A Lawyer’s Calling
The following was published in the August 2011 issue of the Georgia Bar Journal, as my president’s column. (If you want to see the end notes, go to the online version of the Journal.) It does not deal with my practice as a personal injury and wrongful death trial attorney focused on commercial trucking accidents. Rather, it addresses core concerns of all members of the legal profession.
It was a Sunday in December nearly 40 years ago at my grandparents’ rural home at Mentone, Ala., a bucolic spot best known for summer camps, midway between Chattanooga and Gadsden on the hundred-mile long plateau that is Lookout Mountain. Within a mile radius were the simple houses, church, school, woods, fields and country graveyards which helped define “home” for several generations of a family steeped in a morality so strict that, for some of us, it proved more aspirational than operational.
At the “children’s table,” off the kitchen with my cousins, I could faintly hear the conversation of our elders at the “grownup table” in the dining room. My father said something about “Ken” and “law school,” as he told of the path I hoped to pursue after college. The response to his announcement was strangely muted. He then explained how, similar to ministry or teaching, law could be a calling too. My grandfather, the family patriarch who served a lifetime as a minister and builder all over Alabama, and who I remember as the image of rectitude, both in the pulpit on Sundays and in a pressed work shirt and securely tucked-in tie on construction sites, made some quiet expression of resigned acceptance.
Ours was a family of preachers, teachers and builders, upright, hard-working and devout country people. Not only had there never been a lawyer in the family in living memory, but so far as I knew then, no one in the extended family had ever considered a legal career.1 We lived in Mentone until I was 12, across a pasture from the grandparents who helped mold me. Many happy hours were spent roaming the woods and catching tadpoles in a cattle pond, and I learned to shoot a rifle before I learned to ride a bike. When it came time to start school, my parents took me to work with them, 10 miles away to Menlo, Ga. Menlo was an idyllic Mayberry where my father was a school principal who wielded an effective “board of education” and my mother was a teacher and librarian who strongly encouraged memorization of inspirational poems. By the time I entered high school, we migrated to the “big city” of Douglasville, Ga.—then a country town of about 5,000 on the route of an unfinished I-20—where at night on a rural hilltop restless teenagers could see the lights of Atlanta twinkling in the distance. Visits home to the mountain grew less and less frequent.
When the remains of the feast were cleared away, and the womenfolk were clattering dishes and talking in the kitchen, Uncle Leonard took me aside. He was the only one of his generation who seldom left the mountain for more than a few days, except to pick up a piece of German shrapnel that he would carry in his body all his life. Strongly self-reliant, he lived within sight of his birthplace, building and remodeling mountain homes for city folks, while his siblings pursued degrees and careers far from their roots. In some ways he was the best of the bunch.
With a look of profound concern on his weathered face, Uncle Leonard jabbed a work-scarred finger into my chest and demanded, “Kenneth, don’t you know that it’s impossible for a lawyer to go to heaven?” In retrospect, I realize his challenge was based upon a combination of tough love and his flawed interpretation of a few verses in the King James Version of the Bible.2 In his dealings down at the county seat, including service as a part-time constable and a competitive Republican bid for sheriff when the Democratic nomination was still tantamount to election, he apparently had seen no reason to doubt his opinion.
With the cockiness of youth, I laughed off my uncle’s warning. What could this good man who I had looked up to all my life, but who left school at 16 and earned his living through hard work with a hammer and saw, possibly know about the moral and spiritual health of the profession to which I aspired? Nonetheless, I silently vowed to prove him wrong. In the four decades since, I have often recalled his words, especially on those occasions when I strayed across some line, either hazy or clear, that I should not have crossed. Moral compromises are by no means unique to the legal profession, but deeply flawed human nature being what it is, none of us are immune from temptation.
Uncle Leonard’s admonition, while delivered in the most literal, fundamentalist terms, may allegorically reveal concerns about the soul of our profession. But it also contains a hidden kernel of hope when we reflect upon our lives and motivations. Even before the economic slump of recent years, many lawyers were disenchanted with their work, unhappy with their workaholic lifestyle, and questioning the wisdom of their career choices. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed in a speech a few years ago:
[L]awyers, as a group, [are] a profoundly unhappy lot. . . . Attorneys are more than three times as likely as non-lawyers to suffer from depression, and they are significantly more apt to develop a drug dependence, to get divorced, or to contemplate suicide. Lawyers suffer from stress-related diseases, such as ulcers, coronary artery disease, and hypertension, at rates well above average.3
The stress lawyers experience may, in part, come from pressure to live two separate lives as a human being and a lawyer, and to prevent their overlap.4 In Dante’s Inferno, just inside the gates of hell were the morally indifferent, those “passionless people who lived without praise or blame, and thus never truly lived.”5 Dante’s “passionless people” may remind us of the compartmentalization that is all too tempting in the legal profession. 6 Contemporary law practice can induce some lawyers to hide behind a veneer of cynicism or sarcasm, evading the complications of humanity in order to live in the comfortable zone between profit maximization and the avoidance of sanctions.7 This overly rationalized zone has been described as an “ethical winter,” or a “hibernation of the soul,” which can result in cynicism and even self-contempt.8
A novelist wrote that “[a] profession is like a great snake that wraps itself around you. Once you are wrapped up, you are in a slow fight for the rest of your life, and the lightness of youth leaves you.” Of a lawyer he wrote, “I saw how greatly he suffered the requirement of being clever. It separated him from his soul, and it didn’t get him anything other than a living.”9 I recently witnessed this while dealing with a cold, humorless junior shareholder at a distant office of a huge national law firm who clearly conveyed the impression that he was a heartless automaton, devoid of humanity or compassion. Lawyers seeking to retain their souls and some remnant of the “lightness of youth” after decades of practice must seek not only to avoid punishment by following the disciplinary rules of conduct, but also to escape such cold indifference by reuniting our sense of humanity with our profession and, ultimately, recognizing the law as a passionate vocation.10
For too many of us, the law has become a mere instrument for attaining economic or social objectives; we have forgotten that “law is rooted in something bigger than the people who hand it down, that law is rooted in history and in the moral order of the universe.”11 I have been guilty of that too. In more prosperous days, high incomes often masked concerns about this. When investment banks and the most prestigious law firms could offer top law school graduates starting salaries in the nosebleed range, and their rising tide lifted our smaller boats, we could more easily rationalize that at least we were well paid. However, as the latest recession led to layoffs and downsizing in great firms and the decimation of once thriving practice areas, middle class individuals and small businesses, unable to pay customary attorney fees, turned to selfhelp resources. As a result, most of us experienced falling revenue, an ebbing tide found many of us struggling to keep up appearances of our customary success.
Rediscovering passion for service in the legal profession is an essential element in enduring hard times and a necessary step in recognizing the potential for personal fulfillment that a legal career offers. Those of us who bear the scars of long legal careers, however, know all too well how easy it is to lose sight of the intrinsic values of our work when we are laboring in the muddy trenches of the law for long hours day by day, besieged with phone calls and e-mails, stressed out about deadlines and seemingly insoluble conflicts, struggling to meet billing requirements, cover overhead, make payroll, feed all the mouths we are expected to feed, and reserve some personal space in our lives.
Viewed with the right perspective, the law can offer some of the best opportunities to help people who are hurting and to temper and resolve human conflict.12 If we view our professional role as a high calling, as a place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, then we may find in the act of helping people solve their problems a value that transcends our fluctuating material rewards.13 Blooming where we are planted, we may find that we are called to serve as instruments of justice and love—sometimes love as tough as Uncle Leonard’s—in whatever workday roles we hold. Prosecutors and defense lawyers are called not only to serve the positions of state and defendant, but to help assure that wrongdoers—and only wrongdoers—are punished, and that punishment justly fits the offense and the offender. Judges are called to firmly, fairly and impartially administer justice in their communities in a manner that respects the humanity of all who come before them. Personal injury lawyers can enforce responsibility and accountability of those who carelessly cause harm, while helping clients regain the dignity and independence that has been diminished by injury or the untimely death of a family member. Insurance defense lawyers may protect corporate resources from baseless claims, while encouraging their clients to fairly resolve cases that have merit. Estate planners assist and encourage their clients’ stewardship and love for their families and communities. Corporate lawyers may see themselves as called to structure entities and transactions that help create jobs and economic growth. Intellectual property lawyers safeguard the fruit of innovation that is essential to progress and prosperity. Real estate lawyers may be called to help families, businesses and communities secure a physical environment that promotes growth and productivity. Small town lawyers practicing “front door law”—whatever comes in the front door—may have the best opportunities to positively impact the lives of both their clients and their communities.14 The potential examples are as varied as the legal profession itself.
Compared to the infinite scale and complexity of the universe, our lives seem trivial and limited. But in this snippet of time and space we occupy, we are called to interpret the moral order of creation into pragmatic, common sense legal solutions for the messy problems presented to us, and to use our skills to temper the chaos to which human nature gives rise.15 Being able to recognize this calling and our peace-making and problem-solving abilities may allow us to regain, and live with, a sense of passion and purpose.
Through it all, we should be thankful for the opportunity to work and serve in the law, rekindling a more mature and probably less self-important version of whatever first inspired us to pursue legal careers. Laying aside elitist pretensions of professional arrogance, we can pursue more conscientious and effective relationships with clients and colleagues. 16 In the words of the prophet Micah, we should seek to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”17 In so doing, we should prudently seek practical and effective ways in which we can no longer conform to the flawed patterns of this world, and can instead be transformed by the renewal of our minds.18
Perhaps more in lean years than in fat years, we in the legal profession have the opportunity to serve justice, to renew our commitment to the Constitution’s promise of justice for all and to strengthen the best traditions of the justice system as the essential infrastructure of liberty and prosperity. In our brief time, we must do our part to restore the traditional leadership role of the legal profession as a pillar of our communities, our state and country, and in so doing, help to reverse national decline and usher in what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.”19
When I return to Mentone and walk among the graves of strong forbearers who followed their own callings—my great-grandfather the builder and farmer who helped found a church and a school, my grandfather the minister and builder, my father the educator, and Uncle Leonard who issued that stark warning—I pray that before the end I might prove worthy of them and of the calling I follow in the law.