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Nobody expects the head of the American Bar Association to be ambivalent about the joys of the law. But Karen Mathis is a true believer. As she sees things, it’s not just a waste of law firm training when young attorneys quickly leave the profession. It’s not just a waste of lawyers’ time and money when the pressures of big-firm life drive them to abandon the law. It’s a waste of their chance to do fruitful work in the service of great goals. And she’s been given just one year as ABA chief to start to change their minds. Sitting in the association’s D.C. office, Mathis leans forward. She takes a deep breath. Look at what happens with smart college graduates, the articulate ones who are also good writers with top grades, she begins. Often the main advice they hear is to go to law school. Not that they’ll have to actually practice law, they’re told. But law school is expensive, and young people often come out saddled with thousands of dollars of debt. To bring in the kind of money that will dig them out of those financial holes, they opt for high-salary, high-stress jobs with the big law firms. The firms spend roughly $1 million a pop to train each new associate, Mathis says. In return, they demand 80-hour weeks and often mind-numbingly dull work. The result? Mathis says, “By the time you’ve paid off your debt, you hate the law.” To better understand this downward spiral, the ABA is tracking more than 5,000 lawyers in their first 10 years out of law school. The first report, called After the JD, looks at graduates two and three years out of school. It reveals that a whopping 44 percent of them plan to change jobs within two years. Young people today are searching for “a better balance,” says Mathis, 56. They want to do pro bono work; they want more time outside the office to do things that have nothing to do with law. What’s “really cool,” she adds, is that the push is coming not just from women wanting to start a family — both men and women are demanding a different approach to work. But she also warns that young attorneys have to think before they leap into a big-firm job. “We all need to talk about this,” says the ABA president. IN THE BULLY PULPIT Mathis seems to savor the bully pulpit she temporarily occupies. “You can’t underestimate the impact of the ABA when it makes recommendations,” she says. A business, commercial, and estate planning partner in the Denver office of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, she is just the third woman to lead the ABA. This was not, perhaps, her original plan. Growing up in a large Roman Catholic family in Rhode Island, Mathis was taught that “the highest thing in life was to serve.” For women, that translated into becoming a teacher, a nurse, or a nun. But Mathis, the first in her family to go to law school, sees hers as a serving profession, too. And that belief, she adds, “has sustained me in 35 years of being a lawyer.” Two initiatives she began after taking office look for ways to harness lawyers’ talents to help others. One focuses on young people; the other reaches out to retired attorneys. Even though Mathis has no children of her own, she’s close to her 13 nieces and nephews. She has also helped the Girl Scouts and worked on teen pregnancy issues in her home state of Colorado. Now she’s bringing her expanded professional clout to bear through her Youth at Risk initiative. Lawyers can “connect the dots between educators, social workers, government, the judiciary,” she says. “We have a lot we could give back.” Among other things, the ABA is looking for ways to help teens in foster care. What happens to those who “age out” of the system when they turn 18? “That’s one of the highest at-risk groups, and nobody’s there” to help them, says Mathis. Related efforts focus on adolescent girls of color in the juvenile-justice system. Many of them have been physically or sexually abused, and housing these troubled girls in detention centers is just a form of “warehousing,” she says. Mathis is back in her pulpit, drawing a straight line from at-risk teens to cracks in the foundation of society. “This is what we expect to build a representative democracy on?” she exclaims. The second initiative is called the Second Season of Service, a program aimed at the great numbers of baby-boomer lawyers who will be retiring in the next few years and will have some time on their hands. The ABA can pull together information to offer these people a centralized location to look for nonprofit, pro bono, or volunteer work. “It could add up to as many as two million lawyer-hours a year,” says Mathis. It could be a kind of Peace Corps using legal talent. NO TIME FOR SLEEP These are big ideas, which is one reason why Mathis has slept in her own bed in Denver only seven times since last July. And why she normally manages to get only four or five hours of sleep each night. “If I could sleep less, I would,” she says. At the same time, she realizes there’s a touch of irony in the fact that she’s not necessarily setting the kind of example that will draw people into the law. She wants young women and men to know that her level of intensity is not the only way to approach life as a lawyer. Young lawyers have to manage their expectations about what they want and can get from their working life, she says. You don’t reach the top in your first season. “I was a 28-year overnight wonder,” she says. “One of the things I tell them is that you’ve got a responsibility here too,” she says, her tone switching from evangelical to maternal. “You can make the decision for whom you’re going to work. Maybe you’re not going to make $165,000.” Mathis is late to catch a plane to Boston, and ABA staffers are starting to look nervous, but she has more to say. “I tell them, �You’re going to have a long life. You can do everything, but you can’t do it all at once.’ They want it all quickly. They maybe forget those of us who took 30 years to get there.” But she isn’t beyond providing a little extra incentive for that journey. The first of her brood of nieces and nephews to become a lawyer, she says, gets her cherished luxury car, an Alfa Romeo “ragtop.” It’s a reminder that there are perks to such a demanding lifestyle — if you’re willing to put in the work and make the sacrifices. And with that, she’s out the door, behind schedule, hoping for an easy ride to the airport. It’s on to the next project in the next place. The next stop on the road she’s chosen.
Balancing Act, a column exploring the lives of women in the law, appears in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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