Lesson 2: The Legal Profession Is Not For Everyone

OBABL Year In Review: The Year’s Most Popular Stories

OBABL continues the series The Story of a Georgetown Law Class: The Lessons. Yolanda Young located the nearly 60 black graduates from her 1995 GULC class. Among them: A judge, big law partners, bureaucrats, an Oprah Show producer, two doctors, a middle school principal, and a stay-at-home dad. With few exceptions (the former congressional aide to William Jefferson who vanished following her involvement in his corruption trial; the Fox Network VP who declined to share her experience; and the beloved classmate who died prematurely), they were interviewed and surveyed. Everyday for the next three weeks leading up to her 15th class reunion, we’ll share lessons from their stories.

Monday: You Make You
Tuesday: The Legal Profession Is Not For Everyone
Wednesday: Dream a New Dream
Thursday: Live Within Your Means
Friday: Make Yours a Small World

Within the black community there are a good number of noble professions. Teachers, doctors, accountants, engineers and preachers have all historically been looked upon with esteem. The black lawyer, however, has always been set apart for while the minister can save those in his congregation and the doctor can save his patients, it is the lawyer, one particular lawyer really, who is credited with saving our entire race. Just as Christians have Jesus, Jews have Abraham, and Muslims have Muhammad, black lawyers have Justice Marshall. So many of my classmates identified him as the reason they decided to become lawyers that I stopped asking the question.

When a black child gets in his mind that he wants to be a lawyer, it doesn’t feel like choosing a career. It feels like a calling. It is also something that your family and community can get behind. Sometimes one might get a spark to do something else, but it feels trite, unrealistic, like a betrayal even, so throughout high school, college and law school, we remain steadfast. Unwilling to consider career alternatives, we can end up, to a certain extent, betraying ourselves.

One classmate, a tastemaker who foresaw the HGTV boom and for a while, toyed with the idea of designing bedding, put it this way, “I went to law school because it was the easiest thing in the world to do without really knowing what that was about. 85% of what being a lawyer is about is not interesting. There was no way for him to know what being a lawyer was like. He like most in our class was a first generation lawyer. We made assumptions based on what we saw of Marshall in “Eyes on the Prize” or worse, television shows that hardly showcased black lawyers.

Another classmate offered this warning, “What you see on TV—“Boston Legal” and “The Firm”—erased that from your memory because it’s not glamorous or sexy.”

This lack of knowledge cost the tastemaker. His career stalled then purred and now pitters. He sold mobile phones for a year after graduating before securing an associate position at a Silicon Valley firm. He was laid off after a few years and has worked as a contract attorney since. When the vision of what we expected—important cases, substantial income, peer admiration—doesn’t materialize, it feels a bit like losing ones religion, losing faith. Sometimes we are left not knowing what to do.A similar trajectory resulted for another woman in our class, who worked at a department store after graduation. Eventually she too did contract legal work before doing the same tasks, essentially reviewing large numbers of discovery documents—emails, memos, etc.—fulltime as a staff attorney at a large firm. She left that position several years ago and was still unemployed when we last spoke.

Even for those with established legal careers like the woman who is counsel at a large firm in the District, the reality of a lawyer’s life can be jarring. She explains, “On a weekly basis, I’m not in court. It’s not like Perry Mason. As a junior associate it’s the grunt work. You may not see clients. Second year I got to meet clients. I travel. I was in trial three times in the last two years, before that, not at all. Litigation is not short. If you’re going into a law firm, you should know it’s a business. It’s about the bottom line. Administrative stuff like doing your timesheets [is important]. You won’t last long if you don’t properly handle your billing.”

One classmate who left the profession said, “At the end of the day, people have to be happy with their lives. Law is just a profession, it’s not who they are.” It’s easier to say that than believe it.

What makes these stories so astonishing is that there were few distinctions between my classmates. All the people mentioned here are smart, personable and capable. They are attractive with impeccable presentations. Nothing about their appearance, demeanor or aptitude would have hinted at stunted legal careers. There was this, however. Neither the tastemaker, nor the woman who’d worked in the department store, seemed to really want to practice law. They weren’t desperate for that first job. They didn’t bore you with legal jargon. Still, they never seriously considered pursuing a different career path.

One attributed that to this, “It’s hard to say I never went to law school and just start over. A lot of people keep themselves in the field because it’s hard getting over the mental barrier. I worked for a judge after my second year, and one of his first questions was, ‘Are you happy?’ I wish he had just said, ‘What you’re doing may very well not be fulfilling.’”

Tomorrow find out what happened the classmates who did take a leap of faith.

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