When last we had a meaningful interchange (I believe you were a fifth grader), you indicated an interest in pursuing a career in the law. On the chance that, like the clothes on the floor of your room, this thought has remained static and unexamined during the last seven years, I thought we might have one of our always satisfying one-way conversations on the subject before you depart for college.
We - your Mom-lawyer, Dad-lawyer and you - have led a pretty good, pretty interesting life over the past seventeen years. We've traveled, met a lot of people who like to laugh as much as we do, and acquired a car that even you aren't embarrassed to drive. Together we've survived several years of living away from California in a hostile, threatening environment, returning home to the relief of friends and relatives who believed that no one would ever come back alive from Washington, D.C. In short, we've done all right, the three of us.
At the same time, it occurs to me that your perspective on our life together might be a little like that of an audience member at a play. What you've experienced - the things we've done as a family - is the end product of effort that has gone on mostly outside your field of vision. I worry a little about that because it may have deprived you of a real, or realistic, view of what making a living as a lawyer involves.
I believe you know that Mom and I are only one of many species of practicing lawyers. We are the kind who went to work for Establishment law firms right out of law school, then worked for however many years those firms required before they were comfortable giving us tenure.
At the time we started down this career path, the law was not a choice someone made because he or she wanted to get rich. It was an honorable alternative to college teaching, not investment banking. It was something you did mainly because you liked to think, to write, to argue and, almost incidentally, to eat - sometimes at a nice restaurant.
The work was never easy, not even twenty-five years ago when we started out. The problems we dealt with were challenging, the standards for acceptable work very demanding, and the hours never merely the nine-to-five that was then the cliche for a normal workday.
What drove us, in addition to the need to make a living, was the sense that this was, first and foremost, a profession; that the practice of law was a service to society, as well as to yourself; that what we were doing was worthy of the education our parents had given us; and that others engaged in private practice, colleagues and opponents alike, were somehow like us in believing that these core values were what made the profession worthwhile.
If the law was a "business" back when we started our careers, it was a fact that few noted. When business getting, client lists, billing and such matters were mentioned at all, it was usually with a tone of sufferance. For most of the lawyers we knew and respected, success was measured by legal results and client satisfaction. The fact that monetary rewards often followed our successes was nice, but never a substitute for what was really important.
Sometime over the last decade, things began to change. Driven perhaps by society's increasing worship of wealth, particularly quickly acquired wealth; perhaps by the rising costs of legal as well as pre-graduate education; perhaps by a creeping erosion of professional and ethical values, the focus of our niche in the legal profession changed dramatically. Today, for whatever reason, money now seems to be what the private practice of law is about, and many in the profession seem to be ready to do whatever they must to maximize their share of this new measure of professional success.
Ironically, one very obvious result of this change is that most lawyers in the world of what has come to be called "BigLaw" have little time for anything but work. So, as they do what they have to do to make more and more money, they have less and less time to spend it in a meaningful way (although some of their wealth will undoubtedly be handy for the premature intensive nursing and health care that the stress of their pace will necessitate). The irony, though, pales in comparison to other results threatened by this new world.
As we've tried to tell you from the moment you could understand words, when your life is focused intensely on the material, there's a real risk you'll lose sight of some things of greater importance - things like whether our system of justice is operating fairly for everyone; whether you are devoting the time necessary to be the kind of parent you should be; and whether your integrity and dignity are intact. When those kinds of considerations get squeezed to a remote corner of your radar screen, your life isn't "good," no matter how much money you have and no matter how successful the world says you are.
Does all of this mean that I think you should rethink a career in the law? Yes and no. The "yes" applies if what principally motivates you to consider becoming a lawyer is the desire for material rewards. "No" is my answer if, as I hope and suspect, what you find attractive and interesting about the law is the spectrum of intellectual and social challenges that as a lawyer you are equipped and empowered to address.
I believe that the practice of law - even BigLaw - can still be a place where smart, well-intentioned people do important, socially useful things, even while providing a reasonable material life for themselves. But to make such a life for yourself in the prevailing atmosphere requires self-discipline and balance.
You have met a few lawyers in private practice who have that discipline and have struck that balance - people who have worked hard to provide for their families but who have also insisted on devoting some significant part of their expertise and energy to things more important than making money - things like public service and pro bono work.
You have also met lawyers who have made a more dramatic choice - people who, like U.S., District and City attorneys, public defenders, legal aid and international human rights lawyers - have elevated their desire to help others over their need for economic security. If you are brave and certain of your decision, you could do no better than follow their example. If you are not, and if you still decide to become a lawyer, you should keep their example in your head as a reminder that there are some people out there whom you owe - big time - and can never repay.
I know you well enough to know that this message is longer than it needs to be. You're smart, quick and know a fair inference from a foul one.
You know, you'd make a good lawyer.
About the author: Mark Steinberg, a retired Los Angeles attorney, wrote this essay for his son Matt on his graduation from high school in 1999. Matt, now 28, took the California Bar Examination in July 2009. Steinberg writes at http://rejectedopeds.blogspot.com/