Lawyers as a group tend to be dissatisfied. They’re dissatisfied with the work they’re doing. They’re dissatisfied with the money they’re making. Clients are frustrating, courts are frustrating, and the practice of law isn’t what they thought it would be. Why?
The truth is that the work is great. It’s intellectually challenging. Maybe not if you’re shuffling one client after another through an assembly line, but if you’re litigating cases and going to trial when appropriate, it’s everything any bright-eyed law student could ever hope for. It’s an intellectual feast.
The money is also great. Even with law school debt, bar exam debt, business-starting debt, and whatever personal baggage you bring in, your time is still worth an enormous amount of money. Good luck getting whatever 0.1 of your hourly rate is with a single phone call in any other profession. Good luck finding another entry level market where people lucky enough to get jobs whine about starting salaries that are closer to six figures than to four.
Admittedly, clients can be tough. But when I waited tables, customers were mean to me too. I also played next to and under the baton of many a petty tyrant when I was a musician. Even the jobs I didn’t take seriously, the ones I never let under my skin because I knew I’d be doing something else soon, had their downs. That’s life.
Trying to understand and deal with stress as a lawyer, I’ve found it primarily stems from a sense of knowing I’ve done what’s right and seeing the people around me fail to notice. As a waiter, we’d grab a beer after a shift and lament the unhappy customers who had no clue about anything. The guy who yelled at me because his steak tartare was underdone and the guy who demanded to speak to the manager because the bottle of Stuart Cellars 1998 he ordered wasn’t “white enough” were easy to deal with because they were morons. Everyone who knew a thing or two about anything agreed they were morons.
In law, it’s different. My clients sometimes want the impossible. I can’t just shrug it off and make fun of them at the end of a long day because they are the whole reason I’m doing this job in the first place. Even more problematic is the fact the judges who get it wrong have the same power as the judges who get it right. Practicing law is like opening that nice 1998 Zinfandel in court, having it sent back by the prosecutor because it doesn’t look like the Sutter Home White Zin he’s used to, and having your manager fire you because everyone knows it shouldn’t be red.
With art, the creation itself is inherently beautiful. It’s as innovative or as inspired if it’s burned after the premiere as it is if it launches the composer to fame and fortune. A legal genius whose brilliant briefs accomplish nothing for his clients is a different story.
In law school, they made us read about various grandiose theories about what the law was. Was it something to be discovered, like the laws of physics? Or was it simply whatever the judge in a particular case thought it was? Those starry-eyed law students who embraced the former theory have probably drunk themselves into a coma by now if they ever took the time to practice law. I never struggled to understand why the professors with some practical experience under their belt smiled wryly while offering less-cynical explanations politely elucidating the latter.
No matter how right you are, there’s some judge capable of getting it wrong. There’s some appellate judge or panel of judges capable of getting it just as wrong or figuring out some way to justify the mistake. You may be right, but it doesn’t matter. The law is what they say it is. Maybe it really isn’t, but tell that to your client, the only person who matters to you. The highest courts typically don’t concern themselves with correcting errors because their role is to create law. Few clients sitting alone in cold cell are going to appreciate that. They won’t appreciate you much more.
When I look for the source of my stress, that’s usually what I find. There’s something I believe in and someone with no skin in the game disagreeing with me because they like authority. The people charged with making it right get it wrong, and it stands. As the voice for the downtrodden, do you consume yourself with righting a single wrong without legal authority to do so, or do you move on when it’s hopeless? As a caring human being, I feel the need fight until everything is right in every instance. As a lawyer and a small business owner, I have to move on sooner or later. It’s the growing body of un-righted wrongs without a remedy that make it toughest to persevere.
More than anything, that’s why I write this blog. It’s public therapy that’s exposed me to a world of more eloquent people, many of whom appear on my blogroll. They fight the same good fight. Maybe one day we’ll change enough minds to make a real difference. If we do, it’ll remove the primary source of stress in this job. We’ll all be better off as a result, lawyer or not.