Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Should lawyers give more?

Eugene Pettis, The Florida Bar's president elect and the first black person to assume the position visited Gainesville last week and was a speaker our monthly luncheon held by the Eight Judicial Circuit Bar Association that I'm a proud member of. During his presentation he encouraged the attorneys in the room to be more actively involved in their communities, promote diversity and become more active on committees. Lack of time, he reasoned, should not be an excuse as no one in the last few months was as busy as he is. For many months now, if not for as long as I've had this blog I've been a great promoter of the idea that lawyers should at their discretion, give more and that theirs a great need for new programs to- aid the underrepresented groups like children, individuals with disabilities and the poor. I've also pointed out repeatedly how those groups tend to overlap. I have a long history of being involved with non profits, standing for causes I believe in and I could just as well be a poster child for diversity. Still, I think, President's remarks were not entirely fair. 

If you decide to work for a law firm or as a solo practitioner you continuously need to develop new clients. It's a never ending process: you have to advertise,  convince them to trust you, put a lot of hours in structuring whatever legal services they need, if it's a contingency agreement based case they can change their minds and walk away. I don't think there is ever a time in practicing law for firms big and small when they don't have to worry when and where is their next client is coming from. And it's a stressful profession in a very competitive market. If you don't put in the work at all stages, you're not able to pay your bills. You are only as good as your next case, because no brand, no history, no name is worth anything if you're not able to convert it into an ability to attract clients. I think it's harder for young attorneys at established firms, because while playing with boys might give you a sense of security, the pressure to prove your with and establish a client base is greater. Some guides on setting up your own practice caution that it may take a year if not longer for a new office to become sustainable, essentially meaning that for many months a bold and determined new attorney has to live off loans or support of his family and friends. You can of course  become a corporate lawyer. A lot of my friends get burned out with the 9 to 5 (more likely 7 or 8) routine. Not only do they want to do something else or more meaningful, they lose passion and excitement for life and I guess the job turnover at these places is really high. But it's a trade off- you get a study check, you know when your pay comes and how much it's going to be. Of course, a person is not in charge of their own time and has even less ability to get involved in any projects the may just as well be passionate about. Some of my colleagues work for the government. I'm not sure how rewarding that is, but I see them frustrated a lot. Also I think that teaching law is a good type of career to consider- it's a secure position, challenging in how one needs to adapt to it, inspiring and meaningful in ways teachers inspire others. I want to help the community. I want to get involved. And if someone else paid my rent, bills and meals, so I can afford my own existence I would gladly volunteer all my time. I really don't have any material goals or dreams. No villas and fast cars for me. I want to help others and I want to be happy, but I also want to be able to buy food. Literally. Perhaps people who talk about giving back or giving more to new attorneys could offer some actual, practical guidance. How does one make it work?

I have plenty of passions, I just can't afford them. Some months I can barely afford my rent and I live from one project to the next. Right now I'm starting a new law practice with a partner designed to help students with disabilities and also a nonprofit. We have hope, faith and we work hard, but one thing we really struggle with is finding a sustainable model of revenue. It's easy to tell people that they should do something else or different especially if you don't know about their problems…

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