Friday, January 16, 2009

Just What I Was Afraid Of

I've had an opportunity to think about myself as a lawyer recently. It's been a chastening experience, and while I would love to relate an "It's a Wonderful Life" ending, that's not the way life works.

When I moved here, several people said, in effect, "Oh, just hang out a shingle. You'll get clients." The idea of solo practice terrified me. "I wouldn't be able live with myself. What if I made a horrible mistake?" It wasn't the risk that worried me; legal malpractice cases aren't as common as medical malpractice cases. It was the actual chance of making a mistake. As an associate in a law firm, there were people with vast experience all around me. I'd have had to be comatose to get something wrong, and then I'd have been off the case anyway, so it wouldn't have been my mistake to make. But as a solo practitioner . . . it's not really a question of "if" I made a mistake, but a question of "when."

And that question would be right now. I've made a fatal mistake on a case, and I'm gutted about it. I've tried all the reframing you can think of -- I even had a dreadful moment the other day when I met up with a woman I don't know well, but really like. We were making small talk when I asked, "How's your daughter?" The woman, who's approximately my age, looked stunned for a split second, then her face fell. I hadn't seen her in a couple years at least; I didn't know that her daughter had been killed in a car crash last February (pregnant with her first child, too). It was a horrible reminder that real tragedy happens to wonderful people. So, yes, I've been reminded that there are worse things that can happen, and that I should keep my mistake in perspective.

Only today did it dawn on me that I'm not looking at this right. The alternative to what happened wouldn't have been that I was a perfect lawyer who never made a mistake, but that I wasn't a lawyer at all. Hard to say if the mistake wouldn't have been made had I not been on the case, but what I forget is that if I hadn't been a lawyer on that case, I wouldn't be a lawyer on any of my cases.

So, this where Jimmy Stewart has a visit from an angel showing him all the ways in which people are better off because he was alive. My movie angel would have some B-roll on how my clients would have suffered without my work for them. Uh, yeah, right. Not exactly how things really are. I'm not being unduly modest when I say that only a few people would be only slightly worse off were I not an attorney in the few court-appointed cases I handle. What I really think is that I would be worse off.

Sometimes you just have to do what you're afraid of. The precise thing I was afraid of is the precise thing that happened, and as bad as I feel (and I feel very very bad about this), I still have to admit that it's better for me to serve as an attorney than stay home and not even try.

I truly hope something good comes of all this, but at least I know this. I will be a better lawyer going forward. Small comfort to my clients, and (to be honest) small comfort to me just right now. But it's true, and I didn't need an angel to tell me. I'm better off having tried and fallen short than if I had stayed home and not tried at all.


  1. Hm. Good point. I, too, am terrified of solo practice, though the lawyer uncle on the strength of whose good work I applied to law school has always been on his own. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, while cliche, is nonetheless appropo.

  2. Oh, it's just such a fine line. I really really really wish I hadn't been ignorant of that %&£$?~@" rule. I wish I still worked at a big firm (in this context at least; in others, I'm glad I don't) where a zillion other people would have known that %&£$?~@" rule. But what I can't quite bring myself to wish are two things. First, I can't really wish I was the sort of person who would have read the entire rules of Civ. Pro. three times. That's just not me, and it never will be, and maybe that's a bad thing, but I rather suspect it's linked to my being a more intuitive lateral thinker type, and I'm not willing to give that up. Second, I can't wish I hadn't taken on the case. Maybe I made it worse, who knows. But if I hadn't volunteered my time, I wouldn't now being doing family law as a court-appointed lawyer, which I rather enjoy and which rather suits me.

    Ask your uncle if he ever killed a case (or made other similar inadvertent & regrettable error); I think a lot depends on how one deals with it. I finally wrote a letter of apology to the clients (all good people who live near me, so I'll be seeing them again). I read my letter aloud to a friend who thought I was too hard on myself. Maybe, but it was a genuine reflection of how I really feel. No reply yet, which is okay.

  3. Not a lawyer, just a person. We all make mistakes and some of us take them very personally and some of us brush them off. You are a good person to care and need to remember mistakes are human and don't beat yourself up.