If Williston Could Wobble Back, Maybe There's Hope for All of Us
Someone on the Solosez listserve posted a link to this article from the Harvard magazine on Samuel Williston, 20th century legal scholar, Harvard law professor and author of an authoratative contracts treatise. But though Williston worked late into his life, he suffered a nervous breakdown in his mid thirties that almost derailed his career. The article describes how Williston worked his way back and more poignantly, how he paid it forward, encouraging others through similarly dark times. From the article:
Nonetheless, [Williston] understood that his breakdown had been a central event in his life and hoped his recovery might show those with similar problems that “some achievement may still be possible after years of incapacity.” His sense of having overcome a potentially career-ending illness probably contributed to the serenity and compassion that people so often remarked on. “Having had much trouble himself,” one faculty friend wrote in 1951, “he is quick to share and lighten the trouble of others. More than one colleague in a tough time has received an early visit from him and benefited from his encouragement and understanding.” Williston himself liked to tell people that his own career had been like the path of a wobbling planet: he was proof that, however far off course one went, one could “wobble back.”
Maybe your practice has hit a rough patch recently or you're suffering from malaise or serious depression. We can never avoid the bumps in the road, all we can do, like Williston (or Weebles) is keep on wobbling back.
How to Succeed as A Lawyer - A Great Read
If you've not seen this great letter, How to Succeed as A Lawyer (Roland Boyd), that was first published more than 40 years ago in the Texas Bar Journal, then put down what you're doing and read it now. On the surface, the letter simply dispenses tips from a father to a son on how to succeed as a a lawyer, but the subtext gives us a look at a forty year legal career rich with integrity, satisfaction and optimism. For example, Boyd writes:
The only limit on the amount of success you can achieve [in law] is your time and energy. And the thought that will give strength to finish when the hour gets late and going gets rough, is that irrespective of how it might look to others, you know you are fighting according to the accepted rules of the game.
These days, our profession spends so much time discussing the business of law, making money and managing (the clients, the paperwork and everything else). I cover those issues at MyShingle as much as anywhere because they're basic survival skills without which solo and small firm lawyers can't function. But when we focus all the time on the business of law, we lose sight of the higher purpose we can serve as lawyers, the changes we can make and the people we can help. If you read Boyd's letter, you'll be reminded of what brought you to law to begin with and why despite the stresses and the problems, you still want to stay.
One Singular Inspiration
I love reading about the good deeds of solo attorneys, both because it reflects well on our profession and inspires me to do better. Here's another case of a "lone lawyer" doing good, Park Slope attorney, Theo Davis, who's the subject of this article, Keeping Faith in Troubled Times. The piece reports on Davis' plans to raise funds for the Make-a-Wish Foundation:
[...]in the predawn hours this Saturday [Davis] will be ferried to the eastern tip of Fire Island at the Moriches Inlet, where he will paddle an inflatable dinghy to shore in the first rumor of dawn.
Then, to raise money for a great charity called Make-a-Wish Foundation of Metro New York, Davis will take a 33-mile hike along the surf of Fire Island all the way to the western tip of Democrat Point. Davis has made this same trek for the past four years, raising more than $20,000 in pledges for Make-a-Wish of Metro New York. Most of his sponsors pledge a buck a mile, some $3, some $5. Some people lay out a flat $500[...]
"I first decided to do this because some friends of mine had a baby born prematurely," Davis said. "The baby survived. Had a short, happy little life. Could grip your finger and smile. And then suddenly died at 6 months old. It was devastating. I thought how unfair it was for a kid to be sick. Any kid. Adults, most of us bring our ailments and problems upon ourselves. Kids don't deserve to be sick or hurt."
Davis has a lone law practice in Park Slope, where he specializes in securities arbitration, real estate and the political asylum aspect of immigration law. "I've done okay for myself," he said. "But five years ago, I reached that age where I thought I needed to give something back to society through charity. So I conceived this walk. I chose Fire Island because I grew up on Long Island, spent summers in Fire Island, worked on the ferries. Love the place."
Just as in his law practice, in his charity work Davis wanted to hang a personal shingle. He did some research into charities. "I wanted it to benefit kids," Davis said. "I learned that with some charities only half or less of your money actually reaches the needy. I didn't want to walk to help buy some CEO a new Benz. What impressed me about Make-a-Wish was that about 87 cents on the dollar goes to the sick kids.
Sometimes, in the middle of the struggle to build a practice, it's easy to lose forget that someday most of us really will reach a point where like Davis, we'll be in a position to give back as well. Let's not forget to do that when we finally arrive.
Sometimes, You Really DO Need A Lawyer
I'll admit that there are many tasks currently handled by lawyers that a non-lawyer or pro se could take on just as competently. At the same time, there are certain matters that a nonlawyer is bound to screw up, often with tragic consequences, as this article, Paralegal Accused of Posing As Lawyer (Dallas Morning News, 6/21/05) bears out.
The article describes how John Dejean former jailhouse "attorney representative" who started a successful paralegal business primarily helping convicts file legal motions wound up advising a client to speak with the police about a quadruple murder in which the client had served as a lookout and carried a gun. Apparently, Dejean did not realize that his client's role in the crime meant that the state could do what it did, i.e., charge him with felony murder, a capital crime, even if he was not the actual killer.
So the next time you encounter a client who wonders why he can't handle a matter on his own or why you're charging so much, you might just pass along this article as a reminder that in many cases, the costs of not using a good lawyer far outweigh the costs of hiring one.
The Big Firm Small Firm Comparison
Law Girl of On Firm Ground posts the second installment of her biglaw-small law comparison. This time, the focus is on the differences in client contact between the two venues (essentially, client contact at one of those places is a myth, I'll leave it to you to figure out which one) and what Law Girl has learned as a result of spending time with clients. Much of what Law Girl's learned as an associate at a small firm would also hold true for an attorney going solo, so her Biglaw/Small Law series is worth following.
Solo Stories from the Front
Here are a couple of first hand accounts on going solo: The First Year, a short blog post by patent attorney Russ Kraject (4/17/05) and Hanging Out A Shingle: Following the Dream of Starting Your Own Firm, Jaime Levy Pessin reprinted from Law Bulletin at the Legal Match Weblog (3/16/05).
A Lawyer Calls for Civility
Many of us lawyers grouse about the lack of civility in the legal profession; this article, Maryland Lawyer Makes A Case for Civility reports on Rockville, Maryland attorney Steven Seltzer who's actually trying to do something about it. In addition to calling lawyers' on their incivility (for example, Seltzer once wrote a letter to a firm about the rude treatment he'd received from one of its attorneys and obtained an apology), Seltzer has also written a book and lectured on civility in the work place.
I'm beginning to wonder, however, whether incivility is actually the worst aspect of law, particularly litigation practice. I've found that some of the lawyers who are the most polite and courteous face to face are the same ones who'll file unnecessary motions or fail to be forthright about other matters in the case. Yet the latter actions are considered zealous advocacy rather than uncivil conduct. In fact, I've reached a point where I'd rather go up against an attorneys who let off steam every so often with a stream of profanity but let me know clearly where they stand rather than the attorneys who'll publicly smile and then turn around and stab me in the back.