Meaning Values and the Practice of Law – Derek LaCroix QC

December 12, 2010  Posted in: Nature of the Profession

In meetings with many young people leaving the law, the common complaints are a sense that there is not a meaning for them in practicing law, a sense of isolation and generally a sense that the practice of law is too difficult with little or no possibility of a fulfilling and healthy life.

There is evidence that the rates of major clinical depression and of alcoholism are significantly higher in the legal profession than in the general population. There is evidence that this trend begins in law school. Again in my discussions with many law students and young lawyers and with other LAP professionals from across North America it seems that a significant part of this problem is caused or contributed to by the legal training in which students are taught to “be objective”, learn the law and apply it objectively without regard for personal values. The law schools and the legal profession are also competitive and pressure is applied to compete for what is considered the top jobs, and latter top clients, best cases or most money. The students often get lost in this and forget why they went to law school. Many say they entered law school hoping to be able to help others to make a difference and were open to any future. They report that sometime during law school they forgot about that and they began to think only of getting articles, at large prestigious law firms. Few if any students or young lawyers have reported to me taking any courses in legal ethics, legal history, or jurisprudence, and for sure none have reported studying goal setting, values clarification or how to make ethical decisions.

I suggest that this loss of attention to values and loss of values clarification is at the root of much of the distress in our profession. It is also at the root of why so many young lawyers are leaving.

When I began practicing law I knew why I wanted to be a lawyer, as did most of my friends.  I thought it was important. To think something is important requires making a value judgement. If that skill (values clarification) is not implemented then the law cannot meaningfully be important.

We are not, nor should we be, legal technicians. From a health perspective it is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained. From a business point of view, lawyers are losing out to accountants and business consultants for the most lucrative, and interesting, work.

Practicing law is not just about knowing the law, and being able to work with the law. It is most importantly about helping people and keeping the system moving in a smooth and just way. “The Rule of Law” has enabled a great deal of progress.  To truly practice law a person must be able to contemplate, to make value judgments, and to deal with conflicting points of view without losing his/her perspective.

My personal observation over the past 6 years, including personal, one on one contact with over 1,000 distressed individuals, the vast majority, when asked do not know why they are practicing law, they do not clearly know what their core values are or what is truly important to them.

The most common complaint expressed within the legal profession is a lack of meaning or sense of fulfillment from work.

This is stated more directly by older practitioners as boredom, lack of job satisfaction, just getting through each day, turning out work without time to contemplate, turning out product for clients like a machine, and lack of connection to clients, which is often expressed as lack of client loyalty. Legal professionalism has been eroded by the need for volume, speed and uniformity of work product.

The younger practitioners tend to express this lack of meaning or sense of fulfillment differently. They ask, “What good am I doing?”  They express a lack of control over work or life. They worry about the demands of clients, and that there is little opportunity for them to utilize creative thinking. They also ask if they can have a life and practice law, or is the practice of law all consuming? Women ask the additional question “Can I have a family and children?”

Among the young lawyers expressing dissatisfaction with the law and a desire to leave all state they do not get a sense of fulfillment from practicing law. They do not get a sense of meaning from it and it seems to be valueless. If they have no sense of meaning in their work lives, they do not have any sense of the importance or value of what they do. No wonder they want to leave.  This is a tough way to make money. Law is a profession, a calling, and is not the kind of work that can be done as a job, especially if you want to maintain good health and have a happy fulfilling life. It is a tough job to do with only external motivation. That can work short term but sooner or later that presents problems. The nature of what we as lawyers are supposed to be doing, helping clients resolve problems and keeping the system of Justice operating effectively, is jeopardized by having lawyers operating without a strong sense of internal values and motivation, instead relying on external input to determine their actions. This leads to dissatisfaction, distress, burnout and the many invisible disabilities with which we in the legal profession suffer at a higher rate than the general population.

We need to help each other. In particular the senior lawyers need to help the junior lawyers. I know I learned a lot about the practice of law from senior lawyers. That is where I learned about practice ethics including how to treat other lawyers. I learned that we could vigorously represent our clients and at the end of the day go hang out in the barristers’ room as friends. I learned about perspective and seeing the bigger picture. I learned from watching more senior lawyers act honestly and honourably that that is an effective way to practice. I learned that how we treat people is important, be they clients, other lawyers, witnesses, or judges. I was privileged to see and hear senior lawyers think creatively and work at solving problems in a way that was satisfying to everyone including themselves.

It really is time for each of us to consider engaging in a mentor/mentee relationship. It is good for us more senior people to be able to share what we have learned, it is an excellent way for the junior lawyers to learn, and it will contribute to the sense of collegiality in our profession and the health of the individual practitioners.

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