It rested on the credenza of his corner office looking battered and well-used, not unlike the lawyer behind the desk. “My daddy carried that to court for 20 years, and gave it to me when he finally retired. I carried it for 30 more, and had it repaired three times.” He pointed to nearly imperceptible resewing of two seams and a replaced handle. “To me, that briefcase represents the practice of law, the tradition and professionalism that called me to the bar. Today, these lawyers carry messenger bags and backpacks that they toss out every few years—just like they toss out our traditions and professionalism.”
He sighed, “I’m glad to be going.”
I had carried that briefcase for him to court many times. He would stuff it full of notes and reports and all the case files that would fit. Of course, I had my newer, shinier briefcase to carry, too, not to mention any extra folios or materials. I wondered how many hands had held that bag; how many junior partners or associates had wrestled it through what kinds of weather; and how many clients had been well-served by its contents.
To him, the briefcase represented those days when law was an “honored profession.” But was it really any better in the good old days?
I think there have always been bad decisions, unethical attorneys, rotten judges and evil clients. You don’t have to look at ancient history to be ashamed or find deceit and abuse of our legal system. But in our own earlier days of practice, we saw wrongs to be righted, damsels to be saved and windmills, no, giants, to be tilted. The fire of justice had burned brightly in him, just as it had in me.
Over time, we became sullied by the practice of law from wading through too many murky issues, too many grey areas of precedent and, frankly, too many cases taken for our own need and not the client’s. Our fires and idealism burned low.
After his party with the toasts and speeches, I stopped by my office to get my coat, and there on my credenza sat his briefcase. Like us, no longer new, but serviceable in its own way. Though sullied by years in the practice, it still sits in my office and holds a spark that keeps my fire alive.
Find that spark in your practice, and keep it alive. It will serve you well and long.
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.