The Human Side of Bloodsuckers

Last week, I found out one of my favorite clients died.

It's not the first time it's happened, and it surely won't be the last. The phone call came at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning. I listened as my client's wife tearfully explained why he would not make his next court date. Instead of saying the things people are supposed to say to console someone when they've just lost a loved one, I briefly and formally expressed my sympathy, and then went straight into explaining the documentation that we would need from her in order to have his charges abated. If you'd been listening to me then and not understood the words I was saying, you'd notice no difference in my tone than if I'd been discussing a speeding ticket. However, on the inside, I felt like I'd just taken a punch to the gut. After the phone call ended, this client stayed on my mind for a while. It wasn't just because I hated the fact that he'd died. It was the way I'd reacted to hearing the news over the phone. Detached, logical, professional. On the inside, my heart ached for his wife, but my expression of that to her would have been inappropriate. I thought about how so many people see lawyers as cold, conniving, and selfish, and how much I hate that stereotype. I also thought about how based on the exchange I'd just had, I can kind of see why people think that.

One of my best friends says that when it comes to writing, the material is all already in your mind. The challenge is simply to access it. Once you've done that, the words literally write themselves. The death of my client did that yesterday, opening the creative portal to my long-held desire to show the vulnerable, human side of the world's "coldest" profession. I've heard all of the lawyer jokes at least a dozen times. While I know most of them have a rational basis, I don't like the way they seem to portray us as psychopathic ice machines. That's why I'm giving an inside look today.  If I can give even one person a new perspective on us, then my effort here will not have been wasted. 

One of the most underrepresented bits of knowledge about us from outside the legal field is how much torture we've had to endure just to get here. We spend three to four years of our lives being worked to death and publicly humiliated in front of our peers on a regular basis. This supposedly prepares us to face intimidating judges in court for our clients without losing our composure. I've never felt as stupid and incompetent as I did while earning my law degree. On top of that, most of us have undertaken a huge financial risk just for the privilege of being there. Many of us will never be able to repay the money we've borrowed. What's worse is that making it through this vicious battle is not enough. A diploma is not a law license. If we want to actually be lawyers, we have to prove ourselves again to the board of law examiners. We must show that we can perform complex legal analysis under intense pressure for twelve solid hours by paying $825 to sit for what is arguably the hardest licensing exam in the United States. Each time it is given, only a little more than half of those who take it will pass.

Three days before the bar exam this past summer, I spent about an hour curled up in the fetal position on my couch in a full-on meltdown because I was terrified that I would fail and the pressure had finally gotten to me. As crazy as it sounds, that level of anxiety is what drove me to take the studying seriously enough to pass. I know for a fact that my experience with bar study was actually very common. Do I want you to feel sorry for me? Of course not. I signed up for this, after all. But don't think that lawyers don't know what it feels like to be the underdog. Some of the lowest points of my life were experienced while studying for the bar. Lawyers are all very familiar with what it's like to feel overworked, tired, abused, unappreciated, and insecure. In a strange way, that's a big part of what bonds us together. We've literally put ourselves through hell just for the privilege of being allowed to offer you a legal service.

Another huge misconception about attorneys is that we are all rich. I understand where the idea comes from. Television and other media outlets tend to portray lawyers as rolling in cash while gouging poor clients who can barely pay their rent. The irony is that the one who most likely can't pay his rent is the attorney. As I mentioned before, most of us have undertaken enormous student loans to attend law school. Combine that with the current market being saturated with attorneys, and you get a bunch of poor souls with massive debt, no clients, and no jobs. I know attorneys who are working for free just to get experience. I also know attorneys who work for free for clients who need help but can't pay. 

Getting paying clients is the primordial dilemma for any business. Attorneys have to follow more rules than any other field with respect to how they are allowed to market, yet seem to be the most harshly criticized for actually doing so. I once worked for a firm that did direct mail marketing (basically the only way attorneys are allowed to directly solicit clients.) One of the recipients returned our marketing letter, unopened, with the following largely written in all caps along the top of the envelope: RETURN TO BLOODSUCKER.

What this person didn't know is that the owner of the firm hadn't paid himself in over six months so that he would be able to pay his staff. He didn't know that we were paying hundreds of dollars per month just for access to the marketing data, $1.74 in supplies and postage to get the letter to him, plus the hourly rate of the person who actually printed and stuffed the letter. My intent here is not to solicit sympathy. Business is business and it's a tough, capitalist world out there. I'm merely trying to show that we have to chase the dollar every day just like the rest of the world. There is no bad-faith or abnormality in our (sometimes desperate) attempts at getting business so we can pay our rent. The only difference is that when we do it, people seem to get angry with us.

I won't lie and say that money isn't one of the reasons I decided to become a lawyer. Of course I want to make a good living. We all do. Why else would anyone undertake such a challenging and stressful career? That being said, I do genuinely love helping people. Justice is one of the world's most ancient and precious gifts, after all. If you ask, most attorneys will tell you that they get just as much fulfillment from it as their clients, money aside.

In addition to thinking we bleed money, a lot of people also tend to think of lawyers as unemotional. I can certainly understand why it might seem that way. More often than not, people seek the help of attorneys during the most difficult situations in their lives. During a consult, it might seem like we are flippant about your situation and dismissive of details that affect you deeply. I assure you, that's not the case. It's just that those details probably don't have any legal significance. Feelings and opinions are colorful; the law is black and white. Part of our job is to separate the irrelevant facts from the relevant ones. It's what we are trained to do from the first day of law school. Try not to take it personally. Know that we take our job extremely seriously, and doing that often requires us to separate ourselves from our sentiments. Remember that a lawyer who is not in control of his emotions is a danger and a liability in the court room. 

Besides not showing emotion, many attorneys have mastered the art of not showing stress. This too, is by necessity. A jury is not likely to be persuaded by an attorney who is visibly anxious or insecure. This doesn't mean we aren't anxious and insecure. We just can't show it. The legal profession is arguably one of the most stressful in the world. Not only do you have to make your case, you have to do it while your colleague, who has the same training and education as you, tries their best to discredit all of your arguments. We're all just doing our jobs, folks.

When you hire an attorney, you pay for peace of mind. Your stress doesn't just disappear when you hire an lawyer. It is absorbed. Imagine not only worrying about your problems, but worrying about dozens of peoples' problems at the same time. It gets to you after a while. I know of plenty of attorneys who have struggled with substance abuse and serious depression. There's a reason we have one of the highest rates of alcoholism. I've taken client problems home in my mind on many occasions. At the end of the day, we are all just people too. We worry. We struggle. We stress. We doubt ourselves. And we care when our clients die. 

As always, thanks for reading!

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