The voice over the phone was breathless with excitement. “I'm so happy,” she said, “I can't believe I'm a lawyer!” She was calling to say she had just made the transition from a large firm to a small firm that represented primarily women and children in family law matters. She reported a deep satisfaction with her work. I found myself thinking of this client and others, such as the one who asked if I knew of a “happy lawyer”. She was not thinking about “happy” as in “having fun” because I would then have to say that I have not known many such lawyers nor would I ever expect to be one.
The sense of fun, if I ever had it, ended the day in 1970 when I took on the representation of a tenants’ association in a public housing project in my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts, and began to learn how and to whom the legal profession distributes legal services in this country. For most of that decade I was involved in efforts to deliver legal services to individuals with low and middle income—legal clinics, lawyer referral programs, divorce mediation, group legal services, etc. The reality today is still that very few individuals in society can afford a lawyer for personal plight issues such as family, education, health, insurance, social security, medicare, employment, discrimination, environmental injury, housing, small business and consumer matters. Every day we read, see and hear mind-numbing stories of injustice in the inner cities and elsewhere. Not much fun there.
My work as a career adviser for lawyers is not fun. My wife asked me the other day why I still get angry when the subject of law schools comes up. I told her that she should have the opportunity to listen to the stories that I have heard on a daily basis for the last thirty years, from law students in the 80’s and lawyers from the early 90’s up to the present time. They entered law school with confidence, talent, smarts, dreams of justice and high hopes and left three years later with few legal skills, limited awareness of the values of the profession, little knowledge of the wide range of options they had in the legal community, and not a clue about how to look for work and remove a mountain of debt. They were transformed into cynical individuals with a false, narrowed perspective of their choices and a dramatically reduced sense of self-worth. The long-term effect of such an experience is that it usually takes from seven to twelve years before lawyers, especially those in large law firms, contact me asking for advice about how to make a transition.
BUT if that client was asking whether I know any lawyers who feel that they are doing something meaningful with their lives – lawyers who derive satisfaction because they believe that through their efforts they have, to some extent, made a difference – I respond that I have read about or known thousands in the 50 years I have been in the profession. What is more, I have been deeply gratified and found immense satisfaction in helping some of them. I work with lawyers who are, to varying degrees, dissatisfied with their present situation. But I look forward to going to work each day and having conversations with remarkable individuals, both those who are clients and those who call to inquire about what I do. When I have helped lawyers make transitions to positions where they are going to use their training in a comfortable environment where they can help people they feel need their help in their preferred areas of the law and still have the flexibility to spend time with family and friends, I feel as though I have done something worthwhile.
Research shows that three quarters of all entering law students are seeking intellectual challenge or social service over financial reward. What concerns me is the sense that graduates have that it is hopelessly difficult to find meaningful positions in and around the law. I strongly disagree. If you want to represent middle income people in the areas of family law, personal injury, criminal defense, small business representation, home buying, employee rights, consumer protection, products liability, all you need to do is become aware of the breadth of options the lawyer has and then make a commitment to taking a position only if it is consistent with your personal values and professional goals.
Thousands of lawyers have found satisfaction simply by helping someone being treated unfairly, someone who has been wrongly denied some basic human right or service. Lawyers have felt good about standing up for disabled children, abused women, wrongfully evicted tenants, children who have ingested lead paint, AIDS patients denied health benefits, individuals denied social security and other benefits, homeowners whose land was polluted, and victims of police brutality.
If your goal is being this kind of “happy lawyer”, don’t lose hope. Learn the skills you need, become aware of the values of the legal profession, learn about your options (especially in small firms and solo practice), follow the principles of career planning, incur as little debt as possible attending law school, and you too should soon be able to say, “I'm so satisfied, I know now why I became a lawyer.”