Law in Contemporary Society

-- ErandiZamora - 21 Apr 2009 Can You Afford the Risk?


"You need to stop being afraid. You need to know what you want, know how to get it and do what you have to do." All this sounds great and straightforward, but things are not as easy as they sound. Some of us came to law school because we think a law degree will enable us to carry out our social justice work. A law degree is versatile, it is powerful and if we are really serious about what we want we should be able to use it to accomplish our goals. However, the challenges that we face along the way are not so easy to dismiss, and before underestimating the pressure that we face as we forge our career paths we need to consider the context of our individual experiences. For starters, the decision of which career path to take seems to have two clear answers: (1) firm job or (2) public interest job.

  • That's a seeming. It's not a fact. It doesn't characterize lawyers' careers very well, and it doesn't characterize the market adequately.

In response to our discontent with the uncertainty and competitiveness involved in securing a public interest job and the low pay once we do secure one, Professor Moglen has suggested a third option: creating our own job. Perhaps we will find more answers along the way, but as of now the uncertainty involved with the third option does not seem to do away with the problems we voiced regarding the public interest jobs.

  • This mysterious "third way" called "having a practice" is the primary way lawyers in our system made their livings for the last thousand years. Why do you behave as though it were a bird of exotic plumage that should be clucked over and ignored?

Is the Third Option Realistic for a New Lawyer?

Before speaking to Professor Moglen I had never considered starting my own practice. His advice is to find a specialty that I am great at, or rather, something that I am the "best" at, then find someone who will pay for it and create a business model that will allow me to do that which I love during 90% of the time and that which brings in revenue for 10% of the time. The idea does seem appealing, but my question is how realistic can it be to graduate from law school already being the best at anything? A bright eyed lawyer with limited practical experience, a prestigious diploma and not much else. So maybe the answer is to start small, then grow. But will anyone be willing to fund the start up costs of a rookie whose only assets are dreams, "courage and patience?" And what if our first venture fails? "You start again. Twenty years from now no one will care how you started." Sure, no one will care twenty years from now, but my concern is that I have a pressing need that needs to be met now. I have a family to take care of and starting a new practice, with no experience and no economic assets of my own sounds like a risk I cannot afford to take.

What is at Stake?

For some of us, coming from a humble background adds another layer of pressure to our law school experience and our career decision making. Given the nature of our economic order, the reality is that while a select group will by default have access to higher education and enjoy the wealth of generations, a much larger group will be relegated to a cycle of low educational attainment and a bleak financial situation. My community falls in the latter group. My parents are among the most intelligent and hard working individuals I know, but of course having less then a junior high school education has left but a few options for them. Employed as farm-workers for most of their working life, they were able to keep the family afloat until along with everyone else they were hit by the economic crisis. Neither my parents nor my siblings will even consider pressuring me to choose a lucrative career path nor will they ever ask for me to contribute to the family income. However, having been the beneficiary of their lifelong sacrifices and graduating with an earning power larger than four of theirs' combined makes me responsible for their economic well-being from here on out.

Why Taking a Risk is Sometimes a Luxury.

My family and I have taken a lot of risks. For one, we had to muster up the courage to leave our home country and start from scratch in the U.S. However, after having struggled for so long, after having dealt with so much uncertainty, it is not surprising to become risk averse and desire economic stability. At some point, financially risky behavior is a luxury left to those who know that at the end of the day things will be fine: there is that safety net they can access funds from; there is a call to mom and dad to cover the month's rent; the hefty health insurance to take care of your medical needs if you or someone in your family gets sick. But if you have no back-up plan and you happen to be the one that others are supposed to turn to, being "courageous" and taking the risk looks like a rather irrational option.

Back to Square One?

Not necessarily. While I'm not ready to embrace the third option yet, I have not closed my mind to it. The idea does not seem realistic at the moment, but perhaps the next two years will give me the necessary practical knowledge and introduce me to opportunities that will make it more feasible. Or perhaps after a few years of working for someone I can gain the required experience and achieve the economic stability that will allow me to branch out and begin my own practice following Professor Moglen's model.

  • I hope it has long since occurred to you that this is the very most important aspect of your situation to discuss with your parents. Their intelligence and experience is the best source of counsel you can have. You should involve them in your thinking as it evolves from stage to stage, and you should listen very carefully to what you hear, considering it as dispassionately as possible. I think you may be very surprised, and you will certainly be very much helped by seeking their counsel.

  • I think that as in other parts of your writing here you have constrained your thought process unnecessarily by a tendency to dichotomize. Here you have established a false dichotomy in the form "Either I must surrender my control over the direction of my career, the nature of my clients and the social consequences of my activities to an organization that pays me an ample salary, or I must decide to be on my own from the beginning, with only my expertise and my degree to back up my license, taking all the risks on my own." This dichotomy is made by adjoining to the reality of the large-scale law firm the false alternative of solo practice. There are any number of relationships you could form at the beginning of your career—to mentors, who may provide clients as well as guidance in return for the majority of fees earned, or who may be retained by clients you bring; or to peers with whom you share work and risk—and the mix of relationships through which you conduct your practice will change as you gather experience. The young lawyers who work with me now will go off to do other things: they may work for companies in-house, they may go to other non-profits, for all I know they may go to practice in firms, though I think none of them would be much tempted. But they all know they can go elsewhere and do other things, they all have practices of their own whose existence we recognize and support, and they all know they'll never have to surrender control in order to make a decent living practicing law. Why should you assume that you can see with your beginner's eye a deep truth that years or decades of experience haven't taught us?


Webs Webs

r2 - 06 Aug 2009 - 20:28:19 - EbenMoglen
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