Monday, February 21, 2011

Don't bother bribing me

For a lot of those in my profession, and I've found this to be particularly true of law students, the lure of money is powerful. It was for me, too, when I was in law school, sick and tired of being poor, of driving crappy cars or taking the bus.

For that reason, and because my law school oriented us to do so, I signed up with a big firm in Dallas where I practiced civil law and was paid a bundle. A large bundle. Later, I did the same at a firm here in Austin. Which means that twice in my legal career I've left lucrative law firm jobs, taking a $50k pay cut to be an ADA.

Some people have a hard time understanding this. Last week, a non-lawyer colleague looked at me like I was insane and asked why I didn't go back, make big bucks instead of sweating in my over-heated little office at $5 an hour, plus tips (or thereabouts).

Simple answer: it's not about the money. It really isn't. And please, let me explain further why I do this job, and not civil litigation, which is the only other kind of law I know. That way, when someone asks me about it next week, I can just refer them to this post.

1. Money. Okay, I said it's not about the money but let's address this issue up front because no one believes me. See, I have a lot of talents: I'm fast over 100 meters, I'm a good writer, I'm funny, I'm George Clooney handsome (or thereabouts), and I'm a patient and loving father. However, I am not the best at managing money. And by "managing," I mean "not spending." So, whether I'm paid $70k or $150k, by the end of the month I'm checking my wallet and finding cobwebs. My conclusion: there's no great benefit to earning more money other than getting to spend more money, an activity that doesn't do much for me these days.

2. Job satisfaction. This is really Reason Number 1. I love what I do, and for several reasons.
First, it's just plain interesting. Every case is different and the facts can be exciting, bizarre, odd, or tragic. But they are always interesting. Compare this to civil law where cases last years and so much time is devoted to the finer points of civil procedure, and the rest is devoted to the process known as "discovery," where lawyers get into huge fights over documents that they spend days, weeks, or months, reading but that are inherently uninteresting (tax returns, anyone?) and will never find their way into a trial.
Second, I feel that what I do is important. One can agree or disagree about the relative merits of probation v. jail but one cannot argue, I don't think, that those decisions don't matter. I'm dealing with real people, either as victims or defendants, people whose lives have been affected and will continue to be affected. Compare this to civil litigation where you're dealing with companies fighting over money. Sure, you can argue that somewhere down the line a human being might be affected but it's not immediate, it's not personal, it's not (so sue me!) as important. There, I said it.
The irony here is that many, many civil lawyers have an inexplicable prejudice against those who practice criminal law. I plan to write about this later because it's an interesting phenomenon, but the bottom line for this post is that almost every day I'm dealing with issues of life and death, people's freedom, their constitutional rights, and the after-effects of crime. Again, by comparison, in the civil world they deal with, in essence, one thing: money. The truth is, I find it hard to get worked up about other people's money, especially when those "people" are corporations.

3. Trial. I enjoy being in trial, it's why I became a lawyer. Being in trial is like performing in a play and like directing one at the same time. It's challenging and exciting. And it's something civil lawyers don't get to do. Rephrase: civil lawyers in big firms never get to do it. "Never" may be a bit strong, but a lawyer at a big firm can go ten years without first- or second-chairing a trial. I spent five years at firms and first chaired precisely one, and that was a pro bono case that none of my superiors cared about. Since I've been an ADA, totaling three years, I've first chaired more than a dozen, and second-chaired almost as many.

4. The people. The working relationships between prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers is infinitely more respectful, civil (irony intended), and honest than the interactions between civil lawyers. I will state that as a plain fact and think I'm in a better position than almost anyone to assert it. Now, it's also true that I can't explain it, but my experience has absolutely been that civil lawyers are more apt to be aggressive, less than honest, full of bluster, and just plain unpleasant than criminal attorneys.
I extend this "people" preference to my bosses. Law firm partners, in my experience, are generally. . . ach, I'll stop. I like the people I work for now, and I'll leave it at that. :)

Any questions?


  1. It makes perfect sense to me! After what seems like an eternity in the non-profit world where I apparently make slightly more than your $5.00/hour, I firmly agree with you--it is not about the money, it is the people and the job satisfaction. Certainly, feeling that your work is important and that you might just make a bit of a difference has such huge payoffs when you have that client that confirms it for you. The expectation of that is what keeps me excited about my job.

    I often say I would do this for free, but unfortunately, Exxon doesn't give away free gas, HEB likes to get a little something for the groceries I tote out of their store and it's hard to read in the dark.

    Nice blog this morning.

  2. "The truth is, I find it hard to get worked up about other people's money, especially when those "people" are corporations."

    Amen, brother. I found the civil law very disheartening, especially when two insurance companies are fighting over how NOT to pay someone clearly entitled to be paid. It is soulless, mind numbing work. It leads young lawyers down bad paths (over billing, lying, etc) and is a morass of pompous blowhards. The fact that they all think they can do criminal work without even knowing a damn thing about it is galling, but not unexpected.

    There's nothing civil about civil law.

  3. I'm curious, Mark: us law students often get told that even if we want to practice criminal/community law, we should sign up with a big firm for the first couple of years to get experience and training. Do you think your early experience with a big firm made you a better lawyer, gave you bad habits, or was neither here nor there?


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