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What makes us lawyers?

December 10, 2007

I recently heard the statement that I HATE the most from a lawyer who I’ve known for many years: “Lawyers aren’t all the same.  There are large firm lawyers and then there are public interest lawyers, who are more like social workers.”  I worked in public interest for several years.  My first thought was whether that was what he thought about my practice the entire time (ok, my first thought wasn’t that nice, but this was honestly a close second).  

I feel very differently about non-large firm practice and I thought next about what it is that actually makes us all lawyers even though our practices may be different: 1) We’ve been to law school; 2) we passed at least one bar exam; 3) we are admitted to practice in at least one state; 4) we have clients and 5) we are bound by the same rules of professional conduct.  These are all true, but aren’t necessarily what makes us lawyers.   What makes us lawyers and what ties us together as a profession is what we are trained to do and our ability to accomplish it.  

Carolyn Elfant of My Shingle- a blog dedicated to inspiring solo and small firm lawyers – summed it up in The Smallest Things Have the Biggest Impact.  Carolyn described a case she had as a young lawyer where she went all out at a hearing that was “entirely inconsequential – just a hearing on whether my client would remain in jail pending trial.”  She noted that what she got out of the hearing — and I add, what we can all learn about perceived “small” hearings and “minor” representations — is that whether at large or small firms, government agencies or public interest organizations as lawyers we “have the power to move people, to change a judge’s mind.”  This is what makes us lawyers.

Carolyn pointed out, “what we do is small by biglaw standards.  No multimillion deals, no mega corporations as clients.  We represent individuals, small companies, often helping them with day to day matters that aren’t earth shattering in the greater scheme of things.  And yet in our small way, we make a big difference.”

Although we occasionally forget, it is not about the size of the transaction or our billable hourly rate.  What makes us lawyers is our ability to provide skilled representation to those who need it and to persuade judges to consider our client’s position.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Truly Practicing permalink
    December 10, 2007 2:27 pm

    I find the statement about bigfirm v. public interest appaling and generally indicative of bigfirm ignorance/arrogance. I challenge any bigfirm, memo-writing, no-client-contact flunky to a throw down in “social work” (read: courtroom practice). Then we’ll see who’s a real attorney, sucka!

  2. December 11, 2007 3:11 am

    Great posting!

    So, what makes us lawyers? As a newbie (about 1 year, after over 20 years of consulting), in my own successful practice, it’s about doing the right thing for the client. Solving client problems using law and logic are high callings, but may not result in much courtroom time.

    Heck, it’s great fun to see the big firm attorney wiggle when I know more law and technology, and use that knowledge to achieve a good result.

    Jonathan Kramer, Esq.
    Kramer Telecom Law Firm, PC
    Los Angeles, California

  3. December 11, 2007 4:33 am

    This is a very thoughtful post. What it boils down to is stop comparing. When you are looking sideways at others or over your shoulder behind you, you miss the opportunities and pleasures straight ahead. Big, small, it’s all a choice as is what we do with it. And the choice should always be about our best representation for our client. Now, that’s Big.

  4. Barelyyounglawyerdude permalink
    December 11, 2007 9:29 pm

    Being a senior associate at a somewhat large firm, I am ashamed of the comment made by the “big firm” lawyer — and for that comment I would like to apologize on behalf of the rest of us —
    The reality is that as big firms get bigger and greedier (and yes, both are happening here in philly), associates who work for them will necessarily get fewer and fewer opportunities to do “real” legal work, standing up in a courtroom and making actual oral argument and/or (gasp!) presenting testimonial or other evidence to a judge or jury.
    Public interest lawyers cannot properly be characterized as “social workers,” but in my opinion, a good percentage of “large firm” associates can be properly characterized as little more than glorified legal research assistants and paper pushers.

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