Feeding Five Thousand On A Lawyer's Song

There was a moment, however fleeting, in Scott Turow's latest novel, Innocent, in which I thought him near perfect. He tip-toed to the very cusp of the reality of what it is to practice law in the private sector. He peered into the abyss.

"Winning appeals was a rarity for a defense lawyer," he writes. "Tooley had been setting up his client for another ten grand for a cert petition to the state supreme court." The lawyer was about to charge a fee, an event almost never portrayed with verisimilitude in fiction.

Turow, omniscient in both point of view and the law's ambiguity, was narrating a scene in which a prisoner was being debriefed by prosecutors. Just for an instant, the calculating machinations of a lawyer setting a fee were revealed. How would Turow render this, what insight could he offer on this difficult and necessary task?

"At last," I thought. "The reality of the practice of law rendered by a master craftsman." But this fleeting glimpse was soon overtaken by the merits of Turow's tale. In a flash, this gritty glimpse of reality was overtaken by plot and character. There are worse fates. A door, opened for an instant, was slammed shut.

I was reminded of this when listening to Scott Simon's interview of Turow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Turow is self-effacing and honest. After the success of Presumed Innocent in the late 1980s, Turow has lived a dream-like life as a lawyer. He has no financial worries. He can do what he likes. He conceded, to Simon, that he doesn't practice law as virtually every other lawyer does -- tethered to a time sheet or a phone in search of next week's payroll. Turow practices law like a fictional character -- without regard to the financial consequences of what it takes to survive.

Despite press reports to the contrary, the economy is still gasping for air. So, too, are many lawyers. I spoke to a lawyer in California not long ago who mentioned that law practices have been dropping like flies in her town. Several offices in her building closed last month. She's had one new client in a month. Things don't seem that bad in Connecticut, but everywhere I go lawyers are shaking their heads: Clients aren't paying their bills. Lawyers, too, know quiet desperation.

Most ink spilled on the matter of how lawyers get paid is directed toward the crisis in indigent defense funding. Case loads are crippling, and the quality of representation suffers. There is revolt among public defenders who will not sacrifice their professional ethics to a society that wants to criminalize everything but refuses to accept financial responsibility for its folly. But few seem to write, and no fictional writers explore, the reality of making a living in the law's private trenches.

From my perspective, I envy public defenders. Sure, they are overworked and asked to perform miracles daily, feeding multitudes with too few loaves, and too little wine. Hell, they have it easy. Overwhelmed as they are, they at least know where their next meal is coming from. On the private side, the work load crushes just as completely, and the demand for the impossible is just as acute. I sat again one night this week with a client urging them to consider something other than suicide. The best I could offer: Hopelessness is itself an opportunity of sorts. Consider the fate of Odysseus, a man of many sorrows and wiles. Become Odysseus, I said. Suffering suicidal ideation? Read Homer and call me in the morning. This late into an evening of a day on which I did not make enough money to pay the day's bills.

I thought Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer was going to lay bear the beating heart of the lawyer's struggle for economic survival, but he, too, looked away: His protagonist has cars, and a driver. These things appear as if by magic.

There is no magic in the practice of law for those in small firms. Ordinary people face extraordinary trouble. The troubles always come unawares, and there is almost never enough money to cover all that needs doing to respond. But they come nonetheless to the office of a lawyer asking for hope, help and a miracle. We are asked daily to feed five thousand out of a basket fit really for a small family.

A lawyer's day is rarely like life in Hobbes's state of nature, nasty, brutish and short. My days tend to be nasty, brutish and long. I grind a living, and support for the folks I employ, out of other people's sorrow. It becomes my sorrow. I do not pity myself in the process. I face the task and perform it. But I long, somehow, to find a light in literature to guide my path. I thought Turow held the torch for only a moment and my heart sang.

Anyone out there see nitty gritty of actually operating a law practice and surviving with soul in tact reflected well in literature? Tell me the author's name. In the middle of the night, I like a good read, when the phones stop ringing, and fear takes a brief rest.

Comments: (2)

  • You are right to envy us public defenders--closest...
    You are right to envy us public defenders--closest thing to the pure practice of law there is. And I do not at all envy those of you who have to set and charge and collect fees.
    To answer your question though, it appears from this blog that you might have a fantastic book in you?
    Posted on May 21, 2010 at 6:43 pm by Lee Stonum
  • I think I may write the book that you are looking ...
    I think I may write the book that you are looking for.
    As for me, the middle of the night provides no rest from fear. When I wake up at 3:00 a.m. I feel like an air traffic controller who has fallen asleep with planes in the air.
    Posted on May 21, 2010 at 8:05 am by Ray Sipsa

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