Posted Feb 01, 2011 11:00 am CST
We’ve all seen the downbeat headlines—surveys show as many as half of all lawyers wouldn’t enter the profession if they had it to do over, wouldn’t recommend their children become lawyers, would rather be digging ditches or breaking rocks. As the profession struggles to recover from the Great Recession, it’s certainly not easy being an attorney.
But what about the other half of the profession—the half that doesn’t grab the headlines, that finds satisfaction in their jobs? There’s still much to recommend the practice of law, starting with serving clients and the public good. This story is a valentine to the profession, reminding us—in the words of ordinary lawyers from across the nation—why being a lawyer can be an extraordinary calling.
Plus: New ABA Journal Section Debuts in March
I knew nothing about criminal law and said as much to a California federal court judge who wanted to appoint me to represent a woman facing forgery charges. I was a business and tax attorney in court that day for a calendar call. The judge saw my name on a pleading and appointed me.
The woman was about to plead guilty to 22 counts of forging signatures on Social Security checks. Her hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. The judge told me to educate myself and if I needed more time, he could continue the case for a week.
I introduced myself to the defendant. She told me that she was guilty, and I asked her why she had forged the checks. “Because he told me to” was her answer. The “he” turned out to be the woman’s husband, a Social Security recipient who was hospitalized in Texas. She handed me a letter her husband had written directing her to sign the checks and deposit them in their bank account.
Relying on what I learned in bills and notes class, I told her that an authorized signature wasn’t forgery. At the 2 p.m. hearing I moved to vacate the woman’s plea, offering her husband’s letter as evidence. The government acquiesced and the case was dismissed.
It was at that precise moment of dismissal that I realized being a lawyer was about helping people who needed help. And I felt that I had found my calling in life.
Beverly Hills, Calif.
I love being a lawyer because when I stand up before a jury and thank my clients for the privilege of representing them (and I usually feel pretty emotional whenever I say that, with chills) I realize I am being trusted to pre sent them, what they feel, what they believe. And I take that very seriously.
What I like about being a lawyer: being self-employed.
I feel so much more adult. No one writes me up if I get caught in traffic and walk in the door 15 seconds late in my own office. I don’t have to ask if I can change my lunch time. I get to sit by the window, and if I want vacation time I can just plan it without having to ask the boss.
Diane Stamler Oraif
Best job in the world: I get paid to read, write, think, talk and argue—all things I would do anyway.
I love being a lawyer because I can make a difference in someone’s life. I help people live debt-free. I’ve had clients tell me it’s changed their life for the better, that they can sleep at night and stop fighting with their spouse about money. How awesome is that?
Being a lawyer is the quintessential culmination of my previous work experience at shoveling horse manure, herding stubborn animals, sitting on my brains all day as an over-the-road truck driver, and putting together foolproof solutions as a software engineer—only to discover a new and improved fool. The fun part about being a lawyer is meeting other lawyers who have suffered even more than I have.
Why do I love being a lawyer? Because, once in a while, you get the opportunity to help someone who desperately needs your help. It feels good to be that person.
D.A. “Duke” Drouillard
I love the creativity involved with handling virtually every case or matter. Law is a thinking profession, not just a doing job.
When I was an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County and first assigned to handle felonies, I was given a dog of a case with stale evidence. The case involved a rape in a Chicago neighborhood known for prostitution. For various reasons the police had not worked up the case with the fervor of most serious criminal cases.
The victim claimed she had been raped by a taxicab driver who, after she got into his cab, drove into an alley, pulled up next to the wall and locked the doors— which had no inside handles. She claimed that he then slithered between bucket seats and, using a knife to threaten her, sexually assaulted her.
This rape in question occurred in the mid-1980s, and taxicabs with bucket seats were rare at the time. My trial partner and I investigated the case, and we found three men who witnessed the victim walking away naked from the alley wrapped only in a trash bag. She was bruised, crying and traumatized. We verified the taxi with bucket seats. At trial, we admitted into evidence a knife that was found at the scene of the defendant’s arrest.
As it turned out, one juror convinced the 11 others that my partner and I had not proven our case because we had failed to provide fingerprints on the knife.
Feeling defeated, my partner and I turned to the victim with our sincerest apologies. But she wasn’t upset. She hugged us both and thanked us profusely for believing in her and for fighting as hard as we had.
I knew then that I loved being a lawyer. I loved protecting people in a court of law. I loved the feeling of accomplishment I get from helping others fight—win or lose.
Patricia Brown Holmes
I get to think through problems every day for people I really like.
East Lansing, Mich.
I love being a lawyer because it gives me the opportunity to use the law to make someone’s life better. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” it affords me a chance to accommodate my contrarian nature by confronting those who think they understand my duty better than I. I could not ask for more.
Joseph J. Levin Jr.
One thing I love about being a lawyer is beating up on bad guys. And I take the biblical injunction to “protect widows and orphans” seriously.
I’ve had several cases where elderly people were duped into signing over deeds to their houses to relatives. One involved a recent widower who was blind. A relative took the man to the bank on the pretense of helping him get his bank accounts in order after his wife’s death.
A couple of weeks later the widower’s step-granddaughter came by his house and asked, “Pops, why’s there a ‘for sale’ sign on your front lawn?”
Because the gentleman was blind, he was unaware of the for-sale sign. But the man soon learned that his relative had tricked him into signing a quitclaim deed for the property. The relative promptly recorded the deed and then contracted with a real estate agent to sell the house without the client knowing.
I filed suit, served the step-grandson and was able to strong-arm him into signing the deed back to the grandparent. There’s nothing like being served a complaint and being told you have 20 days to file a response. What can they say? “I tricked Grandpa into giving his house to me, and I should be able to keep it because I’m so smart and my grandfather trusted me?”
America is a society based on law and justice. I love the fact that I have a role in making this ideal a reality, however small.
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
I love that the law never sleeps and doesn’t require that all be done 9 to 5.
I could spend the morning as an attorney guardian ad litem representing kids who were in foster care, the afternoon as a mom with my kids and then the evening into the wee hours of the morning tackling esoteric legal issues arising from complex commercial litigation.
Jennifer Schrack Dempsey
What I love the most about being a lawyer is freedom. In 35 years, I have had three different careers in law, and even within those careers, I have been free to pursue my own professional desires.
My first job was doing collections, and I took to it like a duck takes to water. If someone doesn’t have the money to pay their debt in full, I work hard to resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone does have the money and is trying to hide it, it’s the art of getting the money and being creative that makes this job fun. I enjoy the fine art of garnishment, and I don’t mean food preparation.
I knew I was extremely glad I was a lawyer on Dec. 10, 2009. That day the Inter-American Court of Human Rights sanctioned the nation of Mexico for the torture and killing of women in Ciudad Juárez in what has become known as the “cotton field case.” It was the first time that the Mexican government was held accountable for not offering guarantees to protect the lives and physical well-being of these women. The court’s decision was groundbreaking because its context was based on gender violence. I filed a brief pro bono on behalf of Amnesty International and more than 50 other human rights organizations. The court referred to my amicus brief in its decision. The decision turned out to be one of the most important international women’s rights decisions in decades. The case also reinforced the importance of the rule of law and of standing up for what is right, just, fair and humane, even if you are not sure whether what you are doing will actually result in any change at all. I remember thinking that I could retire after this decision and still have had a completely satisfying legal career.
Costa Mesa, Calif.
I was a practicing civil attorney for 57 years. I loved my profession because it gave me an opportunity to be of service. I always asked myself one question:What can I do to help the client? What advice can I provide that will be of some benefit? If you provide real and meaningful legal services, you will be properly compensated. I enjoyed every day and pursued my work with passion.
When I opened my first-year property law casebook and read the first case, I knew right then that I had made the right decision to become a lawyer. I still have that same feeling of excitement whenever I sit down to read a brief or an opinion of the Supreme Court. I just find the intellectual side of the law deeply satisfying. Add to that a chance to help clients solve very difficult problems and to argue before the Supreme Court on a regular basis, and I often have to pinch myself to convince me it is real.
What I love most about being a lawyer is that it never has to be boring. As a lawyer, you always have the opportunity to redesign your practice to accomplish different goals. In 30 years of practice I have seen the way in which law is practiced change radically and rapidly. I hope it keeps on changing.
Your ABA Journal, at the request of ABA leadership, is undertaking an initiative to recognize and highlight the service of lawyers who volunteer for the benefit of their communities. Every day, lawyers contribute their time, energy and expertise to help individuals and nonprofit organizations.
Our goal is to showcase this dedicated service that often gets little attention, and we’re asking for your assistance.
We invite you to send photographs of lawyers you know who contribute volunteer service to others. If selected, your photograph(s) will be featured in the ABA Journal’s monthly segment, “Lawyers Giving Back.” Photos should include your name and those of the lawyer(s) involved, a short description of the service or project, and where it takes place. We particularly ask that photos showcase lawyers in action volunteering on service-oriented projects.
Volunteering is an essential part of American culture. It plays a significant role in who we are as a nation, and defines who we are as lawyers. We look forward to hearing from you!
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