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12.21.2012

Helping Law Students Find Purpose--The Difference Between Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction?

We do not tell our students enough that they can find fulfillment as a lawyer.  They figure out somewhere in law school that most lawyers are not that satisfied.   So how can I suggest that students can find fulfillment in the law?

I can suggest that because I know a number of lawyers who are fulfilled.   They work in every part of the profession--firms, prosecutor's offices, public defenders, and just about every role a lawyer could fill.  They do not make up the majority of lawyers.  However, there are enough of them--and they have one thing in comment--that I am convinced they hold the key to reasonable satisfaction.

These members of the legal profession understand the purpose of the legal system and their role in it.  Doesn't every lawyer understand these things, you might ask?  Well, not really.  Most members of the profession, in my experience, see it as a means to an end--to make money, to gain power, to claim status.  Many will not say this outright, but if you watch the lawyer's actions and reactions, they provide an undeniable glimpse into the person's motivations.   For instance, someone who worries a great deal about how much they make, or how they're viewed by others, almost certainly is motivated by the goals I mention.  Many lawyers think that, because they have worked hard on preparing for a trial, the desired result will follow.    But the facts and law can lead to an "adverse" result, no matter how hard one works.  To believe one can win by outworking another is setting oneself up for repeated frustrations.  

So what do those lawyers I know who are reasonably satisfied believe that's different?  One common denominator in how they explain the legal system is that they refer to it as a crucial part of our society--crucial in helping to resolve disputes peacefully, in getting people through those "rough spots" in their lives where they need a counselor and/or advocate.  Another unifying theme in these lawyers' attitudes is that they see themselves as no better than others and privileged to be able play a part in resolving disputes and helping others in difficult times.  I might add that these lawyers make a good living, are influential, and have respect in their communities.  It's just that they did not seek them as a goal, but rather they were byproducts of the way they handle themselves.

Law teachers need to realize that the seeds of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) are sown in law school.  Students need to hear from us about the role of the legal system and about how lawyers can have a more balanced perspective than the one that seems to prevail these days.  I am glad that we have at Regent University School of Law a required first-year course, "Christian Foundations of Law," which explores the way in which the legal system developed.   Students see the reality that the system is there to offset the human fallibility we cannot deny.  By doing so, the system seeks to provide impartial justice--to treat everyone equally.

Mind you, I do not labor under the delusion that students at a faith-based school are any less vulnerable to the pressures that will lead them to dissatisfaction.  So, for instance, in teaching procedure, I remind them of  matters they addressed in Christian Foundations.  And I repeat the theme that the legal system, even with its "warts," serves a noble purpose.   One metaphor that seems to resonate with students is to liken the system to oil in a car engine that avoids friction and overheating.   The lawyer who has done his or her best to prepare a case for trial, but then settles, can take as much satisfaction from a fair settlement--a resolution of the dispute--as from winning a jury verdict.  Someone who has reached that point has a balanced perspective.

As we hear more about developing professional identities and helping students form ethical values, we ought to remember to start with fundamentals.  Give them a basis for realizing the value of the system and their role in it.  Help them to see it's not about the lawyer, i.e., not about them, but rather about their serving others.  Then they are more likely to be among those who find reasonable satisfaction.

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