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More on shoveling sh*t on the way to obtaining justice

Dec 25, 2009 More on shoveling sh*t on the way to obtaining justice

On December 17, I blogged about the unglamorous side of fighting for justice. A civil rights lawyer in Connecticut advised me early on in my legal career about the need often to shovel sh*t to do civil rights litigation. Larry Pozner — a great cross-examination teacher, among other things — emphasizes the huge percentage of preparation time needed to execute a powerful and persuasive defense in court. On top of the foregoing descriptions, I know of the frequent times that so many deadlines and obligations overlap all at once — including deadlines imposed by court rules and court orders — that the option does not exist that day, or for many days, for anything but a very long work day that begins long before sunrise. I also know the solitary feeling of researching, preparing, and typing out a court filing with no company other than some of my favorite jazz playing from the speakers, while my family has already gone to sleep or not yet awaken.

I was never under any delusions that the law practice would be any other way, and am certainly happy that I have no boss dictating my schedule to me. The stories are rampant of law firm bosses that heavily pile on work on their associate lawyers without much or any regard to their balancing their work lives with their private lives to the point that an associate at one law firm told me that an associate lawyer there would be setting a precedent to leave for his or her child’s birthday if there was still a project ongoing into that night, even if the birthday obligation had been previously announced. While I was still a public defender lawyer, the owner of a small law firm where I interviewed — which does civil litigation and federal regulatory work — asked if I acknowledged that a lawyer needs to make some substantial personal life sacrifices to succeed as a lawyer (at least at his firm), whereas the yin-yang symbol displayed on every page of my blog underlines my view that one becomes a more powerful lawyer by having his or her entire life balanced, and not sacrificed, and that far from precluding hard work and long hours of work when needed, such balances enhances one’s ability to work efficiently and hard and to be a powerful advocate. Needless to say, I did not pursue that law firm further.

Certainly, law firm associates and employees of all organizations should be realistic that to justify their income level they must produce a certain minimum amount of work and results, but employers should not just throw the employee into the ocean to fend for himself or herself without giving reasonable assistance to the employee. On the other hand, it appears that plenty of people in the workforce would be willing to receive reduced incomes — at least when it comes to somewhat reducing the still very high first-year lawyer starting salaries at the most prestigious large corporate law firms — in order to have a more sensible work-personal life balance, and to have more reasonable time and opportunities to work in pro bono work. How many employers are willing to create a two-tiered system between employees who are willing to do whatever it takes to earn the highest available pay, and those willing to sacrifice pay for more personal time?

Before recently filling our full-time legal assistant vacancy, I asked an interviewee — as I always do — what his ideal job was at this time. He answered that his ideal job is to shadow a trial lawyer as s/he goes about work during the day, including in court. He acknowledged that working for me is not like that, even though I work very closely with my staff. He possibly can get such work interning for a public defender or prosecutor’s office or working there for low pay, or even for higher pay if the shadowed lawyer needs the in-court human power throughout the court day. Just as I accept doing much unglamorous work even if a lot of my courtroom work seems glamorous to some, that becomes the necessity for my staff, as well.

Many law student do not like law school, and some of the main reasons include: not enjoying the material being studied; not liking the studying; not liking the pressure they feel for the intensity of studying, reflection, practice and dedication needed to succeed; not liking the apparent coldness and harshness of many of the professors (starting with those using the Socratic method straight out of Paper Chase); not liking professors’ grading approaches and policies, particularly if they grade on a curve that does not permit many high grades; stiff competition to get a high grade class rank and to get accepted onto law review and other scholarly journals, both of which many employers place heavy emphasis on for hiring right out of law school; stiff competition for jobs; and a lack of expectation that they will enjoy their legal career. To me, law school provides many essential doses of reality — including unpleasant realities — for dealing with the real world forever after. Of course, it can be less pleasant learning such tough lessons while paying to learn them.

For me, things that makes much of the difference between enjoying practicing law — and persevering and succeeding in law school — and not liking it are the people and causes that I serve and the great people from whom I learn each day (including from my clients) rather than the laws and rules that I deal with. I also continue getting a huge rush from winning, which enables me to transcend anything that otherwise seems unfair, unjust, dull, archaic, annoying or outdated about the practice of the law, and which better enables me to dust myself off from any losses along the way with the knowledge that new victories are ahead. It also helps to break out from any feeling of isolation by having a network of colleagues who give each other sufficient support, and also helps to have one’s personal life in order.

When I first wrote my sh*t-shoveling blogpost, I had just bought and started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s essential You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment, which I blogged about on December 20. In different words, You Are Here emphasizes that without shoveling sh*t, there are no beautiful flowers or other plants to harvest from that sh*t. Consequently, if all else fails, as I shovel future sh*t, I will summon up the image of Thich Nhat Hanh doing the same, and transforming it wonderfully.

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