People-Talk

Very recently in a large meeting of outside lawyers and in-house counsel, I mentioned that I was writing a piece on how lawyers are pretty interesting after all.  The room burst out laughing, amid comments like “world’s shortest article.”

It is true that Big Law lawyers aren’t high on most people’s bucket list of “people I’d like to meet.”  Ranked somewhere between accountants and engineers on the “fascinating” scale, we are just not the folks people gravitate toward at cocktail parties.

Not only does this “boring” reputation offend me as a self-proclaimed interesting person, but is it really true? The lawyers with whom I work also include a former professional singer/songwriter, a sommelier, and an international paid reviewer of hotels and restaurants.  And that doesn’t even count spouses; if we added those we would have an Oscar winning actress, a nightclub singer and many professional artists. Expand the circle beyond firm lawyers with whom I work and we have a professional tennis player, a New York Times best-selling novelist and a maker of critically acclaimed wines. Quite the conversation pieces if you ask me.

Why the disconnect between reputation and reality?  For one thing, Big Law attracts the risk averse-high achievers with varying interests who want to make a nice living but aren’t so fond of failure. If you do well in college and on the LSAT you can pretty much count on a well-paying law firm job, at least for five or six years. That reality makes Big Law a great fallback career. So when success in our dream job starts to fall somewhere between uncertain and a pipe dream, law becomes an attractive second option.  That’s one reason we have so many former something or others at law firms.

Yet it goes deeper than that.  While I can’t cite empirical data to back this up I bet more of these former something or others go into law than, say accounting or engineering. And that’s because law is interesting beyond its practical value in helping clients with one or another legal problem. It provides the only nationwide moral language, cutting across religion and ideology to bind everyone from the inner cities to the mansions in Beverly Hills. It permeates every aspect of life, from the county courts where we go to fight traffic tickets to the Oval Office, from where 25 lawyers have led our country. It provides stage upon stage for the performers within us to have their outlets in courts, conference rooms and pulpits. And it gives us innumerable opportunities to use the people skills we developed in other performance-oriented professions.

It is this combination of providing a safe and interesting career that has resulted in law firms becoming home to people of varied backgrounds and experiences. It is certainly true in my case. When my budding music career started to seem as illusory as winning the lottery, law became the obvious choice to channel an interest in politics, religion and entertaining. It hasn’t failed me since.

So next time you walk past that lawyer standing alone at a cocktail party, hold your laughter and consider turning around. It might turn out to be the most interesting conversation you have that evening.

Anand Agneshwar co-chairs the products liability litigation practice group at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer.  He represents pharmaceutical and consumer product companies as national, strategic, trial, and appellate counsel in products liability litigation and related litigation. Contact him at anand.agneshwar@apks.com.