Some Judges are Watching
Posted Apr 28, 2005 1:45 AM CST
By Steven Keeva
After spending 11 years as a federal district judge in Texas, Royal Furgeson retains a visceral memory of how it felt to practice law.
“Near the end of my law practice, I was almost overwhelmed,” he says. “I was working what seemed like seven days a week, and I had no time to get things done and keep life in balance with family and friends. The practice was getting to be a very hard place to be.”
Of course, it has only gotten harder.
Among judges who are aware of that, some strive in their courtrooms to moderate the stressors lawyers face.
“Every time I walk into the courtroom, I try to remind myself that the people sitting at the counsel table have a really tough job,” says Furgeson. “And I always, without exception, tell the jury how hard it is to be a lawyer, and how critical lawyers are to the system of justice. And how hard they work.”
One way Furgeson demonstrates that concern is in a goal he established when he went on the bench 11 years ago: to sanction no more than five lawyers during his judicial career.
So far, he hasn’t handed out a single one. “It doesn’t mean no stern talks or reminders, but I think there are better ways to deal with lawyers. Sanctions can have a huge impact, and lawyers never forget a monetary sanction. The fact is that things are as hard now as they ever were."
In Kalamazoo County, Mich., Circuit Judge William Schma looks after his lawyer contemporaries by making himself available to talk.
Much of what he hears troubles him: profound disappointment in the practice and often a sense of meaninglessness. “Some come in and ask to talk to me, and sometimes they end up in tears,” he says. Most often these lawyers are in their late 40s and their 50s. “They’ve matured enough to no longer enjoy the fight,” says Schma. “They’ve got no lust for it anymore. They’ve gotten themselves in a box and come to feel that what they do day to day is crap.”
Schma says a lot of these lawyers simply get caught in the intensity of the adversary system, which gnaws at them. “I think, for them, it is a disease,” he says.
And so he does what he can, using his gift for listening in the service of a legal community that means a great deal to him. “I really care about the lawyers in this town,” he says. “They’re good people, and they do a lot of good stuff here. So it hurts to see them going through this kind of thing.”
“The private practice is the most difficult practice we have,” says Judge Robert Mawdsley of Waukesha County (Wis.) Circuit Court. Like Furgeson and Schma, he is concerned about the implications of that for the lawyers he sees every day in his courtroom.
High on his list of concerns are the ways in which technology has transformed lawyering, by becoming a new taskmaster so that lawyers never can be out of reach. “It just increases the amount of time they have to be on in their profession,” Mawdsley says. “There are good things about that, but there are bad aspects too. I find it somewhat sad that instead of listening to music on the way to the courthouse, they have the additional stress of being on their cell phones.”
When he can find a way to humanize the proceedings in his courtroom, he tries to do so. For example, he won’t belittle lawyers who fail to show up for a proceeding if they have a decent excuse. “I’ll just say, ‘We’re all here now, so let’s get started.’ I think that’s so important because it’s just too easy for judges to bash lawyers and get on their cases.”
Having been on the bench for 16 years, Mawdsley frequently teaches new judges, to whom he emphasizes the impact they can have on lawyers’ lives.
“I tell them that if they’re going to make a change, always talk to attorneys about it. Tell them what you’re thinking about. It is just essential that you not make changes without checking with the local legal culture. Attorneys need predictability in order to advise clients about who the judge is and what they can expect.”
Before taking his seat on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, David Mills was in partnership with another lawyer for 25 years, practicing in Boston and Danvers, Mass. He did criminal defense work, along with some land use law and government permits work.
“We had a modest practice,” he recalls, “but we always had enough money and a lot of freedom. We were able to be very candid with our clients.”
After years of practice and lecturing, Mills came to know a great many lawyers in Massachusetts, and he realized that many were in circumstances that precluded practicing law the way he did. For one thing, he wasn’t married and had no children to put through school. “What I found is that they were so much at the mercy of their clients in a way that I was not. And so I started to see colleagues at 35 and 40 losing themselves. Many of them couldn’t tell me what their children’s interests were. And I feel so bad for them. Some that are my age are burned out almost beyond a hope for something better.”
Mills, too, finds ways to show he cares. “I see lawyers who are aching for a little affirmation. And I take any appropriate opportunity to compliment them for the quality of their briefs, the sincerity of their arguments and their obvious respect for one another.”
Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.