Get a Life! Advice for Living an Honorable and Reasonably Happy Life as an Attorney
The Bencher—July/August 2018
By Professor Stephen D. Easton
At some point during the first year of law school, each of us came to the realization that the career we had chosen is not an easy one. From that point until the day we no longer practice law, all of us wrestle with the challenges of managing a difficult career and a life outside the law.
There is, of course, no simple solution. Those looking for a magic wand need read no further, because this article certainly does not contain one. Instead, it contains a few suggestions that might help you manage life in arguably the most challenging of all professions. In making these suggestions, I will attempt to be realistic. After fifteen years in a full-time practice and another six studying the practice of law as an instructor of both professional responsibility and trial practice, I realize that a legal career requires substantial devotion of time, talent, and other resources. Also, our profession deals with conflict, so a certain amount of stress is inherent in our work.
But that stress must be managed. Thus, I offer the following suggestions for you to consider with the hope that they might help you find some measure of satisfaction and happiness, both inside and away from the practice of law.
Determine What is Worth Fighting About, and Concede Everything Else
Ours is a profession that is immersed in conflict. If, to paraphrase Rodney King, everyone got along, there would be no need for lawyers. Instead, when people (or corporations, government agencies, unions, or other entities) do not get along, they hire us to manage and resolve their conflicts.
Most of the time, we are working opposite another lawyer who is managing the same conflict, but with diametrically contrasting interests to those of our client. In such a work environment, there is an almost limitless number of potential conflicts, just with opposing counsel. Every discovery request, every scheduling matter, and every request from or to opposing counsel carries the potential for a fight.
Naturally, our profession attracts those of us who, to at least some extent, enjoy conflict. Nonetheless, our thirst for conflict is not unlimited. Keeping the conflict in our practice to a manageable level is, therefore, critical to enjoying our work.
The key is to separate those matters that are worth fighting about from those that are not worth a fight. When you are litigating against another lawyer who understands this, the practice of law can be quite enjoyable, at least within the confines of that particular case. If either lawyer makes the mistake of wanting to fight about everything, the case becomes a nightmare.
Here is the key: Most of the things that could be fought over are just not worth a fight. To help you identify the matters that are not worthy of a fight, I suggest the following rule: If opposing counsel makes a reasonable request and you cannot identify a significant client interest that would be sacrificed in granting the request, grant it.
Though this suggestion will, of course, be helpful to your opposing counsel in keeping him or her out of unnecessary fights, there is another beneficiary of this policy—you. Every fight requires an investment of your time and talent. Save that time and talent for the matters worthy of a fight.
Certainly there are many such matters. You can adopt the policy that I have suggested comfortable in the knowledge that there will be plenty of matters left for you to fight about. About important matters, do not concede. Fight. And fight hard. That is why you worked so hard to get your license to practice law—to fight for justice.
But so many matters are not about “justice” and, therefore, are not worthy of a fight. One large category of such matters is civil discovery. We are in serious danger of ruining the practice of law by spending far too much time and energy fighting about discovery. Please! Let’s make reasonable discovery requests and provide reasonable responses to those requests. We must find a way to start trusting each other in discovery matters, so that we can quit fighting about them and devote our attention to more important matters.
Choose Your Friends Carefully
Although you cannot avoid all serious ethical dilemmas and other unpleasant work situations through good planning, foresight is important. Choose your employer and, to the extent possible, your clients carefully. Your life as a lawyer will be considerably less stressful if you work in an office with other lawyers that value adherence to ethical principles, along with financial and other successes. Also, your life as a lawyer will be less stressful if you represent clients who want to win through ethical means, not by cheating.
Before entering into an employment relationship with a firm or other entity or into an attorney-client relationship with a new client, beware that this relationship could culminate in a nightmare ethical dilemma or an unpleasant work situation. You can often reduce, though certainly not eliminate, the possibility of ethical dilemmas and other problems by first conducting research about the potential employer and client.
Find Work You Enjoy, Then Enjoy Your Work
Why are so many lawyers dissatisfied with their jobs? Although a multitude of reasons come to mind, I will identify an important one—too many lawyers take jobs that they do not want. With the many different types of work that we can do with a law license, this is unfortunate and unnecessary.
With the wide variety of jobs available to lawyers, why do so many of us accept jobs we hate? One of the primary reasons is money. Too many lawyers try to maximize their incomes, instead of their happiness. Also, perhaps without realizing it, we seem to believe that those with higher incomes are automatically doing more important work. In our profession, the high-paying jobs, which are almost exclusively at large law firms in major cities, seem the most attractive. Surely those high-paying, prestigious jobs are the most important, right?
Not necessarily. There is nothing wrong with working in a large firm, if you have determined that working for this type of firm is what will make you the happiest. But work can be a drudgery if your passion lies elsewhere. Before you take a job with a law firm, large or small, or any other type of law office, I urge you to ask yourself this question: Six months from now, when I am driving, riding, walking, or biking to work in the morning, will I be looking forward to getting there, or dreading it? Of course, regardless of what job you accept, there will be occasional days when you dread going to work. If you expect those days to become the norm, though, do not take that job.
Too many of us went to law school with dreams about what we would do with a law license, then tossed those dreams aside to chase the highest paying job available. I am not suggesting that you should be inflexible and closed to new possibilities. Replacing one dream for another is perfectly acceptable. But do not drop a dream for a paycheck, regardless of its size.
Of course, you should not expect every day to be wonderful. Every lawyer’s life has its share of tough moments, days, weeks, and months. Therefore, when these tough times arise, you should attempt to endure them, at least for a while. On the other hand, if your job regularly makes you unhappy, look for a new one, even if it pays less.
Once you find yourself in a job you enjoy, remember that you enjoy it. This task is just as important, but far easier, than getting that enjoyable job in the first place. Every job, legal or not, has unpleasant aspects. The key to continuing to enjoy a good legal job is recognizing that those unpleasant aspects are simply the price you pay for the pleasure of having a good job. Concentrate on why you like your job. If you let yourself focus on the negative aspects of any job, even a good one, you will no longer be able to remember why you liked that job in the first place.
Make Time for Life and for Love
Although we are focusing on your life as a lawyer, do not let the practice of law completely take over your life. It is perhaps true in all professions that no one looks back from his or her deathbed and says “I wish I had spent more time at the office,” but we lawyers are particularly prone to spending too much time working and later regretting this failure to balance work and family.
Why do lawyers have this propensity? First, for us, there is always more that can be done. Successful lawyers realize the importance of preparation and hard work. No matter how much you prepare, it is always possible to prepare more.
Second, on top of the constant pressure to work harder, which is certainly not unique to our profession, many lawyers must manage the particular pressure of the billable hour. In any practice where income is largely or wholly built upon billable hours, pressure to work more will always exist.
You have done the math, like everyone else. Based upon your salary and bonus rates, you know how much you can earn in a given time period by working and billing that work. If you bill $150 per hour and take home a third of that at the end of the year, figuring in your salary and bonuses, you know that you can earn $50 for every hour you bill.
Even as a first-year associate, you were savvy enough to figure out your effective earning rate per hour, and you have updated the calculation as your career has progressed. This is a good piece of information for you to have, but it is also dangerous. As long as there is billable work to be done, you will find it impossible to ignore the “cost” of not doing that work.
Assume you are considering taking one of your children to a baseball game or a concert. The alternative is to stay at the office and complete some billable work that evening. “I sure would like to spend the evening with Tracy,” you say to yourself, “but I could get in at least five billable hours if I just stay at work. Five times $50 is $250. Can I really afford to give up $250 with all the bills that are piling up at home?”
This question plagues every attorney whose compensation is tied to billings. My plea to you is that, when faced with the choice between family and work, at least a significant number of the times, you say, “I am spending the evening with Tracy.”
I am not suggesting that you can always expect to answer the question that way. If you expect to always answer the question in favor of your family, you should find a career outside the law, because lawyers work long hours.
What I am saying instead is that sometimes you must be willing to turn down income, and perhaps even career advancement, in favor of spending time with the people you love. Although this may seem obvious, it is not easy to accomplish. The economic and other pressures of the practice of law have caused far too many lawyers to decide against spending time with family too many times.
Although these pressures are most extreme and direct for those whose compensation is tied to billings, other lawyers are not exempt from similar pressures. Prosecutors, public defenders, and other government attorneys earn promotions by putting in extra time. Even law professors feel the pressure to write more law review articles and spend more time preparing for class. In almost any legal career, there will be pressure to spend more time at the office. Sometimes you must give in to that pressure, but sometimes you should resist it.
We lawyers are given many gifts. As is often the case for beneficiaries of largess, we sometimes forget how much we have been given. Allow me to quickly list just a few of the things others have given you. First, your parents and other loved ones sacrificed so that you could receive twenty years of education. Second, much, if not all, of that education was subsidized by taxpayers. Third, as a lawyer, you are a member of the only profession to which an entire branch of government is devoted. Think of it: courthouses, judges, clerks, bailiffs, jurors, and many other resources, all taxpayer-funded. Although citizens of this country may not like us as a group, they provide us with the infrastructure that makes our jobs possible.
So give something back. Not because you have to. Because you should. It is undignified to take without giving in return. Moreover, give because you can. You have skills that can be very valuable to the community. Finally, give because it feels good.
Perhaps the best place to start is to provide pro bono legal services to the poor. In addition, attorneys serve their communities by sitting on boards of charitable organizations and offering their legal skills and advice without compensation; sacrificing income to run for office because they have unique skills for drafting legislation, advocating on behalf of constituencies, and resolving disputes; accepting low-paying legal jobs that help those who would otherwise go without legal services; and volunteering to assist public interest groups. There are countless ways for you to offer your valuable combination of intellect, education, advocacy, conflict resolution, and logic skills. Find one or, better yet, several.
While service is on your mind, let me offer one specific suggestion. Before the end of your legal career, make sure you have been someone’s Atticus Finch. At least once in your career, represent an unpopular client even though you will not make a dime (and may, in fact, lose income); even though your partners will complain about it; even though your other clients will be concerned that you are not paying adequate attention to them; and even though the judge will be irate that you are wasting his or her time.
When you end your career, that one case will mean more to you than any of the others, regardless of whether you “win” or simply spend every ounce of energy you can muster trying to win and nevertheless fail. There is no higher use for a law license than for the person who holds it to fight against all odds, and perhaps even against all common sense, for justice.
Although the lawyer’s life is not an easy one, it can certainly be fulfilling. A lawyer who works to make both his or her life and the lives of others better can find much satisfaction from a legal career.
There are two questions you should ask about your career:
First—has the law license you once worked so hard to earn made your life a richer experience?
Second—are you using that law license to make your part of the world a better place?
If your honest answer to either question is “no,” it is time to start making some changes in your career and your life. If you can honestly answer “yes” to both questions, your life as a lawyer is a success. u
Stephen D. Easton is the William T. Schwartz Professor of Law at the University of Wyoming College of Law in Laramie, Wyoming. He is a member of the Ewing T. Kerr AIC and the 2004 recipient of the American Inns of Court Warren E. Burger Prize.
Note: This article is based upon five of the ten suggestions in Professor Stephen D. Easton’s full-length essay “My Last Lecture: Unsolicited Advice for Future and Current Lawyers”, 56 South Carolina Law Review 229 (2004), which was the winner of the first American Inns of Court Warren E. Burger Prize. It was also previously published in the March/April 2005 issue of The Bencher.
Portions of this shorter version are copied from, or paraphrase, the original essay. Those interested in further exploring the ideas outlined here, along with several related suggestions for practicing attorneys, are encouraged to review the original full-length essay and its footnotes on our website at https://home.innsofcourt.org/EastonEssay