Law as a career

By Attorney Gregg Herman
February 19, 2024

Law as a career

Watching the lawyers involved in numerous high-profile trials, from the various Trump cases to the Michigan mother of the school shooter, causes me to wonder: just how much do these lawyers actually believe what they’re advocating?

The practice of law can be highly disingenuous. As a friend of mine once put it: “Sometimes I feel like a prostitute where I’m assuming a position in exchange for a fee.”

Being a lawyer brings innumerable variations on this theme, some more noble than others.

Some lawyers practice in areas where they feel they’re doing a public good, such as civil rights or environmental. Others have little choice due the loans incurred to become a lawyer and therefore seek the most remunerative employment regardless of any other consideration. Sometimes, that results in representing people or positions not aligned with the lawyer’s personal beliefs.

I was recently told of a young lawyer who said (this is a paraphrase): “If all law practices had to be consistent with our personal beliefs, we’d all starve.”

Not all of us can be the legal equivalent of Julia Roberts’ plucky “Erin Brockovich” – fighting evil while simultaneously earning (presumably) a huge contingent fee. More frequently, there are choices to be made. Instead of the do-gooder Brockovich, we feel more like fixer “Michael Clayton,” an underrated 2007 film starring George Clooney in the title role.

Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance, or “the perception of contradictory information and the mental toll of it.” Typical of many things in life, choices have plusses and minuses. Living with them causes us to do a lot of mental — and sometimes moral — gymnastics.

Certain choices may involve representing unsavory individuals. I doubt many criminal defense attorneys want to take their clients home for dinner. Yet, these lawyers perform an invaluable service, as all accused criminals — even the most, well … unpleasant — are entitled to effective representation. Some rationalize this representation as a noble effort to free the innocent from wrongful prosecution. Yet I’ve had more than one defense attorney tell me that it is a rare day, if ever, that they represent a totally innocent client. The innocent person cliché is great for Netflix movies. In real life, the role of defense attorneys is less total innocence and more mitigation.

The concept of advocating for a fee, rather than a principle, is perhaps most prevalent for younger lawyers at the lower levels of a law firm. Their job is, essentially, to do as they are told. For the most part, they have little choice as to the justice involved. Once a lawyer has decision-making power, there is a graph where one axis represents the discomfort level in advocating an unsavory position, and the other axis represents the ability to pay.

These are difficult choices, and many lawyers wrestle with them. (Remember, Erin Brockovich also said, “I don’t need pity. I need a paycheck.”) Most find a comfort zone between professional responsibility and personal choice. But not all. No wonder the rate of alcoholism and suicide in the profession is so high — the eighth highest, according to one survey, after doctors, police officers and electricians, among others.

Finding that balance may take a career — or end a career prematurely.

Attorney Gregg Herman is a founding partner of Loeb & Herman, LLC in Milwaukee, WI. He practices family law exclusively, and can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 272-5632.