A friend asked me to write something to present to new members of the bar in Alabama this week. Here it is:
You are about to embark on a career as an ambassador for other people’s sorrows. Nothing you have studied in law school has prepared you for what you will see, and for the pressures you will endure as a practitioner. You have sacrificed much to earn the right to practice law, and your motives for being here are no doubt both noble and base. You can do well by doing good. But first you must learn to survive, and that will take all the cunning of Odysseus, a man, you will recall, of many sorrows.
There are no larger truths in the law, no vision of the good, true and beautiful that will make right all that the law seeks to correct. The law is where we turn to resolve conflicts without overt resort to violence. But the courts are places of great emotional violence. Your job is to be the good shepherd your client relies upon to guide her safely through whatever process she faces.
Whether a plaintiff’s lawyer or a defense lawyer, on the civil side you will engage in intellectual and emotional combat to protect, and to advance, your client’s interests in this world. Ours is not the task of preparing souls for immortality. Leave righteousness to men and women of the cloth.
Learn to listen well not just to what your client says, but to why they are saying it. Only law professors talk about bargaining in the law’s shadow; practitioners know that the darkest shadows cast in a courtroom come from fear, anger and dread – these emotions animate most litigants, whether it be in a child custody dispute, a dispute about unfulfilled promises, or a claim arising from a personal injury. These dark furies will become close acquaintances of yours.
They will kill you if you let them.
Normal empathy just can’t withstand a daily onslaught of raw and ferocious need. You must learn to listen while protecting yourself. Empathy is wonderful; self-preservation, the keeping of boundaries between yourself and your client, is critical. Suicide, alcoholism and drug use are temptations to which too many lawyers succumb. Soon you will understand why.
Read fiction, read psychology, read history. Find time every day to see the world through lenses other than the law’s. The legal tools you have been taught to use are mere bandages. Many lawyers forget this, and then become frustrated, even angry, when clients don’t listen to their advice. Remember, your job is to advise, the client then decides. Clients will reject your advice; it will hurt. When that happens listen to your client, watch your client – they conceive of their interests in ways different than you do. Learn about all that moves a psyche. We are crooked timber, each of us.
This will become obvious to you in the criminal courts. The law is savage in its consequences, often judging a person’s entire worth as the mere sum of his worst moment. A man can face decades in prison for a moment’s mistake. Often you will be able to offer a client a negotiated plea that will result in a lesser sentence than he will receive if he looses trial. In many cases, you will see an avalanche of evidence that promises to bury your client. You will beg the client to see the avalanche, to avoid the catastrophe sure to come. The client will ignore you and instruct you to go to trial in a case you are sure you cannot win. You will win some of these cases. You will learn in despair the courage it takes to excel as a lawyer.
It is when you face hopeless odds and throw your entire soul, all the talent you have, between the avalanche and your client that you actually begin to become a lawyer. Ours is a Christ-like profession: greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for a client. Break yourself on the hard wheel of impossible cases. And then heal, returning stronger and more determined to face the next challenge.
If there is one thing I wish an older lawyer had told me when I started out, it would be this: forgive yourself when you fail. You will not win every case. No one does. You don’t choose your cases. They choose you. Your case is not an athletic contest. Do your best every time, sparing no effort: die, and then rise again. In a decade’s time, you will become sturdy. Over the decades, you will become a sheltering oak to others enduring life’s most terrifying storms.
Love, laugh, stay fit – do all the ordinary things everyone tells you to do. Don’t forget these things. They are basic. But above all, fight. Pause at the lintel to every courtroom and repeat the Spartan warrior’s pledge: today is as good a day as any to die. One day you will die, we all do, but until that day comes, face the uncertain with cunning and courage.
And then fight to defend your client’s interests. It is what we do as lawyers. It is all that we contribute to an imperfect world cascading from crisis to crisis. It is a noble calling that will break your heart in the end. And that is at it should be, for as much as we like to pretend we are above it all, mere observers of the sorrows of others, our lives are one of sacrifice. We are made of the same unstable clay in which our clients are cast. Never forget it.