Lawyer Or Liar?

I was in Ecuador on a family vacation when I was blindsided by casual animosity towards the legal profession. A tour guide had asked me what I was doing, and I responded, with a tinge of pride curated by the cozy insulation of these storied halls, that I was studying to be a lawyer.

“Lawyer or liar?” The tour guide joked. My brother retorted, “Both!”

I was flabbergasted. How had the legal profession fallen so low? My brother’s chosen profession was “business”—whatever that meant—and he would be attending a certain business school whose motto, I am certain, is “profitas.” And yet even he felt entitled to mock the legal profession.

This is the profession of Lincoln, damn it. Honest Fucking Abe was called into this profession. And now its name is the butt of jokes and the scourge of even the proudly profit-driven.

How did we get here? Why did we let this happen? And what can we do about it?

For one, we can say something. We can choose to stand up for our profession and defend it against unreasoned attacks. We can be advocates for our profession. At the very least, we can do more than what I did that day in Ecuador, which was to smile dumbly and chuckle along, as if the career of my dreams meant nothing more to me than a way to pay the bills.

I should have said something, on behalf of myself and everyone else who has loved the law and has been proud to call it home.

I should have listed everything I love about this profession: how it prizes loyalty, which the modern world has practically banished to anachronism; how its sacred texts challenge us to build a better future by summoning courage from the past; and how its aspirations are both grand and particular, to make practical a utopia for all of us and to make justice a reality for each of us.

Most of all, I love the people of this profession: the ones who obsess over principles and the ones who brim with empathy, the ones who worship texts and the ones who would rather see it all burn. I love them because they are passionate about something, even in an age worn thin by cynicism and even in a generation whose motto is the shrug.

This is an unabashed love letter to the legal profession. It is puppy love, uncomplicated and untried. Easily dismissed. A decade from now, when I read this, I will probably grimace, embarrassed by my own naiveté.

But I like to think that a part of me will melt too, and remember all the things I have loved about the legal profession and all the hope I had for my legal career. And maybe then, an older, wiser me, will fall in love with it all over again.

Antigone is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

Gunners & Gun Violence: BigLaw as the Rich Man’s NRA

For Bertrand Russell, the mark of a civilized person was “the capacity to read a column of numbers and weep.” By his standards, we law students must be one notch below barbarian. Law students are so inept at seeing the bigger picture, we’ll bask in the headlights of an oncoming car—just, you know, to keep our options open.

Despite overwhelming evidence, law students enter careers that have incredible rates of depression, substance abuse, and dissatisfaction. And, to top it off, these are careers that make the world a deadlier, dirtier, and less fair place to live.

When I told my friend’s father I was going to HLS, he said: “Congratulations. But Christ, don’t become a lawyer. Last week at my 25-year Harvard reunion, I attended a panel on ‘mid-life career changes.’ It was basically a therapy session for lawyers.”

This isn’t news to us. We know the numbers. We know the famous Johns Hopkins study that found lawyers lead the nation in depression rates. We know that lawyers beat out dentists in the ‘90s (go lawyers!) as the profession with the highest rate of suicide. Heck, even the ABA found that 18-20 percent of lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse—twice the national average.

And we know that the money that drives most students to these jobs is a pretty horrible predictor of happiness.

But do we appreciate the take-away of all this? The lack of time to spend with our kids? The impact on marriage and other relationships? The crushing psychological dissonance of spending the vast majority of one’s waking life doing something so… depressing?

So what is it about us law students? Why do we enter careers that make us, on the whole, so terribly unhappy? Some suggest we’re more depressed before law school—that we’re all OCD gunners deep down. Yet multiple studies have found that law students enter law school with a similar psychological profile to the general public—and that we leave with “strong declines in positive affect, life satisfaction, and aggregate SWB [subjective well-being].” Ouch.

But setting aside the soul-sucking effects of law school, the inability to take numbers seriously isn’t unique to law students. Instead, it’s the same psychological phenomenon that gets us to focus on isolated, horrific incidents instead of broad, horrific patterns.

It’s why we can read about grisly murders every day in the tabloids and not process the staggering number of gun deaths every year. It looks like it will take the nightmarish killing of 20 white, upper-middle class, innocent children for the country to respond to the 11,000 gun-related deaths per year (not counting the outrageous number of suicides).

The problem’s even bigger with car and tobacco deaths. Where September 11th killed 2,977 people, over 42,000 Americans died from car accidents in 2001 and nearly 443,000 Americans die prematurely from tobacco-related causes every year. We don’t allocate a fraction of the $4 trillion spent on military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to address those much deadlier problems.

And, lastly, it’s no coincidence that the most abstract and intractable problem is the deadliest—climate change. Scientists estimate that climate change is ALREADY responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year. By 2030, the carbon crisis is predicted to have taken up to 100 million lives.

Okay, okay, wait, wait! Before you check out in light of all these darn numbers (which is, after all, the problem), let me bring it back to law school.

It’s easy to understand why we don’t have comprehensive gun regulation in the US: Americans don’t appreciate the enormity of the problem, and the NRA lobbying machine has completely dominated the political process.

The exact same logic applies to car deaths, tobacco deaths, and climate change: Americans don’t appreciate the enormity of the problems, and lawyer have completely dominated the political process—opposing everything from air bags to health warnings to emissions standards.

But where the gun nuts have the NRA, the world’s most powerful corporations have BigLaw.

And this is where the self-delusion of law students reaches new heights. Not only do we ignore the profound rates of depression and dissatisfaction in the legal profession, we also ignore the very nature of our work—working for (and often arguing on behalf of) the companies that oppose the changes that will make our world safer, healthier, and fairer.

We couldn’t imagine working for the NRA, but we’ll work for its much richer, deadlier, and more influential cousin.

Even if we don’t work at a firm that directly defends tobacco companies for lying to the public (you know, like Davis Polk or Paul Weiss or Jones Day or Womble Carlyle or Covington & Burling or Kirkland & Ellis or Dewey & LeBouef), we comfort ourselves by saying we’re just shifting money from one corrupt corporation to another.

We are not the climate deniers or the financiers who’ve left millions homeless, we argue. We are merely their transactional lifeblood. Don’t you see the difference?

When viewed honestly, it’s no wonder that lawyers are so depressed and so eager to leave the profession. They sacrifice their family, friends, and free time—for what, to embolden the world’s wealthiest companies as they deny the consequences of their actions?

Perhaps the biggest delusion is not that we will be happy in our jobs. It is that we are doing something harmless.

The good news is that we are smart, we are educated, and we can see the headlights coming from miles away. It’s time we recognize the road we’re on—and get off before it’s too late.

Professional Ethics

What does it mean to behave ethically as a lawyer? A few weeks ago, I attended an event sponsored by the new Harvard Law School “Living Well in the Law” program. It was a talk by Harvard psychologist Professor Howard Gardner on what constitutes “good work” in the law. He posed an interesting question to the audience, based on a real-life ethical dilemma faced by one of his research subjects. The actual issue is too complicated to describe here, but what it boiled down to whether a young associate, despite complying precisely with the rules of legal ethics, nonetheless behaved immorally by indirectly misleading an important partner at his firm over a potential client conflict. His lie of omission got him a lucrative account, but at the cost of his professional relationship with the partner. Nonetheless, he was told by other colleagues that he had behaved properly.

The audience at the event divided evenly between those who believed that the associate’s ethical responsibility stopped at the bounds of established ethics rules, and others who felt that he had failed some additional duty. I will admit to being strongly in the latter group: to me, it seemed like a clear case of betraying a personal trust for material gain. But the audience’s mixed response started me thinking about legal ethics in general. It is actually very unclear to me where legal ethics fit into each individual’s own conception of right and wrong.

As lawyers, we have a responsibility to our clients, to be their zealous advocates and act in their interests. As members of the legal profession, we also have a responsibility to the legal system in general, to the pursuit of justice and the rule of law. We also owe responsibility to our families and our colleagues, people who trust us and believe in our word. Lastly, there is also responsibility to oneself, to maintain one’s own personal integrity and honor.

I don’t know what to do when any of these responsibilities conflict. I assume I’ll address each situation as it arises, but I can see the temptation to follow a list of pre-written rules. It’s comforting to have standards delineating the minimum conduct required and maximum duty expected, and there is nothing wrong with a community of rule-followers. The problem is when we’re so focused on the rules that we lose sight of the values underlying them. If doing what is right merely means following the legal ethics codes of our local bar associations, then there would be no need for judgment, thought or even individual conscience. All we need to do is know how to read.

But there is a difference between what one can do and what one should do. Now, I haven’t taken any Legal Profession courses (and as a 1L, I’m not even allowed to register for any: interesting message there), so perhaps this is a topic that the Law School addresses directly later on. That said, we already have the perfect vehicle for starting this conversation early. The Problem Solving Workshop challenges 1Ls to assess legal issues inspired by real-life situations, and incorporating a problem that poses an ethical dilemma seems like a natural fit to the curriculum. Not every lawyer will end up as a general counsel to a toy company, or as an administrative commissioner faced with a sensitive environmental issue, but every lawyer will eventually need to make difficult decisions when his or her responsibilities conflict. The time to start teaching judgment is now.

Geng Chen is a 1L. Her column runs every other Tuesday. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.