Finding Passion to Find Balance
Recently, on a particularly spectacular day at work, two victories came my clients’ way. I couldn’t help reflecting on the emotions coursing through me — it was as if the events of the day belonged to me, to my life, when in fact they belonged to my clients.
Ultimately, what I realized is that when you are really passionate about your practice, when your niche is your calling, you truly feel as if you are in the client’s shoes.
The Day That Brought This into Perspective
That remarkable day began with delivery of a letter from the state bar closing a client’s investigation without further action. I could not wait for the morning to pass so I could call him three time zones away. He was ecstatic, and the relief in his voice only slightly eclipsed what I was feeling inside.
Next, I received a trial decision exonerating another client from all charges. This client deserved that exoneration, but we all know that deserving a certain result does not mean you will get it. I wanted to uncork the champagne when I read the decision.
As the day progressed, I felt a weight lifted off me. It was like my clients’ problems had been my own and now the exhilaration of these case closures was mine too.
Then, it hit me: The work I am doing is truly my passion.
When You Find Your Passion
I have been a lawyer for longer than I realize some days — 17 years. And I have been in private litigation practice most of that time. I spent eight years in BigLaw, where my cases were complex, fun and interesting, and I learned more than I ever did in law school. However, whether we won or lost a motion or a case was really quite academic. I cared very much about the quality of my work, impressing partners with my progress, and generally improving as a lawyer, but I never really felt the weight of my clients’ problems. This could be because my clients were institutions or individuals with annual salaries that exceeded the net worth of most small cities. Whatever the reason, my mood was impacted far more by whether the partners were upset than by the actual result. To the extent I cared about winning, it was my competitive nature — not my deep care for the client — that drove me.
Through a lengthy series of events, I ended up as a solo lawyer representing my colleagues facing ethics charges. Now that I am here, my clients’ issues become my own when I represent them. Their wins are my wins; their losses are also my losses.
Caring so much about a client’s case can make you an extremely effective advocate. But what about the stress that comes with relating too closely to clients’ problems? How can you modulate your emotions to remain detached enough to be effective? How do you balance your professional integrity while simultaneously allowing your passion to be reflected in your zealous advocacy?
The Stress of a Passionate Practice
The fact that my inner fire and my practice are in alignment means my work is meaningful every day. Still, it can be quite stressful, even though it is different from the stress I felt in BigLaw. I no longer have partners breathing down my neck, and my clients are not a fraction as demanding as those lawyers were. However, having my heart in my work means feeling as though I am facing suspension, I am facing disbarment, I am going to be forced to repay earned fees long since used to pay bills.
The stress of a passionate practice in some fields of law must be nearly unbearable. I think particularly of family law, where lawyers handle situations that really play to the heart. When you are passionate about your work, it is difficult to keep from becoming emotionally invested in a client’s case. In fact, being emotionally invested to a certain extent makes you a better advocate, because you actually care enough to run down every possible argument, track down any potential witness and ask the toughest questions. That emotional investment has to be tempered, though, to maintain your effectiveness as an advocate and your sanity as a person who have a life outside of law practice. You need to keep perspective.
There will be times you need to step back — particularly when you lose a case — and reflect upon your role as an advocate only. Realize that you do get to walk away from the loss. Take stock of your own life and the good things going on there as you learn the professional lessons of the case.
If you feel yourself getting too emotionally involved in a case, you may need to step away completely so that you can maintain your professional integrity. Lawyers who become too attached to a case or a client often exercise poor judgment, and those poor decisions lead them to become clients of mine. I have witnessed how loss of perspective leads to lawyers crossing emotional lines with clients, even destroying unfavorable evidence and lying to the court.
Despite these warnings, enjoy the wins and all the excitement that comes with them. Bask in the glory that your work brought to your client, and let your passion shine. After all, it is that very passion that sparks the energy that drives your work. Without passion, work would be drudgery. With it, your work is your calling, and you can truly make a difference in clients’ lives.
Megan Zavieh focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing limited scope representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action, and guidance to practicing attorneys on questions of legal ethics. At age 21, she earned her J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Megan is admitted to practice in California, New York and New Jersey, as well as in Federal District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. In "On Balance," Megan writes about the issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.