A Lawyer’s Search for Right Livelihood

Everyone knows lawyers dominate leadership positions in everything from the PTA to state and federal political offices. We are pillars of our communities, and more generous with our time and resources than just about any other profession. We are among the most ambitious people you will ever meet, 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 and breadth 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 intelligence and enthusiasm are enough to restore even the most devout cynic’s faith in humanity.

Fast forward three short years, and many of those enthusiastic idealists will have more modest and practical ambitions. The relentless war of all against all for class rankings and the handful of “good jobs” at the “good firms” subtly grounds many people’s ambitions into the realities of practicing law and paying back five to six figures in student loans. For all but the most earnest, selfless, talented, and lucky 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 upon.

This misalignment between idealistic ambitions and the practicalities of practicing law have driven many lawyers to depression, drinking or worse. But for most lawyers it simply manifests as a vague sense of dissatisfaction with their careers, and a more or less active searching for ways to find work and clients that meet their need to make money while serving at least some of their highest ideals. In some cultures this quest for living in alignment with your ethical convictions is called the search for right livelihood, and for most it is a lifelong journey or practice.

The search for right livelihood may at times call us towards abrupt changes of direction in our lives or practices; other times, we may find that subtly integrating our idealism with the realities of our practice satisfies that desire. The world needs activist lawyers fighting for truth and justice, and taking on giants. But we also need workaday lawyers doing the less glamorous tasks that keep the world going around, 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 towards a life that is in alignment with our deepest convictions. So if you can’t save the world just yet, try building a better one a moment at a time by embodying your highest values in the present moment. That may mean making big changes or small, but at the very least, it might mean engaging in simple acts of kindness, patience, and empathy with clients, colleagues, and opposing counsel. Because if you can’t change the world, you can at least change how you choose to be in it.