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Find Satisfaction in the Law: Happy Lawyers

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 tax firm which serviced family businesses. As time went on, she reported a deep satisfaction with her work, but as the usual thorny challenges of our profession mounted, the euphoria subsided.

I found myself thinking of this client as I reviewed recent postings to the forum which accompanies this column. When JLE asks if anyone knows a "happy lawyer", I assume she is 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. The reality today is still that very few individuals in society can afford a lawyer for personal plight issues -- family, education, health, 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 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 fifteen years. They entered law school with confidence, talents, 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 range of options for a career, not a clue about how to look for work and 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 evidenced by our realization that it usually takes from nine to twelve years before lawyers walk in our door. So, observing all of this is not fun.

BUT if JLE is asking whether I know of any lawyers who feel that they are doing something meaningful with their lives, lawyers who derive satisfaction because they believe that through their efforts the world may be a bit better, I respond that I have read about or known thousands in the 37 years I have been in the profession. What is more, I have been deeply gratified to have helped some of these people. I work with lawyers who are to varying degrees dissatisfied with their present situation. But I look forward to going to work each day -- to responding to the questions of clients and those who call to ask what we do. When I have helped lawyers make transitions to positions where they are going to use their training to help people they want to help in areas of the law that appeal to them, I feel as though I have done something meaningful.

Finding Meaningful Positions

The thread of the recent messages that most deeply concerns me is the sense that it is hopelessly difficult to find meaningful positions in and around the law. I strongly disagree (unless you want to be an associate in a firm of 200 lawyers where your chances are probably less than 1 in a 1000). 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 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, victims of police brutality.

After all, something must account for the fact that the majority of lawyers still report satisfaction in their work despite the frustrations and difficulties that afflict the profession. Research on lawyer dissatisfaction shows that negative, deteriorating working conditions, in the form of long hours, little control over assignments and the like, are responsible for discouragement with the profession. The presence of positive work variables, such as the presence of intellectual challenge, can and do outweigh the negative. This is simply to say that we can put up with a lot when work is aligned with our deepest values. At least a third of those entering law school say they want to work in large or medium sized firms, but ultimately these goals will be viable only if they can find meaningful roles in those settings; and, past a certain point, meaningful does not imply remunerative. The same research shows that three quarters of all entering law students are seeking intellectual challenge or social service over financial reward. The options for finding these satisfactions are greater than they realize.

If your goal is being this kind of "happy lawyer", there is no reason you can't attain it. I find it hard to believe that you can't. Take the Career Options Exercise in Through the Looking Glass -What Are Your Options the fifth article in the Find Satisfaction in the Law series. Write to the Forum and tell us what you want and what you have done so far and we will work together to help you find a position consistent with your hopes and your vision. Then you can say, "I'm so satisfied, I know now why I am a lawyer."

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