Law in Contemporary Society

A Working Relationship

-- By NithinKumar

Lawyers manage a range of professional relationships with fellow attorneys, clients, judges and a variety of other people. Yet, while all lawyers manage these types of relationships, the nature and quality of these relationships differ vastly depending on the area of the law and the type of practice. Having yet to enter the professional world, I want to give some thought to what healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships in the law look like, and how this should inform my decision in choosing a career.

No Connection, No Justice

While working at the San Francisco D.A.'s office, I learned that the relationship between the prosecutor and the defense attorney was an important one. By this channel of communication, issues could be dealt with in ways that might prove impossible during actual court proceedings. However, because so much of their jobs depended on their relationship with the prosecutor, public defenders rarely placed much importance on building meaningful relationships with their clients.

This lack of client connection had disturbing consequences that I witnessed first-hand. Once, when a prosecutor was especially angry with a public defender for not answering her phone calls, she pushed the court to delay his clients' next hearing to inconvenience his schedule. I remember stealing glances at the defendant who had no idea he was going to sit in jail for an extra week because his lawyer pissed of my boss. I was ashamed to have played a role in a legal system that could allow such an outrageous injustice. But I was even more outraged by the public defender's nonchalant attitude toward his client's suffering. His lack of relationship with his client ensured that he would never contemplate actually spending an extra week in the county jail. Neither was he going to debase himself by groveling for the prosecutor's forgiveness. The public defender did not extend the courtesy of treating his client like a human being, but everyone acted like he was doing his job. In my opinion, a career should not be spent pretending to help people. Maintaining a genuine connection with clients ensures that attorneys remain faithful to their obligation to advocate for their clients.

A similar disconnect occurs between lawyers and clients in large law firms. The average law firm associate has little or no personal connection with his or her client; however, unlike the public defender who can't be bothered to protect his criminal client, law firm associates slave endless hours, vindicating the rights of a clients who they did not choose to represent nor necessarily want to represent. Though I have not walked in their shoes, I doubt that many law firm associates feel personally tied to the interests of their clients. It is important to have a personal stake in the work one does; not only for motivational purposes, but also to feel satisfied with the consequences the work will bring about. Building strong relationships with clients is important not just to ensure adequate representation, but also because it is more satisfying to me to achieve goals that I am personally invested in rather than the goals of a distant client with whom I have no meaningful relationship.

A Place to Grow

While the connection that attorneys build with their clients is certainly a critical one, the relationships that lawyers build with fellow lawyers are invaluable lasting sources of knowledge and guidance. The legal profession has historically taken on the form of an apprenticeship, largely because so much of the law can be learned by watching other experienced lawyers. When considering the area and type of law that I want to practice, it is important to know that I will be able to cultivate meaningful relationships with other lawyers who will be invested in my growth, both as a person and as a lawyer.

A pivotal advantage to attending Columbia Law School is the exceptional faculty that does its best to form personal connections with students. Professors who are invested in their students offer altruistic advice based on sage experience and provide additional opportunities for their students to grow as legal practitioners. Thus, the student-professor relationship can serve as a model of what a healthy relationship should look like. Because I don't see myself going into legal academia, the trick is to find opportunities to build similarly beneficial relationships with lawyers who practice the law.

One of the lessons Professor Moglen tries to convey is that large law firms do not offer opportunities to build beneficial relationships with other lawyers. He warns that EIP is a degrading experience where partners relish the opportunity to humiliate students rather than build relationships with future colleagues. Within the firm, there is no incentive for senior attorneys to commit to seeing younger attorneys succeed. Young associates do not receive the type of well-meaning, friendly nurturing that might help them succeed; rather, they are thrown into a meat-grinder that chews them up and spits them out. Those who survive the institutional lack of meaningful relationships are allowed to stay and eventually offered partnerships. Ultimately, the types of relationships that law firms foster are not healthy, let alone beneficial to a young lawyer such as myself.

An Incomplete Inquiry

I chose to investigate the type of relationships that are built in the legal profession largely because I am disturbed by the utter lack of quality relationships that are promoted by the structure of big law firms. Furthermore, I have become painfully aware that I do not know which areas of the legal profession offer the best opportunities to build strong relationships with others. Certainly, one of my tasks in law school is to further explore this issue. And while I don't have enough information yet to properly consider the types of relationships that a career in government or a small firm or even my own law practice would promote, I have a clear enough picture to understand that large law firms do not offer the best opportunities to build meaningful relationships with clients or with other lawyers.


Webs Webs

r6 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:45 - IanSullivan
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