Not all lawyers are wealthy and very few are as wealthy as the hotshots you see in movies and television shows. Many are just as vapid, however. I, for one, am not wealthy and probably will never be. I have much more in common with the 99% than the 1% other than the ability to use the anachronistic “Esq.” behind my name. It is a throwback to another, ahem, imperial time in British history and an homage to the Guilded Age I suppose. That is fine with me.
I decided that the people who hire me are more important than the dollars a “great case” can bring. If dollars came from a case I handled, great, but it is not my goal to chase that green like many attorneys. But most attorneys who lack a trust fund do have to consider money in pricing their services. The average law school debt in 2013 was well over $100K. Most have to take out student loans and, well, listen to the flap. The jobs are not as available as they used to be.
What brought all of this to mind was the movie, The Rainmaker, which was based on the John Grisham novel. As I watched Rudy Baylor muddle through his first case, I recognized him. He was me and I was he only absent the “but he’s a guy” thing. I find its principles as apropos today as they were when the movie came out. After all, who doesn’t favor the idea of an inexperienced, young lawyer taking on the well-oiled litigation machine that is most insurance companies? He makes a name for himself for doing the right thing. I think that is pretty sweet.
As a lawyer whose entire career to date has pretty much been dedicated to public service, I relate well to the character played by Matt Damon. I have known lawyers just like Danny DeVito’s character, too. Grisham clearly writes from experience. Sometimes preliminary investigations do become a, “You don’t wanna know who I know” type of situation when you are looking into the stranger aspects of private cases. As you become experienced, your sixth sense about the creepier aspects of human nature become well developed. I inadvertently proved a sound byte one of my law professors told the class: “As a lawyer, you will be part academic, but mostly counselor. People will come to you and you will have to listen to their problems.”
When I became a prosecutor six years out of law school, I got dumped head first into the very dirty water that is the criminal justice system. I would note that the terms “criminal” and “justice” do not go together anymore if they ever did – they are neither married in concept nor execution, no pun intended. It was Newark, New Jersey, and crime was off the hook. Newark had a reputation for being a very busy town for drug dealers, prostitutes, and violent crime. I was paid next to nothing – as a matter of fact me and my buddy Vinny instigated the start of a criminal prosecutor’s union since Essex County prosecutors had it. No, Vinny was not my cousin although I adore that film. We became pariahs at City Hall, but that’s ok. Our successors then received the pay they should have for the volume of cases that came through our office every year – thousands of cases.
As a prosecutor, I learned something: not all criminals are bad people. In fact, many of the younger kids were super smart. I asked the court to sentence them to attend school and learn a legal outlet for their intelligence. Was I able to make my student loan payments? Are you kidding? Never. Unless you get one of those cush jobs that started at over $100K a year in 1990 – the year I graduated from law school – you were instantly swamped by student loan debt.
For me, the debt load was worth it. What I never anticipated was the lack of work and the strange hierarchy in the legal world that damages many young attorneys that also makes them doubt their self worth. People who worked in “big law” a.k.a. the huge law firms that represented high profile clients like tobacco companies, insurance companies, and the like. Firms like Bill Gates’ father’s firm in Seattle were always viewed from the ground, literally, by lawyers like me. They were in huge office towers, gleaming tributes to Bauhaus architecture, and the lawyers reeked of leather furniture and bourbon poured from crystal decanters after five on a Friday. I started in more humble quarters: a cool hideaway in Smith Tower helping an attorney formulate the arguments to re-legalize the personal use of marijuana (which used to be ok until the federal government put marijuana on one of the prohibited substance schedules).
The glass tower attorneys looked down on those of us who were in the trenches. They had assistants who had assistants. I wrote about them for a legal newspaper in Seattle, and further bolstered their egos. Shame on me. But I did enjoy getting the scoop on the divorce case involving one of the senior partners in one of the cloud lawyers’ firms. Yes, I did. His wife blabbed to every press outlet available that she had email evidence confirming that he had been engaging in a lot of extra work with his secretary that involved not a lot of clothing and locked office doors. Suddenly, one of the cloud lawyers was just like us on the pavement below.
Ultimately, I became friends with a couple of them and found out how miserable they were. Their work hours were insane and few to no women occupied partner level positions (a fact that is still true today). They were also Native American men, but through them I discovered that perhaps the rarified air stunk a little up there in cloud lawyer land.
The years went by and the money came, kind of, but mostly it went. It went to bills and student loan payments…the life stuff we all need it for. The cases and demands on my time increased exponentially, though. Even when I had a salaried position, I could not put money away because I simply did not make enough. When I started private practice, the see-saw of income became worse.
I have been in private practice for 5 years. I have been a lawyer for 24 years this May. By not getting wrapped up in the chase the dragon of the dollar game, I look like I am 30 and live a full life. BUT I am also able to finally put a little away. New programs came out that help me pay my student loans. Finally, it seems, the world has recognized that we Rudy Baylors of the world are not so bad. I am the 99% even with a law degree.
If I won the lottery tomorrow or somehow found a hidden treasure in my broom closet, I would not be upset. But a humble life lived well with true friends and love and a small-but-cool house in the middle of nowhere – hell, that’s alright, too. As for the whole lawyer thing, as Mr. Grisham said in The Rainmaker,
“I am motivated by thoughts of my sorrowful little client and the screwing that he got. I’m the only lawyer Donny Ray has, and it will take much more than paper to slow me down.”