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On the theory that the best questions are the simplest ones, I asked a wide variety of attorneys in private practice, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a lawyer?” Everyone laughed. Some were delighted, others derisive. One said acidly, “You’re held in such high public esteem.” We can all recite the perceived advantages: the flexibility of a legal career, the possibility of making good money, intellectual challenges, smart colleagues and the satisfaction of a good result. The cons are also familiar: long and unpredictable hours, social ignominy, high stress, tasteless lawyer jokes and aggravating clients and colleagues. Yet many of those I talked with had precisely the opposite view of the usual stereotypes. Take image, for example. Even though lawyers have a broadly negative public image, individual lawyers command respect as educated professionals with a broad body of knowledge and proven achievement, in whatever career they pursue. “The public respect is great, countless lawyer jokes notwithstanding,” says Paul Kiernan, head of the litigation group at the Washington, D.C., office of Holland & Knight. And while lots of lawyers whine about their cranky clients, there are just as many who count their clients as friends. “Lawyers often joke cynically that the only thing wrong with being a lawyer is having clients,” says Eric Bernthal, managing partner at the D.C. office of L.A.’s Latham & Watkins. “I’ve actually found that not to be true, that by and large the relationships that I’ve had with clients over the years have been very gratifying. When you’ve gone to hell and back with somebody, the relationship tends to be deep and sincere, and that can be very gratifying.” What a concept — clients as buddies! And idealism is still alive and well. In some areas of the law, you can actually make a difference, fulfilling the idealistic urges that draw many to a legal career. “Folks who get buildings built or who deal with environmental issues or who argue great constitutional cases — they leave the world in a better condition than it was before,” says Kiernan. This kind of achievement can provide tremendous professional satisfaction, a feeling of truly accomplishing something and being a change agent in the world. Even producing under pressure can be rewarding, according to Bruce Kayle, a partner and member of the executive committee at New York’s Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy: “You can say that the client called me at 6 at night and needed something by 9 in the morning, and the client got what he or she needed, got it on time, and got a good work product.” Some find a freedom in the ad hoc management style of some law firms. “The partnership system is better than corporate employment,” insists a New York intellectual property lawyer. “There’s more security, a chance to be more entrepreneurial, whereas in a corporation it’s more hierarchical. [In a firm] you are still your own boss, you can function autonomously. That’s the best thing.” It is true that law firms offer lots of opportunity to do things without anybody breathing down your neck. But autonomy can be a two-edged sword: Sometimes you’d like to have a little more human contact, rather than being buried in a library or an office, plugging away endlessly on a document. And, of course, if everyone operates independently, a firm can wind up with inefficiency or even chaos. Some lawyers even admit to having a good time. “Some of it is fun,” the New York intellectual property lawyer declares. “I’ve had a bunch of fun cases, I enjoy arguing cases and trying cases. There’s an element of theater involved.” THE DOWNSIDE OK, so there actually are some good things about being a lawyer. But what about the flip side? Take greed, for instance. “The greed of lawyers is the worst part,” fumes one practitioner. “All they care about is the bottom line. The clients get short shrift as a result. Every year we divide up among the partners who gets what, and I’m not yet senior enough to get what I want. Certain people are able to take more than they’re entitled to.” The perception of greed is exacerbated, of course, when the criteria for divvying up the pie is vague and informal instead of being based on solid facts and figures. And there’s a seemingly limitless supply of obnoxious lawyers to deal with. “Some … are jerks — a lot of them are,” says a practitioner. He hates what he calls “the nastiness side to it. There’s no reason for people to be quite as obnoxious as they are. There’s also just too many egos, judges as well as other lawyers, who do things because it gratifies whatever needs they have.” Many older lawyers remember the days when practice was a lot more civil. Nostalgia can be misleading, but everyone has encountered arrogant lawyers who abuse others on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many attorneys — particularly young lawyers — assume that you can’t beat ‘em and so they join in the rude behavior. Each individual can make a difference on this issue: Act civilly, even if another lawyer is acting like a jerk. Another complaint is that the very way lawyers think and react can be frustratingly inside-the-box. “Law attracts noncreative as well as creative types,” D.C. practitioner Kiernan reflects, “and the noncreative ones can make work difficult, expensive, and tedious. The legal mind-set becomes all-encompassing, with the result that all relationships and issues get boiled down to rights and remedies, analysis and options. Lawyers can view interactions in terms of results and vindication of positions. They seem to be less in touch with the spiritual, mystical, and nonrational.” It might be nice if lawyers tried to stretch their minds a little more, thinking less about adversarial procedures and more about actually helping to solve a problem in the most expeditious manner for the client. You might lose some billings in the short run, but in the long run you’ll create more value and reap tons of trust and good will from clients. Another complaint, says Bernthal of Latham & Watkins, is that sometimes lawyers are on the sidelines too much: “I think that there is … sometimes a disappointment that most everything we do is vicarious. Most everything we do is for someone else. While that can be gratifying, I think older lawyers looking back sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t have been exciting and challenging to take on matters for themselves, like running your own business.” Notwithstanding the respect given to individual lawyers, the image of the profession as a whole remains a problem. “Lawyers do have a bad public image,” concedes former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, a partner with Roseland, N.J.’s Carella, Byrne, Bain, Gilfillan, Cecchi, Stewart & Olstein. “I read where this guy was given three wishes by the devil. His third wish was to make all lawyers honest, and the devil says, ‘I can’t do that or I’d be out of business.’ “ What conclusions can we draw after sorting out the pros and cons? One ominous indicator is the pervasive unhappiness in the profession, documented in many surveys and caused largely by long and unpredictable hours, as well as a sense that legal work often lacks meaning. In a 2001 survey of associates by The American Lawyer, it was striking how many said that they would happily trade a major portion of their paycheck to work fewer hours. Often, though, unhappiness in practice may not reflect dissatisfaction with law firm life in general, but with particular colleagues or practices. It also could be a question of size: Some people thrive in large firms, but many flee to smaller firms. Still others find that they prefer a sense of social mission and feel more at home in government or public interest law. Some end up getting out of law altogether and pursuing a different career. If you go the law firm route, it’s well worth it to stop now and then and ask yourself why you wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. Although it sounds simplistic, this process can lead to a profound exploration of fundamental issues. Holly English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Values At Work in Montclair, N.J., which helps organizations build high-performance workplaces. She also writes articles on law and management. She may be reached at [email protected]

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