I don’t really know why I became a lawyer. At 17 I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. The careers adviser at school suggested I would be suited for law or teaching and since teaching didn’t appeal, I chose the law.
I have no regrets. Yet more than once I have sought to break away from the law, to re-invent myself as a manager or facilitator, anything in fact but a lawyer. I have always enjoyed the technical challenges of the law, but whenever I identified too much with being a lawyer, I would lose a part of myself. My journey has been to integrate all parts of me – the lawyer, the poet, the nature-lover – into my work and life.
I did my training in a firm in the City of London. This wasn’t a great experience. The law, I found, has a tendency to separate people from themselves and others. As law professor Simon Roberts put it, the law is “a discrete sub-system, rather cut off from the rest of society” (Order and Dispute (1979)). Within this system, a lawyer’s role is to take one side of a case and argue in favour of it, whether he believes in it or not. Is it then surprising that people don’t trust lawyers?
Lawyers’ language, too, tends to cause separation – it is like a secret code, designed only for communicating with other lawyers. A typical contract begins: “a day means a period of 24 hours” and ”the United Kingdom means Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Lawyers take this for granted but for many people it is off-putting and a real barrier to communication.
The fees don’t help. In a society where an experienced nurse earns around £600 per week for physically and emotionally demanding work, a lawyer typically charges that amount for a couple of hours of desk work.
Lawyers can get away with this because they are the gatekeepers to the law, and thus have power. Power is a heady brew and it is easy for a lawyer to convince themselves that what they do is intrinsically important, whilst in reality it is important only to the extent they are in service to a worthwhile cause.
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” Shakespeare, Henry VI
The clients don’t always help. There are clients who use the law to punish or gain revenge over a neighbour, a business partner, or even their spouse. Others are looking for someone to blame for an injury or loss. In the business world, powerful corporations throw their weight around, hiring expensive lawyers to threaten their competitors or bully their suppliers. The lawyer can be the weapon used by the powerful to impose their will.
No wonder, then, that many lawyers are unhappy in their work. They enter the profession with the idea of making a useful contribution to society, only to suffer disillusionment when they start practising. A recent Law Society survey showed that nearly 40% of UK lawyers are dissatisfied with their work.
Having concluded a law firm wasn’t for me, I left shortly after qualifying and got a job as an in-house lawyer in a large company. I found this much more rewarding. I was part of a team, working alongside accountants, engineers and marketing people to negotiate large international transactions. There was a real sense of collaborating to find practical solutions to real problems. I learned how satisfying it can be to practice law.
I did this for the next 10 years, working in different parts of the world, and loved it. However, in the late 1990s I started to become aware of the global environmental crisis – climate change, de-forestation, species loss – and the central role played by large corporations. Their pursuit of growth comes at a high price. It dawned on me that I was part of a system that was destroying things I valued and that I’d separated myself in two, leaving the poet and nature lover outside the office door. Eventually I left the company, swearing never to work as a lawyer again.
The next few years were a challenging time. I suffered loss of status, of income and of confidence. I had let go, not just of a steady income but, more fundamentally, my identity. If I wasn’t a lawyer, who or what was I? Ultimately, however, I have found my reward, which is a renewed sense of wholeness. I think of this as integrity. Integrity is not a bright shiny thing I can show off to my friends and family. It is not a big house or new car, a promotion or pay rise. But to me it is priceless.
I’ve discovered there is no shortage of rewarding and meaningful work for people like me. I’ve been involved, to name just a few projects, in developing an eco-car, building a solar farm and working with innovative entrepreneurs mobilising local solutions to global problems. My work these days is deeply satisfying.
I began with a quote about killing the lawyers. I now see this as a neat metaphor for the process I have been through. I had to “kill the lawyer”, to let go of my career and the lifestyle that came with it, in order to discover a more fully human version of myself. Was it worth it? You bet!
PATRICK ANDREWS spent many years working as an international corporate lawyer in the UK, France, Canada and Russia before taking an interest in organisational structures and how they shape people. His work is around revealing the links between organisational structures, individual behaviour and wider impact on society and the environment. He set up the Human Organising Project in January 2015 to explore what it means to be human in this age, and what that means for the way we organise the institutions that run our societies.