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.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Work/Family Balance; You Can Have It "All"

Ever since I became a mother is 1978, I have been aware of notions of what women professionals have to sacrifice to keep the delicate balance between work and family.  I now have two grown children, one born 22 months before law school, the other born 17 months after I passed the bar.  In light of all of the literature and debate, I suspect many women, and men, struggle with this issue.  I suppose the real issue for most is how to be a good parent and continue to climb up the corporate ladder.  The corporate ladder may be difficult to navigate for those ambitious souls who choose to also attempt both.  I have always worked for the thirty-five years since becoming a mother.  I am a trial lawyer and my profession has been very important to me.  I am certainly not perfect, but I think I have found the perfect balance for me between work and family.  These are my work/family rules.


     From what I see and hear, it can suck eggs to work for a big corporation.  Managers can be petty, demanding, devious, under-handed and unreasonable.  If you have to be the CEO of GE and your ideas of success includes a 7 or 8 figure compensation package with your own private jet, I guess you have to attempt that unpleasant scaling of that unfair ladder.  If that is your goal, I am not talking to you.  If you want to climb over the backs of your co-workers to reign with a golden scepter, I am not talking to you.  I am talking to normal people who don't need obscene amounts of money or power to feel good about themselves.

I am talking to those of you who want to succeed, but success is not measured in dollars or power.  Corporations can be cutthroat places and do you really want to spend your life as a gladiator in the coliseum? How do I know that mega-big business is bad, you may wonder, since I have never worked for a giant corporation in my adult life?  Well, I have sued so many giant corporations for discrimination and retaliation, that I got the hint.  Don't work at a place where your fate is controlled by the whim of a snot-nosed kid or sadistic power-monger who would just as soon fire you as care about your mother's surgery.  I know this first suggestion, getting off the corporate ladder, may seem impossible, and sometimes it is.  We all need to make a living.  But, do you really want to trust your fate to a behemoth entity who, by definition, is only concerned with making a profit at all costs?  I do not.


          Even when  I worked for others, I took my children, individually or together, to work.  I would go on walks with them during a break.  I would take them with me on out of town trips.  After a deposition, which they often attended, we would go swimming in the motel pool.  When you are not dependent on the whim of others, you can decide your own priorities.


       Staying involved in your kids' activities is not that hard when you are out of the rat race, because you no longer report to the rats.   Of course, there can be times when you can't make the Valentines Day party because you are in trial.  But go to important events of children if you can.  There is no way to make up the memories.  A child's feelings of abandonment last a lifetime.  Kids grow up fast.  You cannot get that time back.


      To stay off the ladder and out of the rat race, work from home.  I invariably get more work done from home than at the office.  There are fewer interruptions and much less down time.  Be disciplined.  Work early in the morning or late at night, too.


      I cannot stress this point enough.  If you are not only responsible for your work, but also responsible for all child care, laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc., you are going to go crazy.  You must insist that your partner do at least his or her share.  If you do not have a supportive partner, it is much worse than no partner at all.


      This is the most important point of all.  You should let things go.  No one needs a pie baked from scratch.   If it's a decision between scrubbing the bathtub or getting a report out, work on the report.  Of course, if your real love is going clubbing all night, you probably should forgo the family.  Know what your priorities are.  I try to follow my priorities:  a.  Family first; b. My law practice second, c. Then everything else.  (I am not religious, but I realize that some of you have your religion in the top 3.  Fine, just remember everything else is last.)

    One other issue, balancing family and career is not a "woman's issue."  It is both a men's and women's issue.  Everyone needs to think about the balance.  Men are struggling with the same issues and if this is a parents' issue, men are parents, too.

    Since my kids are grown, I am on the down-side of this struggle.  Neither one of my children have turned into rapists or serial killers.  So, if that doesn't make me a good mother, what does?

When I started out, women were leaving the practice of law in droves, because they could not balance family and career.  Now, both women and men my age are being bounced out from large companies due to age discrimination.  Perhaps the real title of this piece should be Don't Work For That Behemoth Company."  But, I suppose someone has to work there.

Above all else,  relax and enjoy what you have and live in the present moment.  It all goes by so fast.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Optimism and Humanity

I just got done trying two discrimination cases with my partner Kristi Kingston.  After almost  two months without a day  off, I took the last four days off, reading a John Grisham novel and watching Oscar nominated films.

That leads me to my conclusion of the last few weeks - most people are eminently compassionate.  I watched "Twelve Years A Slave" and rewatched a favorite, "Nebraska."  Couple the movie-watching fest with further lessons learned in trial, I have again come to the happy conclusion that normal, everyday people are basically good, caring, loving people.

Slavery was a despicable culture and condition, and fortunately it was short-lived in this country.  The fact it existed at all is problematic.  But, I do believe that people are good and kind and most want to be compassionate and treat people in a caring way.

The problem happens when we concentrate on our differences rather than our similarities.  I hope that as the people of this planet  grow closer, as our planet shrinks, and social media expands, we will see ourselves as part of the collective group of humans on the planet.  In a few hundred years, I suspect most people's pigment will become more similar, perhaps a nice lift brown or dark beige.  We will recognize our inter-relatedness and common origins.  We will love one another.  We will notice our similarities more than our differences.  I have faith that we can change the hatred, wars and bigotry.

However, my fear is that by the time we are enlightened, we will have wrecked this planet with climate change and waste.  No, I will not succumb to bitterness and fear.  The day is a comin'.  I feel it.