Reflections on money, the practice of law, and changing demographics

The general public believes that all lawyers are very wealthy, drive luxury automobiles, and work tirelessly so they can greedily earn more money.

Nothing could be further from the truth, especially lawyers that work in the criminal justice system. Criminal justice often involves a confluence of problems relating to substance abuse, mental health, and poverty.  While the same issues may exist in the civil world, the focus is more often on business and corporate representation. Being at this conference brings back to a world that I don’t see as often, but what most people think I see because I’m a lawyer.

Most criminal defense lawyers are solo practictioners. The mere fact that we’re a Firm of several lawyers automatically makes us one of the largest criminal defense firms in Central Texas.  Because most lawyers work by themselves (and many without a legal assistant) it is doubly expensive to attend training seminars and conferences: not only does the seminar cost money, but you also have the lost opportunity cost of not working for two days.  As a result, most of the criminal defense bar’s training programs and conferences are affordable, efficient, and no-frills.

The world of the civil bar is very, very, very different. Hotel reservations at the brand new Omni. Steak for lunch and dinner (different cuts, of course). Table settings and centerpieces akin to a formal wedding reception. Black tie and ballroom gowns for the after dinner gala. More silverware and glasses on the table than you know what to do with.

One of the lawyers I was sitting with commented, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to just use all this money instead on pro bono and indigent work instead?”

Many years ago I asked the same question when I was part of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund program for urban teachers. Having won the fellowship, we were flown from across the nation to an extravagant weekend at a lavish hotel. All of us protested: why not use this money to improve schools? Why waste the money for nice dinners and hotel rooms?

The organizers had a simple answer: because this is how we choose to spend our money. If we don’t spoil you, who will? If you spend all your time and every nickel working in the trenches, but never are treated the way you should be treated while doing the most important job in America, don’t you think you may one day be resentful? We want you to feel appreciated. We want you to know that you need to recharge. We want you to know that you are valued.

Lawyers get a bad rap from the public, and I’m particularly hard on my profession. I must say that I’ve struggled with both sides of this conflict. Yes, I believe fancy dinners and nice hotels are a luxury – especially in this economy. I also believe that the criminal defense bar sees itself as the red-headed stepchild of the larger Bar, and we act with the according financial restraint.

Everybody gets one birthday a year. You get to eat more than you usually would, drink more than you’re supposed to, and put your chores and responsibilities to the side for one more day.

Do civil lawyers have it right after all?

(image via flickr)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tell Us Your Story

Tell Us Your Story

Contact our office to discuss your case. We’re here to help.