Letters to a Young Scientist was written by Edmond O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning biologist and the foremost expert in the world on ants. If you get nothing else from this post, buy and read that book.
I thought I might try my hand at writing something roughly similar, albeit far less beautiful and far harsher. If you are a young practicing lawyer, I hope that this post will curl your toes, but resonate with you too. Consider please the following advice from an old, straight, white man who was once a practicing lawyer.
Dear Young Practicing Lawyer,
You are young and immature. You instinctively know that you cannot comprehend what your youth and immaturity mean. So, I am going to mentor you from the vantage of 70-plus years. Don’t be mad or sad. Just read and reject or accept as you think best. After all, you are alone in this immense universe. In the end, the choice is yours and yours alone.
First and foremost, even though you passed the bar exam, you are unfit to represent real people. That is not entirely your fault, although you are partly to blame as you took the bar exam and passed despite instinctively knowing the truth. Unfortunately, your law school professors and those who now surround you tell you not to worry, but they are wrong and manifestly so. You don’t know what you don’t know and you will not know what you don’t know until many years have elapsed.
In short, you have a long and tough path before you. Try hard, please, to understand that you are basically a moron when it comes to the practice of law. Only age and experience will make you wiser. There is no educational substitute for a good hard kick in the most sensitive parts of your anatomy to help you along the path to becoming what you claim to be. And this is vitally important: Try desperately not to hurt your clients in the process.
Moving on, if you do pro bono work (and you should), accept at least one case for a client whom you despise or, at least, who makes you uncomfortable. That is, take on a client that causes you to itch. By doing so, you will learn a lot about yourself, intellectual honesty and what it truly means to be a practicing lawyer.
Additionally, don’t complain about a work/life imbalance. Your clients are what matters. Your spouses and kids are secondary. If you don’t agree, get out of the practice of law. If your kid complains that you missed his or her ballgame or dance recital, tell the narcissistic little monster “too bad, so sad,” and then cuff him or her about the head.
Still further, don’t loathe your adversaries. They suck as much as you do. Beat them fairly and squarely, but don’t spurn them. Once in a while, buy them a drink.
Another thing, if you still believe in “justice,” then you are an idiot. You are insufficiently trained and educated to determine what is just or unjust. Perform your job and let justice take care of itself. That is, do law, not justice.
Here’s a rare gem: Understand that there is no sin in making money, and the phrase “public interest lawyer” sometimes translates to “utterly incompetent lawyer.” Greed is good. If you think otherwise, you are, frankly, a dolt. But greed must be tempered by a moral compass. I have no clue where you will find that lodestar but you must find it or you will suffer a flesh-eating cancer.
Moving on, be kind to underlings like your “assistant,” and by that I mean, for example, your secretary. She (or perhaps he, although that makes me giggle) is a valuable resource and, more significantly, a living and breathing human being. Nurture these people like hothouse orchids. Most importantly, never punch down.
On sartorial issues, dress the part. Short and low cut dresses and stiletto heels or French cuffs with gold cuff links and a Rolex mark you as poseur rather than a practicing lawyer. It is never, ever, about you.
Next, model General Eisenhower not General Custer. Don’t die on hills you cannot take and hold. Custer was a stupid and vain asshole. Far more importantly, he sacrificed his troops (your clients) for the sake of his reputation.
Lastly, remember that the bar associations, particularly the ABA, are like unions but without the intellectual heft and honesty. Go ahead and join (you may be forced to anyway), but it is your solemn responsibility to snicker at the gunners who try desperately to become “leaders of the bar.” Never take a bar association seriously, particularly when it comes to ethics. Legal ethics are to ethics what military music is to music.
Go forth and prosper. On reflection, I am not at all sure I mean that.
Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)