Above the Law

The idea of passion is a seemingly far-fetched one for most people working as an attorney. At some point, 99% of us have regretted the decision to attend law school. Just ask the anonymous 28 year old who told Business Insider that law school was “a waste of my life and an extraordinary waste of money.” Even the articles on Above the Law will occasionally have you feeling disgruntled about life in the practice.

However, passion is a matter of perspective and it’s very possible to find your passion in, out, or above the law. Part one of this series will focus on the rare breed of attorney who has gone the obvious route and found passion IN the law. Surprisingly or not, the law speaks to them and they’ve found a cause that incites their individual passions. This month, I’ve interviewed two such attorneys who are willing to share a piece of their journey, to help inspire you to search for passion in your current law practice. (And yes, they’re not in Biglaw.)

Jae Lee (New York, NY)

1. What is your current area of practice or expertise?

Criminal defense and immigration law.

2. Is this what you always wanted to do? If not, how did you get to what you’re doing now?

I’ve always been interested in criminal law, and interning at the Brooklyn DA’s Office during law school really affirmed that interest. Criminal law had an appeal to me like no other area of law because of what’s at stake. The pressure to “get it right” is tremendous on both sides. For the prosecution, there is the need to serve justice on behalf of the community and for the defendant, his liberty is at stake.

When I entered the DA’s office, I had a rather binary view of prosecutors and defense attorneys. Prosecutors were on the side of justice and defense attorneys were paid to pervert and impede the process on behalf of their “guilty” clients. However, my experiences there gave me a more nuanced view of the system, and I realized that prosecutors and police officers often operated in the same gray moral areas that are commonly believed to be the exclusive territory of the defense bar.

After this realization, it wasn’t a difficult transition to criminal defense. While working at a boutique firm catering to immigrant communities, I had the opportunity to handle immigration matters that went hand in hand with criminal issues. This is where I was able to gain the experience and motivation necessary to found my own law practice – Lee Law Firm – which specializes in those two areas.

3. Be honest. Do you love your work?

I do love my work. I work on extremely interesting and socially significant cases, and the challenges of those cases are commensurate with the rewards. Both criminal law and immigration law are so complex and nuanced that I’m always on my toes intellectually and on a personal level. The stakes are so high for my clients that it’s always a challenge to earn and keep their confidence. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that being my own boss is amazing because I have the freedom to choose my clients, set my own schedule, and follow my own instincts on ethical issues.

Of course, there are also aspects of my job that are extremely stressful. Knowing that the quality of my work can influence the trajectory of someone’s life is a tremendous responsibility and I must skillfully deal with clients who are extremely anxious about the progress and outcome of their case. But it’s all made worthwhile when a client thanks me at the end of the case for a job well done and I know that I represented her to the best of my ability.

4. What part of your work makes you feel passionate?

The part of my job that I’m most passionate about is knowing that no matter how small the case, each and every case is extremely important to the client. Most of the time, whether it’s a criminal or immigration case, the client comes to me at their darkest and most stressful hour. To be able to lighten the client’s burden and know that they’ll sleep easier because of my guidance is extremely gratifying.

5. Could you describe a personal moment or experience that clarified or confirmed that this was the right path for you?

The first time that I knew criminal defense was right for me was when I won my first trial. Until that moment, the presumption of innocence and the integrity of the system were still abstract concepts to me. But when my belief in my client’s innocence was actually vindicated by an official verdict and my client was able to walk out of the courtroom as a free man, I knew that I had chosen the right field.

The first time that I knew immigration law was right for me was when I represented a victim of severe domestic violence seeking asylum. During the entire pendency of the case, the client was in an immigration detention center awaiting deportation. Her story was so heart wrenching that I became very emotionally invested in her case. However, the case was extremely challenging because domestic violence as a basis for asylum was still relatively novel. I read statements detailing the darkest moments of her life, made international calls to talk to witnesses, hired sociology experts, and wrote a memorandum of law requested by the judge because she had never seen a case quite like it. Overall, the emotional connection I made with the client and her heartfelt gratitude for my work cemented my interest in immigration law.

Anonymous Lawyer (Massachusetts)

1. What is your current area of practice or expertise?

I’m an appellate attorney for the children and family law division of the state public defender’s office. I represent parents and children in their appeals after the conclusion of a termination of parental rights trial. Before that, I worked for over two years doing this same work at the trial level.

2. Is this what you always wanted to do? If not, how did you get to what you’re doing now?

Sort of. I knew in law school that I wanted to be a public defender, and I also knew that I wanted to work with kids in some capacity, because my previous career was as a teacher. I thought that would translate into being a juvenile public defender, but I ended up applying for a job with the children and family law division which (in our state) represents mostly parents (and occasionally children) when the child welfare agency initiates care and protection proceedings against parents alleging abuse or neglect.

I started as a trial attorney because I really wanted to work with clients and help them do all the hard work necessary to get their children back. But I knew from doing an appellate clinic in law school and clerking at a state supreme court that I eventually wanted to move to appeals. Working as a trial attorney is such vital work, but eventually it became overwhelming to me and I thought it was not the best use of my talents. Luckily, I get to continue in this line of work, but in a position that is more suited to my talents.

3. Be honest. Do you love your work?

I don’t know if love is the right word. I care about the work a lot. I think it’s important. But it’s a really frustrating job with extremely small victories. You have to know that going in and manage your expectations. So, like any relationship, it’s hard work that requires commitment more than just loving something. Perhaps I’m committed to a point way beyond love and that’s probably more important than loving the work. So for me, passion is about the voluntary commitment rather than love.

4. What part of your work makes you feel passionate?

I feel very passionate about the fundamental rights of parents to raise their children free from state intervention absent serious abuse or neglect. All kinds of cultural and especially socioeconomic considerations are constantly implicated in my work. I know that people who work in child welfare have to strike a very delicate balance between supporting the integrity of families and protecting children. The harsh reality of this world is that not everyone gets to have the same opportunities as everyone else, and the desire of state agencies and judges to give children “a better life” somehow is an illusion that should not become more important than the rights of parents to raise their children. This usually shocks people, but we always say that legally you don’t even need to be a “good parent.” You need to be a good enough parent.

The reality is that not all children grow up in a white suburban household and graduate high school and go to college and do important things with their lives. Some children end up drug dealers and go to jail and have children before they are ready. Handing a child over in an adoption when he or she already has a parent who can do the job of parenting is not the way to change this cycle (and I admit readily that my part in this is not about changing anything, I don’t work for an impact organization). It’s not a fairytale and the mindset that it’s somehow supposed to be one for kids is the hardest thing that parents have to face when trying to get their children back.

5. Could you describe a personal moment or experience that clarified or confirmed that this was the right path for you?

My favorite part of the job has always been encouragement of my clients. My clients all have their issues and things to work on and ways they could do better by their children. This sounds totally hokey, but I like to think that everyone is on the brink of change. Maybe it didn’t happen for the two years someone spent in jail instead of being a father, but for today, a father can at least articulate that he will change for his kid.

Every moment when I look at my client and say, today you can change, and he says yes I want to change, saying I believe you can change is the one thing that constantly confirms to me that, while this job is emotionally difficult and often heartbreaking, it is the best path for me to follow. And it doesn’t even matter to me whether the person actually changes or not. It’s just the knowledge that every day people stand on the precipice between the mistakes they made in the past and something unknown in the present. We have to give them that chance to choose for the better.

Ed note: Defense work is not the only kind of law practice that can fulfill your passion. It just so happened that I interviewed two attorneys in similar lines of work. However, I learned something myself as a result of preparing this article, in that I see a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” question about finding passion in the law. Is passion a prerequisite to signing up for work that is both legally and emotionally challenging, or is making a difference in people’s lives what leads one to find passion after the fact? Food for thought.

Sunny Choi is the 2013 Writers in Residence Coordinator for Ms. JD. She is a former participant in the Writers in Residence program, where her monthly column Legally Thrifty focused on beginners personal finance advice for law students and professionals. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, she currently practices commercial litigation and creditors’ rights while freelance writing and blogging in her spare time. She can be reached at contentdirector@ms-jd.org.