The voice over the phone was breathless with excitement. “I’m so happy,” she said, “I can’t believe I’m a lawyer!” She was calling to say she had just made the transition from a large firm to a small firm that represented primarily women and children in family law matters. She reported a deep satisfaction with her work. I found myself thinking of this client and others, such as the one who asked if I knew of a “happy lawyer”. She was not thinking about “happy” as in “having fun” because I would then have to say that I have not known many such lawyers nor would I ever expect to be one.
The sense of fun, if I ever had it, ended the day in 1970 when I took on the representation of a tenants’ association in a public housing project in my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts, and began to learn how and to whom the legal profession distributes legal services in this country. For most of that decade I was involved in efforts to deliver legal services to individuals with low and middle income—legal clinics, lawyer referral programs, divorce mediation, group legal services, etc. The reality today is still that very few individuals in society can afford a lawyer for personal plight issues such as family, education, health, insurance, social security, medicare, employment, discrimination, environmental injury, housing, small business and consumer matters. Every day we read, see and hear mind-numbing stories of injustice in the inner cities and elsewhere. Not much fun there.
My work as a career adviser for lawyers is not fun. My wife asked me the other day why I still get angry when the subject of law schools comes up. I told her that she should have the opportunity to listen to the stories that I have heard on a daily basis for the last thirty years, from law students in the 80’s and lawyers from the early 90’s up to the present time. They entered law school with confidence, talent, smarts, dreams of justice and high hopes and left three years later with few legal skills, limited awareness of the values of the profession, little knowledge of the wide range of options they had in the legal community, and not a clue about how to look for work and remove a mountain of debt. They were transformed into cynical individuals with a false, narrowed perspective of their choices and a dramatically reduced sense of self-worth. The long-term effect of such an experience is that it usually takes from seven to twelve years before lawyers, especially those in large law firms, contact me asking for advice about how to make a transition.
BUT if that client was asking whether I know any lawyers who feel that they are doing something meaningful with their lives – lawyers who derive satisfaction because they believe that through their efforts they have, to some extent, made a difference – I respond that I have read about or known thousands in the 50 years I have been in the profession. What is more, I have been deeply gratified and found immense satisfaction in helping some of them. I work with lawyers who are, to varying degrees, dissatisfied with their present situation. But I look forward to going to work each day and having conversations with remarkable individuals, both those who are clients and those who call to inquire about what I do. When I have helped lawyers make transitions to positions where they are going to use their training in a comfortable environment where they can help people they feel need their help in their preferred areas of the law and still have the flexibility to spend time with family and friends, I feel as though I have done something worthwhile.
Research shows that three quarters of all entering law students are seeking intellectual challenge or social service over financial reward. What concerns me is the sense that graduates have that it is hopelessly difficult to find meaningful positions in and around the law. I strongly disagree. If you want to represent middle income people in the areas of family law, personal injury, criminal defense, small business representation, home buying, employee rights, consumer protection, products liability, all you need to do is become aware of the breadth of options the lawyer has and then make a commitment to taking a position only if it is consistent with your personal values and professional goals.
Thousands of lawyers have found satisfaction simply by helping someone being treated unfairly, someone who has been wrongly denied some basic human right or service. Lawyers have felt good about standing up for disabled children, abused women, wrongfully evicted tenants, children who have ingested lead paint, AIDS patients denied health benefits, individuals denied social security and other benefits, homeowners whose land was polluted, and victims of police brutality.
If your goal is being this kind of “happy lawyer”, don’t lose hope. Learn the skills you need, become aware of the values of the legal profession, learn about your options (especially in small firms and solo practice), follow the principles of career planning, incur as little debt as possible attending law school, and you too should soon be able to say, “I’m so satisfied, I know now why I became a lawyer.”
Ron Fox is the principal of Career Planning for Lawyers. He has, for the last thirty years, worked with dissatisfied lawyers, lawyers in transition and law students providing them with advice and guidance on how to find positions consistent with their professional goals and personal values. Much of his practice involves helping dissatisfied corporate litigators learn they are not trapped, have options and can overcome the lack of self-worth and self-confidence caused by the failings of legal education. His goal is to help lawyers take control over their careers and their lives and to gain autonomy, a sense of meaning, integrity, satisfaction and self-respect.
After graduating from Harvard Law School and serving in the US Army JAG, he took a position with a corporate law firm and immediately realized that he was in the wrong place. This was his first encounter, a personal one, with the issue of career planning.
Over the next 15 years he practiced law in an insurance company, with a solo practitioner, and in a firm he founded that represented low and middle-income people. He also became one of the first lawyers in the country to offer divorce mediation, served on the board of legal services programs, created lawyer referral programs, and started an association of legal clinics.
Because of his experience with small firms and public interest organizations, he was hired in 1984 to be an adviser to those students at Harvard Law School not interested in working for large corporate law firms. For the next five years he provided individual guidance to hundreds of intelligent, creative, self-sufficient students sadly watching most of them being funneled by the law school to large law firms because the law school did not prepare them to practice law, did not make them aware of their options and focused on on-campus interviewing.
Since leaving that position in 1989, in addition to providing individual advice, he has consulted to and presented workshops for over 25 law schools and bar associations such as the ABA Public Service Division’s “Town Meeting”; co-facilitated a retreat for law school deans on Legal Education Reform at the Fetzer Institute; authored “Lawful Pursuit: Careers in Public Interest Law” published by the ABA; and contributed articles to LexisHub (see listing at end of article) for new attorneys.