Before I was a therapist, I was a lawyer. I always wanted to be a lawyer, from the time that I was a little girl and read To Kill a Mockingbird in fifth grade, I wanted to work on behalf of people who needed help. In the beginning, and really until college, I thought I would be a public defender.
When I told my Grandmother this sometime during junior high, I remember she looked at me for a long time with a strange neutral expression on her face and then said, “well, I hope you’re prepared for a life of disappointment.” I could not imagine, then, what she meant.
In college, I worked as a paralegal for a large New York firm and was seduced by the benefits and perks of the litigation life style at a big firm. Perhaps I needn’t be disappointed after all – I could be well compensated and represent bigger clients. Everyone needs a lawyer, I told myself. Please note that I told myself this while working on tobacco litigation, so the denial was strong with me in those days. I think the idea of having unlimited free Starbucks and frequent flights back and forth to various cities in business class was pretty appealing to my broke college student self.
I moved back towards public interest work in law school and found myself interested in policy and international work. I wanted to be an arbitrator and even worked one summer in a Paris law firm specializing in representing parties in international arbitration. After graduation from law school, I took a job serving as counsel to an arbitrator managing several large scale class action settlements.
In short, when large class action law suit settles or reaches a verdict and a dollar award, the amount of the judgment must then be divided up among all of the people who are (or who qualify to be) members of the class or group that won the judgment. Often, there are thousands of qualified people to be members. Generally, these people must apply after the judgment to be considered a member of the class and receive a part of the settlement. Think about asbestos. We frequently see advertisements on late night television for people with mesothelioma or other asbestos related diseases to contact various law firms in order to receive money. This is an offer by a law firm to complete an application to be considered part of a class that won a judgment against asbestos manufacturers and created a pool of money for qualified claimants to access even if they weren’t aware at the time the law suit that they might qualify to receive payment. An arbitrator is often hired to oversee the disbursal of funds in accordance with the settlement agreement. In other words, the arbitrator is responsible for receiving the applications to participate and deciding if a person meets the standards to be a party to the judgment (usually proving that they were harmed in ways similar to the people named in the original law suit). As counsel to the arbitrator, I reviewed thousands of applications for inclusion in the classes we were overseeing and helped prepare recommendations for the arbitrator, who ultimately decided whether a claimant qualified to be a member of the class.
And here was where my grandmother’s prophetic words came to truly mean something to me. There is a painful disappointment to doing this kind of work. The idea of being able to offer people compensation for some truly horrific factual circumstances sounds wonderful on its face. I imagined myself as a kind of Robin Hood proxy – disbursing funds from a wrong-doing corporation or government body to needy and deserving claimants. An updated Erin Brokovitch, helping people who needed money and deserved compensation for the wrongs done to them to access money that was already won on their behalf.
That was not my reality.
The reality is that the letter of the law often prevents deserving claimants from participating and often benefits claimants who are less factually harmed. In order to qualify, people must submit evidence of their injury, evidence of how the injury happened, and fill out multiple forms as required by the terms of the settlement – as decided by the parties to the original suit or the judge in the original case. In many of these cases, the wrong done prevented claimants from accessing education and assistance – the very things which might make them able to correctly complete and file a petition to be a member of a class. No matter how simple these forms seemed to the lawyers who drafted them, they are overwhelming and scary to a person who has no education beyond the fourth grade and who is functionally illiterate. Not to mention many of these potential claimants have led lives that have instilled distrust of authorities and government agencies – the very ones offering membership in the class to begin with.
Everyone who I knew in these jobs was well-meaning and desperate to help people. They were good, kind, honest, and self-sacrificing – there is not a huge amount of money earned by the lawyers and arbitrators managing the settlements. But the job itself was painful and disappointing in a lot of ways. It was also numbing to the sad facts of the reality that these people who were desperately in need were experiencing every day.
I didn’t believe I was actually helping. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of misery intractably present in our society – under the surface in so many ways to my privileged middle-class upbringing up to this point. When my fiancé accepted a job in London, I moved with him and for a time continued working remotely, but when I was able to tie up all of the classes I was working on, I was ready for a change.
Large law firms and unlimited resources beckoned and I became a corporate lawyer. Again, I told myself that everyone needs a lawyer and corporate lawyers (specifically securities lawyers working internationally) helped companies and governments borrow the money they need to grow and serve their employees and citizens. The United States government could not fund all the things it does (not to mention the things it should be doing and does not do) without access to debt. It issues borrows money from people willing to lend it in small amounts for an interest rate determined by the market and in the aggregate those small amounts become enough to fund large scale projects and business growth and development.
That’s the story at least.
It’s true up to a point. I enjoyed the work and found I was good at the attention to detail and organization required. I was focused and driven (even while having two babies, but that’s a story for another time) and I think my clients were pleased with me.
But it was exhausting and I realized that my drive to understand and to help people wasn’t really satisfied by the macro-scale help provided to firms accessing the capital markets.
I quit when we moved back to America from London so that I could stay home with my kids and pursue a degree in counseling.
But again that’s a story for another day.
My career path hasn’t been entirely straight, there have been some hard stops and left turns (let’s not even get into the brief six month flirtation with becoming a pastry chef and attending the Cordon Bleu in the year before my wedding allowed me access to a work visa in London and begin to seek jobs in law there). I am familiar with reinvention and have been feeling some urges toward another reinvention. Merging my two interests law and therapy. I think companies and law firms could be run in much better ways than they are. Could offer much more receptive environments to skill development and passionate pursuit of excellence.
What are people’s thoughts about reinvention and change?