In my country we have a saying: “Law is not a profession of cowards” ~ a true fact.
We've all heard exciting stories about the work of a lawyer. We've already had fun with jokes that are inspired by admiration for the eloquence and sharp mind of genius defenders. Being a lawyer is not easy and to understand a little better about this life full of challenges, I had the pleasure of interviewing two good friends who practice the profession: @OlderAndWiser and @Gwenhwyfar.
First, I'd like for you both to describe what kind of lawyer you are, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
@OlderAndWiser: While in law school, I was an intern and political consultant in the Florida House of Representatives. I graduated from law school in 1986 and returned to my hometown. For five years, I worked with a firm that specializes in representing plaintiffs in complex personal injury, medical malpractice, and products liability cases. I then left that firm and opened my own practice. I am a solo practitioner with a general practice of the law. There are certain types of cases that I don’t do because I have no interest in doing them – primarily criminal law – or because they should be done by a specialist in that area – workers compensation is an example. Most of my time is devoted to family law, probate, guardianship, wills and trusts, Social Security disability, personal injury and wrongful death, and a miscellaneous smattering of other types of cases.
@Gwenhwyfar: I’m 32, female and in a committed long-term relationship. I’m a litigation attorney. This means I defend big companies when someone sues them or when they sue each other.
As a lawyer, is it difficult to keep a relationship? Do you have the time to build a family?
@OlderAndWiser: For most professionals, it is more difficult to have a relationship with someone who is unaccustomed to the life of a professional. Outside of the professions, many jobs only require your attention for forty hours a week. I sometimes get calls from clients on a Saturday afternoon or late Tuesday night, and I always respond to emergency matters. I must keep abreast of changes in the law and I have a requirement for continuing education. That usually happens away from the office. I sometimes bring work home and may be occupied with that until 11 pm. That is not a frequent occurrence but it could be annoying to someone who does not understand the commitment required of a professional.
I don’t have children because of the history of my prior relationships and not because of my profession. I would have made the time for children, if that had happened for me. Keeping priorities in order is a problem for many professionals but I have always made my family a priority. Not having children is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
@Gwenhwyfar: As a lawyer, I work a lot of hours. You can have a relationship, but you have to put the time in, which sometimes means sacrificing other stuff you want to do so you have the time to spend with your partner. It also means that your partner has to understand that sometimes work comes first, especially during “crunch time.”
What's like to defend someone you think it's guilty? Does it affect your judgment or skills?
@OlderAndWiser: I have handled a few criminal cases in the past. My goal was to make sure that my clients got treated fairly by the criminal justice system. I had a few clients who went to prison but it wasn’t because I failed to do my job. They went to prison because I did my job but the prosecutor also did his or her job and, when the system works properly, people who commit crimes get convicted and sentenced.
I never handled a criminal case where the potential penalty was greater than five years in prison. I usually feel some fondness for my clients and I feel awful when one of them does not get their desired outcome, even if the outcome would be considered to be fair by others. I would be very bothered if I had a client who was truly not guilty who was wrongfully convicted.
@Gwenhwyfar: I’m a civil lawyer, but at least half my clients have done exactly what the other side accused them of doing. It doesn’t affect my judgment or skills, but it makes me slightly more willing to urge them to settle rather than pushing for a trial where they can be vindicated.
Being trained to be a lawyer, is it hard to be honest or to avoid using your eloquence to influence people?
@OlderAndWiser: I know that people think lawyers are dishonest and will lie for their clients. Indeed, there are a few lawyers who adopt such tactics, but most do not. All lawyers have an ethical obligation to be honest with judges and with opposing attorneys. There are things that we will not reveal to judges and opposing attorneys, because of our obligation to maintain confidential communications with our clients, but what we do reveal must be honest. Most judges in my area will tell you that if I am in their courtroom, they know that I will be absolutely honest in my statements to them. That reputation among judges and opposing attorneys is worth far more than an occasional win that I might get if I lied. Of course, a lawyer being honest in court does not get any coverage from the news media but a lawyer caught in a lie is the lead story in the news media, so the public has a skewed perception of attorney ethics.
Why should I avoid using my eloquence to influence people? That is simply a part of being a leader.
@Gwenhwyfar: Yes. That’s very hard.
Do you feel it's harder to be vulnerable with your loved ones?
@OlderAndWiser: I think that the practice of law attracts many different personalities. Some are very plodding, methodical, reserved, aloof, and unemotional. I have never been accused of being unemotional or aloof. However, I have the advantage of having worked in the mental health field for five years before I attended law school and I have the advantage of that training and experience in navigating my personal life.
@Gwenhwyfar: Not in my case. I’m a very emotional person and if I trust you I find it easy to open up and be vulnerable with you.
How being a lawyer shaped your personality and worldview?
@OlderAndWiser: I was 28 years old when I began law school and my personality was very well established by that time. I have benefitted from many professional experiences in which a situation had a certain appearance when first presented but I then learned the rest of the story and saw it quite differently. That has taught me to not rush to judgment in my personal life as well as in my practice.
My two years in the Florida House of Representatives taught me about the way that a government functions, how decisions are influenced, how public policy gets expressed in law, and how unique situations, despite their emotional appeal, rarely result in a major change of the law.
@Gwenhwyfar: Being a lawyer shapes every facet of how you think. It’s hard to make people understand exactly how that works or why that is unless they’re a lawyer too.
Do you feel you are treated better or worse for being a lawyer?
@OlderAndWiser: When I was in law school, I had a landlord who did not want to rent a house to me because I was a law student. Apparently, he had a bad prior experience. There are people who have known me for ten years who are unaware that I am a lawyer. I don’t like to brandish that around as if I am demanding to be treated differently. I resent when other lawyers do that and I do try to avoid doing that myself.
There certainly are situations in which I have been treated with more respect because of my profession. I understand that other people might think that is unfair, and I wouldn’t disagree, but what should I do? Tell other people to disrespect me?
@Gwenhwyfar: I get a lot of social perks being a corporate litigator. If I were an “ambulance chaser” things might be different (though if I did that on a big enough scale people would still like me).
What it's like being in court defending someone?
@OlderAndWiser: I am almost always nervous when I go into court for a final hearing on a client’s case. I like most of my clients and I have a deep appreciation for how the outcome of the hearing will potentially affect their life. After practicing for 34 years, this has not gotten better. I love practicing law but this is one of the less desirable parts of the job.
@Gwenhwyfar: Being in court is stressful. My clients are almost all big corporations so I don’t feel that strong of an emotional bond with them, but I still advocate zealously and do my best for them.
What's the most unexpected thing about your job?
@OlderAndWiser: Most judges and other lawyers are really very nice, decent people. Many of them devote a part of their life to community volunteer service and they have a concern for trying to improve the world around them. The strength of the legal community makes me proud to be a lawyer.
@Gwenhwyfar: I didn’t realize when I started law school just how hard being a lawyer would be LOL.
What was the hardest case you ever had?
@OlderAndWiser: I was appointed to represent a father in a child abuse case. This was not the criminal case but the dependency case in which the state seeks to take away custody and/or parental rights. He had held his newborn baby under extremely hot water and the baby had severe burns on its legs. My initial reaction is that he must be a monster to do such a thing.
Next, I learned that he had moved into his apartment only a few days prior to this incident and the hot and cold water controls on the sink were reversed. He thought he had turned on the cold water and instead had the hot water running! I felt encouraged to think that perhaps he was not such a monster.
Then, I learned that he and his wife had previously discovered and discussed the problem with the hot and cold controls being reversed and that, in fact, the water was so hot that it produced visible steam. He knew what he was doing when he hurt this baby. Again, I thought that he was a monster and I had a very strong distaste for continuing my representation of him.
I learned that he was probably going to be sentenced to 15 years in prison on the related criminal charge. I convinced him to do the right thing for the child and surrender all parental rights so that the baby could be adopted by a new father if the mother eventually remarried.
The emotional aspects of the case were enormous and I know that the ultimate outcome was best for the child but I don’t know if my client has looked back on this and had substantial regrets.
@Gwenhwyfar: I quit my very brief career in criminal law when a client came into my office, looked me straight in the eye and said “I raped a bitch. She was a ho. Get me off.”
What did you learn about life being a lawyer?
1. Don’t rush to judgment before you know all of the facts.
2. Don’t convince yourself that you are so right that someone on the other side of a matter can’t possibly have anything to say that’s relevant.
3. Don’t automatically believe everything that someone tells you unless you know them extremely well.
4. Every battle is not worth fighting.
5. It is usually more effective to be polite and persuasive rather than being hostile and demanding.
@Gwenhwyfar: Life is VERY complicated LOL. And one of the most important things about being a lawyer is protecting privilege (keeping the secrets your clients entrust to you).
I would like to thank @OlderAndWiser and @Gwenhwyfar once again for the time dedicated to answering these questions and for sharing a little of their lives and knowledge with everyone.
Last but not least, I'd like to thank @Grond21 for the huge help in coming up with the right questions, and for choosing the best ones for the questionnaire.