This is a tough year to be entering law school. Tuition is more expensive than ever. The job market for entering lawyers is worse than ever. And the combination of technology and cost pressures is changing the legal profession in ways that even longtime veterans have trouble getting their heads around. It’s tough enough that the hot new legal blog is Professor Paul Campos’s Inside the Law School Scam.
When young pre-laws (or 0Ls, as some call them) have asked my advice over the last decade, I’ve usually cautioned them to think long and hard about law school. Sure there’s the now-crushing debt and the sometimes-brutal competition. But even in the days of lush lunches and the Brobeck bump, law was still a profession that ate its young. Even the most promising entry positions involve tedium, long hours, and intellectual drudgery. And many describe the process of making partner as a pie-eating contest in which first prize is more pie. But if you’re a proud member of Law School Class of 2014, then you’ve probably already heard these warnings and decided they apply to the other guy.
So, so long as you’re already in law school (or out in the larger, harsher legal world), my next piece of advice would be to buy yourself a copy of A Civil Action, and read it carefully.
A Civil Action has been a classic account of a mass tort case for years. When I was a wee baby attorney (not even, I was a first-year summer associate), reading it was my first assignment. I was the sole summer associate in the office of a small Boston firm, and much of the setting was the federal court in Boston. The book was not yet the perennial bestseller it is today. It was so new it was still in hardcover, and I could only locate one copy on the shelves of the local Borders. But I devoured it. Not just because it promised an inside look at complex litigation in Boston, but because Jonathan Harr did such a great job getting inside the head of the various lawyers.
For those who haven’t read it (or seen the movie), it tells the story of litigation over cancer clusters in Woburn, Massachusetts. The plaintiffs, represented by tort lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, accused WR Grace & Company, which had a tanning plant nearby, of dumping various carcinogens into the local groundwater. The litigation spanned years, and resulted in a number of published opinions. In fact, it’s since become a valuable teaching tool for civil procedure professors.
Jonathan Harr does an excellent job of providing a layperson’s understanding of various motions practice and tactics. In particular, he provides a good early discussion of the defense’s strategy behind filing a motion for Rule 11 sanctions against Schlictmann, a warning shot that hit a little too close to home, and set an often-hostile tone for the remainder of the case.
But what the book is really about–and this is the real reason to read it–is the personal toll complex litigation takes on the people involved: the plaintiffs, the defendants, and the lawyers.
"Rich and famous and doing good," mused Schlictmann. "Rich isn’t so difficult. Famous isn’t so difficult. Rich and famous together aren’t so difficult. Rich, famous, and doing good–now, that’s very difficult."
Harr, who spent most of his time shadowing the plaintiffs’ team, gets in under the skin of the lawyers on each side, and his observations are useful for young lawyers. (Heck, they’re useful for more experienced lawyers as well.) Among them:
Lawyers can take personal offense at various tactics. When the defense filed its Rule 11 motion against the plaintiffs, Schlictmann got personally offended at the tactic, a response that colored his strategy going into a crucial hearing.
Schlichtmann slammed the phone down. He was breathing hard, his face flushed, so angry that his hands shook. "This guy is an [expletive deleted]," Schlichtmann shouted.
When Schlichtmann got offended by the Rule 11 motion, he went out of his way to make the judge feel that same outrage. In fact, according to Harr, he spent more time on the emotional appeal of his argument than he did on the substance of his response. This is a rhetorical technique known as the "pathetic appeal," and many lawyers live by it. But, as Harr details, it is hard to make constant pathetic appeals without feeling the emotions you’re trying to evoke. And if you can’t evoke that emotion in others, the appeal may backfire (as it did on Schlichtmann).
Lawyers can get carried away with good news, too. In the course of their research, the plaintiffs retained Charles Nesson, who advised them they had a case that might be worth as much as a billion dollars. (Hence his nickname in the book, "Billion Dollar Charlie.") Despite their best efforts to remain calm, they’re unable to dismiss the optimism that comes with the prediction. (They probably should have tried harder; Nesson has developed an idiosyncratic reputation in the years since.)
Litigation is full of highs and lows. Early in the book, Harr describes how Schlichtmann’s car gets repossessed in the middle of a case. Later, he describes an opulent settlement conference at the Ritz-Carlton, one so excessive it actually backfires, convincing the defendants it would be better to fight than to settle. Towards the end of the litigation, Schlictmann moves into his office:
Although not without shelter, he had finally become homeless. He put his Dmitri suits in the reception-room closet, his silk ties and Bally shoes in the closet bathroom. He slept on a foldout couch in Crowley’s office. He made herbal tea every night in the kitchen and watched television in the conference room. "It doesn’t bother me living here," he said. "I’m a man of extremes. It’s the middle ground I can’t stand."
Not every lawyer experiences the specific financial highs and lows that Schlichtmann does, but complex litigation–with its demanding clients, aggressive adversaries, and insane workloads–does involve this kind of roller-coaster, feast-or-famine experience.
Intense litigation can be all-consuming.
Being in trial, Schlichtmann once said, is like being submerged in deep water for weeks at a time. The world above becomes a faint echo. War, scandal, and natural disaster may occur, but none of it seems to matter. The details of the case occupy every waking hour and usually intrude into dreams as well. Existence becomes spartan. When you finally come to the surface again, the world seems altered in fundamental ways. Win or lose, you set about rediscovering pleasures only dimly remembered. Colors seem brighter, food tastes better, the weather is of compelling interest.
This experience can be intoxicating for some, but it can also be profoundly disorienting. You’ll notice Schlichtmann (through Harr) describes the experience in almost addictive terms. And for many lawyers, that experience can be addictive. If you want work to be your primary focus, that can be great. If not, it’s somewhat less so.
So what can law students take from this book? Law school advertises itself as teaching students to "think like a lawyer." But it’s just as important to know what it’s like to feel like a lawyer. Lawyers are prone to bouts of excessive optimism and deep pessimism. They get angry, sometimes really angry. Human emotion is inescapable, and some lawyers deal with its effects better than others.
A number of studies have shown that you don’t have to be rich to be happy. In fact, you may need as little as $40,000 per year in income. Instead, happiness with a job depends on some intangibles like being appreciated, and some tangible factors, like the length of one’s commute. So if, after reading A Civil Action, you still believe you’d enjoy the life–the whole life–that Harr describes, congratulations! You may have what it takes enjoy a fulfilling career as a lawyer. If not, it may be time to rethink litigation, because you may never find it that satisfying. (Don’t worry that this says something bad about you. It doesn’t. You’re in very good company, including roughly half your law school class. And that includes many people who will make outwardly successful lawyers.)
[A brief personal note here, given the content: I am far from dissatisfied with my job. I’ve been extremely fortunate; I currently practice with a number of excellent class-action lawyers I admire a great deal. I have several clients I am outright proud to represent. And my colleagues are very tolerant of my writing compulsion. But I’m realistic. The legal life is not for everyone. I have known a number of talented lawyers who have moved on to other things where they are happier. And even the most satisfied practicing lawyers can identify with the characters in Harr’s book.]