Column

What We Lose in the Chase for the Almighty Dollar

My generation, filled with existential angst, suffered in our youth the conceit that we would not sell out as those before us did. If Kurt Cobain was the hero of our time, it was because he was authentic to the end, true to his music but not the business. And for those of us who stumbled into this profession, I ask, how many of us wrote a law school admissions essay filled with lofty ambitions to better the world, and of those, how many are left living true to those ambitions? I have seen, no, even worse, convinced, classmates and colleagues to abandon their principles in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. There once stood before a friend the choice, on the one hand, to pursue a career in law clearly aligned with the public good and the proper nourishing of one’s soul, and, on the other hand, to rise to the upper economic echelons of the profession. I gave poor counsel, my excuse my youth, saying: one could always turn around if the path to the gilded Mount Olympus was found wanting. And now more than a decade later, the friend stands indeed in a Brioni suit, but finds the path forward ever so narrow and bejeweled, while turning backwards, ever so peaceful and plain, ever more painful.

In a private practice the merry go round of young lawyers, best nurtured from years one through seven, continues unabated. The young first- to third- year lawyer enters ever so brightly with the motivation of a meteor falling into a black hole, a gravity filled with accelerating excitement and mystery. As the young lawyer ages out in year seven, or thereabouts, the abyss looking ever darker, the firm whips the lawyer out, bored and cynical, a welcome long worn out. The price to keep the older lawyer is more than the price of the younger; and could not the same work be done, quality be damned, in the name of profit, the almighty dollar? And so the firm turns its eye brightly on another young lawyer to replace the elder, and like a hopeless romantic, runs through relationships one after the other, until, perhaps, true love be found and partnership be attained. Is it any wonder, then, that firms stall out, that angst permeates the profession, that relationships break with unforgettable pain, and cynicism abides, nay, is cultivated?

More than any other profession we adapt slowly to the vicissitudes surrounding us. While the world makes decisions by swiping left, by speaking to machines, by the one-click, we continue to shuffle paper and use the fax – the fax! (A machine created when speed was measured in baud, text appearing on a screen like flowers blooming, each word a beautiful petal, contemplated in soft melancholy). What, after all, is the cost of a thing designed to make us more efficient, when our lack of efficiency is rewarded through the billable hour? The reward is in fact a cost. So better to plod along, until, as video killed the radio star, we are replaced. Our audience, we remember too late, is fickle.

True wealth affords freedom: independence of thought, the ability to pursue what one wants to pursue, and, if truth be told, makes it easier to be ethical. But such freedom is achieved not by the pursuit of the almighty dollar, but its opposite: to live as an ascetic, one needs a mere $20,000 a year, and is wealthy with $100,000. To live the modern aesthetic, one needs a more cumbersome $100,000 a year, and is wealthy with $500,000. When a client pleads to lower our rate, consider if it is better to free than to pursue the almighty dollar, and govern oneself accordingly.

Woodshedding, that deplorable practice in which counsel becomes an instrument of evil, telling clients to say that which succeeds, all else be damned, is another symptom of the pursuit of the almighty dollar. To succeed is to create a reputation, and upon that reputation to engender business, and so to watch profit grow. Counsel the client to stop working to increase loss of income damages; counsel the client to swear a promise was made to deliver when it was not; counsel the client to play the victim, despite the strength displayed; counsel, counsel, counsel, woodshed. Integrity is the loser in the boxing match with the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

From every side our profession is under attack: other professions seek encroachment upon ours; technology threatens our ways if not our very existence; the divisive politics of our times pits us against each other; capitalism divides our clients and defines our businesses; the almighty dollar, almighty indeed. What do we lose in this pursuit?

Comments

  1. As Kurt Cobain wrote and sang: “Come as you are, as I want you to be as a friend, as a friend, as a known enemy…” We must also keep in mind Notorious B.I.G.’s warning of “Mo money, mo problems”.

  2. I support your pursuit of other things, and to remain authentic to your true self.

    It is a journey we both seek together. Thank you for sharing.

  3. As a junior associate, this article assuaged and stoked some of my worst worries associated with chasing the almighty dollar, but this line really haunted me: “The young first- to third- year lawyer enters ever so brightly with the motivation of a meteor falling into a black hole, a gravity filled with accelerating excitement and mystery.” Forces beyond our control, knowledge or comprehension, like a lovecraftian monster, threaten to destroy us. Thank you Mr. Hu for this article and I very much enjoy your previous articles.

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