The Spiritual Standard

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The Spiritual Standard: My Law School Commencement Address (If Only I’d Been Asked To Give One)

Published in the Maryland Daily Record June 4, 2012

You can’t graduate from law school without at least a few people getting up and haranguing you for a while. And inevitably one of them will be the Voice of Experience, someone much older and theoretically much wiser. Typically the Voice of Experience will say one of two things: a) I’ve already walked the road you are setting out upon, and here’s what to expect (or what will be expected of you) along the way; or b) Everything is so stupendously different in the brave new world awaiting you, you lucky grads, that I don’t have any meaningful experience to share.

As today’s Voice of Experience, my comments will combine less-than-heartening features of both approaches. I maintain that everything is indeed different for you, but mainly worse than it was for us. Having said which, I must add that even in this changed environment some of the things we oldsters learned still apply, maybe more than ever.

I’ve been at this law business over thirty years now, and I’ve seen it grow steadily grimmer, more competitive, and less collegial. And the coldness of it may hit you hardest just as you start out.

Double Whammy

My generation of law grads never had to endure the double whammy you face: law school debts on a massive scale and a forbidding job market. You know the story: we created too many lawyers and charged too much to create them – and you must reap the harvest of your elders’ improvidence. At least you were warned; at least you have self-selected for the hazardous struggle to find a place in this unwelcoming world. And I do not doubt you have prepared yourselves as well as possible for that struggle.

I’m not sure that we your elders have much wisdom to impart on that score. We didn’t have to face that ourselves. We only know that most of you will need to be persistent and/or lucky. But we can hardly advise you to be lucky; that’s like advising you to have blue eyes and perfect pitch.  You don’t make luck; it happens to you, by definition. But all of you can be persistent. And you’ll have to be, to make a place that supports you and that enables you, over time, to master those mountains of debt.

But to continue the metaphor, the mountains of debt and the crowding of the job market are still only the foothills. Most of you will get in, some way, somehow, sooner rather than later.  And most of you will find yourselves, thirty years on, still in this profession. For that reason, I mainly want to talk about those next thirty years.

We recently saw one of the really big law firms explode. This kind of supernova occurs every couple of years. Every time, it provides a teaching moment for the rest of us. It poses the starkest possible contrast between practicing law and merely doing the business of law. The values involved in the two activities are actually antithetical.

Accountability to Everyone

The values of the practice of law are comparatively straightforward. You can find them in the Code of Professional Responsibility, which enumerates and regulates your competing accountabilities to yourself, your clients, your adversaries, the public, and the courts. The overall message is that you owe much to many different masters, and that sheer self-interest without a concern for how your actions affect a myriad of other stakeholders does not meet the standard of care. In the end it is a spiritual standard. You are part of a web in which you support and are supported by everyone else involved. In order to provide that support and receive it, you must be conscious and protective, in varying ways, of the welfare of almost everyone your life touches professionally.

The lack of this kind of consciousness and care for others is always the backstory in the demise of one of the big law firms. The backstory inevitably includes a lack of care by the owners for anyone but themselves, manifested through an imbalance of risks and rewards. There are always much bigger paydays for the people who acquire the business and disproportionate risks for the talented people who actually do most of the work. The marketplace is set up so that if things go wrong, the so-called producers can simply get up and set up shop in another firm. The lower-paid staff will have to scramble. Everyone may be working just as hard and may be just as deserving, but the rewards to those at the top turn out to have been grotesquely larger than those to the folks at the bottom.

This is bad enough when the times are good. It’s hard to run a collegial shop when a few people have all the power and most of the money. Morale is never good. But it’s disastrous in tough times. It fact this kind of regimen brings on the tough times. Accountants will tell you that legal professionals in humanly-scaled firms rarely need to borrow. They maintain lifestyles that can accommodate the ebb and flow of business.

Neither a Borrower Be

Big legal corporations do it differently; they engage in transactions that magnify risk. They borrow lavishly. They have to, to service their debt and provide the so-called producers with great wealth. The cash flow needs of such an enterprise also require that the worker bees get worked far too hard, and find it nearly impossible to maintain a healthy balance of work and life. And even then, the operating surplus after the producers gorge themselves may be dangerously scanty.

Consequently, when something goes wrong in such an environment, as always happens sooner or later with great risk, there is no glue of loyalty or shared standards holding the enterprise together.

Trust me, you do not want to work in or help create such an workplace. Despite the great prestige and the nominally higher pay that shops like that offer you, you will be much happier if you can be somewhere where you and everyone involved can feel the rubber meet the road. If you are in a firm, you want everyone to share in the ups and downs, to have a fair financial stake and a recognition and a say. If you are in government, you want to be implementing reasonable policies for the public good. If in a corporation, you want to be somewhere that enables you to exercise normal human empathy with colleagues, customers, and regulators.

Platitudes for a Reason

This may all sound like platitudes to you, but platitudes get to be that way for a reason. Please believe me when I say that the quest to find a way of practicing law in harmony with the spiritual standard will be with you your whole career, long after you have succeeded in getting your foot on the first rung of the professional ladder, and even after you have finally retired that debt.

The best and the happiest lawyers have always lived by that spiritual standard of practice. And you, entering the field at the most difficult time in living memory, need more than any of us to live in harmony with it.

Congratulations to you. We look forward to sharing the quest with you.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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