An Old Lawyer’s Message

Rarely does a blawg post resonate with the force that Norm Pattis’ did a mere two days ago.  When he wrote Another Year in the Trenches, he sought a catharsis, a way to purge himself of his demons.  His post struck me.

Curiously, it struck many others as well.  I don’t mean that it’s curious that a moving, extremely well-written post would have an affect on others, but that so many of those who were moved by Norm’s post were young, some not even lawyers yet.  It was a glimpse into their future, but not something they could possibly feel as yet.  And this was clear by their efforts at offering “uplifting” comments, as if they could encourage Norm to get past his “funk” by reminding him of the good he’s done, of the lives he’s saved, of the benefit he’s provided in his years of criminal defense.

Norm knows that.  I know that too.  We’ve both offered many a word of encouragement to the discouraged young lawyer faced with his first jury verdict when he was absolutely sure he would win.  We’ve comforted the lawyer for the innocent, whose life will be spent in prison, whose family will be husbandless and fatherless, because some cop fudged the facts or some judge took the path of least resistance.  We’ve been there, with kind words and comforting thoughts.

But we know a truth that no young lawyer, and certainly no law student, can possibly know.  We are engaged in a process that begs us to push back a tidal wave of misery.  And another tidal wave after that.  And another.  It never stops.  They come rolling in, one after another.  After a while, we get tired of trying to stop the tidal wave, knowing how many more are behind it. 

There is no need to remind us that we save lives, one at a time.  We know.  And sometimes we do save a life.  More often, we try our best and fall short.  We tell ourselves that we’ve achieved a small victory for a defendant, when we know that the best we’ve managed to eke out is saving his children from the larger failure of never seeing their father walk free in their lifetime.  What must a ten year sentence look like to a young child?  How many young children must grow up without a parent, while we convince ourselves that we’ve helped?

The young lawyer bolsters himself against this feeling of futility by believing in platitudes, in the myths we construct around our efforts to keep us going in the face of futility.  They are not yet jaded and tired.  They believe that they make a difference.  They believe that the next judge will listen, that the next cop will tell the truth.  They believe that justice can be achieved.  They believe that they know what justice is.

There are only so many times an old lawyer can bang his head against a wall without it hurting more than he can stand.

Norm has fought these battles for a very long time.  He’s tried many cases, and listened to many defendants speak about their lives.  He knows what becomes of their lives.  He knows too well.  He’s had great victories.  He’s had crashing defeats.  And still the tidal waves keep coming. 

The message I take from Norm’s post, and one I share with Norm, isn’t intended for the young lawyers or lawyers to be.  We need you, your youth, your zeal, your belief, your resolve, to take up the fight.  Underneath the cynical shell, we remain idealists who believe that a system can be fashioned that won’t destroy lives, if only we can keep fighting the tidal waves.  But old lawyers get tired.  Young lawyers, especially those in their prime, where their skills have developed to the point where they can mount the good fight yet not suffer the cynicism of one loss too many, need to push back against the tidal wave.

Norm is just in a funk.  He will be revitalized on his own, when the next person walks in his office with a life in need of saving.  Norm will shore himself up, put on the armor and feel that surge of energy that flows through your body as you walk into the courtroom ready to do battle.  He doesn’t need his hand held, or to be told what a wonderful job he’s done.  He knows.

As the next tidal wave approaches, you will see Norm right up front, ready to push with all his might.  It’s just what he does.  Norm just needed to let out the frustration, the feeling of exhaustion from having to push again.  But he’ll do it, because that’s what he does.  That’s what old lawyers do, even though they’re tired of pushing. 

Young lawyers, and lawyers to be, understand that Norm hasn’t given up hope.  He’s just tired.  But he’ll get over it.  If you take anything from Norm’s post, step up to the fight while Norm rests and aspire to work as hard for as long as Norm to make things better.  They day will come when you young lawyers will have to fight the tidal waves without the old lawyers, and the best homage you could offer Norm is to start now.

6 thoughts on “An Old Lawyer’s Message


    You are a master wordsmith and someone I am grateful I have access to-even though it is only through you blog posts.
    I am a better lawyer because I read and ponder the posts of you, Norm, Mark and Jeff (who I just discovered because of Mark’s post).
    When I began practicing law there were no personal computers, online research, social network sites or any other marvels we take for granted-and I sometimes curse. Having access to so many brilliant minds has convinced me that I am living in a truly wonderful time.

  2. C Small

    Just wanted to say great post. I read this blog a lot and greatly enjoy when these posts come across my computer screen.

    I am one of the young(er) attorneys you describe and appreciate greatly you (and your brethren) sharing the wisdom and experiences you’ve accumulated throughout the years.


Comments are closed.