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A Lawyer at a Career Crossroads

Let’s begin this post with a quote on the notion of work from author Matthew Fox.

“The problem is that our civilization has settled for such a narrow and restrictive definition of work that we are trying to pour human energy into a skinny little funnel that in turn pours into a puny little machine called ‘industry’ or jobs available... those who have jobs are so squeezed in the process of getting them that when they do finally arrive at the workplace they have lost their sense of wonder and amazement and their capacity for grief. Their inner life has been squeezed out of them; their work is too small. They have no energy to create good work and thereby help others join the work world and thus participate in the Great Work.” Page 301, The Reinvention of Work, 1993.

Hopefully, you read a previous ALPS 411 blog article, How Consistent Is Your Present Situation With Your Goals and Values. And, hopefully, you took the time to complete the Evaluating Your Present Situation exercise. If so, as I wrote, you not only were able to examine your present position based on YOUR standards but learned what the primary (and even non-negotiable) criteria for you in considering a position in the future.

That exercise was all about numbers. What might an evaluation look like in prose? Here is a fictional self-analysis by a not-so-unique law firm associate named Ruth.

Ruth, like her biblical namesake, found herself a long way from home, “weeping in the alien corn.” Ruth always wanted to be a lawyer. Her father was a sole practitioner in a small town in upstate New York; he reminded her of the lawyer in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” After her mother died, she used to cook dinner while he sat at the kitchen table, telling her about his cases. In college she was on the debating team, majored in political science, and was captain of a very competitive basketball team. She spent her junior year in Italy, where she became interested in architecture. However, she stuck to her goal and applied to the best law schools, which she defined as the ones with the highest rating in the annual US News and World Report.

Despite high expectations, she hated law school from day one and almost left after the first month. She worked for her father the first summer and he convinced her to return, reminding her of the substantial debt already incurred for the first year, of her long standing ambition, and the prestige of the school. The second year was not as terrible — boredom replaced antipathy as her worst experience, and some of the classes were actually involving, especially those that had “Law and ...” in their titles.

She signed up for on-campus interviews, even though she had no interest in any of the firms or their work, which seemed far removed from her father’s life as a sole practitioner. On the other hand, he seemed very excited by her opportunities. She received one offer and accepted it. The work that summer was uninteresting but relatively easy, and the pay was terrific. When offered a permanent position, she felt relieved that she had received a vote of confidence from the profession and immediately accepted the offer.

During her third year, she took an immigration law clinical course, and, despite having no particular interest in immigration, found it her most satisfying law school experience, spending nearly all her school hours at the clinic.

She took the bar and began working at the firm. Having enjoyed being an advocate, she expressed an interest in litigation and was assigned to work primarily on insurance defense cases.

She has been at the firm now for three years. She works until after seven every night and many weekends, recently billing 190 hours a month. She was relieved to find out that although personal matters are secondary to work requirements, honeymoons were not subject to that rule. Nonetheless, she is beginning to wonder where parenthood fits in; her husband wonders too, for he is a lawyer in a similar firm. While some of her work is challenging, and she takes pride in her research, writing and negotiation skills, she has little interest in the subject matter of the cases. She never got much feedback, and now gets little except assurances that everyone is happy with her. Well, almost everyone; one partner regularly screams at her and often will not allow her the time to attend the in-house training sessions. The old boy atmosphere in the upper reaches of the firm is oppressive, but oddly, she gets along well with most of them and realizes she is in danger of making partner.

As stated, Ruth has little interest in any of her cases. It makes absolutely no difference to her which side wins them. The paper shuffling she sees appears to be a waste of time and money. In fact, she often has only a vague idea what the case is about, usually being assigned but one defined task. She finds no meaning in her work. She is expected to care about matters the partners seem to care about passionately. Perhaps that is why, despite all her diligence, no one — associate, partner, or client — ever shows any appreciation for what she does.

She remembers the time when she took a case for the abused women’s shelter but had to postpone a hearing because a partner demanded she accompany him to a deposition where she was not needed. The atmosphere at the firm is one of little tolerance for such efforts, whereas there is little ambivalence about the importance of billable hours. She found poor solace in reading a quote from former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s observation in the MacCrate Report that the drive for ‘profit-maximization’ has caused modern lawyers to ignore the ‘public aspect’ of the profession, including the obligation to serve the community by doing pro bono work.

While she takes her family obligations quite seriously, some partners view such responsibilities very differently. Late last June, when she returned from visiting her father after emergency surgery, she was berated and screamed at by a partner simply for staying three days although she had neglected none of her work and stayed in constant contact with the office.

Her father is very proud of her. Her husband is supportive but frustrated by her disposition, which ranges from a high of melancholy to a low of despair. They are looking to buy a house, and he reminds her that this might not be a good time to just quit. She has had no success with headhunters, who offer more of the same. She is trying to remember why she became a lawyer. When she can, she takes gourmet cooking classes and consumes far too much of her homework. She often eats alone. Her husband gets home even later than she does.

“Mockingbirds don’t do but one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Chapter 10, Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960.

Ruth was having a terrible time going to sleep. She could not decide whether she should stay at the firm. She agonized over it every day at work and discussed it with her husband every night. Now, he was snoring blissfully at her side. It was not helping her reflections.

She reviewed the exercise found in my previous ALPS 411 article and thought, “My score was a 3.7. I have no intellectual stimulation, I can’t say what’s on my mind, I am not being trained, I don’t have time for my family, and I don’t contribute to the public good. So, big deal! I dislike my job! I am dissatisfied like half the lawyers in this country.”

But she kept thinking about the MacCrate Report and one of the task force’s four fundamental values of the legal profession; i.e., the obligation to take a position where you can develop as a professional and pursue your personal and professional goals. What does it mean to be a professional — a lawyer? Why did she decide back in high school that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and Atticus Finch, the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird?

As true professionals they were autonomous and independent. As sole practitioners, they both could choose to take cases where people were being treated unjustly. Why did Atticus take Tom Robinson’s case despite the obvious negative effects on him and his family? Very simply, as he tells Jem, because “If I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head high in this town and could never tell you to do something again.”

Most important, my father, she thought, a widower like Atticus, was nearly always home for dinner. He was there to protect me and give me advice on how to deal with my many social, educational and other crises. When he told me about his cases, I realized that he was providing me with guidance on how to live a just and moral life.

Both saw the goodness in others and believed in treating everyone with respect and dignity — the poor, the uneducated, blacks, the elderly, the disabled. What has happened to the profession? Why should MacCrate have to state that the lawyer “should accord appropriate dignity and respect to all people with whom one interacts in a professional capacity”? Should parties, witnesses, lawyers, court employees and other persons involved in the legal process, including lawyers working in law firms or in any other setting, expect to be treated otherwise?

Ruth recalled reading an American Survey in the Wall Street Journal which began, “All around them, Americans see a decline in values and morals. They deplore the diminished authority of the four great repositories of their values — religion, the law, schools and families. Yet despite their pessimism, Americans passionately believe in the importance of values... Morals and values are the underpinnings of people’s choices — the reason they get jobs, raise children, vote and don’t rob banks.”

She wondered about what a fundamental value is. She concluded that it is more than a regulation, closer to a commandment, a principle which cannot be violated because to do so would be like killing a mockingbird — a sin? What are her fundamental values?

She read again another of MacCrate’s four fundamental values: “As a member of a profession that bears special responsibility for the quality of justice, a lawyer should be committed to the values of promoting justice, fairness and morality in one’s own daily practice; contributing to the profession’s fulfillment of its responsibility to ensure that adequate legal services are provided to those who cannot afford to pay for them; contributing to the profession’s fulfillment of its responsibility to enhance the capacity of law and legal institutions to do justice.” Atticus would go for that, she thought. I need values that are resistant to compromise and, yes, bribery.

She decided that she had to have an integrated life where she could do what had meaning for her: competently represent people who needed her; treat others and be treated with respect and dignity; and be there for her family.

But her present position required her to violate these principles.

She began to understand what the MacCrate Report meant when it said “a lawyer will not develop as a professional unless the lawyer is in an employment setting where he or she can effectively pursue his or her professional and personal goals.” If you are doing work contrary to your values, you will be miserable. She reread the quote by Richard Bourne on page 19 of Lawful Pursuit, “Know yourself and try to find a position that fits with your interests and your skills. Don’t accept dollars or a title because... society defines these factors as valuable... Be flexible, and if you really hate what you’re doing, leave because life is too short to do otherwise.”

Wistfully, she recalled the scene when Atticus leaves the courtroom. As all the blacks in the packed balcony stand in silence, the Reverend admonishes Jem “Stand up - your father’s passing.” Would they have told “lawyer jokes” that night? She hoped one day she might earn such a tribute. Atticus and her father stood tall and had the self-respect that comes from knowing that they were doing the right thing — making the world a better place and serving the public. One was fictitious, but the other was real. The ideal and the real were not hopelessly different.

She remembered that she used to dance, sing, play basketball, and write poetry, and now she has neither the time nor, worse, the inclination. A huge wave of sadness and determination passed through her, and she thought “I ... am ... a ...mockingbird ... they ... are ... not ... going ... to ...kill ... me” and realized that she had decided to leave the firm. With a long sigh, she rolled over and sank into a deep sleep.

This post originally appeared on ALPS 411 on August 8, 2013 as “A Lawyer at a Career Crossroads: The Story of Ruth.”

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Ron Fox is the principal of Career Planning for Lawyers. He has, for the last thirty years, worked with dissatisfied lawyers, lawyers in transition and law students providing them with advice and guidance on how to find positions consistent with their professional goals and personal values. Much of his practice involves helping dissatisfied corporate litigators learn they are not trapped, have options and can overcome the lack of self-worth and self-confidence caused by the failings of legal education. His goal is to help lawyers take control over their careers and their lives and to gain autonomy, a sense of meaning, integrity, satisfaction and self-respect.

In addition to the entries here in his ALPS 411 blog, other posts can be found on his Lawyer Satisfaction Blog, Twitter (@ronfox), and at Solo Practice University.

Ron’s full bio can be read here.

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