Law in Contemporary Society

Trust Yourself

-- By EldonWright - 18 April 2009

Look Inward

Students should not become so concerned with the first steps of their legal career trajectory that they forget the impact and legacy they can forge outside of how they make money. This is not to say you should cast your fate to the wind. At this juncture, a nuanced consideration of potential career paths should be a central part of your thoughts on the matter. However, if a BigLaw? or Public Interest position would impinge on your schedule or personality to such an extent you no longer partook of the activities or interactions that produced the peace in your life or happiness for those around you, then it is probably not for you, regardless of the work you are doing, and regardless of any sort of social benefit you are enacting through the practice of the law.

A Lengthy Anecdote

By all external measures this man’s career was something righteous and socially meaningful. Funding his education through the G.I. Bill, and despite dyslexia, Grandpa Gene persevered to attend Boalt Hall, becoming one of three public defenders for the whole of Orange County, California, and later a notably socially-progressive judge. There is a legacy of important cases won, judicious decision made, and everybody’s favorite down at the bar personality displayed. However the man was also a moody drunk who preferred golf to his family, on his fourth marriage when he died in his sleep from alcohol related heart failure. Though he was able to keep up appearances, my mother’s childhood was beset with cold, late dinners, missed recitals, and dishes broken out of anger. My relationship with him consisted of lengthy absences followed by brief, predictably strained Christmas dinners and generous checks tucked inside message-less birthday cards. The eggshells my family walked on during our scattered gatherings confirmed why we chose to spend significantly more time with Grandpa Eldon and Granny, though they lived eight hours further away. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Eldon’s education ended in grade school, and by fifteen he worked full time in Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. He would go on to serve as a career Army mechanic during World War II and the Korean War, never rising above the rank of sergeant. His retirement was spent supplementing his army pension by fixing lawnmowers on a small farm. That he was not the most educated or professionally notable man mattered little to those around him. No one really discusses his career of radiators replaced and engines refurbished; instead, he is remembered as a beloved patriarch and vital member of his community. As one who effected more change and joy through personal interactions than paid positions. While Gene’s life fit neatly into traditional academic and professional definitions of success, the same standard hangs awkwardly on Eldon’s shoulders since it fails to take into account the warmth and character of a man respected by all whose lives he graced. So, how does one measure the relative success of a man who celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary in the company of 300 loving guests; and who, for years, quietly ran errands for shut-in neighbors and served his church’s mentally challenged members?

Moral of the Story

I am plagued by a certain amount of disenchantment with the idea that some sort of otherworldly spiritual fulfillment can be found in directing one’s legal career on a certain trajectory. As my grandpas’ divergent lives remind me, professional accomplishments can mean little when measured against the spirit of one’s life. Worrying about external indicators of what constitutes a “good” position in the legal profession makes about as much sense as looking outside yourself for what constitutes inner-peace. Whether it be serving as council for the indigenous people of The International Cause of the Week Club, or working toward becoming King M&A Partner in a massive global practice, your decision must hold the capacity for maximizing your whole self—on whatever scale or against whatever standards you personally trust as worthy. If it does not have this potential, it seems doubtful your choice will allow for much personal satisfaction or growth. In the end I sincerely hope that each of us will be more than their hopefully celebrated and relevant legal career.

“Okay to be Wylie for 750k? But not the other lawyers in the story?”

The above question proffered by Moglen particularly struck me. The image that immediately came to mind was that of line with a heading like “Character” on one end with “$$$” on the other. Upon reading that latest excerpt from Lawyerland, the world weariness Wylie, and later the four associates that had left his firm made me grimace. I had managed to comfort myself with reassuring whispers that I my life would never venture quite so far down that road. Put in the terms, however, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that my convictions know no monetary bounds. I am not certain many people’s do. It is a troubling reality I must grapple with in the very near future. One of the more heartening characters was Shana Urquart. No, she didn’t have an especially glamorous position, or righteously seek justice for the have-nots. She was just a regular old associate at a regular old law firm, a happily married mother, and of all the characters she appeared to live the life most readily approaching a work-life balance. "Everything's moving so fast!...It takes so much energy just to find time—any time—to just slow it all down a little. I know that sounds a bit dire, but that's not how I mean it" (p. 56). She likely wasn’t a perfect attorney or a perfect mother, but unlike Wylie, she seemed more willing to focus on the other aspects of her life. And maybe that is a reasonable goal we can all work towards. Upon leaving Columbia, the legal profession will offer powerful incentives to prioritize the goals of our employers or clients over our personal lives. Find a way to practice law in a manner that allows you to achieve fulfillment and positively affect your life both within and outside of the law. Regardless of what kind of law it is, to what end, or on what pay scale.


I wonder if the nature of the legal profession might tend to crowd out personal life in favor of our practice. Success in the legal profession seems to require an inordinate investment of time and energy--even aside from the billable hours. The adversarial system, the duty to zealously represent a client, and the legal culture they generate create powerful incentives to prioritize our work over our personal lives. Furthermore, this dynamic seems like it might exist even outside of Midtown. Whether representing faceless companies, endangered species, or “The People,” a lawyer is ultimately just a hired hand, a role which probably does not lend itself well to cultivating real relationships in most cases.

My intuition is that the best marriage of personal life and professional practice can be achieved by representing a community you closely identify with, whether as a real estate lawyer in the hometown you love or as an environmental lawyer and avid hiker. This sort of arrangement seems like it might create meaningful opportunities for professional life to contribute to the personal, and vice versa. Even then, though, family relationships seem like they might be difficult to maintain.

-- MichaelDreibelbis - 30 Mar 2009

  • Michael's point strikes me as worth more consideration than it seems to have been given in the course of your revision. The identification of your practice with "the way [you] make money," which is assumed in the first paragraph, colors the remainder of the logic. That one's practice might be a primary source of meaning in one's life, not in conflict with the rest of one's value commitments, hardly seems to depend on a theory of "otherworldly spiritual fulfillment." As I pointed out the first time around, the story would have been equally credible if the worldly positions of the grandfathers had been exchanged, and the temperaments remained the same. But your account continues to stack the deck against the lawyer grandfather. What you present as a discovery of equality continues to hold inside it a second persona's (no doubt emotionally justified) bias against a hurtful, emotionally crippled presence.

  • But if you can see the piece as it might have been on the other side of letting go, it would have fallen naturally into being about how the supposed dichotomy of money and meaning keeps people from looking for, and finding, ways to make money doing what they believe is not only meaningful to them, but to those around them whom they value and respect. The false dichotomy between money and meaning releases this "lawyer" we are becoming from the requirement to solve both the problem of doing good and the problem of doing well. Whether from the perspective of the "hired hand," or of the "respectable" professional man exclusively concerned with the welfare of his old father in the Vale of Taunton and his three daughters at home, the lawyer succeeds in numbing the pain of some truth or another—either that he has neglected his commitment to his loved ones or that she has elided her commitment to the attainment of justice—by dissociation, by splitting aspects and personalities from one another, in a damaging way.

  • The dissociation and its consequences hover round your essay, perhaps as a consequence of the psychic distress in which your grandfather found himself. But not acknowledged, which I think is the beginning of seeing with sufficient clarity to transcend. That, in my opinion, is how to begin to lift your "plague of disenchantment."

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r6 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:15:33 - IanSullivan
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