Do you want to hear the good news first or the bad news? What was that? You said the bad news? Here it goes...
It is so easy as a lawyer to get frustrated with the many deficiencies of the Legal System. It is easy to blame yourself, and often it seems, the world blames the legal profession. It is all the more important then to celebrate whenever the system has worked.
When I was working in Big Law, partners and associates sometimes looked at in-house counsel as those who couldn’t make it on Bay Street. In-house counsel were the weaker lawyers, the ones who couldn’t compete, or the ones who could not handle the long hours. Lawyers went in-house because they wanted work life balance. In fact, articles are written about women leaving Bay Street and entering in-house practice because they just can’t put in the hours anymore.
Are lawyers suffering from an identity crisis? Is it an occupational hazard that our training has made us good at our jobs, but bad at life? In many instances, we are legally and ethically compelled to subvert our personal interests and identities in favour of our professional interests and obligations. As lawyers we are typically pessimistic, risk-averse, adversarial, argumentative, confrontational, overly opinionated, critical, over-achieving, “type-A” and blame-avoidant on our clients’ behalf. Admit nothing. Say nothing. Give nothing. Defend, defend, defend. Attack, parry, thrust. Are our personal identities slightly subverted to these interests or have they been completely eradicated?
Going through law school, I so often heard that it was a lawyer’s duty not to bring the justice system into disrepute. This always seemed like a hilarious statement to me. Personally, I come from a “modest means” background (that’s lawyers’ speak for saying I’m broke and from a trailer park). I grew up in a community where 30% of children live under the poverty line. A place where economic depression is the status quo and where honest hard-working people sell weed on top of working full-time and going to school so that they can pay their rent, feed their kids, and hope for a better future. Yet the system tries to put these people behind bars on mandatory minimums. I come from a place where domestic violence mixed with mental health and addictions issues are rampant. When you call the police on your drunk, mentally disturbed father who just pulled a shot gun on you, the system tells him that he has to complete one day of anger management, and that’s meant to solve the issue of ongoing domestic/substance abuse. When you come from a place like this, let’s just say you don’t have a lot of respect for authority. When you come from a place like this, saying don’t bring the justice system into disrepute just makes you laugh and think…was it ever reputable to begin with?
Why would someone who grew up with an intense fear of being confronted choose to become a lawyer? The obvious answer is that I had something to prove, but that presupposes that I was conscious of this fear and that I took active steps to engage with it. If I was conscious of the fear, it was only so that I could ‘manage’ it. When it came to that fear, the only thing I actively engaged in was finding something big enough to mask it.
I want to extend congratulations to my colleagues Andreas and Roxana for doing something that is truly inspiring to me. They have taken a case on a contingency fee basis, which means, no retainer upfront - despite get the money upfront being the cardinal rule of being in business for yourself as a lawyer. Instead, they will be in it for the long haul, and will spend many hours of unpaid work on this file before ever seeing a dime.
I began law school with hope, excitement, a little anxiety and a lot to learn. This was typical of all my colleagues. The beginning consisted of new friendships, some of which turned into life-long bonds. We shared stories about our journeys to receiving that long-awaited and prestigious acceptance. We were thankful to our loved ones but, most of all, for the first time in our lives, we were truly proud of our achievement. I, for one, knew exactly the end goal – I wanted to start my own practice and, in doing so, achieve a happy career.
There is talk in the legal community about the justice system being broken, and a fundamental part of this is that ordinary people cannot afford lawyers. Ordinary people, having not been to law school, are having difficulty navigating a system that was not set up to be obvious, easy or intuitive. This is also part of the problem with affording a lawyer: it even takes lawyers a very long time to achieve anything.