Law Letters: Conversations From an Attorney Career Forum

I am writing this in a suburban garden, wondering about "TAB" in San Francisco and John, much nearer in Boston, and yet no more vivid than all those who have recently joined the discussions in our Career Discussion Forum for attorneys. When my partner and I started Find Satisfaction in the Law, we had no way of predicting what direction the forum would take. Now, as the participants multiply, we are moved by the candid entries and by the mutually supportive exchanges between people of differing ages and experience.

In their conversations they seem to have responded to the very name of this site, wondering whether it is really a meaningful goal to seek satisfaction in the law. As columnists, our optimism is based on the successful transitions we have observed in our years of career counseling with attorneys. Never less, as realists we emphasize proactive career planning because we assume conditions increasingly hostile to the pursuit of professional satisfaction. Many of the participants in the forum seem to be struggling to preserve a balanced view of their prospects and those of the profession, a struggle that becomes especially poignant when young people appeal to them for advice on whether to seek a career in the law. Here, we'll try to summarize our reactions to these conversations.

Glass Half Empty/Glass Half Full

Long ago, William James distinguished between two philosophical types, the "tender minded and the tough minded." The tender minded leans toward idealism, principals and a belief in free will; the tough minded toward facts, pessimism and determinism. As James rightly points out, the ordinary person never lives consistently within either point of view, but "varyingly, in one plausible compartment of it or another to suit the temptations of successive hours." Hence, "everything of course is determined and yet of course our wills are free; a sort of free will determinism is the true philosophy. The evil of the parts is understandable, but the whole can't be evil, so practical pessimism may be combined with metaphysical optimism, and so forth..." Or, in the words of A Tale of Two Cities, it is always "the best of times and the worst of times." It is not possible to live, especially as a lawyer, without making allowances of this kind. Despite occasional extremes of tender or tough mindedness, the participants in our forum try to take the middle ground. The most bitter are clearly disappointed idealists, and the optimists well acquainted with frustration.

All are trying to answer the question of another James, who wonders in the forum whether it is asking too much to enter the law hoping "to do some good, make a secure life style for family, and be happy." It is a measure of the current status of the professions that these outcomes no longer seem assured. Practical pessimism among the recent grads focuses on the prospects for a secure life style. "TAB" points out the irony of support personnel and temps making more than many starting attorneys. It is tempting to ask, if lawyers were a crop, would the ABA be inclined to destroy them to keep prices elevated? For many, the end result of present trends may be very much the same. There was a time, of course, when the disparities between salaries in the different sectors of the profession were not as great. The New York firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore doubled their starting salary in 1964, which at the time did not much exceed that of a young prosecutor, thus sparking the escalation of large firm salaries that continued through the eighties. There is no doubt that since then, the bar has become more stratified, with a greater gap between the haves and the have-nots.

"TAB" also rightly points out that expectations of the good life in other professions have also slipped in the last decade, and that neither lawyers nor doctors can anticipate economic security to match that of their predecessors. Our (the columnists') exhortations to reorder priorities and adjust life styles to support important values must fall on deaf ears when there is little to trade off for the opportunity to do meaningful work. TAB is succinct when she says that paying one's bills is also a noble pursuit. Anyone who disagrees is insufficiently aware of the heroics summoned by millions to meet mundane obligations. Scarcity of legal jobs, or beginning salaries that will not support a modest individual life style in our big cities, much less a family's, do not deflate grandiose dreams; they create bitter disappointments.

While it is true that the estate of doctors is much reduced from what they consider balmier times, the plight of the young physician graduating from a non-elite institution differs from that of a newly minted lawyer of similar background. Residents' salaries in medicine do not reach the low water mark of some legal salaries and, more importantly, the core practice of medicine in all settings appears to be more homogenous than the equivalent in the law. The most modest medical practitioners are more able than lawyers to feel a satisfying, fundamental identity with all who follow the profession. (We would like to hear from both doctors and lawyers on this proposition.) The ratio between doing good and doing well in the law seems somehow more problematic than in medicine.

Not All Bad News

Problematic, but not impossible, as we have seen. "E.S.," in I Like this Stuff; But Why So Much? seems to have achieved a balance which many aspire to. He likes his work in a smaller firm in a smaller city, which, while intellectually varied and challenging, allows him to do "some good" through a "mix of business and real people law" along with community service. He wonders if he is a rare breed of lawyer in liking his work but wanting to do less of it. In fact, surveys of lawyers in private practice have long documented that the conflict between work and personal life is a growing source of dissatisfaction in the profession. (See the most recent, in the National Law Journal, where big firm partners, otherwise happy with their work, are nearly unanimous in complaining about the impact on private life.)

In the forum, the dialogue between tough and tender minded on E.S.'s dilemma tries to clarify what is within the control of the individual lawyer seeking a more balanced life. One correspondent, often pessimistic about lawyers' values, reveals his underlying idealism in his insistence that the firm's partners should be capable of subordinating income to other values. Yet, in a sense he remains firmly realistic in that there is indeed no practical way to offset the pressures of law firm economics other than to change the culture which prioritizes profitability. (Theoretically, two cultures could co-exist. A few years ago, a Lansing law firm satirically instituted a "New York" track and a "Lansing track," with hours and salary to match.)

ES argues that reduced hours would facilitate the careful preparation he prefers, leaving more time for non-billable contributions to the firm. One wonders, however, whether care expands to fill the time available. Is there something inherent in legal practice, and perhaps all professions, which requires devotion to work at the expense of other important life activities? The families of professionals have complained about this problem well before the current life-styles crises. The difference between then and now is not just a matter of growing hours, but growing expectations. Young professionals want the work/family balance prior generations were resigned to never achieving.

Some claim this was rationalization then, and even more so now. Even within the large firms, it is debated whether all the hours are rationally required, or whether as home life atrophies, lawyers transfer their domestic allegiance to work, where they begin to feel more "at home." A current book urges just this hypothesis, claiming that the boundaries between work and home are becoming fuzzier, and that life for many managers seems more manageable at work. Women lawyers, used to juggling many roles and responsibilities, have found much use of time at work to be inefficient, and claim that the macho culture of long hours is simply an case of "my time sheet is bigger than yours." Just the same, it may be that top speed in any profession requires higher rpms and fewer pauses at stop lights. This applies to all employment settings, not just big firms. While writing this, I overheard a radio interview with the wife of the husband and wife team which has successfully sued the tobacco companies on the behalf of airline flight attendants. She describes her two year old's assessment of their work: "I hate court!"

Thinking Outside the Firm

The attorney seeking work/family balance enters into three way negotiations with his family and his employer. All three parties have to embrace the same social contract, and recognize similar values. If the firm wants big profits, the home a big car, and the lawyer a balanced life, then the negotiations can come to grief. And what if the firm is struggling for survival and the children for college funding?

This said, there are clearly settings outside of private practice -- in house counsel and government, for example, where the pressures peculiar to private practice do not prevail, even when long hours are occasionally required. Working for a single client, in the public or private sectors, is a very different experience. For sure, neither public nor corporate life is a sinecure these days, but both permit a certain flexibility and autonomy.

And what if one is driven to seek non-legal jobs, not by disenchantment with legal practice, but by necessity? Is the education all for nought? Is it as if a young physician were forced to give up medicine and never have a use for her hard-won knowledge? Surely everyone has a different threshold of necessity: "John" resents starting salaries of $33,000, which would look good to some beginning teachers and social workers (careers for which "TAB" says she may be suited, Lord help her). TAB herself cannot afford a $24,000 salary in San Francisco with a long commute. Everyone's economic situation differs, and debt burdens distort all decisions. However, it is conceivable that some legal jobs, even at that salary, could be intrinsically exciting enough, and sufficiently valuable as credentials, to warrant taking them for a period of time.

However, "John" describes with savage wit a temporary legal job which sounds like a description of child labor out of Dickens; it is hard to see how this job might be preferable to a number of non-legal alternatives. "TAB," in her communications job in San Francisco, seems to have found, on balance, a better life out of the law, and achieved a kind of peace that allows her to continue to think well of the law. She says that the "job market has caused all of us to take a deeper look at who we really are, not just as attorneys, but as people." The result seems to have been the discovery of resources and capacities of which she was unaware, and which have done more than just compensate her for her disappointments. Indeed, her detour seems to have helped her keep her hopes alive, enabling her to affirm the value of legal training to the young aspirants who wrote to the forum.

Maybe "TAB" is rationalizing; maybe she is a paragon of "tender mindedness," but she does seem capable of keeping one eye cocked on the harsher realities. The hopeful note in her observations stems from her apparent conviction that a legal education is not only a worthwhile life achievement, but hones skills and values transferable to other kinds of employment which, if they do not provide satisfaction in the law, at least provide it through the law. "Tim" seconds the point, when he states that "There are certain advantages to having a legal education that can be applied to life even if one never formally practices law. I went to law school and I do not practice law. Going to law school does not seem to have hurt me." For instance, his legal training allows him to correct the impression, conveyed to a young reader, that lawyers would keep confidences shared by Hitler. As "TAB" says, it is important to touch upon both the idealistic as well as practical aspects of being a lawyer." Quoting from "Desiderata" will make us appear terminally tender-minded, but we do believe that a life in the law, "despite its sham, drudgery and broken dreams," is a career worth pursuing: "however humble, it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time." We hope this site will help our readers attain and hold on to that possession.

Courtesy of Mark Byers.