When the Thrill is Gone

A call came in the other day from a young lawyer, Josh Camson, who is chronicling his move from judicial clerk to criminal defense lawyer at the  Lawyerist in a series called “The Shingle Life.” I hate the title too, but Josh is a serious young man who shows great promise.

During the conversation, an interesting issue arose.  As a judicial clerk, Josh has had the opportunity to watch lawyers whose performance was so lackadaisical and mundane as to make him wonder how they ever managed to get a ticket.  The answer, of course, is that they weren’t always that way, concerned only with going through the motions and getting out of there as painlessly as possible.

Young lawyers are filled with zeal, believing that they will be brilliant advocates and rise to fame and glory.  They are smitten by their bright futures. What they aren’t is the bored, dull, routine and careless lawyers who show up in the well everyday, say the ordinary words and walk away.  The ones who don’t care and don’t even try. They just go through the motions.

Josh knew who I was talking about, and asked a great question.  What can I do to make sure that I don’t become that lawyer?

The lawyer who “mails it in” didn’t start out that way. He was just like every other new lawyer, full of zeal and dreams.  He believed, like most other young lawyers, that he could achieve greatness. He cared. He was smart and talented. He was just as grandiose in his self-image as every other young lawyer. Sound familiar?

Today, young lawyers enjoy ridiculing those experienced lawyers who fail to appreciate their brilliance.  We don’t get it. We don’t understand. Of course, they don’t connect the dots, that we were them once, and now we’re them with ten, twenty, thirty years of experience.  If you are so brilliant and zealous at year 1, how did you become such a blithering idiot at year 30?

As proof of their thesis, they point to the mail-it-in lawyers, the ones who have experience but have lost the desire.  Aha! The proof is in the well. And indeed, it is, but not necessarily the proof they think.

Josh’s question got me to thinking, as it’s quite a quandary.  What went wrong between the first time a young lawyer stands up before the court, ready to argue for his life, and five, ten years down the road, when he chants the courtroom plea mantra in the same monotone as he does every other day.

First, not every new lawyer is as smart and talented as he believes.  It’s easy to be full of your brilliance when it’s never put to the test. It becomes far more difficult to live the fantasy when there’s someone with a robe to tell you “denied.”  Nothing kills the dream faster than a harsh dose of reality.

Second, spend time in a courtroom and you meet the guys who hang out there day after day, going through the motions and making the wheels of justice crush people’s souls.  You become friends. You talk. You bond.  They explain to you how the system really works, that no one ever wins and that it’s not worth the effort. They teach you the shortcuts, the moves, the methods that have served them well.  They tell you the secret language of hallway lawyers, that gets them paid and back to their office without breaking a sweat.

You are young, and despite your bravado, realize that the old hands in the courtroom know the great mysteries you were never taught in law school.  You are flattered by their attention, and hang on their every word.  They seem to know exactly what to say when they stand up on their cases, and never miss a beat as the recite the magic words that result in their client being led away in cuffs. And little by little, inch by inch, you adopt their ways.

These lawyers don’t mean to steer you wrong. Rarely do they perceive themselves as mailing it in, but rather playing the game of being a lawyer.  The game becomes a routine, but they still believe they are doing their best, and that their efforts really are for their clients benefit. And indeed, sometimes they are, and they will proudly point to those anecdotes to show that they aren’t pedestrian lawyers, doing as little as possible to make it through the day.

What the young lawyer doesn’t often get to see is the lawyer who doesn’t carry a list of 20 names into court every day, and stand before the court, case after case, repeating himself.  The lawyer who spends most of his day thinking, researching, writing and rewriting, rather than sitting on a hard bench doing the crossword, waiting for a name to be called, is largely invisible to the young lawyer.  It’s much harder to make friends with that lawyer, as he’s in and out, he’s busy, he has obligations to fulfill.  His time is taken up by trying to come up with the way to win the case the other guy pleads out.

Of course, it’s more nuanced, more circumstantial than can be explained here. It varies from lawyer to lawyer, and unduly simplistic characterizations fail to explain the mechanics of how a lawyer with dreams ends up  spending his days in the hallway hoping someone with cash will ask him to stand up on a case.

I doubt my response to Josh was adequate. It was mostly aspirational, that knowing that he doesn’t want to be the lawyer he despises is the best start, and not to allow himself to become so inured to the routine that he wakes up one morning and realizes he’s just mailing it in.  Yet most of the brilliant, zealous young lawyers today will end up doing just that, mailing it in.  I wish I had a better answer.

70 thoughts on “When the Thrill is Gone

  1. BL1Y

    It’s especially hard to avoid that mindset when you’re at a firm that measures associate quality only in hours billed.

  2. steve magas

    As one of several young, zealous, idealistic law clerks in a small state appellate court, we saw our share of “mail it in” lawyers- including one, still practicing today, whose name became synonymous with what one judge called “stream of consciousness” briefs – briefs that seemed to be composed of one long sentence, dictated, typed and signed, but never actually read or edited by the lawyer…

    Not to be too rah rah and all that… but I think you don’t become “that guy” by taking pride in your work and your work product, by caring about every word you utter in court, and every word you type on the pages you submit for filing in the public record, by taking every client and every case “personally,” and by making it your mantra to produce high quality legal work…sometimes that means cutting a deal in the hallway, but sometimes that means pushing the envelope …

    In one case before our court of appeals, the same lawyer was stopped mid-sentence early in his argument by a judge who waved the offensive brief in the air & said, “Mr Lawyer… Here is your brief…” – he then ripped off the last 10 pages [which exceeded our page limit] and tossed them to the ground and said, “…and here is what we read… you may continue…” I guess that would be a sua sponte order striking an excessive brief…

  3. SHG

    That was one of the points I made during the discussion, that doing the best one can has to be a matter of personal pride, and that he has to maintain that level of personal pride in his work. 

  4. Ally McBeal

    ‘and that he(sic)’ or she. I am sure that many recent female law school graduates both read and benefit from the collective wisdom offered at this site. Gender neutrality in the use of pronouns would make us feel more welcome.

  5. SHG

    I’m sure there are other places where the use of gender neutral pronouns is the rule. You should consider finding them so you can feel more welcome. You will not find gender neutrality in my pronouns, however, so if this makes you feel unwelcome, you should leave immediately.

    And notably, the male pronoun you reference refers to Josh Camson, who I believe to be male.

  6. Miranda

    Ally – this website is great for legal analysis, but SHG doesn’t care about being offensive. He uses male pronouns and occasionally engages in casual acts of sexism. It doesn’t do any good to call him out on it because he doesn’t care, at least not that I’ve ever seen. You have to decide for yourself if it’s worth reading the posts when you risk encountering something you find offensive or hurtful. I used to read this site every day. Then something happened that pissed me off so I took a break. Obviously, I enjoy the legal analysis and commentary enough to be reading it again. I just approach it knowing that while SHG and I may hold similar beliefs about criminal defense, if I want to benefit from his legal writing, I have to put up with the sexist part too. So, if you can put that aside, you’ll find great posts. If not, don’t read here. Commenting about it will get you nowhere with SGH and may lead to nasty responses by other commenters.

  7. Sam Glover

    One of the problems with being a young lawyer and getting advice from a more-experienced lawyer—jaded hallway lawyer or not—is that you probably won’t understand the advice.

    I have spent years learning the full meaning of the advice I have received from other lawyers. That’s because context and experience can’t possibly be conveyed with a friendly tip offered over coffee between hearings.

    There is no substitute for those years of learning, and in order to get through them, you have to want to be a great lawyer so badly that you will keep fighting no matter how much you screw up, lose, and start over.

  8. SHG

    That’s where real mentorship, not the horseshit that passes for mentorship on the internet, comes into play. It’s a growth process, takes a long time and is truly appreciated only after experience provides context.


    Miranda, what is a “casual act of sexism?” Is that when a male, without any mal intent says “he” instead of “she” and someone with an agenda who points to every examploe of this as “sexism” chimes in?

  10. Dan

    I thought that’s when two people meet at a bar and then go enjoy the purely physical aspects of sex.

  11. Ally McBeal

    “someone with an agenda” Agenda? What is the agenda? Oh please Mr. Tannenbaum, do tell.

    “mal intent” lol what do you think we are trying to determine the level of scrutiny in a discrimination case or something? Please, I was making a grammatical correction. Think of it as me providing a service. Would you like for me to correct your blog posts too?

  12. CM

    Scott, something about this post really hit me in the gut. I was reading it on my phone in court while surrounded by a lot of young super-confident lawyers. I live in fear of becoming the hallway lawyer now that I’m older, fatter and greyer. But I also am filled with embarrassment at the brash, know-it-all lawyer I was when I first started out. What an insufferable prick I must have been.

    For whatever reason I thought of the parole board scene from Shawshank Redemption when Red says:

    “I look back on the way I was then, a young, stupid kid …. I wanna talk to him. I wanna try to talk some sense to him — tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I gotta live with that.”

  13. Kathleen Casey

    I never write “he or she” and come to think of it I never say it either. It isn’t a grammar issue. “He” is grammatically accepted to refer to men and women both.

    I never sweated whether the toilet seat was up or down when I need it. Who cares. Geez.

  14. Barbara

    It isn’t a grammar issue? Are you serious? Of course it is. It is a matter of grammatical style. Look at Bryan Garner’s Redbook Manual of Legal Style and it is explained why gender neutrality is important in legal writing. Read any legal tratise written after 1980 and you will see it used. Look at the Criminal Law Reporter or the Federel Evidence Reporter. No one in his or her right mind would deliberately use one pronoun over the other anymore. I like many others read the advance sheets all the time. You will not see gendered writing there. It just is not done. And what ever is the connection to a toilet seat?

  15. Jordan

    This is also the reason I could never be a criminal defense attorney. The deck is so stacked against you guys.

    The very few times I’ve stepped in the realm of criminal defense, all I can think is that the prosecutor should be sanctioned (he won’t be), the cop should be charged with perjury (he won’t be), and the politician who wrote this silly, overbroad law criminalizing normal behavior should be held accountable (he won’t be).

    The whole process feels like a meatgrinder where everyone plays their part, and the defendants get to be the meat.

    The law then justifies this condition by applying outdated, arcane principles to an uncooperative reality. “Fairness” is usually the last thing anyone is concerned about.

    I can see how that would beat a person down over the years.

  16. SHG

    It’s not for everybody. And some figure out too late that it’s not for them. And some don’t care if they can make a buck off it.

  17. Kathleen Casey

    Dead serious. It is not a matter of grammar. It is a matter of usage. It may not be to your taste or to your right mind but other attorneys in my acquaintance agree with me. This hyperventilating is distasteful. Sweating the small stuff. Like hectoring a man over whether the toilet seat is up or down. Who cares? That’s the connection.

  18. Miranda

    The example that comes to mind was a reference he made when talking about criminalizing childhood behavior, and how coaches used to break up fights and now they don’t because “they don’t want to get their skirts dirty.”
    Just letting Ally know that if she is jarred by that kind of reference, she shouldn’t read this blog. And I meant “casual” as in mentioned almost as an aside, not that the central topic of any post is sexist.

  19. SHG

    Tannebaum’s tongue in cheek comment doesn’t really seek an explanation, but tries to make a point about political correctness. We deal with hard misery in criminal law.  Tell the guy facing life in prison that his plight is bad, but what about the sexist use of pronouns?  One of the things I (and Tannebaum, in his perpetually inartful way) try to make clear is that the “hurtfulness” of political incorrectness really doesn’t cut it in the big, bad criminal defense world. 

    If the use of masculine pronouns is a more important issue than police abuse, the trampling of constitutional rights and convicting the innocent, then this is not the wrong place to be.  If you want misogenistic talk, walk into a big city lockup filled with defendants awaiting arraignment. If you can’t handle it, then you can’t do this job.

  20. Ally McBeal

    “cry like a little girl”
    Mr. Tannebaum you really do have an obnoxious way with words.Yes, that is a sexist statement and it is inappropriate. And SHG all of your responses are simply fanning the flames and encouraging his obnoxious behavior. Reading this thread is like dealing with a group of 8th grade bullies in the schoolyard at recess.
    Oh no, do my comments get moderated now or banned . . .


    Sorry sweetheart, perhaps one day you’ll have some concept of sarcasm and jest, but probably not.

    I hope to meet you someday, and I promise that I won’t hold the door for you.

  22. SHG

    After you’ve served your term as president of a state criminal defense lawyer association like the FACDL, you can troll to evoke outrage from delicate flowers too. Until then, moderated.

  23. Ally

    Sorry SHG, but no level of professional accomplishment nor success gives one a license to be rude and sexist. There is a level of civil discourse that should be expected in the legal profession. At least I will expect it; and I know lack of civility is not tolerated in most court rooms. Go moderate and redact anything that offends . . .

  24. SHG

    What I find inexcusable is that the Feminist Law Professors haven’t shown up to support your effort. Where is Ann Bartow when you need her?

  25. SHG

    Stop it already. You’re going to make her head explode and then I’ll have to clean up all the goo. Enough!

  26. Ally McBeal

    Won’t hold the door. Wow, what a tough guy. You must really be scary in the court room.

  27. SHG

    Nothing like a non sequitur to close out a flame war. Well done. I think this pretty much sums it up.

  28. Miranda

    I did not mean to imply that pronoun usage was more important than those issues you listed. I was just trying to convey that this is a “like it or lump it place” to a new reader.
    But I did chuckle at the last paragraph, maybe because of the cognitive dissonence of my life. I worked in the Texas prison system for five years, defending inmates who were charged with committing new crimes while incarcerated, and now I’m a public defender. I’ve been called “free-world pussy” more times than I care to remember, and it didn’t bother me one bit. But yes, when I encounter (what I view as) sexism in a blog, it gets under my skin. Go figure.

  29. SHG

    We’re only allowed so much outrage in our lives. Don’t squander it. Save it for the things that matter.

  30. Barbara

    Derrick Bell said that if we fail to address the minor indignities we run the risk of not being able to recognize the big indignities when they come along. This is why it is important to call people out for their sexist remarks. Judge Nancy Gertner describes in her memoir how she constantly confronted sexist attitudes as a criminal defense lawyer and she always confronted guys head on. I frankly could care less if that guy Tannebaum was the Pope. If he says something sexist, he will be held accountable and called out for it. What bothers me is that some of these criminal defense guys think the defense bar is an all-male exclusive boys’ club. It’s not.

  31. SHG

    Derrick Bell said so? Why didn’t you say that in the first place?  We are slaves to the views of Harvard lawprofs.

    As for holding Tannebaum “accountable,” when exactly do you plan to do so? I want to watch.

  32. Barbara

    Well, if my comments here now will make you think twice before the next time you decides to utter a male chauvanistic or sexist remark then my purose has been served. As for SHG, he just allows you free reign at this site to say whatever pops into your head. But you’re a guy.

  33. SHG

    I think you’ve converted Tannebaum. He will now be sensitive and caring to the gender implications of his utterances, all because of your comments.  Or, as the famous Mr. Ed said:

    A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course. That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed.


  34. Erika

    if you want people to take you seriously as a woman or an attorney, sweetie, consider the following:

    1) pay attention to context. otherwise you look silly.

    2) complaining about sexist language when you fail to understand said context makes it clear that he was referring to a specific male individual, makes you look silly and stupid.

    3) trying to complain about a hostile environment when you take your name from a terrible television program which wasn’t exactly very progressive in its treatment of female attorneys (if he allowed links, I would try to find the “Single Female Lawyer” parody from Futurama where Fry is persuaded to watch because the lead character wears the world’s shortest miniskirt) makes you look silly, stupid, and shallow.

    Silly, stupid, and shallow is no way to gain respect.

  35. Barbara

    “sweetie”? Does that make you feel like one of the guys, Erika? whomever you are. Did you ever think that using the moniker “Ally McBeal” is a parody? In any event,it is a heckava funny show and I always enjoyed it – I wear mini skirts too. If you are indeed a woman Erika,(I doubt it as SHG allows anyone to hide behind the veneer of anonymity) you are everything my law school female professors urged me to stay away from in practice. “Silly, stupid, and shallow” oh, I have been called many things but never any of those. Well ok maybe silly after wine . . .

  36. Ken

    Every minute I have spent with strong and capable women — my mother, my wife, the professors who taught me law, the supervisors who made me a better attorney, the gifted partners and associates I work with — really makes me want to believe this whole exchange is just trolling.

  37. Barbara

    I am not sure what ‘trolling’ is, Ken, but I am sure it has a negative connotation. I do not come here to troll. I come here and to other criminal defense blogs for one reason: to learn. You see I recently spent three years and alot of money (in spite of a partial free ride) to obtain my law degree. Despite taking every advanced crim pro course, civil rights seminar and evidence class offered, I am acutely aware that I am not prepared yet to enter a court room. My alma mater and hopefully soon the bar examiners will tell me otherwise. But something seems missing. I just don’t feel prepared. So I come and read – somtimes comment – but mostly read. I can read everything Orin Kerr has ever written on the 4th amendment but he will never tell me what I can find here. The real stuff.
    There is no question that criminal defense is a male dominated field. Yet I do not think that come to blogs to read requires that I also remain quiet when a sexist remark is made. That is not going to happen. You say it and your held to it. That is all I am doing. What’s your purpose Popehat?

  38. SHG

    Ken said that in the hope that you would tell your life story because he finds you fascinating.  You would have done better to say you were trolling.

  39. Barbara

    SHG, you can be annoying too, but you get some slack because I actually read substantive anaylses here.

  40. SHG

    You give me slack? You are the center of my universe, and I don’t appreciate your kindness nearly enough.

  41. Erika

    The problem, sweetie, is that the only place a “sexist remark” was made was in your head. And if there was, you dramatically overreacted and are continuing to dramatically overreact.

    Not everybody is cut out to be a trial attorney or a criminal defense attorney – I hated it because of the stress and failed misarably at it, but I found a job where I don’t have to go to court. Therefore, I am basing this on personal experience when I say:

    No matter how much you want to be a criminal defense attorney, you aren’t going to be able to handle it if you can’t deal with stress and your getting this upset over pronoun usage is not a good sign.


    This Erika cutie pie needs to pipe down like a good girl and stop trying to blow my cover as someone who is merely joking to evoke a response. I would hope she would know her place.

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