While attending the latest fête of yet another elderly, past-his-due-date lawyer, I was drawn into a hateful, envious reverie of what this passing generation benefited from: big game clients hunted down by golfing foursomes, cases settled over scotch, reputations defined by progeny than by proficiency, minorities oppressed, women suppressed, and partnerships by fiat and fealty but not effort and effect. Gazing warily into my sparkling glass, a thought slapped my face awake from reverie to reality: it is not so different now, than it was then.
As my attention fades in and out from the drone of the acceptance speech, well-fitting in the genre, I catch the phrase, “I was lucky”, and my table-mate smirks and says “Yes, you are”. I smirk back, suddenly aware I am not alone in my thoughts, plaguing not just my well-being but others too. I raise my glass in a toast to the toasted, as we down the last drops in sardonic joy.
It is not easy to do what we do. In my lawyerly travels – and I estimate I have spoken to and with some 10,000 lawyers – I have often encountered this classic conversational sequence: the initial happy veneer of a prodigious practice inevitably gives way, sheared with the grit and grind of the billable hour, time lost to clients, and emotions devastated by concussive cases, to resignation for a choice made long ago: we would be lawyers, and so we are.
I take solace in the work itself: not a more practical and intellectual pursuit exists on earth, one which lies on the boat between earth and hell (heaven is, indeed, a long way away). Having exhausted all other efforts, our clients come to us floating aimlessly and hoping for guidance. But we, as Charon, give passage to hell. We navigate the waters amidst the Rules of Professional Conduct, holding what dignity there is left to hold in the quagmire of the Kafkaesque system. Is this not the true mark of a hero? To maintain our civility, in a system designed to turn us into cockroaches? I say yes, yes it is.
What lawyer has not stared down morality: would it benefit the case to lie? Would evidence be best concealed? Take the client to the woodshed and win; leave your client in the rain and lose. Pitting one against the other, our system tells us: pursue the river so created, truth be damned! We traverse society’s channels with eyes wide open, so many boats floating towards this end. How could we do what we do, if we do not embrace it – and by “it” I mean our society, our peoples, our way of life?
Perhaps fewer still would concede conceit, and admit this question, as well: would the client be better off without me? To which we already know the answer could be yes, and will be yes. Give thanks to the Court of Technology, in which millions of disputes are settled without us, to higher satisfaction and lower cost. Give thanks to artificial intelligence, which knows the value of a dollar better than we, who dedicate our lives to it. We are a relic living in the present. Is this not the mark of a tragic, comical, hero? Like scribes before the printing press? I say yes, yes it is.
I celebrate you, my fellow tragic, comical, heroes. We toil while there is toiling left to do. We suffer our clients as we suffer with them. We achieve nothing in the rare air of reputations won and perhaps earned. We make what livings we can, sacrificing our bodies and our minds. We float on the river to cost and conflict. We will be lost to the ether, doing our work, worthy in the present, for now, helping those who could be helped. We will be ultimately forgotten. We do what we can, and I salute you.