I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lawyer the last few days. I think I’ve had an unreasonably lofty assumption about the label — that when you are tasked with providing counsel and advice to individuals struggling through difficult and important stages of their lives, you would approach that task with some sort of grandeur or seriousness or dedication. And I think there are some who do apply this sort of weight to the occupation, but clearly there are others.
This week at work, I had a moment with my boss. It was just a moment, so it may be artificial to place much importance on what she said, but the exchange went something like this: I told her that I didn’t know “what kind of lawyer” would give his client information that was exactly 100% wrong and then not even “remember” the name of the person he spoke to on the phone who gave him the information he then misconstrued. And she said “oh, your still young, just wait.”
Again and again, I am finding that the combination of four years of undergraduate plus three years of graduate study of the law plus three months of frantic studying and ethics evaluations is not providing our community with attorneys of which they can be proud, who they can trust. Over and over, I am reading articles about how much law school costs and how the institution is ripping off the people who are paying so much for law school with no hopes of being profitable, and it makes me wonder: who is looking out for the client in that conversation? Does making law school more or less expensive really make legal services better for people who are not providing legal services?
And I don’t think that I am some high-and-mighty attorney. I honestly have no idea what I am doing most of the time, and don’t even consider myself a “real” attorney when I am doing policy work. I just worry that while I am sitting here feeling mystified and intimidated by the responsibility of holding another person’s fate and future and business opportunities and on and on in my hands, and taking that responsibility seriously, there is at least one guy out there who had my supervisor spell her name out on the phone and then promptly forgot what her name was when speaking with his client….who advised his client to purchase a plane ticket to DC when we explained to him that we do all interviews by phone.
When I encounter these sort of folks while seeing my classmates and friends (and myself, in another year) struggling to find meaningful legal work in this job market, it makes me sad.
. . .
I have found myself saying some version of “and I’m an attorney, so” when working with collegiates on financial and/or legal issues. To me, that had some positive meaning about why my advice should be taken seriously. That with my training and empathy and counseling skills, if I’m not getting what they are doing we should stop and take a moment to consider the choice they are making. However, when they still continue to ignore and/or avoid all interactions with these rules, I think it’s time to let the shield go. It’s not my status as an attorney that makes my advice meaningful. Using that label as a defense just obscures the issue. My advice is meaningful because I have evaluated the situation with both compassion, understanding, and special training and knowledge. Being a lawyer doesn’t make me (or you) “good” or “bad.” But I am good, and that is where I should base my value, and that is why my advice should be listened to, even if you choose to go in another direction.
It’s weird how tiny moments like this can fit together to teach you something about yourself, isn’t it?