Friday, September 07, 2007


A friend told me the other day that he had been compiling a series of suggestions that he would give to a 3rd year law student who was about to enter the legal profession. He got me to think about the question, so I decided to take a shot at the same task. As loyal readers of this blog know, I don’t typically talk about the law here (I try to separate my profession from my avocation). So now that I’m creating an exception to that principle, let me say that what follows does not represent the views of my employer, the U.S. Department of Justice. These are just my personal thoughts, which you can take or leave as you please.

1. Your credibility should be one of your trademark characteristics. There are lawyers, even “successful” lawyers, who survive without it because they trade on fear instead. But those lawyers are scumbags, and besides, their margin for error is very, very small.

By the way: to lie and to “merely” mislead are synonyms. If a lawyer tells you otherwise, that’s a person who lacks credibility.

2. As a young attorney, find two mentors. One should excel with “details”; the other with the “big picture.” Many lawyers are willing to swim in the weeds of their cases, but their judgment on big picture matters leaves a bit to be desired. Other good lawyers have excellent horse sense and a strong overall grasp of the issues, but they act like they’re above learning all the details of their cases. The truly excellent lawyers, however, excel both in their command of the details and their understanding of the big picture.

3. A legal career can be a great way to make a living – assuming that it doesn’t become the sole vessel for your intellectual or creative juices. Some legal jobs require so many hours of toil that you have little time for anything else other than relaxation. I’d avoid those jobs like the plague.

4. Training in law is a wonderful background for a lifelong interest in politics. To me, that’s one of the best bi-products of a law degree. Whether or not we run for elected office, we ought never to leave the political sphere altogether. Work on campaigns, work on the Hill, start your own blog … just get involved and stay involved.

As a lawyer, you will likely develop an instinctive appreciation for public policy issues. If our democracy is to function, people like you are going to have to step up and actively fulfill your duties as a citizen.

5. Find an area of the law about which you can be passionate. Some people are such overachievers that they can seemingly generate passion about anything, but that’s not the passion I’m talking about. I’m talking about visceral, honest-to-God passion, the kind that stems from doing something that grows organically from your upbringing and/or your intellectual interests. If you’re not authentically passionate about what you do, the results will be apparent in your work.

6. So what legal activities do you enjoy doing the most? Writing? Speaking? Figure that out, and then make that part of your avocation, not just your vocation. Lawyers deal with human drama, and they deal with language. That’s why so many of us get involved in non-legal writing, or in public speaking on non-legal topics. Stake out your own territory and go for it!

7. You can make a ton of money practicing law if you avoid public interest law jobs and government service. But before deciding on a life of extreme affluence, you might want to stop for a second and consider a life in public service. Those of us who have taken that path haven’t done so because we hate money, believe me. I, personally, would love to win Powerball. And yet I also love working on behalf of causes that matter to me. I love not having to convince myself that my client has the better argument, even if it doesn’t. In fact, I love not having to zealously advocate my client’s interests if those interests and the interests of justice don’t coincide. In other words, I love getting to use my discretion and to work, above all else, for the public good.

The pay is definitely worse in public service, but the hours are probably better. And when it’s all said and done, you might be a whole lot more satisfied with what you’ve accomplished.

8. Every profession has its occupational hazards. Lawyers tend to become even colder, more judgmental and more argumentative than they were when they entered law school. Watch these tendencies. We’re often as clueless about things as everyone else, but we convince ourselves that we’re right simply because we’re more facile with logic or rhetoric. Don’t confuse that facility with wisdom. And don’t confuse coldness with strength of character. People with the best characters are warm and loving, no matter what their profession might be.

9. Realize the absurdity of law school. It is designed essentially to prepare you to do appellate litigation (or become a professor). The fact is, though, that most of us who practice law rarely do appellate litigation. If you’re finding that law school doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea, worry not. You might find a number of ways to use a legal degree that have little to do with the stuff you’re learning in law school.

For example, in law school, your life involves remembering the holdings of zillions of cases and only a few basic facts relevant to each case. In district court litigation, by contrast, your job mostly involves learning the zillions of facts relevant to the particular cases on which you’re working, and “the law” remains important but secondary.

The best thing about a law degree is the wide variety of ways in which it can be used after you graduate. I can’t think of too many degrees that are more flexible.

10. The doctors have their Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. Can you imagine a lawyer having the guts to adopt that creed for herself? Everyone expects that we will do all sorts of harm. We’ll help a rapist-client get off on a loophole and then rape again; we’ll help a polluter-client figure out a way around the law so that he can pollute to his heart’s content; we’ll advise another client to soak her husband for all that he’s worth if we think she can get away with it in court. And in doing so, we’ll so often behave in a boorish, arrogant manner.

Maybe I’m a bit non-traditional here, but I’ve always applied the “do not harm” mantra to my own practice. I don’t ever want to be engaged in uncivil, dishonest or otherwise unethical behavior, and whenever possible, I want to work for causes I believe in. With that philosophy, I might not have as much impact as someone who is always looking for the highest profile case and willing to do whatever it takes to win. But then again, I’m not looking to maximize potential impact. I’m only looking to do a fair amount of good, and absolutely no harm.

I guess you can tell by now that my goals as a lawyer are: to have a life that allows me to pursue interests outside of the law as well as a make an impact in my profession; to become sufficiently expert at the craft of lawyering so that I can be effective in my job; to use my legal degree to work for the cause of justice; and, most importantly, to be able to look back when my career is over with a modicum of satisfaction.

I encourage you to enunciate your own goals and your own “creed” before entering the profession. If, after two or three years of practicing law, you feel like you’ve lost your soul, don’t hesitate to dust off the ol’ resume. Like I said, there are plenty of things to do with a law degree.

11. Don’t play games with your opposing counsel in an attempt to try to get him/her to commit malpractice. That’s called bad karma.

(P.S. -- I'll be out of town through the end of this weekend, so if you send me comments to this blog post, they won't be posted until next week. Sorry for the inconvenience.)

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