Being a criminal defense lawyer is a funny thing sometimes. When I look at many of my colleagues, I feel like we live in completely different worlds. Some firms have mascots. Some lawyers put signs up all around the jails saying they guarantee the lowest price around. There’s a guy who does every DUI for a few hundred dollars, a guy with a catchy jingle that constantly plays on Mexican radio stations, and a guy who has a business card with a shark on it. Okay, well maybe two of those guys are same guy, but he’s a hell of a guy. Or so I’ve heard.
It’s strange to look at someone who’s doing something so vastly different from what I do and realize that to almost everyone outside of our narrow little field, we’re the same. Really smart people hire terrible, high-volume lawyers for their criminal cases. The difference between a lawyer who personally works every aspect of your case and a lawyer who farms your case out to an associate carrying a caseload that would make a misdemeanor prosecutor blush isn’t that clear to most people. A lawyer is a lawyer. A person whose career seems as foreign to me as a day-trader or a sales rep looks an awful lot like me to many people.
What does it feel like to stroll into court late and yell your client’s name to the gallery hoping someone responds? How does it feel telling a client the fee she’s paying you is for someone else to do the work? I guess people who do that don’t say they do that, so scratch that question. What is it like to not know the names of your clients and be able to talk to them about the things that matter to them? I don’t really care to know. An acquittal doesn’t mean an awful lot if you don’t know what your client’s going home to. The flip side I guess is that a guilty verdict doesn’t sting as much if you have no clue what your client’s losing.
I was having a beer a few months ago with a lawyer who dominates the criminal law market in a certain jurisdiction. He also has a thriving divorce practice. I admire lawyers who rent office space from him, but all I knew about this guy was that he was supposed to be some kind of model of success. We somehow got on the topic of how the word “zealous” got written out of the ethics rules, and he said he “never got into that zealous representation stuff.” He distinguished himself from many young lawyers who seek his advice. Some of those people he called “young lawyers” were practicing before I was in grade school. “So-and-so gets a client a ten-year deal and the client files a bar complaint. I get the co-defendant twenty and he names his first-born after me.” He also told me about a death penalty case he had before I was born. He joked, “I sure wasn’t zealous, but that poor asshole had a lawyer.” The state didn’t murder the client, luckily.
Occasionally, a different lawyer of roughly the same age and experience as that guy lets me use his office in Phoenix when I need to print something or meet a client who can’t make it out to Chandler. It’s night and day comparing the two of them. The Phoenix lawyer seems to never take vacations, lives modestly, and charges just enough to afford his lifestyle. He’s at the peak of his profession though. For almost every type of Arizona state criminal case, he’s the first person I suggest people call. I can’t link to a website with his info because he has no online presence. For the better part of a century, he’s just been making a living being a really good lawyer. That’s it. But it’s a lot.
It seems to me that the difference between those two lawyers boils down to a difference in their respective goals. For one, the goal is clearly making money, and law is a way to do that. For the other, the path is the goal. The practice of law is its own reward. In reality, every lawyer probably seeks a mix of both, but it’s easy to see which goal a lawyer favors.
The idea of using a profession like law as a means to an end instead of the end itself causes a lot of problems for me. I hate participating in any system where people can too easily confuse luck with skill. I try to set goals that I view as genuinely indicative of hard work and talent. Money doesn’t seem like one of those, so it isn’t my primary goal. I could win the lottery. I could create a giant Ponzi scheme. The government could redistribute fortunes right to me if I just convinced the right people it was a good idea.
A worthy goal for me is one that cannot be attained too easily, so if I can luck into it, whether it’s a business goal or a personal goal, the process probably won’t keep my interest. Maybe I’m just protecting my ego by participating in only those things where experience and knowledge and hard work will shield me from the uncertainty of every new upstart overtaking my position, but I don’t think it’s a bad way of looking at things. If business dries up, I could be broke in no time. If the goal is being a skilled professional, after I’ve achieved that, nobody can take that away. I still need money, but making it the primary focus would make my career feel awfully empty.
The lawyers with their names on the side of a bus probably don’t share my philosophy on goals. The goal for them is clearly money. Many lawyers feel that way. That’s why salespeople regularly contact my office suggesting unethical fee-splitting agreements. I wouldn’t have to spend hours each week playing ethics whack-a-mole with my email inbox if desperate lawyers weren’t buying into all of the SEO and illegal referral scams disbarred lawyers keep forcing down our throats.
If the goal is making a cheap widget, then fine. Make the cheapest widget, market it, and sell a bunch of it. The world needs cheap widgets. If the goal is to join a profession where lives hang in the balance, then the analysis changes. The practice of law is its own reward, but it’s also its own punishment. Money may come, or it may not. You’ll be middle class if you’re good. If you aren’t, then there’s always an MBA. The last thing the world in general, or this profession in particular, needs is more greedy lawyers who’d just as soon do something else if the money was there.