In this poignant and introspective piece, our guest writer and retired lawyer, Murray Gottheil, looks back on his career through a Q&A with his younger self. As he reflects on the lessons he has learned and the experiences that have shaped him, Murray offers valuable insights and wisdom for anyone looking to make their mark in the legal profession.
The thing about starting a new career is that we often do it when we are young and have little experience in life or in business. So, we look to those who came before us to show us the path to success. We assume that the older and wiser folks know what they are doing. That is our first mistake.
My grandparents were immigrants. Their definition of success for their children was to get a job working in the office of the factory, and not on the factory floor.
My parents had office jobs. Their definition of success for their children was to be professionals.
As a young lawyer, I looked to the partners to show me the path to success. They taught me what they knew. Put in lots of billable hours, build a client base. Squeeze in a bit of spare time for your family and your physical and mental health if you can.
But what if the older and wise partners did not actually know the secret to a good life? What if following their path just leads to the edge of a cliff? In that case, some of us lemmings are just going to go over the edge and fall into mental and physical health issues, broken relationships, and divorce.
I was a lemming. I followed the very traditional path of Articling Student, Associate, Partner, Managing Partner, Partner again, Senior Counsel on a contract basis, and Retirement.
I did the burn-out thing a few times and then woke up one day thinking, “I can no longer handle the stress the way that I could when I was younger, and what’s more, I don’t even want to do it anymore. It is time to get out.” So, I did. I retired, surrendered my license to practice law, moved to the country and bought a pick-up truck.
Then I started thinking. How did I manage to spend 40 years stumbling along the traditional path and convincing younger lawyers that the path to success was the one that I had been unhappily trudging?
I thought about the old expression: “Early to Bed. Early To Rise. Makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
I certainly was not going to bed early, because I was working every evening.
I was rising early because I had work to do.
I wasn’t healthy. And I certainly wasn’t wise.
Maybe I was wealthy, at least until my divorce. Then I wasn’t even that.
I also thought about what Lorne Green is reputed to have said: that there were four stages to his career, which were as follows:
My life at my firm took me through those same four stages.
First, nobody knew who I was.
Then, they wanted me, and my clients, and my billings.
Later, they wanted someone who had my skill set, but who was willing and able to put in the hours that I was no longer prepared to work.
And now, I am sure that back at my old firm where I practiced law for 34 years, if you mentioned my name two years after I retired, most of the associates and staff would ask “Who is Murray Gottheil?”
All of this by way of introduction to the idea that those of us who have been through all of the stages of our professional career have a perspective on what it is all about that younger folks do not have.
So now that I am retired and at the end of my professional road, I sometimes think about what I would say to my younger self if I could go back in time.
The first thing that I know is that I would not try to tell Young Murray anything at all, because he probably would not listen. People are like that.
But I could ask him some questions and hope that he might think about them and make better decisions than Old Murray made at the time.
So, if I could go back in time, here is what Old Murray (“OM”) would be asking Young Murray (“YM”), and what he might answer:
OM: So Young Murray, why do you want to go to law school, anyway?
YM: I’m really not all that sure, but my parents say that I have to go to University. Physics 301 is getting kind of hard, I don’t like the sight of blood, and accounting sounds boring. Business does not excite me. I don’t see the point of selling things for a living. That sort of leaves law school.
OM: So, you don’t know that law is a business and that you are going to be a salesperson. How amusing.
OM: Have you spoken to any lawyers about what they actually do or are you actually dumb enough to think that it is just like on television and in the movies?
YM: I am no dummy. Have you seen my GPA? I know that in real life sometimes the lawyers lose a case, and I heard that there are a few lawyers who do not even go to court. I assume that they are the losers of the profession.
OM: OMG. I was an idiot.
OM: So you have no real idea of why you are going to law school and no notion of what it is like to practice law?
YM: Well, I do think that the world needs improving, and I am thinking that with a law degree I may be able to help the poor and oppressed.
OM: That is very commendable, but you do realize that it does not pay very well, don’t you?
OM: Do you understand that self-confidence is crucial in the legal profession? Have you thought about getting some counselling?
YM: Seriously, counselling? It’s not like I am serial killer.
OM: You don’t get it, Young Murray. The profession will chew you up and spit you out if you are not your best psychological self. You might want to think about that a bit.
OM: Are you going to take some time while you are in law school to work out what you want to do when you graduate, or will you be stupid enough to just take the first job that is offered to you and let that define what type of lawyer you are going to be?
YM: I have debts to pay. I will take the highest paying job I can find for a few years, accumulate a whole pile of cash, and then go off and do what I want to do. Are you done wasting my time – I have to get back to studying and get my average up.
OM: You were truly an idiot.
OM: Are you really going to take an articling job doing business law when you set out wanting to help the poor and oppressed?
YM: Well, I have a lot of debt and they offered me this job and it is easier to take it than to look for what I really want.
OM: Well, easy has its advantages, I suppose. If you are stupid and lazy.
OM: Are you so flattered to be offered a job by a big downtown firm that you won’t even stop to think about whether you want the lifestyle that comes with that?
YM: I checked out the lifestyle. They have free drinks on Friday nights, and they pay for dinner whenever you work late, they will pay my licensing fees and bar admission expenses and they want me! I know that I said that money isn’t everything, but it sure is something, isn’t it old man?
OM: So, I see that you are going over to the dark side with nary a thought about where you are going to end up.
OM: What ever happened to helping the poor and the oppressed?
YM: You know the old saying. If you are not a socialist at age 20 you have no heart, but if you are still a socialist at age 30, you have no brain. I am closer to thirty than twenty now. Besides, Big Law told me that they do pro bono work and once a year they send the juniors out to feed the hungry and have their picture taken doing it. So I will be giving back!
OM: He still doesn’t get it.
OM: If you are offered to be hired back, are you going to take the job because of the money and the alleged prestige without even thinking about whether you like the firm, the people, the culture, and the lifestyle that comes with it?
YM: It’s a big firm. They are all the same, aren’t they?
OM: NO, YOUNG MURRAY, THEY ARE NOT. CULTURE IS EVERYTHING!
OM: If you are offered to be hired back, will you have the guts to decline the offer if it is not the right place for you?
YM: Sure Old Man. I will just tell them that I don’t want the $150,000 salary and perks. I am guessing that now that weed is legal you have started smoking it.
OM: I haven’t but talking to you makes me want to start.
OM: If you are not hired back, are you going to allow the jerks who cannot see your value to define you, or are you going to realize that you probably dodged a bullet and go out and do something fantastic with your career?
YM: If they don’t hire me back, I will have failed and I’ll just slink off and look for that psychologist you keep talking about.
OM: Spoiler Alert – You didn’t get hired back. They said you didn’t have enough confidence. Go see that shrink.
OM: So, how do you like working a thousand hours a week? If you don’t like it much, why are you doing it?
YM: That’s just the way it is. You have to get the work done and that means evenings and weekends.
OM: So, I see that you have drunk the Kool-Aid.
OM: Do you understand that in private practice if you do not have a client base you have no job security?
YM: I am too busy billing to do much client promotion, but it doesn’t matter because I am working hard and billing a lot of money. They love me here!
OM: You just don’t get it, do you?
OM: Do you comprehend the concept of “What have you done for me lately?” and that most firms will not hesitate to fire you in an economic downturn if the work dries up unless you have your own client base?
YM: That isn’t going to happen.
OM: Actually, it just might.
OM: How do you figure you are going to develop that client base if you are billing 1,000 hours a week?
YM: I’ll think about that when I have some free time.
OM: So you believe them when they say that there will be “lulls.” How adorable.
OM: Do you actually believe that your marriage is going to survive the hours that you are working?
YM: We are both working hard and supporting each other in our careers. We work hard and play hard. We love it. We’ll be just fine.
OM: Actually, you won’t be.
OM: Have you bought into the nonsense that you are not a success unless you become a partner in a law firm and make a tonne of money?
YM: Why is that nonsense? Helloooo, it’s kind of the point, unless you’re just some loser with no ambition.
OM: You were such a smart kid back in school. What happened? Who hurt you?
OM: How long do you think your health is going to hold out if you keep working all those evenings and weekends?
YM: I’m young. I can do this for a few years.
OM: Actually, putting your health last is a habit that becomes hard to break.
When observing the attitudes of some of the younger folks in my personal life, I frequently find myself thinking, “they just don’t get it.” Unfortunately, I also find myself saying that aloud to them from time to time, which I have been told by my wife is not very helpful.
When I look back at the early days of my professional career, I realize that back then I just didn’t get it either.
Our profession, like the rest of our society, is driven by those in power who promote and sell us a vision of what our career should look like. The vision that the established legal community promotes is driven by profit, not concerns about our well-being or our mental health.
Read Part Two of The View From the End of the Road to see if it gets any better when you achieve the holy grail of partnership. Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t.
Murray Gottheil practiced law for 39 years, primarily in a medium sized law firm in Mississauga, Ontario. He was the practice head for the corporate department for much of that time and the managing partner of the firm for 5 years. Now he lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, complains about the legal profession, and wonders whether he would have less to complain about if legal tech had been more of a thing when he was working.
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