Truth or Scare? Old Lawyers’ Tales

Stories handed down orally are a form of cultural property that international organizations like WIPO and even the WTO are working on protecting. I’ll go into that some more in later posts. Today, it’s the slab of concrete on which I’ll set up a small soapbox (which I promise not to do very often).

Professions have subcultures of their own.  My former profession, engineering, didn’t have much folklore (aside from the occasional hero or trickster legend) back when I started. Since the advent of Dilbert, it has developed a fairly large body of humor that is often self-deprecating. See also User Friendly. When I changed careers to law later, I was fascinated to learn that the American legal culture is very rich in folklore. . . but my fascination took on morbid overtones when I realized that most of the folklore was of a very specialized kind.

In general, some stories are meant to entertain; some to encourage hope; some to teach (rather like the way judicial opinions are used in casebooks); but virtually every culture also has stories meant to control its junior members. Some aim at direct control: If you’re disobedient, the bogeyman will get you; Santa will bring you a stocking full of coal; Black Peter will spank you with his bag of switches; Spider Woman will whisk you away to the top of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. Others effect indirect control by discouraging self-esteem; traditional Chinese parents avoided praising their children and frequently disparaged them so that demons wouldn’t snatch them; Central Asian parents did likewise to avoid attracting the evil eye.

Outside the profession, mainstream cultural folklore treats lawyers like soap-opera characters; almost all the really clever ones are evil, and most of the rest (like The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz or Janet Evanovich’s Albert Kloughn) couldn’t figure out how to pour swamp water out of a boot without cutting a hole in the toe, even if told that the directions are written on the heel. All the bar ethics rules that can tie us up in every possible knot, at work and away from work, have not seemed to make the slightest dent in this perception. The Old Lawyers’ tales, told almost exclusively inside the profession, are very different.

Law is a highly perfectionist culture (and keep in mind that this is an ex-engineer talking); after all, wouldn’t you want the lawyer representing you, like the engineer who designed the bridge you’re driving on, to be a perfectionist? In Old Lawyers’ Tales, the moral always seems to be “You’re not good enough because. . .” (you didn’t go to the #1 school, you weren’t #1 in your class, you didn’t do enough outside activities, you didn’t get an offer from your summer clerkship, you didn’t clerk for a Supreme Court judge, you had the wrong parents, you’ve got the wrong biological plumbing, you don’t have any super powers). . . just go down the list until you find one that applies. And there’s almost certainly one that does. Anything but perfection is “not good enough,” and nobody’s perfect. At least law students and new lawyers needn’t worry about attracting Chinese demons or the Central Asian Evil Eye.

Like many of my fellow lawyer-larvae, I used to take Old Lawyers’ Tales personally. I went to a law school I really liked rather than the “rank”est one I could get into, and even there I wasn’t in the top 10% of my class. Therefore, according to the Old Lawyers’ Tales, I am doomed to realize the worst fears of Al Franken’s Saturday Night Live persona Stuart Smalley: I would die friendless and penniless and twenty pounds overweight. If only I were in the top 10%, I thought, the world would beat a path to my door. Then a classmate revealed to me that she WAS in the top 10% and SHE couldn’t seem to get arrested in that town because she didn’t have a techie background (which I had, out the wazoo). I accumulated more data while teaching LSAT prep classes: Student after student told me the advice their lawyer friends had given them, and a common thread stood out: “whatever you do, kid, don’t do what I (that is, each advising lawyer) did.”

Could ALL of these randomly selected counselors have catastrophically smooched the pooch somehow? I doubt it.

Here’s my theory: Those in charge of law students and junior lawyers have a dilemma. They have put themselves amid people whose talents lie in analyzing propositions and developing counterarguments; success in the profession demands that those talents be encouraged to develop further. However, professors, administrators, and senior partners understandably don’t want their students, members, or subordinates challenging THEIR propositions all the time; what sane person would want that kind of headache? Enter Old Lawyers’ Tales to save the day by occupying the charges’ minds with fear and worry when they’re not otherwise taken up with study or work. If each one is convinced that they’ve already made an irreversible, career-fatal mistake, they won’t have the energy or confidence left over to challenge their betters. They will gratefully gulp down any meager bowl of gruel they are offered and not dare to ask for more.

Now, I’m looking for work.  In the short term, not necessarily a full-on career or even a “permanent” job – just work.  Preferably as a lawyer.  I went to law school, passed a notoriously tough state bar, paid “the biological price” (as William S. Burroughs would put it), and I’d like to use what I know and learn more.  It’s surprised me that I really haven’t been looking very hard, because I’ve always enjoyed working much more than going to school.  What’s been discouraging me at almost every turn is, once again, Old Lawyers’ Tales. 

I don’t expect work to be fun or interesting all the time. I don’t expect to always get a week’s work done in 40 hours (though I sure do try), and I do expect bosses to boss me around.  I just don’t want to spend 14+ hours a day, 365 days a year, in the emotional equivalent of a rusty iron box 1.3 meters on a side with sharp spikes sticking in everywhere.  I don’t want a job that will turn me into the kind of lawyer regarded by clients as a necessary evil, and by family and friends as a prestigious stranger.  I know lawyers who have jobs, in the law, that aren’t like that (though not around here, not yet, and not brand-new ones).  Still, people keep telling me that I’m asking for the impossible; that my ONLY options are an actively grim, soul-grinding job that will demand all my waking hours and more (if I’m lucky enough to get one) or no job in the legal field at all. 

Were you unlikely to succeed, according to Old Lawyers’ Tales, but you did anyway? I’d like to see your story here (and I’ll add mine if – no, when, dangit! it happens).

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