It seems you can’t go a day without reading about how law school enrollment is plummeting, big law firms are imploding, lawyers are flaming out faster than 4th of July fireworks, and the profession, once regarded as something to aspire to, now ranks, in the public’s imagination, somewhere between human bug-eater and professional sociopath in terms of status. Even supposedly “friendly” sources are piling on. I just came across another law blog site that posits the question, “What’s Worse: Being a Lawyer or an Accountant?”
With tax season here, this is no time to be bad-mouthing accountants, but it is a verity that it’s not considered a glamorous position. There are no TV shows (that I know of) that feature, say, a retired accountant who travels around the country visiting friends and keeps uncovering vast tax evasion conspiracies that must be solved in an hour. Or “Tax Court” where an accountant fights off onerous property assessments to save the homes of young families. And even Dick Wolff, with numerous spin-offs under his belt, knew enough not to put “Law & Order: Bean-Counters Unit” on the air.
So, when a blog is making the case that law is no longer a great profession by comparing it with being an accountant, it’s in essence saying, “We’re grateful you’re out there. You’ll be hearing from us shortly. But we’re glad we’re not one of you.”
And it’s relegating lawyers to the same realm.
So it’s time for a little narrative-changing.
I’ve been interviewing several octogenarian attorneys, who have been practicing since the 1950s and 60s and continue to do so, for an article for a law publication. And while my sampling is small and my observations anecdotal, I must say that these attorneys make a convincing case that a person could do (way) worse than choosing law for their life’s work. Here are a few generalities I’ve gleaned thus far:
It’s good for the memory! These men (the vast majority of attorneys were male in those days) could name the dates they joined firms and tried significant cases, along with discussing the ins and outs of these cases, dating back five or six decades.
It’s incredibly stimulating! These guys are still doing it! Way past an age when most folks retire, and with more than enough money in the bank to live comfortably the rest of their days. So why do they keep showing up? Because they’re “doing good,” “helping people,” and “love solving problems” to name a few responses, not to mention the camaraderie. Of course, it helps that these gents have a big interest in their chosen fields.
The pay’s gotten (way) better. When these folks started out—as lawyers!—they were making “$300 a month,” “$3,500 a year,” $35 an hour,” and the like. Things, you might say, have gotten a little better since then.
They’re the “first adapters” on technological change. They’ve gone from rotary phones, operator-assisted calls, manual typewriters, and carbon paper to faxes, copy machines, word processors, the internet, email, teleconferencing, and “the cloud.” By necessity they had to stay on the cutting edge, so they wouldn’t be at a disadvantage.
They’re the “first adapters” on social change, too! From prenups to domestic partnerships to same-sex marriages, these once-radical notions, which are now part and parcel of daily life, began, more often than not, when a party walked into a lawyer’s office and said, “We want to do this.” And the attorney, if for no other reason than he didn’t want to lose business, said “Okay. Let’s see what we can do here.” That’s often been the case, be the issue political, social, or business.
The status of the profession hasn’t changed. While it may seem that lawyers are being dumped on more than ever, according to these long-time practitioners, it’s been ever thus:
“When I began, lawyers were considered leeches,” said one.
“We were never regarded well,” said another.
So, the good news is, things haven’t gotten noticeably worse! And, in this regard, lawyers may be seen as being similar to members of the U.S. Congress, who have an overwhelmingly negative approval rating from the public, but who overwhelmingly keep getting re-elected, because people like their representative. So it is with members of the bar.
…and round one goes to our lawyers.