A recent North Carolina Advocates for Justice publication, Trial Briefs, printed three essays that share the personal experiences, perspectives, and obstacles faced by three attorneys beginning their careers in North Carolina. We hope these can be instructive as we continue to discuss changes to the legal profession in the coming months ans years.
When I hear my boss doing a consult, I always joke that he’s constantly morphing. He morphs for clients into whatever type of attorney they are looking for. He’s a white-collar crimes attorney. He’s a drug trafficking attorney. He’s a federal crimes attorney. That’s the reality of criminal defense for many of us. We have to morph to what our clients need. For the younger attorneys, that means morphing into something new . . . a lot.
I’ve been practicing for a little over five years now. I get asked on a pretty regular basis about whether or not I enjoy being an attorney—especially a criminal defense attorney. I do enjoy it. I just don’t enjoy it the way I thought I would. I thought I would feel knowledgeable and in control. That was a far cry from the truth. It’s only now that I feel like I know what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. However, I don’t think this is because I always know what I’m doing. I think now I am just comfortable with the idea that I don’t always know what I’m doing.
What does success look like?
So what do I enjoy about practice? Do I really enjoy it? There would seem to be a lot of reasons not to enjoy much about it. Young lawyers are making less money than ever be- fore. They are in debt six figures right after graduation. They struggle to get good jobs to pay back the cost of school. Above The Law spams our emails with headlines about law firms tanking and the legal market being flooded with unemployed law graduates. It all sounds pretty miserable. It is pretty miserable, if you don’t adjust your expectations to reality. (Of course, I speak to people who went to law school for bigger reasons than status and salary. People who went to law school with no real desire to practice law may not ever be happy practicing law.) Young lawyers who got caught in the middle of the crisis have definitely had to adjust.
Despite all the doom and gloom, I do enjoy being a law- yer. I just enjoy it in a different way than I thought I would, mainly because life looks differently than I thought it would. Finances, family, and professional encounters are all different than I thought. Let’s start with the financial standpoint. It’s overly discussed, but it’s a reality for so many of us. I don’t know a single attorney I graduated with that does not have student loans. Many attorneys went to law school thinking that if they worked hard there would be a large firm, six- figure salary waiting on the other end. That would make the loans easily manageable. (Was I wrong to think that? I did research. I looked at employment rates and average starting salaries. On paper, people were getting that. Attorneys I spoke with prior to starting law school were getting that.) Of course, like so many others, that is not the trajectory that I found myself on. The job market did not sway in my favor and I had to make adjustments accordingly. It took a lot of adjusting expectations and making it look the way I needed it to look and wanted it to look—not the way I thought it would look.
The adjustments were long term. I don’t have my loans paid off and I don’t have the savings that I thought I would have. I’m not rolling in extra money or driving a luxury sedan. However, I have managed to buy a modest house. I have managed to purchase an investment property. I have money in my retirement account. I have savings that are slowly growing. My children have a college savings account. That loan payment and that loan balance have made all of this much more difficult, but not impossible. I find myself feeling successful more often than not, even though success doesn’t look the way I envisioned it during my pre-law days. I would have never been able to attend law school without those loans, so it is both a blessing and a curse to have them. Then again, I’m taking advantage of the income-based repayment plans and maybe there are people who aren’t eligible for those plans.
Work Life Balance
So what about the less obvious stuff, like the new lawyer’s “work ethic” or “work-life balance”? I hear older lawyers say we don’t work hard, we leave early, and we don’t bill enough hours. Yet we have been told to avoid burnout and find “balance” in our work and personal lives. Are the CLEs, seminar speakers, and mentors just giving us lip service when they say to find a balance? I have concerns when older attorneys get frustrated at the newer attorneys for doing the things we have been told to do. I think the reality is that we were told all through law school about the mistakes our predecessors made and we are trying not to make those mistakes too. Yet, for some reason we are conversationally and professionally punished for doing things differently. For example, I was told that my children would only be young once, so I should enjoy it. I try to get home early for my son’s bedtime. I try to go to parent-teacher conferences. I try to have at least one meal as a family every day of the week. Kids are only young once, right? And what about all those CLEs on mental health and substance abuse? I’m led to believe they are a byproduct of an older generation’s problem. I’ve been told so many times that we should take breaks and vacations so that we don’t abuse alcohol/destroy our health/have a mental breakdown. So I try to make time to work out and take care of myself physically and mentally. After all, I can’t afford to retire early and pay off those loans. I have over two decades left of work, so I would like to be happy and healthy during that time. I don’t want to get burnt out. This doesn’t mean we don’t work. Most of the attorneys I know work very hard. Nobody wants to be a slacker. However, we all need balance. This isn’t the same as “lazy” or “unmotivated.”
I’m proud of the attorneys that try to practice that balance, because it’s hard to maintain balance. I think it’s even harder to maintain balance as a young parent. Discovery piles up. Trials loom every term. Clients want your time. In criminal defense, a client’s future can literally be on the line. However, you can’t be an absent parent and kids sure know how to keep you busy, especially small kids. I work a lot and I feel like I don’t parent enough. At the very least, I don’t parent in the traditional family way. My kids stay home with their dad when I am at work. He works from home and makes his schedule flexible, because I have late nights and early mornings. He takes care of school pickups and drop-offs. He covers doctor appointments and karate classes. I never imagined that I would be the primary working parent. I never imagined that I wouldn’t be the one that was cooking dinner every night or helping my kids with their homework. However, I wouldn’t be able to have a family right now if I waited to have work hours that accommodated that type of family life. I would have had to focus on work until work was “established” or, worse yet, I would have had to choose kids versus career. I did not want to choose. I wanted a way to have some of both. I don’t have perfect balance all the time. Sometimes, I miss things because work needs me. At least the scale wobbles back and forth though. I make sure it does, because kids won’t be kids forever.
I am proud of so many of my colleagues who are making a legal career work, despite the obstacles. However, new attorneys aren’t making all changes for the better. My biggest concern is the lack of collegiality. When I started practice, I was in a smaller county with a smaller defense bar. Attorneys were friends and everyone was willing to help the new kid. However, in larger counties where competition is endless, newer attorneys are on the defensive with everyone. The era of collegiality and courtesy is fading. Here is an example. I recently approached opposing counsel in court to try and discuss a motion he had filed. I wanted to discuss the matter prior to having a full blown hearing. Maybe we could have re- solved the issues? Maybe we could have narrowed the issues and saved the court a little time? Maybe we could have stipulated to something and kept the hearing slightly less painful for everyone involved? Rather than responding to my position with questions or concerns he simply said “You’re wrong” and walked away from me. The display of hostility was baffling to me. It was also, in my opinion, unnecessary. The subject of the motion fades from my memory a little each day, but his attitude and demeanor sticks with me.
Unfortunately, this behavior is becoming extremely common. Maybe the hostility is a byproduct of being on the defensive with the older establishment. Maybe we’ve all forgotten basic manners, because we have our heads buried in our phones all the time. Maybe stress has already burnt out the newer attorneys. Whatever the cause, I think collegiality and professionalism can go a long way. There is a time and a place for heated battle over legal issues, but we don’t practice law exclusively in that bubble. We see each other every day and we need each other from time to time. The new attorneys that embrace that are much happier.
I think it all boils down to something simple. The new attorneys I know that have been the most successful—in terms of happiness and personal fulfillment—are ones that made the reality of legal practice work for them. Maybe they had to adjust expectations like I did. Maybe they already knew what to expect—a law degree and a bar license wasn’t the golden ticket that it used to be. However, we were raised to know that money isn’t happiness. And we took a lot of what the older generation told us and put it to practice. So even if we aren’t all rich (yet?!), we are at least happy.
This post was originally published in the North Carolina Advocates for Justice's Trial Briefs magazine ( April 2016 issue) and has been reprinted with permission from the NCAJ.