Law practice is about serving clients first, not about making money first

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Jul 12, 2013 Law practice is about serving clients first, not about making money first

Too many times, I have heard people ask or tell me variations of “make as much money as you can” or “isn’t work all about making money?”

Soon after I graduated from college, I was driving to a nightclub with one of my best high school friends, having become very distant from each other during college. We were comparing notes about our mutual work, mine as a financial auditor at the then-named Irving Trust Company, and his as a successful owner of a services company with numerous employees. I said that I wanted to achieve more than just having a good and interesting job and doing well at it; I also wanted my work and employer to have a social conscience. I was uncomfortable, for instance, that Irving Trust had a branch in Argentina when the country’s brutal dictatorship was going strong. I might have been less uncomfortable had Irving taken a vocal and effective stand for human rights protection there, but I doubt that Irving took such a stand, which is rare to see with any publicly-traded company, but the Paula Deen fallout may spell a new horizon on companies’ pursuing a social conscience, whether or not their breaking of ties with Ms. Deen was excessive.

My friend replied as we neared the New Haven nightclub: “Jon, you should make as much money as you can.” Is that all that we are on this earth for? If we cannot control ourselves beyond doing whatever is needed to make large sums of money, we will always have government overregulation to offset our refusal to inject a social conscience in our actions.

I felt that I was talking with a stranger. However, I was unfairly judging my friend’s words. It is challenging and time consuming enough in the competitive local, national and world economy to earn a living that pays the bills, provides for one’s children, covers retirement, and assures financial independence. To add injecting a social conscience into that work might sound unachievable, but it is very achievable. Moreover, a slew of customers will want to use the services of businesses with a heart, and a slew of quality employees will want to work for them. People do not want to feel like personnel cogs in a machine all their lives; they seek more meaning in their work.

Speaking of serious human rights-violating governments, I was briefly visiting a family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during an amazing four-week off-the-beaten path odyssey in Singapore (more here on being “complimented” as like a young Richard Nixon embarking on a new legal career), Thailand (more here on my trek in the Golden Triangle), Malaysia, and Indonesia. The father — very successful in products trading — asked what I thought about Malaysia. I said: “It is a beautiful and fun country, but I feel uncomfortable about the severity and frequency of human rights violations here.” He implored me not to speak so loud, lest such words be heard by the neighbor through the open window, even though this family lived on a wealthy block quite a distance from the neighbors.

Then came the father’s question: “Isn’t work all about making money?” By then — particularly after having lived and worked in Manhattan for a year and witnessed the deep-running survivalism attitude of so many who live in New York City — I was not surprised nor disturbed by what this man had said. He apparently assumed that I would agree, figuring that a recent law school graduate about to start working at a corporate law firm had big income in mind. This man had made plenty of money already, and provided well financially for his family. He was also a great host who saw to it that his family took me to three great Chinese vegetarian restaurants — I was already vegetarian then — while I was there, with the final restaurant being particularly spectacular and the best Chinese vegetarian restaurant I have ever been to. He seemed to be a very nice man. Like most people, he was not about to have his family and finances suffer by joining street demonstrations to reverse human rights violations, only to get locked up in jail for a long time. Nobody ever said that fighting for human rights comes without costs.

Did I want to make a lot of money? Yes. Did I want to do a lot of pro bono work and other socially conscious work at the same time? Yes. How can one get such jobs? One way is to attend a top law school, get excellent grades, succeed in the competition to be on one’s law school law review or other scholarly journal, beat out the slew of competitors for law clerk jobs with federal judges, and join such a law firm as Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., which currently or at least in the past has one or more lawyers devoting the majority of their time to pro bono work. Another way is to win the lottery or inherit tons of money (but, of course, that is not “making money”) and to open up one’s own law firm that does as much pro bono work as the lawyer wants, or to get money in that way and to volunteer at the ACLU or another existing public interest group.

Gerry Spence — whose Trial Lawyers College I attended in 1995 — aptly addresses the financial and personal sacrifices in practicing law without much concern for one’s bank balance nor possessions and creature comforts:

“I have always wanted to be brave and reckless [like Tony Serra], especially facing judges and the enslaving moguls of corporate America. But I admit, I have never fully succeeded, not to my satisfaction. I have wanted to fight for the poor and give up any hint of economic security and put aside all striving for worldly things. Once I said to my darling, Imaging, I think we should sell everything we have and give it to the poor and live without devoting any of our lives to things, and she said, “All right. I’ll go with you.” I looked around and saw all of the possessions and comforts we have and I said, ‘Forget it.’”

From Gerry Spence’s Forward to Lust For Justice: The Radical Life and Law of J. Tony Serra, by Paula Frank.

Thanks and congratulations to Gerry for being willing to admit what tens and thousands — or more — law students and lawyers believe but will no admit publicly, which is that they want to be as giving as Tony Serra, but simply will not make Tony’s level of financial and personal sacrifice.

If I lived alone and was only responsible to myself (other than to my clients), I would consider doing more pro bono and low bono work than I currently do. However, I do not want to live alone and only be responsible to myself.

We certainly do see families that make extraordinary financial and personal sacrifices to fight for their vision of social justice. For instance, my former client Philip Berrigan and his wife Eiizabeth McAlister raised three children who all ended up attending college, while Phil and Liz repeatedly engaged in activism for peace that was destined to get them repeatedly arrested and, at least with Phil. sentenced to some significant incarceration at times. Phil. Liz and their children lived “in community” as they call it, at Jonah House in Baltimore, where the whole community is available to help with the children of each other. As remarkable was the ability of Liz and Phil to raise their children amidst their activism, of additional remark is that their children have followed in their activist footsteps.

I found a balance between serving social justice and earning money by working for two years at a corporate law firm, where I learned excellent pre-trial ltigation skills that will service me well for the rest of my life; moving to the Maryland Public Defender’s Office for five years serving indigent criminal defendants and their civil liberties; joining a civil litigation law firm for two years, where I first-chaired many civil jury trials, learning invaluable longtime lessons; and finally becoming my own boss fifteen years ago, first with my former law partner Jay Marks for ten years, where I have taken on many pro bono and low bono matters from large to small. Jay and I have never shied away from taking on clients whose causes might make us unpopular and potentially lose other clients. Therefore, I have never batted an eyelash at serving adult entertainment clients, the Constitutional rights of the Westboro Baptist Church, nor any type of criminal defendant. I thank Jay for never having batted an eyelash either.

It is vital for lawyers to put clients ahead of money rather than the other way around. Lawyers who follow such a path will find that they end up making more money than doing otherwise.

Fortunately, all criminal defense work serves social justice — but not as much with snitch work, but even the Sixth Amendment is at play there — because such defense always involves defending the Bill of Rights, most usually the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments.

The law practice is a government-protected oligopoly, where only lawyers generally are legally permitted to practice law, and where criminal penalties can visit those who practice law without a license. That alone is a reason why all lawyers have a duty to give back to society through pro bono, low bono, and public cause work, and at least through financial contributions to public interest organizations when the lawyer has such a job as that of a government employee that bars any other work.

The practice of life makes it essential for everyone to live and act with a social conscience, lest our society become one of more brutality than we already have. Beyond that, living and acting with a social conscience is the only right way to live. This applies to everyone, not only to lawyers.

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