Existence Before Essence: On Identity and Adaptation in the Legal Profession

I’ll start by showing my cards: I’m an existentialist. I believe in Jean-Paul Sartre’s creed, the obtuse-sounding rallying cry “existence precedes essence”, which in law-conference circles would elicit, more often than not, a guffaw and a snobbery beyond what I’d typically impart. But my qualms leave me as leaves on a tree – they fall with age. I take the existentialist creed to mean that a person’s identity is defined by this action, right now. And every subsequent action re-defines a person again. There is no identity other than the identity we choose. And the past fades away into the ether, having no more bearing on a person’s identity than the impression left on a leaf by a butterfly…

So when lawyers of diverse origins seek my advice on how to get a job on Bay Street, my answer is to adapt, or more accurately, conform, to the culture found within. What is the culture found in this, our buttoned-up environment? Here is a trifling example – after my first month at a new job as a young lawyer, a mentor caught up with me and gave me valuable feedback – “Ian, you are as low maintenance a student as I have ever had. That is a good thing,” she began. I puffed up, smiled, and prepared for the avalanche of compliments certainly forthcoming. “But”, uh-oh, “let’s talk about your laugh.” I had a high-pitched laugh (or was it a giggle?), used in periods of uncertainty, shame, humour, and uncomfortable silence. “A few lawyers have noted that sometimes you giggle in the middle of a serious discussion. It can give the impression you are not serious. Use it sparingly and at the right moment. I know that you are serious, and it is likely something you do out of nervousness. Can you work on that?” I nodded, ashamed. Too many hours spent with friends, too little as a professional. I rid myself of the behaviour, and have reaped the gains since. And others too: I cut my long hair, which I coiffed for more than a decade, short; I sat, stood, and walked straighter; I proffered less emotion than I was prone to; I began to say “please” and “thank you” more in a week than I would have in a year; and I took to moments of poker-faced silence when authority was called for. The list is long, for my weaknesses were profane, and the transformed benefits profound.

My personality too strong, I am not often met with a vocal challenger. But it is there, even if left unspoken, in those who see vital strength in their cultural and historical identity. “I am true to myself!”, the righteous and the indignant come back to me. “I will not change my…” haircut, pace of speech, vocabulary, body language, fashion sense, values, quelque chose. To them, and perhaps to you, I say: so be it – but you will not be hired.

Every environment exhibits a norm, and it is to those who can adapt to such norms that wills will bend most easily. Does not the trial lawyer sweet talk the witness? Does not the snake charmer charm the snake? Unable to fit the square peg into the round hole, does it befit the peg to blame the hole, or to lathe itself? (Did I mention I also learned idioms, unknown to me for the first two decades of my life, and use and abuse them as often as I can, to show, again, that I am one of you? For I hope to avoid the dog’s breakfast, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to find myself on an island…)

And so I ask of you, my unspoken challenger, what is the price of the essence you hold dear? A stifled career; dreams quashed; concomitant treasures forgone. Do you hold on to your sense of unbending and unyielding self, satisfied by your moral aptitude? Does the weight of your historical self stand on your present self? To what end does such a weight achieve? I fathom the price paid, and it is a sacrifice best pondered deeply before made.

Perhaps on the other side you note not the concomitant treasures foregone but the concomitant traps unopened. Perhaps you sleep better at night (is good sleep really the measure one wants to hang one’s hat on? It has, in my experience, been a consolation. One who has lost says, “at least I can sleep at night”; while the victor, I have found, says no such thing, and, moreover, sleeps better in fact.) Perhaps you have kept your principles (what principle of deep value, really, is beheld in a hairstyle; pace of speech; vocabulary; body language; fashion sense). Perhaps you have stayed sane; not burnt out; not become an alcoholic; or divorced; or a workaholic; or lost a family. Some of those are worth the while, and some are not.

So to return to the existentialist’s one piece of advice for the diverse lawyer seeking success in the legal profession, namely, to adapt: what profundity awaits one adapted? A rewarding career; a family well-supported; financial security; power; confidence; a challenging work environment; a world at your fingertips, one that beggars to you more than you beggar to it. Perhaps that is worth the while, to lathe a self.

And to the deeper question, does existence precede essence? I am reminded me of a story from Zhuangzi: There once was a person who dreamed life as a butterfly, fluttering about, happy with oneself, doing as one pleased. The person awoke, not a butterfly, but a person. But the person wondered: was the person dreaming the butterfly? Or the butterfly dreaming the person?


  1. Well said.

    The legal profession has changed from one where the mere existence of difference was reason to exclude, to one where it is possible to adapt, to “fit” firm culture, and to succeed without being what the old BNA would consider a “person”. This is a huge change, and one we celebrate too rarely.

    Essentially, the round hole keeps getting bigger so that some square pegs slide in with no problem, and the rest can get away with shaving less off their corners. That said, there is unlikely to be a time when the classical law firm entry will fit every size and shape of personality and behaviour choice, because to do so would be to diminish or dissolve any differences between firm cultures, or firm brands.

    People are free to make choices… if that choice is between perfect freedom of self expression and fitting into a firm culture, so be it. Some will choose the larger salary, and potential for secular power and recognition that goes with joining a large firm. Others will choose to be themselves. My one person firm will not provide the perqs of large-firm life, but it quite perfectly fits me!

    I’m not quite sure where … except perhaps television … becoming a lawyer or paralegal is supposed to be a one-size-fits-all trip to wealth and status. The sooner people accept that there are choices and costs — both personal and economical — involved, the better.

  2. I found this very thought-provoking. I think I might assign it to my legal ethics students. It’s intriguing to compare it to the Jeena Cho piece linked below. Cho argues for “finding your own unique lawyering style,” and not “wearing other people’s suits.”

  3. Thanks for your comments Melanie McT & Professor Semple! Jeena Cho is another interesting writer on identity in the profession. I wonder if there is an interpretation where striving to adapt and fit in is consistent with the goal of “finding your own unique lawyering style”. This would be possible, for example, if the first step is to assimilate, and the second step is to individuate. You can’t be your own unique self if you haven’t gone in, up, and against other lawyering ways and law firm cultures; this very experience informs your uniqueness.

  4. Ian, clearly, you must invite everyone to your next jury address or plea to a judge in regard to a sentence of life imprisonment.