Saatchi Gallery, London; taken on Ilford HP5 Plus 400 B/W film with a Nikon F3.
Surprise! Lawyers aren’t all money-hungry sharks and some of us care.
For the past week I’ve been volunteering 9-5 at the community law centre as part of my community placement.* It’s been… a really interesting experience, to say the least. Basically my role is to research and draft legal opinions/advice on specific questions or areas of law that our clients are having problems in. Over the past four days I’ve had to become familiar in all sorts of things, ranging from parenting orders to the effect of family trusts on healthcare subsidies, to Canadian pensions in New Zealand, to the Property Relationships Act. I think tomorrow I need to look into a restraint of trade…
In other words, I’m helping to dish out free legal advice. I’m supervised, but not very closely. And that’s the thing that really gets to me. It also bothered me over summer when I clerked at a major corporate law firm — people are trusting me to get my research right? My word on what the current position of the law is, isn’t really checked?! I do not feel anywhere near qualified enough to be doing this. Which is the other point that terrifies me — I’m in the last year of my degree! Am I ever going to “feel qualified enough” to be doing any of this?
These feelings weren’t so pronounced during my summer clerkship because I was dealing with things that involved a lot of money. Everything was at arm’s length. But now I’m helping people whose lives, families, and often livelihoods are directly at stake. These people qualify for free legal advice because of their financial (and geographical) circumstances. They need our help because they can’t afford to be paying (or paying much) for it. That thought terrifies me, so I’ve been throwing myself at these tasks whole-heartedly all week. But frankly, I’m exhausted. I don’t know how the full-time solicitors do it. Day-in, day-out, also with comparatively little pay.
I feel like half if not more of us go to law school, thinking, hoping, to one day do some “good”. We don’t really have any idea what practical, realistic form that this “good” would manifest itself in, but on some level, we intended it. And sure, we’re in it for the supposed employability of our law degrees, the intellectual challenges, the masochistic buzz you get at realising you’ve written yet another 10-20k words. But I often feel that no one really stops to think about what doing “good” with our law degrees is going to look like.
Those of us who haven’t or couldn’t land a grad position at a “big corporate”** joke about it as being a catch-22 type of blessing in disguise — if you got a job, great; if you didn’t, don’t worry, you get to do something “Good”! There’s a moralistic tinge to all this that I simply couldn’t shake for the longest time. But now that I’m doing something that is undoubtedly “good” in every sense of the word, and is actually directly affecting people in society, I’m not sure if I’m cut out for this at all.
When you’re on the phone to a mother who oozes concern and anxiety over wanting the best for her child, it really wakes you up, even on just five hours’ sleep. When you recognise that someone is basically wasting your time because their silly monetary ventures didn’t go their way, you kind of want to slap them across the face with their stupid debt. You wish you could say, okay, but someone else is in shit, through no fault of their own, they need my time more. When your hourly analysis of self-worth revolves around how viable your, uhh, “creative” interpretation of some statutory provision (you hadn’t heard of until said hour) is… it’s tough.
It’s been a long, rough week but I’ve been glad to do it. I’ve got another full day tomorrow, but I was thinking that I may consider returning to do a few hours here and there, after exams. Maybe. It’s at this point that I wonder — why do people love to hate on lawyers so much? No one seems to quite hate on musicians in the same way. We’re kind of just there for entertainment. No one is expected to be doing any form of “greater good” through the arts. If you can, that’s amazing. If you don’t… well aren’t artistic pursuits quite a selfish, often-introspective venture? But no one ever chastises us for that. So why, society, why do you all view lawyers as money-hungry sharks?
For the record, sure, I have some “plans” based around completing my degree and employment in my immediate future, but I don’t have a grand 5-year/10-year plan. I went into my music degree because I wanted to challenge the crap out of myself and learn a shitton of things, and I went into my law degree for the exact same reasons. I’ve come to realise that I’m definitely in neither worlds for the supposed prestige or perceived glamour, nor am I on a “greater good” crusade. And there is absolutely fucking nothing wrong with that.
*Full disclosure: I’m doing community placement in lieu of a 3,000-word paper, because I’m already writing three other ones this month.
**Second disclosure: okay, I did indeed land a grad position at a “big corporate” firm for next year.