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A Letter to My Daughter

by Gene E.K. Pratter

Spring 1999, Vol. 62, No. 1

Dear Paige,

I was too hasty with my acerbic comments the other evening on the phone when you airily asked what I thought about your desire to become a lawyer. (However, like most college seniors, you do seem to ask for parental advice late at night by long distance and in that unmistakable tone of a proclamation in search of unreserved affirmation.)

Your query shouldn’t have surprised me--after all, you are the daughter of lawyers and from your perspective, our careers have provided well for our family. You’ve been both mock judge and jury as we spun potential arguments and theories during dinner. Over the years you fielded plenty of important-sounding phone messages from our clients and colleagues. I suppose my initial, dyspeptic reaction to the idea of someone your age pursuing a legal career reflected my momentary failure to acknowledge the simple truth that, once in a while, we all have a really bad day when we should not offer advice. Your question deserves an honest evaluation of the options you and other twenty- or thirty-somethings--as well as those of us in practice for twenty- or thirty-something years--can have as lawyers.

I don’t want to encourage you to overly romanticize this profession. However, there is something very inspiring about joining the ranks of the varied likes of Thomas More, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Welch, Felix Frankfurter and Belva Ann Lockwood (the first woman lawyer to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court), along with local luminaries such as Andrew Hamilton (and plenty of modern-day Philadelphia lawyers), not to mention the larger-than-life lawyers such as Atticus Finch, Perry Mason or even My Cousin Vinnie. Every lawyer, whether destined for fame or infamy--or neither--becomes part of a tradition that is grounded in the most basic element of social order. After all, the rule of law can be traced back to about 1860 B.C. with the Sumerian Code of Lipet-Ishtar (evidenced on a cuneiform tablet treasure housed for years in our own city at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology). It embraces the mysterious medieval origins of London’s Inns of Court, whose traditions also echo in Philadelphia with our own Inns of more recent vintage. Law and lawyers have brought about stunning social sea-changes from near and far, including the American constitutional system, Asian milestones such as peaceful civil disobedience led by Gandhi, memorable European epochs such as the Nuremberg prosecutions and even today’s conjoining of law and popular literature. There are certainly days or tasks in every practitioner’s professional life when it helps to remember we are each part of such a tradition. It helps even more to think about our opportunities to extend and enhance that tradition in some small, even comparatively insignificant, way.

I hope you will see beyond the recent popularity among some lawyers to decry the profession’s perceived sorry state marked by clients who care only about low hourly rates, senior lawyers who hoard all the interesting assignments and care only for toting up billable hours while young lawyers flail about mentor-less, or opponents who actively vie for the title of "Most Obnoxious Lawyer." There is some truth in all these laments. For good or ill, our profession is neither the same as it was even in 1975 when I graduated from law school, nor as it will be in 2025 when as-yet unborn lawyers will begin their careers. I would not presume to describe how it may be for you, except to say that there is much to recommend this career to the bright, energetic, optimistic and reputedly idealistic realists of your generation. Indeed, there is much for those of us now in practice to accomplish.

Could you snag a dizzingly higher entry-level and future income in a different field? Sure--join your classmates trekking up I-95 into New York’s ephemeral investment banking warren. Could you more quickly improve world health? Of course--brush up on your mastery of the scientific method. (I’ve often wondered how many among Philadelphia’s lawyer population hit the wall in a collegiate inorganic chemistry class and opted for poli sci, history or psych instead). Could you protect natural resources, rescue an abandoned child, renew a blighted neighborhood or communicate with millions of people more swiftly in a different career? Absolutely. Are there positions where women or people of color may more easily or quickly attain deserved status? Maybe. But the fact remains (though easy enough to forget amidst the piles of regulations to research or interrogatories to answer) that lawyers here and elsewhere are substantively immersed in these and a myriad of other far-ranging endeavors--for clients, for themselves or for free.

In Dad’s and my firm, as well as in an increasing number of other firms and companies, women now represent a credible, growing number of partners and leaders. Earnest efforts are being redoubled to seek out, retain and promote skilled lawyers of many different cultural, racial and personal backgrounds and outlooks. Doubtless there is more than can, should and will be done in those areas because it is the right thing to do and it is good for our clients and our businesses. The goals likely will be achieved more quickly by lawyers who do not cast themselves as victims or fail to apply to their own work environment the same skills and advice they apply to their clients’ matters. It will help to acknowledge with a modicum of equanimity that some degree of chaos and unfairness are part of life and to work for progress from there. I suspect the same is also true in any other profession.

You are probably not thinking much about it now, but some lawyers surely do feel trapped in a law career by the golden handcuffs of family or financial pressure, or by simple inertia. However, there are remarkably flexible contours to our profession. If you undertake a career in law, I hope you will realize that although it will never be worry-free or perfect, it is a field that provides much. There is opportunity for contemplative and creative thought--by teaching, by advocating for a client and by contributing to professional publications. There are outlets for the entrepreneur to create a new practice area, a new firm or a new technology. Everyday in every city lawyers help someone attain the dream of starting a new business or end the nightmare of harassment.

Lawyers volunteer their skills, and more negotiable largesse, to charitable causes. They help grammar schoolers with homework, coach high school moot court teams, aid artists in protecting their creations. Lawyers are generous with their time and their funds. They join with other civic-minded citizens, officials and enterprises to bring a national convention to town or propose legislation in state houses. They raise money, raise issues, raise children and raise society’s collective conscience. They run businesses, serve on school boards, banter with witty colleagues, grit their teeth during negotiations, ponder imponderables and enjoy the victory of a jury’s verdict. Lawyers may not actually build a widget or till Black Acre (trust me, you’ll get used to these handy terms), but they have daily opportunities for a sense of accomplishment.

If you decide to study and practice law, I do hope you’ll recognize from the start that it won’t be particularly easy or a barrel of unrelenting laughs. Some days, some cases, some clients and some colleagues may be more reminiscent of the trial scene from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or of a Daumier lithograph, or of the contract scene in the Marx Brothers’ "A Night at the Opera" than of the cross-examination scene in Inherit the Wind or the prose of Judge Woolsey’s opinion in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. You will need to remind yourself that being a conscientious professional may mean that more than a few family dinners will be--to use your phrase--a bit "sketchy," that the house may look as if some force of nature other than the "White Tornado" has been at work, and that if you let them, vacations can be punctuated by the ubiquitous beeps of faxes and cell phones. In spite of all that, I urge you to seize and hold on to a sense of self-confidence, of responsibility for your own well-being and that of others with and for whom you work, and of the obligation to preserve and promote your career choice with honor and integrity.

Having surely written more than you (or any of my colleagues who sneak a peek at this letter) ever wanted to read of my ruminations, I hasten to point out that we haven’t yet talked about the "T" word--tuition. Since I have some advance sheets to read, I’ll leave that for the topic of Dad’s letter.

Please remember to send your grandmother a birthday card. Study well and call again soon.

Love, Mom