Sunday, March 16, 2014

Believing Your Own Story

One of the hardest things about being a lawyer is putting what you believe in before getting a big payday.  Most people in law school believe that he or she can use their law license to better society.  However, it's not as easy as it sounds.  We all need to earn money.  Too often, that paycheck becomes more important than a lawyer's principles and beliefs.  It is easy to fool yourself into rationalization.  I have rationalized my way through cases.  I like to think I have put rationalization and self-deception behind, but too often we, as lawyers, lose sight of the principles in which we believe.

I used to practice as a civil defense lawyer.  Two cases, which both were over 20 years ago still stick with me.  In one, I tried a personal injury case in which the insurance company hired a doctor reputed to lie on the stand.  Ultimately, in some courts around here, he was essentially outed by the judiciary and his lucrative career humiliating personal injury plaintiffs was stopped.  But that was not before he testified on behalf of my client in trial.  I remember his cackle as he discovered that the plaintiff, who was hit by my drunk client, got a fraction of what she was due.  Around that time, my firm was hired to defend a personal injury settlement where the plaintiff did not know about my client's additional coverage and I was charged with defending the appeal in an attempt to keep the policy limits of $100,000 out of the hands of the quadriplegic injured as the result of the car wreck in the case with my client.  I argued the appeal, came back to the office, cried my eyes out, and rejoiced when I lost the appeal.  A few times I defended individuals accused of sexual harassment.  I made them get second mortgages on their houses to pay my retainer.  I went after the plaintiffs, the way I hate it when defense lawyers go after my clients, fully using what we now call the "slut" defense.

I am very glad those days are behind me.  I don't send my clients regular bills anymore and I only get paid if we settle a case or win it.  Our income is tenuous and unpredictable.  It can be hard to plan financially, but it still beats defending cases where I have to rationalize my role.  I don't have to wine and dine potential clients, I don't steal clients from other lawyers, and I don't have insurance companies scouring my bills.   Sometimes it's hard not having a steady income, but I no longer have to represent clients who have acted in ways I do not like.  

I believe that our civil justice system works because of lawyer who work on both sides, plaintiffs vs. defendants, the government vs. criminal defendants.  While I admire criminal defense lawyers, upholding the constitution and protecting our liberties, I doubt that being a criminal defense lawyer would be satisfying for me.  I am sure that being a prosecutor would not suit me, since I tend to feel lenient towards people who have failed society.  I can't help thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I."  I know I am not cut out to defend civil cases, since I have done that and I am grateful I no longer am on the side of defendants, regardless of the steady pay.

Even though lawyers are attacked in society and have been for hundreds of years, I like to think that at least I have some control over what I do, however, misguided my belief may be.  I do admire my colleagues who take the roles which are hard for me and do so with dignity and respect, never forgetting their core beliefs.  There are many lawyers representing civl defendants, the state and criminal defendants who do so without compromising who they are.   I was unable to rise to that challenge.  If I were not representing regular people who need a level playing field, I hope that I would not be practicing law at all.

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