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Articles published in the Richland County Bar Association's Richbar News

Unsustainable

August 9, 2014Richbar News Articles

Back when I was a law student, I got a lot of advice from older lawyers.  Some of it I even asked for.  But some not.  Like the time I enrolled in USC’s mentoring program.

I was  assigned an older lawyer from a big firm in Columbia (which no longer exists).  My first official act as Mentoree was to miss my appointment with my Mentor.  Three days later, I received my first “Nasty Lawyer Letter” in which I was informed how my massive breach in etiquette reflected my basic lack of worth as a person (and even lower value as a prospective member of the Bar).  Somehow it took three pages to tell me this.

I took it personally and responded with my first “eating the whole crow” letter.   While I couldn’t manage to hit a full three pages, by using a Thesaurus to find different variations of the word “unworthy” I was able to get about one and half.  I printed the letter, hand-typed the envelope, and waited.  I never heard back.  I don’t blame my Mentor, though.  Dude was probably under a lot of stress.  And his Nasty Lawyer Letter prepared me well for the five or so years that I had to practice in Family Court.  So, I suppose I did learn something after all.

Now it’s 20 years later.  Now I’m the “older lawyer.”  What do I say when a young lawyer asks for advice?  On this point there seems two schools of thought: you can be a “Scalia” or you can be an “Oprah.”

As you may remember, Justice Scalia made news back in May in his commencement address to William & Mary School of Law when he called the current law school system — students graduating hundreds of thousands in debt into a shrinking legal job market – “not sustainable.”  In prior commencement speeches Scalia has criticized the practice itself — or at least the high billable hours, no life, and no complaints culture of some firms as equally unsustainable.  And Scalia’s probably right.  The only problem with his points is that they are being made to students who just graduated with a couple hundred K of debt, desperate for ANY job.  Theirs is the choice of the Roman Galley Slave (“would you like to row on the left or the right?”).  Once you’re that far in the hole, it’s a little too late to rethink the whole lawyer deal and apply to podiatry schools.

So maybe I should turn for advice to the teachings of Oprah Winfrey.  I don’t know whether Oprah’s given any law school commencement speeches (what state school could afford that), But I do take comfort in the advice that comes lately as a benefit to my appalling Starbuck’s addiction.  You see, a few months ago Starbuck’s began a cross-promotion with Teavana teas featuring Oprah’s favorite hot tea brews.  So now on the little sleeve that goes around your coffee cup to keep your hand from getting scalded by the coffee, you get some an Oprah quote, such as:

“No experience is ever wasted.  Everything has meaning.”

“Live from the heart of yourself.  Seek to be whole, not perfect.”

“Know what sparks the light inside you.  Then use that light to illuminate the world”

“Your life is big.  Keep reaching.”

Lately in the mornings, I’ve been sitting in my office with my cup of Pike’s Place Roast pondering these sayings.  As of the date of this writing, I have spent  17.5 billable hours in quiet contemplation.  Thus far, I cannot tell you what the hell any of them actually mean.  But they sure sound profound.  So if I’m ever asked to give a commencement speech I have a plan — buy 12 triple cappuccinos, consume them all before I get to the lectern, spout some Oprahisms, and use the energy provided by the weaponized caffeine to flee before anyone asks questions.  The fact that everyone in my audience will be too young to have seen the movie “Being There” virtually assures my success.

So, which way to go? Oprah or Scalia?  Maybe there’s a third option.  Don’t just say something — do something.

I am proud in this edition to print a wonderful contribution from a “new” lawyer, Taylor Smith, who put his beliefs on the line in the Occupy Columbia movement.  His story speaks not only of idealism, conscientiousness and risk, but of how it’s what we do for younger lawyers — not what we say —  that really matters.  As you will read, Taylor was fortunate to find a mentor in Drew Radeker, who also had the guts to put his money where his mouth was.

Regardless of your politics, or views on Occupy, isn’t this exactly what we became lawyers to do?  To make some kind of meaningful difference in society?  (Don’t deny it or I’ll dig up your law school application essay).

Your life can still be big.  Keep reaching.

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