When lawyers speak, they argue.

The practice of law changes a person. Not to become more rational or cynical. These adjectives do not capture the stress and the rewards of a profession which changes so many. They do not even properly articulate the change. What’s the change and why does it matter?

In my profession it takes at least 20 years to separate the wheat from the chaff. A bhishma from a Arjuna. Trouble is, everyone ages over this time and even an Arjuna looks weathered by the end. Investing effort, perfecting a skill which they may not even get to demonstrate in court. Till that time or opportunity, there is real a prospect of penury. This is not pure penury of the pocket as much as the heart which compares how fast peers progress. But do not worry. It is a profession which is built on projection and insecurity. The 20 year rule holds good for most. This is what litigators mean when they say that law has a long gestation period.

The cushion of a firm, or riding on a seniors coattails eases the slow pain. It gives comfort by building a sense of stability. An office provides for the basics as well as for colleagues with whom comparisons are tender. They argue the same cases, face similar hardships with seniors. They are more in the form of collaborators than competition. But it does not last. That same insecurity which prompts comparisons of age, standing and competence prompts higher ambitions. A preference to independence renders the cushion useless. After all, who sits down and argues in court. This is what litigators mean when they say they are feeling professional stagnation.

Dispensing with the comfort of direction, control and remuneration many venture to set up their own offices. Entrepreneurs may empathise with the sentiment. Taking risks which are not commensurate to a reward by any statistical model. Scrounging and building a practice is not so much as a game of competence in court, as much as it is an art of persuading clients. In a saturated market, which prohibits any marketing a successful lawyer reads people better than reading law. Some have it better, many have it worse. Without a benefactor promises are made and advice is given to benefit a young practice than the client. Some resist, but the temptation is always there. Many drop out during this process, many go back to the stability of working for others. But, many more incur greater losses and continue. Clearly this is not rational it is emotional. More optimistic than cynical. This is what litigators mean when they say they are have gone independent.

But that’s only the first decade and few years more. Many meet their hunger and build a practice. Court pendency guarantees cases initiated years ago continue. As client relationships deepen shallow desires for recognition start. That’s been the point of all this professional punishment in any case. Social recognition by express titles and positions. The politics of a courthouse need to be negotiated for a seniors robe. After all, many started on this path for this very reason. Now it seems achievable, with a subtext, “if you play your cards right”. Its a gamble in any case. By its very nature a select club works to the exclusion of peers. Status cannot be built without discrimination. While the seniors smile, their peers grumble. This what litigators mean when they professionally disparage other lawyers.

It does not end if you reach these positions of power. Power does not always come with corruption but it does come with a certain sense of hubris. There is a necessity to it. Over the years litigating in courts, beyond the law and the facts, a lawyer needs to be persuasive. This quality requires immense confidence. It also requires an ability to read a case and present it in a manner which is moulded towards a favourable outcome. Inevitably this builds a habit of blocking and ignoring deficiencies. Not as much in the brief but more in self. This hubris is necessary for many. This what litigators mean when they say that a senior is effective in court.

If you can survive this, are fond of your peers, and enjoy the practice of law but still get comments such as, “you do not talk like a lawyer”, or worse, “you do not look like one” do not be alarmed. There can be no higher compliment. It is a reward for retaining a base sense, or aspiration for personal decency. Or, more simply a recognition that you prefer conversation over argument.

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