GETTING A LIFE
Carl Horn III, LawyerLife: Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law (Chicago: ABA Publications, 2003), $30, 175 pp. Paperback.
Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.
Soon after the start of my third year of law school in the early '70s, we received a call at the law review from a former editor who had just begun a job at a large firm in New York City. The first day, he said, I took the subway to work. The second, he continued, I wanted to throw myself under the subway.
Several years later, on visits to a Wall Street firm to take depositions, I repeatedly called to arrange lunch with a classmate who was an associate in the firm. He was always too busy to take my call. When I reached him weeks later, he described leaving home daily before his kids awoke and returning home by train long after they were in bed. When I commented that he had a wonderful wife and kids and that there must be a better way, he replied testily: We've all got to make decisions, and I've made mine.
At about that same time, my three year old son and I often played a game we called Little Red Riding Hood. I'd hide behind a large tree in front of the townhouse we rented, and he'd stroll by. I'd jump out and growl. Fright would seize his face, he'd take several uncertain steps sideways, and his body would tremble. I'd give him a hug, we'd both laugh, and then he'd beg me to do it again. And so, for a half hour or so, we'd repeat the game, bringing on fright and sharing laughter. The first time we played, though, I hated it. Here I was on a Saturday morning jumping around my front yard like an idiot when I could have been at the office doing important work on a multimillion dollar lawsuit. Several weeks later, sitting at my desk early one evening, I asked myself what was so important that I hadn't gone home already. What couldn't wait until tomorrow? I had no answer. I thought of Little Red Riding Hood, and I headed home.
"What we really desire of any man conducting any business is that the full force of an ordinary man should be put into that particular study. We do not desire that the full force of that study should be put into an ordinary man," wrote G.K. Chesterton in Heretics, hitting the nail on the head as is his wont.
We do not in the least wish that our particular law-suit should pour its energy into our barrister's games with his children, or rides on his bicycle, or meditations on the morning star. But we do, as a matter of fact, desire that his games with his children, and his rides on his bicycle, and his meditations on the morning star should pour something of their energy into our law-suit. We do desire that if he has gained any especial lung development from the bicycle, or any bright and pleasing metaphors from the morning star, that they should be placed at our disposal in that particular forensic controversy. In a word, we are very glad that he is an ordinary man, since that may help him to be an exceptional lawyer.
I've known very competent lawyers who have embodied Chesterton's insight. They've led balanced lives and seemed professionally fulfilled. I've known others, especially among those in private practice in large firms, whose lives were obviously out of whack. They seem miserable, and often aren't hesitant to express their misery. One, for example, told me she desperately wanted out of the high paying partnership she'd achieved because the relationships between attorneys in her firm were even nastier than those she had with her opponents in litigation. Indeed, there is a widespread perception within the profession that there has been a decline of civility, courtesy, and professionalism and an increase in unhappiness, hostility, negativity, stress, and commercialism among lawyers in the thirty years I have practiced law (I disavow a causal relationship). It is, according to many, a profession in crisis. Consequently, some lawyers leave the practice, as did a friend who became a hand on a dude ranch and then a state trooper. Others change jobs within the profession. One told me he cut his salary by more than half when he left a firm for a government position to the befuddlement of the firms' partners. He said he and his family have never been happier and that many of his contemporaries, still chained to higher paying jobs in firms, were quite envious.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn III, a friend since the early '80s, is among those who embody Chesterton's insight. His LawyerLife: Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law discusses the problems endemic to the profession, often relying on anecdotes, including a particularly poignant one from his own life, polls, and published articles. He avoids the academic writing style those articles sometimes employ and his hopeful message offsets the grim picture they often present. No utopian, he strives to recognize the unavoidable pressures and demands of law practice, lest his suggestions be dismissed peremptorily by those who experience those pressures and demands. He concludes the "double whammy" of "excessive 'billable-hours' requirements and the spoken or unspoken priority given quantity over quality of work" makes "many lawyers unhappy." Often, though, the stress is imposed by the lawyer upon himself, or accepted with resignation, particularly if the lawyer has borrowed heavily to finance his education. LawyerLife invites the lawyer to examine which problems are avoidable and which are not.
Judge Horn offers suggestions for improvement to individual lawyers, law firms, and law schools, but the focus is on individual lawyers. "The bottom line: to avoid later-life regrets, realize now that the time you spend with your children will be remembered as 'precious' - and as far more valuable than more money or any temporary career achievement you may have to forgo." Some of his suggestions border on heresy in a profession that often measures success in dollars. "Living beneath your means is the path to financial freedom." Thus, "we must each decide how much of us is 'for sale.' And then if our clients, employers, or partners do not like it, tough luck." This attitude means, "of course," that "we might lose clients or even lose our jobs" but we must recognize this will be a "temporary hardship" and that "things will eventually fall into place - and be far better, overall, when they do." A corollary: "Take your vacation. All of it. You need it." Moreover, be honest: do not bill for unnecessary work or for time you do not work. "What Mother Teresa and others devoted to a charitable way of life discover is that it is indeed more blessed - happier - to give than to receive. Lawyers who are fortunate enough to make more money that they need should apply this important life lesson by looking for opportunities to share their time, talents and resources with others."
Judge Horn's respect for the profession and lawyers as individuals is so obvious, and his reform message is conveyed so gently and attractively, that readers can be seduced without explicitly recognizing that LawyerLife is subversive, a Trojan Horse whose contents strike boldly at the cynical, workaholic, impersonal, money-driven, self-centered, crimped view of life that undergirds the modern practice of law, seeking to supplant it with a more humane, personal, healthy approach that would benefit individual lawyers, the profession, and society.
I recently lunched with a law firm partner who billed 2350 hours last year, a dramatic increase over the 1700 hours he billed years ago when he was the top billing partner in a firm. (Not every hour spent at work is billable to a client. According to an estimate in LawyerLife, a lawyer needs to work six days a week for twelve hours a day to bill 2,400 hours annually honestly.) He said he often works seven days a week. I asked why. He said he wasn't a rainmaker (someone who brings the firm clients who can be billed large amounts of money), so he had to work the hours or his compensation would be reduced and eventually he'd be encouraged to leave the firm. Besides, he said with resignation, what else is there to do?
LawyerLife invites lawyers to step back, realize that their predicaments result from choices they have made, that they can still make different choices, and that there is more to practicing law, and indeed to life, than maximizing billable hours: "Message to the profession: whatever the subtleties or complexities of law firm economics in the twenty-first century, sweatshop hours like these are unhealthy and intolerable. Indeed, even if an individual lawyer is willing to work these oppressively long hours, appropriate concern for his or her mental and emotional health requires intervention to prevent it."
Although many of Judge Horn's insights are universally applicable, and, indeed, rely on common sense, LawyerLife is for and about lawyers and the legal profession. Indeed, it is published by the American Bar Association. If you have no interest in the profession or are not closely involved with someone in it, this book probably will be of little interest. But if you are a lawyer, a law student, a spouse of either, or if you work for a lawyer or law firm, this book will prove invaluable. If you have a spouse or friend who is selling his soul in the six-minute increments recorded on his time-sheets, give him a copy of this book. Hope he reclaims the time to read it and then reclaims his soul.
James G. Bruen, Jr. is a lawyer.
This review was published in the March, 2004 issue of Culture Wars.
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