Public Interest, Small Law Firms

The Practice: Finding Meaning

Friday night, I attended the first ever Innocence Project of Florida dinner. I was invited by a close, personal Twitter follower board member, and upon acceptance, asked by someone in one of my Google+ circles the Incoming Chair of the Innocence of Project of Florida to turn over a fairly large amount of cash to be a co-sponsor. Apparently, while Holland & Knight was receiving an award for their thousands of hours helping to free the wrongfully convicted, money for the dinner wasn’t pouring in from the establishment. Maybe next year.

As lawyer-type dinners go, it was a little different — poor lawyers representing alleged violent criminals mixed with Biglaw lawyers who spent the last decade doing the same, as well as three dozen judges, the elected state attorney, the appointed United States Attorney, and a slew of law students. Also in the crowd were a half-dozen exonerees. The exonerees included James Bain, who served more time than any other exoneree — 35 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He went to jail when I was four years old, and got out as I was planning a trip for my 40th birthday.

The night had its share of speeches and awards. One of the awards went to lawyer Marty McClain, whose client, Juan Melendez, was there among the suits wearing a t-shirt. Juan spent 17 years, eight months, and one day on death row before being exonerated. Marty’s other client, Frank Lee Smith, couldn’t make it because he died of cancer on death row before being exonerated. At his table was Marty’s high school buddy, actor Tony Shalhoub, who looked like a stalking fan taking pictures on his phone when his lawyer-friend was honored for being poor and a hero. While people were asking Shalhoub for pictures and autographs, he was busy being enamored with Marty….

The night then took a turn. Each exoneree was given the microphone to say a few words — how long they were in, what they’re doing now, and then a video was shown. We saw pictures of their young children visiting them in prison, and then those same grown children, hugging them upon their release decades later. I lost count of the standing ovations.

Juan Melendez was given the microphone, pointed at his honored lawyer in front of 250 people, and said, “I owe this man my life.”

Yeah, it was pretty powerful.

I predict you haven’t had this experience. Few have. To be the lawyer that discovers a client is innocent after decades in prison is as meaningful as it gets. But I know, the money isn’t so good. This type of work, even on the side, doesn’t pay for the Mercedes, or even the new iPad.

In the daily grind of practicing law, the results, good or bad, become just part of the job. Finding meaning in what we do is the exception. Sometimes, even in a practice where people’s lives are affected, the question is asked: “What am I doing?” I imagine in other areas of law, it’s asked with more frequency.

The meaning of what we do as lawyers is mostly buried under the desire and need to make money, the next motion that needs to be filed, the next document that needs to be prepared or read, and the next client.

At this point, some of you are wondering what this post is about. Where are the tips on how to make money? How do you get clients from this? Wasn’t this “supposed to be a column about small law firms?” Is he telling us again that criminal defense is the only practice area that matters?

Here, I’ll give it to you on a platter:

The quickest way out of the practice, mentally or physically, is to believe that none of what you are doing has any meaning. If you’re one of those insurance defense lawyers tired of spending your days trying to deny coverage to injured or sick people, or one of those civil litigators tired of trying to help one wealthy guy try to screw over another wealthy guy — then find something to do, even if it’s just one case, that leads you back to the reason you became a lawyer. (Caveat: If the reason was “to make lots of money,” well, you probably stopped reading after the first paragraph.) It doesn’t have to be a criminal case. Help an old lady keep her home, help an immigrant prepare a document, do something where someone’s life will change for the better because of something you did.

So many among us are miserable and wondering why — and what — we are doing. When you’re done, the stories you will tell — that will be told about you — will be about the work you did that mattered, not the amount of hours you billed, or the cool gadgets you used.

There are people out there that need our minds, our thoughts, and our time. They have big and small problems that we can fix, and little to no money. They do have two things though. They have an ability to make you realize, to bring you back to, the core meaning of being a lawyer, and they may just tell a few (hundred) people one night that they owe you their life.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

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