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Aligning Idealistic Ambition and Practical Reality

A Lawyer’s Search for Right Livelihood

By Zachary Horn

Everyone knows that lawyers dominate leadership positions in everything from the PTA to political offices. We are pillars of our communities and more generous with our time and resources than just about any other profession. We are ambitious, which means we possess an intense desire to be of service, either to ourselves or others.

While the most self-serving among us give the profession a bad name and justify nearly every bad lawyer joke, most of us became lawyers because we genuinely want to help people. You need only speak to a class of first-year law students to get a sense of the depth of their desire to have a positive impact on the world. They want to protect the environment, help the downtrodden and defend the Constitution. They want to promote the common good and serve those who need their help.

Their enthusiasm is enough to restore even the most devout cynic’s faith in humanity.

From Idealist 1L to Pragmatic 3L

Fast-forward three short years and many of those idealists will have more modest and practical ambitions. The relentless battle for class rankings and the handful of “good jobs” at the “good firms” grounds higher ambitions into the realities of practicing law and paying back five- to six-figure student loans.

For all but the most earnest, selfless, talented and lucky law graduates, saving the world will have to wait — or at least be confined to community service and pro bono work.

In reality, many lawyers work long hours doing tedious work that does not necessarily serve their youthful ambitions. Unfortunately, there isn’t much money or many jobs in the business of saving the world. There is, however, an unending demand for stewards of the status quo, who provide the bread-and-butter legal services most law firms are built on.

This misalignment between idealistic ambitions and the practicalities of law practice has driven many lawyers to depression, drinking or worse. But for most, it simply manifests as a vague sense of dissatisfaction — or a more or less active searching for ways to find work that meets their need to make money while serving at least some of their highest ideals.

The Search for Right Livelihood

In some cultures, this quest for living in alignment with your ethical convictions is called the “search for right livelihood.” For most, it is a lifelong journey.

At times, the search may call for an abrupt change of direction in our lives or practices. Or, we may find that subtly integrating our idealism with the realities of our practice satisfies the quest. Sure, the world needs activists fighting for truth and justice and taking on giants. But it also needs workaday lawyers and legal professionals doing the less glamorous tasks that keep the world turning while embodying the highest ethical standards.

Not everyone is called to drop everything to try and save the world, but we are all beckoned to move toward a life that is in alignment with our deepest convictions.

Being in the Moment

At some point, the search for right livelihood may lead you to make big changes. But even if you can’t save the world just yet, you can try building a better one — a moment at a time. Strive to embody your highest values in the present moment. At the very least, this might mean engaging in simple acts of kindness, patience and empathy with clients, colleagues and even opposing counsel.

Because if you can’t change the world, you can at least change how you choose to be in it.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Zachary Horn

Zachary Horn is an attorney with the Frankfort office of McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland. He is Vice Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and a frequent speaker and advocate for attorney wellness and mindfulness in the law. Zachary blogs on issues relating to attorney wellness and mindfulness at MindlessLawyer.com.

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