At a website I like to call The Puddle, young lawyers with varying lengths of practice ranging from hours to months tell others how to be a rousing success with crucial issues ranging from the need for a really cool lawyer logo to what practice management software to use on your iPad. Others, not necessarily young, who don’t practice law at all, whether because they aren’t lawyers or lack sufficient interest, do the same.
If it sounds absurd, it is. But that doesn’t stop new lawyers from reading and thinking they must know something because if they didn’t, why would they be pundits at The Puddle?
Marcus Schantz hails from Chicago, where he decided to open his practice in 2008. Aside from trying a bunch of cases, he started a blog. He didn’t do a lot of writing, but what he did was pretty good. It wasn’t about his love of iPads or a listicle of things that might attract the sort of eyeballs inclined to visit the Puddle, but rather about things like his murder trials. Not nearly as breezy and intellectually stimulating as how to teach a CLE when everyone else in the room knows more than you.
Marcus has now announced that he’s hanging it up. Not just the blog, but the practice of law. And his reasons offer far more insight than the entirety of the Puddle.
It’s fair to say that in 2009 I was hungry and had a lot of passion for the work. However, in the spring of 2010 when my client was convicted of murder something in me changed. Then a couple months later, another client was convicted of attempted murder. By the end of 2010, I had begun to grow cynical about the work. In short, I was forced to admit the criminal justice system is horribly broken. I also was forced to admit that I had failed two clients in a time of desperate need. As a result, fueling cynicism consumed idealism and I hardened.Marcus writes about a few more trials, some highs and some very deep lows.
In a way, that case was the last straw for me doing this job in Chicago. In the summer of 2012, I decided I needed a change of scenery and no longer wished to practice law. I can’t fully explain it, but I began to feel unhealthy, though physical fitness is a cornerstone in my life. It was my mental health about which I worried. I was on medication for anxiety, depression and had to take pills to sleep. Chicago, and this job, began to make me feel sick inside.There is no criminal defense lawyer who doesn’t know what Marcus was feeling. The bravado we put on for the benefit of others, the confidence we wear like armor in the courtroom, can’t make the ache go away when we realize that our lives are dedicated to a ruinous system that crushes the people we are there to protect.
But there was more to it.Marcus came clean, where so many others hide behind the happy faces of bullshit. At the Puddle, kids throw parties for themselves, celebrate their fabulous business savvy, for having survived a year in practice. That makes them experts, worthy of teaching the profession their magic secrets of success.
Initially in 2009 and 2010, my business was a success and it was profitable. However, in 2011 and 2012, I saw final figures in the red and a resultant escalation in debt as I scrambled to keep things afloat. At the time, I couldn’t understand why business went from great to poor. The eventual answer was marketing. My initial marketing plan worked until it didn’t and I failed to understand why. If I made any errors in running the business, it was this.
Except success isn’t linear. A year or two of “great” business doesn’t make a success. Every criminal defense lawyer knows that his practice is only as successful as the next phone call from a good client with a good case. Sometimes, the phone rings off the hook. Sometimes, it’s silent and you wonder if it will ever ring again.
That my fiscal problems coincided with my burn out was rather fortuitous. I could have borrowed money and revamped my marketing but I chose not to. It was time to move on.New lawyers have this bizarre belief in their exceptionalism, that they are special, that their experience will be different from that of the thousands who came before them. How many times can old lawyers say that the practice of law is hard work, a tough business? It can be soul-crushing. It goes from high-flying to crash and burn in a blink of an eye. Marcus assumes that by getting out there, doing all the things that let the world know he’s available for purchase, would get him back on track. Even that isn’t reliable, though he will never find out.
My first reaction to Marcus’ announcement was that it was a terrible shame, a loss, for a new lawyer who has gained incredibly valuable experience in the courtroom to walk away. Others who have gone through the same depression continued to practice but gave up at the same time. They’re the guys who don’t care about anything other than the quick buck and plea. Marcus decided that wasn’t going to be his future.
Upon further reflection, it’s clear that Marcus had to make the choice that was right for him and true to the life he wants for himself. He’s planning to be a novelist. It sounds a bit cliché, and every criminal defense lawyer thinks he’s got a few fascinating books in him, but that’s what he’s decided to pursue.
Maybe he’ll make it. He’s got two books in the can already, and perhaps he’ll send me a copy to review one day. Either way, his time in the trenches was honorable, and his experience is something far too deep and real for the childhood fantasies being offered at The Puddle.
Before leaving, Marcus offered his dose of truth. If other new lawyers are wise, they will pay attention.