Certainly, when I was a boy, people liked to believe that lawyers were kind of pillars of goodness of the likes of Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
Today I found out a client died over the weekend. I was at his house about two weeks ago to do a will signing. He had just gotten out of the hospital, but seemed pretty healthy. This morning, as soon as the office opened, the phone rang. It was his wife, telling me he died.
Because I’m not a monster, I immediately expressed my condolences. Once we got off the phone, I checked the fire safe, making sure his will was in it. Seeing it there, and seeing it was the original he gave us for safekeeping, I breathed a sigh of relief.
If we had the will, chances were the widow would use us for the estate. But that meant I’d probably have to go to the funeral Wednesday, which…well, to be frank, I got other shit to do.
I’m a monster.
Well, no, not really. I’m not even that jaded and cynical. I liked this client, he was a nice old guy. We got along. But at the end of the day, he was a client and I was his lawyer, and while it’s sad that he died I can’t spend too long pondering the meaning of that. For his family it’s a devastating day, and I’ll do everything I can to help once I’m retained for the estate. For me, however, it’s just Monday.
That’s a little fucked up, isn’t it?
“. . . [S]tand beside me in court, so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul.”
-The Lawyer’s Prayer to St. Thomas More
The sad truth of practicing law is every other person you meet is having the worst day of their lives. Nobody calls a lawyer for a good thing. They’re calling because they were arrested, or because their sister swindled them out of money, or because they’ve been horribly injured, or because they need to get their kids back from the state. It’s a shitty truth, but it’s a truth. When you practice law representing people, not companies, you gotta learn quick how to be objective, and sometimes even a little cold.
Otherwise you burn out. I know guys who came into this being true believers. Truth, justice, and the American way. They wanted to make a difference, and they became legal aid lawyers, public defenders, or the guy on the corner cutting his rates. They took on every case like a crusader going after a noble cause. Their clients were their lives. But a few years of dealing with other people’s misery takes a toll. Most of those guys don’t practice anymore, the heartache of it was just too much.
On the other end of the spectrum is the cynical bastard. There are no emergencies in his world. It’s business, cold and hard facts and arguments, and nothing more. The only moral compass is the one that puts money in the bank, because these guys are legal mercenaries. Doesn’t matter how reprehensible the case is or how it turns out, at the end of the day they’re going home with no more in the way of worry than they had driving in that morning. Their personal problems arising from their clients are entirely the result of getting the invoice paid, and nothing more. These guys tend to hang on for a while, but they’re the most miserable people to hang around because you leave any meeting with them feeling like you need to scrub with steel wool for several hours in the shower.
Somewhere in between is the normal lawyer, the guy who does his job, and knows that while he may do some bad in the world, he also does some good. As Johnny Cash famously said, this is the guy who “walks the line” between the crusader and the jaded prick. He remembers that people are actually people, not “defendants” or “plaintiffs,” and tries not to do as much harm as he could while still getting the best result possible for his client.
“[Lawyers] take up other men’s burdens and by our efforts we make possible the peaceful life of men in a peaceful state”
-John W. Davis
Too much recently, I’ve found myself drifting into the second camp. I’ve sat at my desk grumbling about invoices not being paid. I’ve proudly said that no matter what the outcome of a case is, at the end of the day I’m going home and pouring a glass of whiskey. I’ve been sympathetic with a client, and the second they left my office immediately started mentally thinking about all the ways they’ve fucked themselves. I noticed that, although I started law school wanting to be a crusader and a true believer, I’ve turned more into the bitter, hardened mercenary of the legal world who will defend anything or bring any meritorious claim so long as I’m being paid enough to do it.
It isn’t a pleasant realization. Unfortunately, it’s how it is in the work-a-day world of a legal professional. We develop a shell around ourselves, separating work from home, and our clients from ourselves. We have a sick sense of humor. We laugh at things other people find disgusting or heartbreaking. We do that because it’s how we keep moving forward with our work and our day, and how we separate ourselves from being the guy who just forced a small, family owned business into bankruptcy over an unpaid bill, or the man who stood behind the sheriff as a family got put out on the street. I’m not heartless, it’s just a role I play for 60+ hours a week.
It does take a toll, however. Every now and again I think about all the great things I was going to do with a law license, all the wrongs that I planned on righting. Normally I do this as I’m drafting an argument on why the disabled veteran who’s struggling to pay his bills is actually taking bread out of my corporate client’s employees’ mouths and should be rolled out onto the street, wheelchair and all. When that happens, when I find myself drifting a little too far too the dark side, when I laugh a little too hard at a situation or crack one too many jokes, I take a step back and look through my prospective client contacts and find someone who desperately needs a lawyer, but can’t afford one on some simple matter. I take a case for an absurdly low amount and pop into landlord/tenant court to wear my white hat for a bit. I help someone draft adoption papers. I do some good.
And then I go back to doing some bad. Because that’s what pays my bills, and at the end of the day, in my profession – our profession – doing good for your client normally means doing bad to someone else. It’s the nature of the beast, and its an unfortunate reality. And yeah, the day after I stop that family of five from being evicted, I’m going to make a dark joke about a similar family in an identical situation.
Because really, at the end of the day, I’m just the lawyer.