Money Matters, Even in a Learned Profession

by Rich Cassidy on January 6, 2013

Photo credit: Pen Waggener. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Last time I wrote about the non-financial aspects of assessing a lawyer’s year and career. As I did, I acknowledged that, at least for those of us who are in private practice (and therefore “in business”), “making money is essential.”

Indeed it is. I am in a small firm and, of necessity, we watch our income and expenses closely. Among other things, each of my “partners” and I get a weekly lists of our receipts. Our first 2013 report came out on Friday, January 4. One of my partners commented, “[a]nd so we start again.” As I responded, it certainly seems better than the alternative.

That’s in the nature of being an attorney in private practice. You always have to keep your eye on the bottom line. Sometimes it feels oppressive. Some lawyers react to this dynamic with single-minded focus on the dollars. Some do not, but even they must pay plenty of attention to money.

My sense is that a generation or two ago, lawyers had more time to put into the professional, non-financial side of the practice of law. Perhaps that is just the natural tendency to romanticize the past. I don’t really know if in the good old days, lawyers had more financial breathing space within which to attend to the public service side of the practice.

But I know this: Today, if you let it, making money will be your work life. If you don’t carve out some time to be a professional as well as a business person, money will make sure that you are only a business person. The time to be active in your profession and in your community does not fall like manna from heaven. It has to be snatched from otherwise productive or leisure time. For some lawyers, it just does not seem worthwhile to make that effort. For others it just does not seem possible. It is not for me to second-guess those judgments.

The public, the bar associations, and the courts all expect a lot from lawyers. We are required to do continuing legal education. The courts expect us to devote time to pro bono work. The public needs us to do public service. On the other hand, if you don’t pay proper attention to the bottom line, you don’t stay in business.

I am not complaining. I’d rather practice law than do anything else. My own professional and public service work has been personally very satisfying, and on occasion has even helped me to earn a legal fee or two. And I do think some pro bono and public interest work is a fair trade for the monopoly our profession has on access to the courts.

It does seem ironic that, notwithstanding all the pro bono and public service work that lawyers do, our profession has such a lousy reputation. I don’t really expect that will change. Our collective reputation seems tied to the acts of the worst among us. Of course, their behavior is plenty bad. But the truth about most in our profession is far better.

It takes an understanding of the importance of the rule of law, and what lawyers do to make it work, to get that a lawyer who represents a notorious criminal defendant — even a guilty one — is doing good, not promoting evil. As lawyers we need to advance public understanding of our legal system and our profession.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Heffernan January 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm

This post, in addition to the one before it, are exactly the sort of thoughtful, honest, and very human pieces that could begin to turn around the negative reputation of lawyers. Selfishly, this non-lawyer says thank you for writing them, as now there’s a place I can point people to when hearing those blanket disparaging comments like “all lawyers do this…or that… greedy or uncaring behavior.” ~ Pat

Rich Cassidy January 16, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Thanks Pat!

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