Fear, Loathing, Isolation And Debt

On the twitters, I asked whether young lawyers were “paralyzed with fear and anxiety.”  The response was overwhelmingly clear: they are scared shitless about the ability to survive under the debt they carry, plus feed a family, buy shoes and all the other good stuff that they expected from joining a learned profession.

Aside from that, they’re pretty happy doing the hard work of lawyering.

Yet, I keep hearing about lawyers and depression, misery and unhappiness. I keep hearing that new lawyers are wrought with emotions they cannot control, like a teenager discovering hormones, crying, pulling out hair in clumps, balled up in corners with snot running down their nose.

I suspect that the sort of lawyers who are paralyzed with fear aren’t the same lawyers who would tolerate following someone like me on the twitters. I’m not inclined toward rubbing their tummies and telling them it’s okay that they failed their clients, as long as they’re happy.  My question, thus, was put to a different universe of lawyers, those whose professional lives aren’t wrapped up in their own misery and unhappiness. Those who ought to be lawyers.

Colorado District Court Senior Judge John Kane gave me his thoughts on the purported fix for all the emotionally-obsessed looking for a way out, with permission to post.

This “mindfulness” fad seems to me to be nothing but a poor, modern decline from Shakespeare’s dictum in Taming of the Shrew:  “And do as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”  We have lost the sense of collegiality and courtesy by this resort to isolated meditation, and along with that isolation comes a lack of joy in competition and an absence of validation in mutual respect and enjoyment.

The result is dreary and drudging.  All of that soi-disant mindfulness was once the joy of pubs and hugs and laughter.  Our lives are no doubt in better shape, but the lack of wit is worse than the sound of one hand clapping.  No companions, no mentoring, no pride in tradition, no wide-open friendships with rivals, no purging of regrets and no resolutions to try again and yet again.

My life as a lawyer and then a judge has been filled with laughter, tears, triumphs and defeats.  Every moment filled with the grist for memories.  I don’t regret a minute of it, but I also think that given today’s compulsions and risk avoidant circumspection of the law practice, I would not begin it today and I wouldn’t recommend it — at least I can’t presently think of anyone alive I dislike enough to recommend the law as a way of spending the rest of one’s life.

What would the dictates of mindfulness suggest about taking a hopeless pro bono case and spending the next fifteen or twenty years on it just because it’s there and you might be able to do something useful for someone else?

Do I meditate?  Yes, on occasion, but I surely wouldn’t want to make a federal case out of it.

The irony of “this fad” is that it can be yours for a mere $199.99, bringing us back to the one “hard” problem that is pervasive among the people who responded to my twit: debt.

Money won’t buy happiness, but it’s really good at alleviating the misery of debt.  If new lawyers cannot find a place, whether solo or associate, where they can earn sufficient income to justify three years of tuition, opportunity costs and buy their kids food to eat every day, there is no reason for anyone to become a lawyer.

It’s not that the law isn’t important in people’s lives, or that people don’t need lawyers, but that no one takes an oath of poverty to serve others when entering the legal profession.  I know, some folks think they should, but they’re wrong. If lawyers can’t be assured of a decent financial existence, then they will find a future elsewhere.

Once lawyers have the debt-monkey off their back, they can worry about climbing up Maslow’s pyramid to self-actualization. But since no amount of hugging is going to feed their hungry kids tonight, that must come first.

Frankly, the response to my twit was pretty heartwarming.  I bet Judge Kane would have like it as well.  It’s not that practicing law is making young lawyers miserable. They seem pretty dedicated to the idea that they are kicking butt for their clients, or at the very least trying their best to do so.  These are the men and women who would take a pro bono case for the next fifteen or twenty years, just because they might be able to help someone.

These aren’t the sort of lawyers to wring their hands about their misery. They aren’t “paralyzed with fear and anxiety.” They just need to earn a decent living, pay off their debt, and kick ass. These are lawyers.

16 thoughts on “Fear, Loathing, Isolation And Debt

  1. Mort

    I keep hearing that new lawyers are wrought with emotions they cannot control, like a teenager discovering hormones, crying, pulling out hair in clumps, balled up in corners with snot running down their nose.

    Does seething with rage over bullshit decisions [link to Facebook warrant post omitted because I fear thy wrath] count?

    Because that’s a thing I feel like I’ll end up doing…

    1. SHG Post author

      Greasy fingers tearing shabby clothes would be better. Just sayin’.

      Seriously, do I have to make it this easy? Am I completely wasting my time here?

  2. Dave

    Money can’t buy happiness, but it can get you a good bargaining position. (Or so my Dad says.)

  3. CLS

    Esteemed One:

    With regards to the debt issue that you mentioned: it seems like a lot of law schools give those who attend them the false expectation they will automatically get a job somewhere on conclusion of year three and passage of the Bar Exam with a good pay and enough cases to justify their existence. This does a disservice to those who don’t find such jobs available after they leave law school.

    It took me a good five years to start earning a decent living, largely because I had no such job and had to learn how to market myself and run a business starting a solo practice. Do you think law students would be better served if their schools required a mandatory business and marketing class in addition to their current curriculum?

    1. SHG Post author

      Aside from this being off topic, by the time someone finds their way to law school, they really ought to have a grasp of basic business economics. Do you seriously need someone in law school to explain “revenues less expenses equals profits”? But having had this discussion with innumerable young lawyers, I realize that they just don’t get this at all.

      So should there be a mandatory business and marketing class? No. Every infant should have it tattooed on the inside of his eyelids at birth.

  4. David M.

    It frightens me too. Let’s say I stole your Healey, Dad’s BMW and all the money you made selling those cases of wine, sold my watch, all my iThings and emptied out my bank account. I’d have just barely enough to cover three years at a certain school.

    Feelzwise, I’m stuck between amazement that this opportunity exists for a random foreigner and dismay at what it’ll cost me. But one thing I never thought of trying, before you covered people who did, was outrage – outrage that the world won’t satisfy your burning need to have a cool degree for nothing.

    We actually do offer higher education for next to nothing, about $150 a semester nationwide. Problem: it turns out that, like Chesterton’s Fence, high tuition exists for a reason. It isn’t just colleges price-gouging; it helps to weed out people who aren’t a) blessed with rich parents, b) good enough to win a scholarship, c) dedicated enough to suck it up and assume debt, or d) narcissistic enough to let their feelz guide their career choice, then complain about it/default on their loans. Lots of hand-wringing on the Left about a), we’ve seen NYT op-eds written by d)s, but b) and c) are where it’s at.

    Turns out that if you reduce barriers to entry and screw your university out of funding, you end up with a lot of dilettantes, few of whom get jobs, even fewer of whom later donate, and you start providing inferior services to, on average, less committed students. It’s a vicious cycle that helps explain why Europe’s universities are so uncompetitive.

    Assuming most American law students aren’t a), b) or d), they’re likely to be c)s, so I’m unsurprised to hear they reacted as they did – scared by the debt, because they’re rational, and happy to do the work, because they’re dedicated. I’ll be no different.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not that Cs aren’t the best, but As or Cs with money does make for a more comfortable ride. Especially since you can keep the Healey.

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