Sunday, April 09, 2006

Are Burnt Out Lawyers Ruining The Profession

Later today, I hope to do some blogosphere posting of interesting things I have seen since Wednesday. Right now however I am intrigued by the above post which questions whether lawyers who are burnt out ruin the profession.

I always felt like the burn outs were dangerous for many of the reasons mentioned in the article. The main reason they hurt us is that their"Give a Damn's busted. It is hard to give a client good service when you just don't care, or believe, in the client, the matter, or the legal system as a whole.

I can't really figure out what the reason for such a high degree of burn out is. I used to think it was about the money and the hours. I now think however, it is more systemic than that. I think it has to do with the difference between what the study of law promises, and what the practice of law delivers.

Too many lawyers thought this was about going into court and fighting for the rights of others, where a team would get together and prove the government had the wrong person. They thought clients would appear out of nowhere, with money, hire them at great rates, pay for the team, and that they could prepare the case and present it all in an hour. Call it the Perry Mason or Ben Matlock syndrome. There is almost no motion practice, discovery fights or even judicial ill temperament. Perry Mason doesn't even face a jury. Even our patron Saint Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" doesn't do much to prepare for trial (on screen at least.) (That is not why he loses however).

Legal work is more than asking tough questions and working on issues of constitutional import. It is filing motions, even in the most mundane petty larceny case. It is giving your client the respect, and courtesy, to believe his story as long as it remains plausible. It is dealing with frustrated judges who are jealous of how much we private counsel earn and who go out of their way to make our lives more difficult. Not to mention stubborn prosecutors who care more about their next elected office than the cases or people they are supposed to serve now. It is dealing with clients who don't pay, or do so grudingly, because they "weren't guilty in the first place" so they shouldn't have to pay to be proven correct. These are not things you usually hear about when lawyers talk about why they became lawyers, but they are among the first things they tell you about when they say why they want to quit. (For a clever joke that might lighten your mood, and make my point, check out Sui Generis, here.)

I have been saying for a long time now, Law is a very difficult and draining profession. You should only enter into it, if you can find the intrinsic beauty of it, its traditions, and its symmetry. You need to understand the Zen of it. Truth is not a goal so much as an occasional byproduct. Equality is the goal. Compromise is inevitable. Black and white turns to shades of gray.

Money should not be one's main motivation for entering any profession. This is especially true of law. The money is rarely guaranteed. I think helping the client who needs you, should be the motivation.

That is not to suggest that feeding, clothing, and housing your family is not very important. It is not even to say that the accoutrement of wealth should be shunned. It is just that ignoring compelling cases because you won't make money on them shatters your belief in the system and in yourself as a player in that system. Yet many attorneys will not follow their hearts. They will turn down that case and other non-lucrative cases in order to chase money. Letting a dream die cannot turn one into a pleasant human being. This in turn fuels burn out and disenfranchisement leading to comments like " Be a Lawyer? Why would you want to do that?" Or the very popular "Don't apply for law school... Go to "B" school, that's where the money is."
These speakers have lost their compass. I am intrigued everyday by what I can do to make the system preform better. I come to work everyday in the hope that my efforts will improve the profession, the world, and the client I am serving (not often in that order of course.)

The "not caring anymore" lawyer leads to sloppy habits: Not filing motions; Racing to turn a client ""state's evidence" before learning he has a defense; Not challenging rulings or witnesses because it might make one unpopular. Systemically that leads to sloppy police work, and lazy prosecutor habits. It results in judicial misconduct as well. In all, not only does our profession suffer, but so does the state of all of our legal lives. They say hurricanes can be effected by the wing flapping of a single butterfly thousands of miles away (it's called the butterfly effect). Imagine what damage one burnt out lawyer does to a justice system.

In a column to come, I will discuss my solutions to lawyer burnout. I would, in the meantime, love to hear from others who face the issue, and hear about their solutions, or even just their problems with burnout. As my friend Blondie's tort professor used to say,"Discuss."
Post a Comment