I personally fell into the area of civil litigation by sheer chance since, like many graduating law students, I was completely unsure about what area of law best suited me. Those who know me now would be surprised to hear that I was fairly shy in law school and when I first became a young lawyer.
How can a shy person be a civil litigator? Indeed, it can happen. I credit the practice of civil litigation with helping me become more outgoing, confident, “finding my voice,” and helping me to channel my focus and energies from inward to outward so that I could be a more effective communicator and advocate.
I thought it would be interesting to survey a number of my peers in the field of civil litigation, to find out what they like and don’t like about it. I wanted to know whether, if they had it to do all over again, they would be a lawyer – and more specifically, practice civil litigation.
My biggest concern was that civil litigators would regret their choices and say that they would rather be a unicorn than a lawyer if they had to do it all over again.
Nothing could be further from the truth -- and this, frankly, made me feel very relieved.
Are Lawyers Miserable?
A quick Google search of whether lawyers like what they are doing comes up with:
The last, an article from CNN.com in 2014, says that lawyers rank fourth in a proportion of suicides by profession.1 Lawyers, according to the article, “come right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.” This article also states that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers. Some of the reasons are attributed to being consumed with work, and not striking a necessary proportion of work/life balance.
Opting for Litigation and Being a Lawyer Again
Given the above press about how miserable lawyers are, I was happy to see that of the responses to my informal (and anonymous) survey, all but one responded that they would absolutely be a lawyer again if they had the choice. Only one of my peers indicated that they would have opted for medicine instead of law (which, according to the article above, has its own concerns).
Moreover, all of the civil litigators I surveyed indicated they would stay in civil litigation if they had to choose their practice area again.
These responses were surprising, needless to say -- and also gratifying. Of those surveyed, the most senior lawyer had been practicing for 41 years, and the most junior had been practicing for six years. Whether green or gray, the Wisconsin attorneys I consulted were satisfied with their choices.
Litigation is Never Boring
So, what do civil litigators in Wisconsin most like about their practice area? The responses include:
- variety of work
- thrill of battle
- puzzle solving
- opportunity to learn different fields
- accomplishing things for clients
- meeting interesting and smart people
- cross-examination at trial
- decent salary
A common theme that appeared repeatedly in the responses was that civil litigation is never boring. Every case is different and presents its own unique set of facts and legal issues. The challenges of litigation are real and appreciated.
Lawyer Jokes, and More
What do civil litigators in Wisconsin like least about their practice area?
- pressure of deadlines
- unprepared judges and unprepared counsel
- lawyer jokes
- low billable rates
- billable hours
- unreasonable billing review and routine reduction practices by clients
- discovery abuses
- Rambo tactics and personal attacks by opposing counsel (i.e., difficult opposing counsel)
- defending positions they disagree with
- unreasonable clients
- scheduling difficulties
- difficulty finding/getting trials, especially for younger lawyers
None of these pros or cons were particularly surprising, but it was interesting to see the commonality of responses. Yet, despite the negatives outlined above, all but one of my peers would do it again if given the chance.
The Most Important Antidote: Achieving Work/Life Balance
A review of the numerous articles discussing depression, anxiety, and suicidality among lawyers makes clear that striking a work/life balance is probably the most important antidote to this very real problem.
That is, of course, often easier said than done. Moreover, balance is even harder now with the advent of smart phones. I will often get emails as late as midnight on some files – and I must confess that I have sent emails “after hours” on my cases as well.
The question is whether we are compelled to respond to those emails within minutes (or seconds), or whether we have the self-discipline to not respond (provided it is not an emergency) until regular business hours.
Today, none of us can escape our work in the way that -- perhaps -- civil litigators could do 25 years ago. Frequently, I give my clients my cellphone number, and they will text or call me whenever they feel they need to do so.
Our challenge as a profession, and an important one, is to set limits and boundaries so that we can have the important work/life balance that is essential to our mental health. Again, this is often easier said than done.
Let’s work as a profession toward that goal, so that “miserable lawyers” becomes a thing of the past.
Patricia Epstein Putney is the immediate past chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin Litigation Section.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Litigation Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Litigation Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
‘Miserable’ Isn’t Permanent: Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program
If you’re feeling stressed about all the stress, need someone to talk to, or want to rant about an annoying lawyer joke you just heard, you have a place to call.
The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) is a listening ear at those times when you need someone to turn to. If you face health, mental health, substance abuse, or addiction issues, have questions about retirement, or need someone to talk to, call WisLAP Hotline at (800) 543-2625.
WisLAP provides free, confidential, 24/7 assistance for lawyers, judges, law students, and their families to cope with problems related to the stress of practicing law. WisLAP treats each request for help with the same confidentiality as a lawyer-client relationship.
WisLAP is exempt from reporting professional misconduct to the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) under Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 20:8.3(c)(2) and to the Judicial Commission under Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule 60.04(3). WisLAP does not require callers to disclose their identity and does not keep any case records.
WisLAP Contact Information:
1 Rosa Flores and Rose Marie Arce, Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?, CNN.com, Jan. 20, 2014.