When people say that law practice is all about making money

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Apr 12, 2007 When people say that law practice is all about making money


 Image from Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s website.

After I started law school, Ralph Nader warned about  the seduction of abandoning our ideals in exchange for having hundred dollar bills stuffed in our pockets by corporate law firms and other corporate interests. (Image from Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s website.)

Every once in awhile, people tell me how paramount is moneymaking in one’s life. A close high school friend, who never lacked money, urged me in 1985 — during my first job after college at a major commercial bank, when I told him of the strong discomfort I felt working in the belly of the capitalist beast while human rights violations ran rampant worldwide (including in Argentina, where the bank maintained a branch) — to make as much money as I could. I hadn’t spoken with him much before about social justice issues — having fallen out of much contact during college — so did not know if this underlined who we both were for a long time, or who we had each become.

After taking the bar exam, I travelled for a few weeks in Southeast Asia, experiencing a combination of natural beauty in many places and vibrant cultures on the one hand and oppressive dictatorships, poverty and social injustice on the other. One evening, I visited the Kuala Lumpur home of two students I knew while at law school. The father — who became wealthy through the export-import trade — asked what I thought about Malaysia, and I told him of the many delights I found, tempered by the human rights situation. He asked me to keep my voice down about human rights, in case the neighbors heard me through the window (which was unlikely unless a spy had been posted on the large yard). He tried to bring me back to earth through thinking I would agree with his view that life is all about making money. I told him the concept of putting money above all else made no sense to me.

My own interests in moneymaking were less about buying luxuries, and more about having enough financial freedom so as not to feel enslaved by my work (the phrase "golden handcuffs" comes to mind) and to enjoy the outdoors, travel, and the arts more than collecting possessions. Particularly from my human rights work in college, I feel it necessary to be willing to make financial sacrifices to protect social justice and to live a harmonious life that does as little harm to others as possible.

I feel that people focused on moneymaking as the main goal in life should do so outside the law, so that the practice of law may help reduce human misery, rather than fostering or exacerbating it. However, not all of my fellow lawyers feel the same. One colleague proudly proclaimed a few years ago: "The law practice is all about making money, isn’t it?"

Earlier this month, in criminal court, I expressed surprise to a colleague that my client was not in the courthouse lockup, even though I had requested his presence for a critical hearing. The lawyer told me that I take my work too seriously, that it was just fine to waive my client’s appearance in court (I beg to differ), and that our work is all about making money. I told him that my approach to practicing law — while I bill significantly for my services — is to care about my clients and to seek justice for them. He asked me if lawyers are obliged to care so much for their clients. He was serious.

The pressures to make money are perhaps greater today than ever. Housing prices (although we are now in more of a buyer’s market than a year ago), college tuition, health care costs, and gas prices have far outpaced inflation and average cost of living increases. My view remains, though, that the law practice is not the place to pursue money interests at the expense of protecting social justice. Lawyers are artificially protected from competition by laws prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law, which, I believe, obligates lawyers all the more to uphold social justice. I believe that people should go outside the legal profession to have a singular focus on making money (and that nobody should make money at the expense of justice).

Jon Katz.

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