Law in Contemporary Society

A lawyer worth being

-- By MikeCarson - 08 Jun 2017

I will be back in the fall, but with a lot of work left to figure out how to train myself to be a lawyer worth becoming. For me, that will mean learning how to decide for myself what it means for work in law to be worthwhile.

I. Working for a wage seemed simple

When I came to law school, it wasn't in search of a calling. I was here for job training. I came from a past life on political campaigns, work that was physically and emotionally draining. I never knew how to work campaigns without committing heart-and-soul to the job, even when I wouldn't vote for my own candidate under other circumstances. Politics always spoke to the tribal instinct in me—I am more loyal by nature than idealistic, even in a profession where my loyalties were often dictated by the practical realities of my main employers' politics or my career. Over time, it took its toll. I felt like I was giving too much of myself, and for too little.

Law, then, seemed straightforward. I was a good worker to the point of being almost a glutton for punishment—no political staffer worth a damn is scared of an 80-hour workweek. Three years of schooling and a degree would mean I could simply go to work for a firm, and be done elbowing my way through a field where employment ties get shaken up like an Etch-a-Sketch nearly every six months, and nepotism and political backbiting are stock in trade. Life as a wage-earner sounded simple.

II. Work worth committing to

I am almost loathe to admit the extent to which this course made that idea crumble for me. The problem, of course, is that it's a stupid idea, and prone to crumbling under even the gentlest of examination. I'm task-oriented and immensely gratified by doing good work. I like winning, and I like being good at what I do. I came into law school thinking hazily that would be enough—that I could take whatever assignments someone would give, and simply enjoy doing the work well. But thinking a lot about that in the context of my past work life (both for this class, and away from it), it just wouldn't hold up. I can't live from one job to the next. I need to choose the work I do, and commit myself to it because it's worth my time and effort.

I think now that, in effect, I was just looking to sell my loyalties wholesale rather than retail. It made me uncomfortable to commit so much of my time and energy to people who didn't necessarily appreciate or deserve it. But rather than find a way not to do that, I looked for a way to roll it all into one sale (and admittedly, to get a better price).

III. Learning what a good lawyer is

The part I liked best about my last job was that, at least in the last few years, I was good enough that I didn't have to answer to anyone but the candidate themselves. I never watched a clock or punched a timecard—instead, I worked hard and for long hours because I knew exactly what needed to get done. This course was the only place in law school where I ever heard anyone talked about building a practice, and that talk reminded me of how liberating it was to work hard on what I knew was important without permission. I want to learn how to be that kind of lawyer—one good enough to have enough to be busy without being spoon-fed my work, and free enough (professionally and personally) to follow the job where it needs to go.

Becoming that will require confidence in my skills—a confidence that wouldn't be merited today. Without having spend any real time around lawyers, it's hard for me to really know for certain today what being a good lawyer even looks like. To know what kind of lawyer I want to be, I need to learn to recognize a good one. I can't see a way to do that besides being around lawyers practicing law. I want to learn to see real skill in practice in others and myself. I necessarily think that means plying the trade and working with others. In office hours, we discussed clinics as one positive way to learn about the real work. It also means finding a way to have substantive conversations with lawyers who work every day in the field, away from academia. My first job is to build a mental image of what a lawyer worth being looks like.

IV. Finding moral guides

But competence alone isn't sufficient. We talked in class about building both professional skills and a professional network in law school. By nature, I am better at building the first than the second—one “skill” I need to develop, in fact, is how to ask for help. We talked about mentors, and for me I think that may be most important—more than anything, I need to recruit people help me find moral and personal guideposts for making my career in law.

That doesn't mean I'm convinced my practice needs to be focused on any one particular fight for justice. I merely want my career to be intentional, and my professional choice the result of considered decision about what is worth spending my time on. I need to meet more people who are not only successful, but who can articulate what success looks like, and how they arrived at a definition.

I know right and wrong, but I haven't put that together yet into a framework to know what's important to me, and what fights are worth it. In the second year of law school, my priority is to find mentors who have made those decisions already. I need to make sure that when it comes time to practice, I'll make a conscious choice about what work is worth doing.

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r2 - 08 Jun 2017 - 06:18:35 - MikeCarson
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