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Look for the helpers

When I was a child, grownups were often telling me that I ought to be a lawyer when I grew up. Usually this career advice was given right after an exhausting argument over some injustice that I felt had been inflicted upon me. Being just a kid, I took this career advice at face value. I didn’t yet understand that it’s considered inappropriate to call an eight-year-old a jerkwad, and so “lawyer” had to serve as a sort of stand-in.

Cute children doing laundry indoors

Cute children doing laundry indoors

Several of my attorney friends have recounted to me some version of that same story from their own childhoods. I can’t speak for them, but in my case, none of the people giving me this advice were lawyers themselves. I wonder if any of them had much firsthand experience of what being a lawyer entails, or whether they got their perceptions of the legal profession from watching “L.A. Law.”

That is the impression that many non-lawyers have of our profession, though—that lawyers spend their days combatively arguing over things, so a person who likes to argue is one who would probably make a good lawyer. Human nature being what it is, this perception of lawyers as combatants ends up influencing the pool of people who want to become lawyers, and how lawyers ultimately see their own role, in a way that I don’t think is entirely good for the profession.

I now have a daughter myself. Aria is only 16 months old now, so she’s still not old enough to argue with us verbally yet. (That’ll be fun someday.) But she’s already got quite the personality. One morning I was running late, and so when I dropped her off at daycare I met the father of a boy who usually arrives after Aria does. He asked me what her name was, and I told him.

“Ah. I usually just call her The Helper, because every day she’s always trying to help me get my son cleaned up and in his chair for breakfast,” he explained. The teachers piped up that they’ve nicknamed her that as well because she’s constantly trying to help them with stuff.

It’s impossible for me to convey in words just how happy and proud I was in that moment.

I have no idea what vocation my daughter will end up choosing, and I have no intention of trying to steer her toward a legal career if that’s not what she’s passionate about. But I drove to work that morning thinking about how the job of being a lawyer is, at its essence, the job of being a helper.

Clients come to lawyers with a problem, oftentimes the most difficult problem they’ve had to deal with in a long time. They need a lawyer to help them navigate that problem as best they can. Arguing about stuff is sometimes a necessary part of that, but arguing is a very overrated aspect of the lawyer’s craft, both inside and outside the profession. Conversely, the lawyer’s role as a guide and a helper to people who are struggling is vastly underappreciated.

How often do we as lawyers tell young people that they have the potential to be a great lawyer someday? And when we do, what are the characteristics we see in those people that prompt us to say that? The legal profession would probably be a lot better off if fewer people said, “You like to argue. I bet you’d make a great lawyer,” and more people said, “You’re such a great helper. I bet you’d make a great lawyer.”

There are plenty of people, not all them knowledgeable about what exactly a lawyer does, who believe the former. A bit more of the latter would certainly provide a valuable counterweight.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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