I met up with a solo-practitioner last week to discuss how she started her own firm (let’s call her Lucy), but was able to keep it public-interest minded. Basically, if I can’t find a job working for a non-profit, I gotta find a way to make this whole attorney-thing work for me; a possibility is to start my own practice, but be able to keep it focused on low-income clients, while still making a living for myself (sounds almost like an extended oxymoron, huh?).
It was an extremely productive lunch meeting (I tried some sort of Thai coconut soup for the first time…something I would have never ordered myself, but actually enjoyed), but it also brought me back to a concept I brought up when I first started this blog: at what point do we stop pursuing our goals to pursue something more realistic?
Lucy worked for a big non profit law firm in Los Angeles about a year after law school, and I could see the shimmer in her eye when she talked about those days: everyone she worked with was empowered to change the world, and believed they could do it. There was a contagious excitement about the work they were doing, about helping people, about making it happen. Lucky worked with this non profit for about twenty years, until congressional regulations started restricting the kind of work they could do: no more personal injuries, no more class actions (these take away large sums of money from attorneys that actually want to get paid), no more funding if you’re helping illegal immigrants, etc. Lucy grew so frustrated because she felt she was no longer doing what she went to law school do to, so she decided to go out on her own.
Years later, sitting in a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant in Brea, she talks about how she just had to make the decision, and now she has to be a business person rather than a public-interest attorney: she’s gotta make money to pay for her elderly mothers 24-hour caregiver. I can tell from the shift in her tone, and the lack of shimmer in here eye, that she’s not overly excited about this: she has to network with attorneys (ick! ;] ), put her name out there to find new clients, and charge clients for her service. I know charging seems normal to most of you, but for a public interest attorney who is used to working in a firm that provides free services, it feels almost immoral to charge people. But it’s what she has to do now. She also wonders: how much impact was I really having, helping one person at a time? I certainly was no closer to saving the world when I first started, then twenty years later. I could tell this was something she had pondered before…her look became a little more distant, and I could see she was thinking of all the cases she had worked on in those twenty years and asking herself: did they really change anything?
I’m only two weeks into my unemployment (today is actually my two week anniversary!), but I’m already thinking about my alternatives if I can’t find a job soon with a non profit or public interest firm. I might have to go out on my own. I’m gonna have to charge my clients. I’m gonna have to find a way to compromise what my heart desires, and what our family needs. How can I do this without loosing my shimmer? It may sound pathetic, but I’m scared of losing my idealistic aspirations, I’m scared of realizing I can’t save the world.