is no freedom because it has been long established that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Remember Panem in the Hunger Games and the absolute power of President Snow? It's not all that far fetched. In some countries in the world there is no due process and people don't have the right to an attorney or the right to freedom of speech, religion, the press, to peaceably assemble or complain to the people who govern them.

Furthermore, making money and living a life of purpose are not mutually exclusive. There was a time when I made the six figure salary of a mergers and acquisitions associate at a big corporate D.C. law firm helping wealthy clients and corporations. While I didn’t love the overwhelming time commitment expected of me, I learned to find purpose in the building of businesses and helping people and companies succeed. And sometimes when I would rather be with my family than at the office, I would console myself with the thought that the money I was making would help provide for my family, allowing us to save for retirement and our children’s college education, as well as have clothes to wear, food to eat, a car to drive, and a furnished house in a safe neighborhood. 

The American Dream doesn’t come cheap. However, we wouldn’t have the American Dream if it weren’t for the lawyers who wrote our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, nor would we be able to keep it if it weren’t for lawyers being prepared to protect it. 

Additionally, I think it is pretty well established that if you pick a career based solely on the amount of money you think you can make pursuing it, then you are setting yourself up for a lot of unhappiness and emptiness in your life. I want bright, young, articulate people to consider becoming lawyers because they believe in truth, justice and the American Way, because they believe in keeping the playing field fair and that the rights granted to every person in the United States of America by our Constitution are worth preserving and fighting for. I want them to become lawyers so that they can live a life of purpose, helping people who need help and solving problems that need to be solved, ensuring that stories get told, justice prevails and freedom continues to ring. I can’t guarantee them financial success. Many of them will indeed find it, but I don’t want young people to become lawyers for the lure of big money. No one can guarantee the money will be there. What is guaranteed is that if they look hard enough for it, they will find a life of purpose. Then they will have untold riches that money would never be able to buy.


  1. Becoming a good lawyer basically depends on your desire to be one, and with your point here - "lawyers can really make a difference in their community and the world" – it definitely seems like you’re on the right track! Although being a good lawyer doesn't automatically translate to getting more money, it does reflect your persistence, your drive, your desire to be the best in your field. As one movie saying goes, "Pursue excellence, and success will follow, pants down." :)

    Jacquelyn Gwin

  2. I totally agree with your views! While undoubtedly lucrative, being a lawyer isn’t exactly a walk in the park. It requires a lot of studying that really never ends, because the law changes frequently. Lawyers help uphold law and order, justice and peace. Criminals are punished and victims are given closure because of what lawyers do. It’s a tough job, and I salute every single person who does it with passion and drive.

    Cade Culpepper