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The Myth of No Happy Lawyers

The Myth of No Happy Lawyers

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Published by christine_mccall_1
A rebuttal to the current wave of complaints from lawyers and law students about the privations and abuses of their professional lives.
A rebuttal to the current wave of complaints from lawyers and law students about the privations and abuses of their professional lives.

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Published by: christine_mccall_1 on Jan 23, 2011
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01/23/2011

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THE MYTH OF NO HAPPY LAWYERS
As an avid reader of all things law and legal-practice related, I've grownsad and weary by the recent torrent of regrets and misgivings about lawposted everywhere by so many attorneys and law students. Many of theseconfessions describe work situations akin to indentured servitude, with vividand heart-wrenching tales of broken marriages, untended children, abandonedfriendships and interests, and barren interior lives. These tales seem to gohand-in-hand with a proliferation of anguished work-life balance seminars andpainful group inquisitions about “having it all.”Steeling myself against inevitable charges of arrogance and smugness, Iam moved to suggest that the issue shouldn't be framed as the difficulty of “having it all.” The issue is having “enough,” and the challenge of that issuefor each of us is to define “enough” in ways that make sense to ourselves andto our intimates who are stuck with our choices.  There are lots of happy lawyers who have “enough.” I know many of them; I am one of them. This year marks my 37th year as an attorney and Ihave loved every minute of it. At the same time, I've enjoyed a good marriage,child-rearing twice over, close friendships, individual and group hobbies,travel, community involvement, religious practice, and plenty of “down-time”— “me” time — usually spent curled up with a good book or rolling on thefloor with dogs. I would do it all again, exactly the same way, in a heart-beat.I was able to sustain a family and personal life while practicing lawbecause I was employed as a government lawyer. First as a prosecutor incriminal court, later as a litigator specializing in municipal employment andconstruction law, I worked 8:30 to 4:30, five days a week, with a month o
 
vacation each year and two additional weeks off to compensate for the rareoccurrences of overtime during the year. And my hours and days were flexible.I'll indulge in just one telling example: I worked from home, with no objectionsor disapproval from colleagues, management or clients, when the dog hadsurgery and needed help in the first weeks getting up and out into the yardevery couple of hours.I saw every school play and play-off game, sewed Halloween costumes,hosted sports-team parties, and knew personally every family in theneighborhood. At the same time, I argued in my State's highest courts, wrotebriefs that were quoted in published opinions, developed recognized expertisein class actions, and served as hands-on general counsel to certain municipaldepartments and public officials for almost two decades. If there was anexperience to be had in my arena, I had it and was caused to believe I did wellat it. Yet, I had a life, a “real” life, a personal and family and community life.Of course, I did not make $700 thousand a year. I started at $15 (I wasn'tworth even that at the time) and retired 25 years later at just over $100. But,on my salary – doubled when I married a government lawyer – I owned myown home after just four years of practice, indulged my passions for sports-cars and fashion, saw the world, and funded two kids through college with noloans. I had (and will have for the rest of my life) amazing health coverage. Ithink I earned “enough.”I earned a fixed-amount pension, for which I made mandatory but smallcontributions throughout my employment, and which kicked in when I was 55(and will continue past my death for the lifetime of a surviving spouse). I knowmyself, and I know that even with a much higher yield from a private practiceincome, I never would have accumulated so much toward retirement as thegovernment required.
 
I take on faith that my choice to spend my career in government musthave meant some significant trade-offs, but I have no idea what those mighthave been. Many of my cases, in the last 20 years after I left criminalprosecution, were against “Big Law” (regional Los Angeles version), so it can’tbe that I missed out on the intellectual challenges and rigor that I might havefound billing 2000 hours a year. And, over the course of a decade, I was leadcounsel in a collection of complex multi-jurisdictional cases with potentialexposure in excess of $300 million, so it doesn’t seem likely to me that Imissed out on opportunities to affirm my competence in significant work. I worked with interesting well-behaved people, many of whom are stillmy friends, now six years out and away. I never saw a temper tantrum or melt-down; I never heard of an attorney being “dressed down.” The culture waspremised not just on civility but on collegiality, and on an abiding collectivesense of shared mission.In the last 15 years of my government career, my two closest colleaguesand I formed a “practice group,” which enabled us to select cases and projectsand run them as best we knew how. That worked so well that, once we were allretired, we re-constituted as a small niche-practice firm which we run on themodel of our prior practice group. We are having the time of our lives, nowapproaching our second year and profitable since our second month inbusiness. Twenty plus years of working closely together, each of us bringingdifferent but valuable – and valued – strengths to our shared undertakings,hasn't burned us out – on law or on each other. I am still chronically knockedout by the art that one of my partners routinely brings to written work – fromthe most innocuous demand letter to a potentially precedent-setting appellatebrief. And I have yet to become accustomed to the extraordinary talent thatmy other partner brings to bear in negotiations. As for me, they think I am agifted oral advocate, an unorthodox and creative strategist, and a force to bereckoned with in adversarial matters. I know this because they so often tell me

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