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February 24, 2004

Law As Daily Passion, Not Default Profession

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 4:59 pm

Are you in law school or practicing law by default?  Did you rush or stumble toward the legal profession becase it promised wealth, or status, or pleased your parents?


dice  New Jersey Appellate Judge Jose L. Fuentes has a message for law students: If law isn’t your passion, get out of law school.  More expansively, Judge Fuentes pleads (emphasis added):

To all these unfortunate souls: to the perpetual child, to the risk manager, to the ambitious social climber, to the mindless would-be robo-lawyer, I have but one [piece of] advice: GET OUT! Get out now while you can still leave with your soul intact. Do not allow life to catch you from behind, one day when you least expected and are least capable of resisting.

stop sign gray


Get out now and rediscover yourself. Ask the hard questions that you avoided asking when your parents told everyone that their child was going to be a lawyer. Ask, who am I? Not what am I going to do? [At] no other time in your life are you ever going to be as free as you are right now to make these hard choices and then act upon them.

ethicalEsq adds:  If you haven’t a clue what Judge Fuentes is talking about, or if you think he’s some idealist fool, you need to read his entire op-ed/speech in New Jersey Law Journal, “Prospective Lawyers: Get Out Now If You Have No Passion” (02-16-2004; free reg. req’d). (Sincere thanks to Carolyn Elefant for finding and sharing this gem)

If you’re already a lawyer and entered the profession for any of the above reasons, you should read Judge Fuentes’ words, too — because you’re probably already feeling the soul-death he describes, and heading toward zombieEsq status.

Fuentes sees a growing trend toward legal education as a default choice.  But that condition was surely already prominent in the early 70s.  Law school was certainly my choice by default: “Need another degree; don’t like math or science; want to leave my options open, guess I’ll go to law school.”  And, Elena Kagan, who got her law degree a decade after me, confessed –when she became the Dean of Harvard Law last year — that the profession had been a default choice for her, too. 

The Judge is right: it takes a continuing passion to “truly be called a lawyer.”  He says that “passion is the single most important attribute of a lawyer.”   Just last week, Abraham Lincoln was quoted in this space saying that “diligence” is the most important attribute of a lawyer.  Fuentes isn’t contradicting Lincoln.  It’s the passion that assures the diligence that Lincoln requires, even when a particular task is dreary or offers little or no financial reward.  

podiumS  . .


I don’t think that starting from an initial default condition is necessarily a bar to achieving a fulfilling, passionate career in the law.  While Fuentes says don’t choose law if you don’t bring passion, Lincoln said don’t choose law if you can’t be diligent and honest.  I think they are both pointing to special qualities that are needed by all “true lawyers,” and which Fuentes capsulizes:  

  • Being a lawyer is a great deal more than simply mastering certain analytical skills. It is not what you do. It is who you are. A lawyer does not simply perform a task for the client; she represents the client. …
  • This relationship is not created with the exchange of money or by the signing of a contract. It is a relationship based on trust, created by trust and ultimately dependent on trust.
  • A lawyer’s passion must find an outlet in scholarship as well as advocacy. The law is an attempt to achieve justice and fairness in human interactions. In order to accomplish this, the law must be guided by the noblest aspects of the human spirit — the search for truth, the appreciation of beauty, the ability to love, the capacity for compassion, the need for freedom. 

Can every lawyer find or rekindle the passion for his or her profession?  Probably not.  The profession — despite its great diversity of pursuits — might just be a poor fit.  For many, however, what it takes is the willingness to get out of a rut (and accept a lower income, at least for awhile).   For example, the digital revolution has brought a new lease on life for scores of lucky lawyers, allowing them to merge a passion for law with inventiveness, computer savvy or business creativity.  


power plug  I think that one key way to help find the needed passion is to accept and embrace the relationship of trust that is at the core of the attorney-client relationship — to see and feel how special it really is to be a lawyer.  Another way to rekindle passion is to take Prof. Schiltz’s advice to his students and apply it to every day of practicing law:

[M]ake the commitment not just in their heads, but in their hearts, that although they are willing to work hard and they would like to make a comfortable living, they are not going to let money dominate their lives to the exclusion of all else. And they must not simply structure their lives around this negative; they should embrace a positive. They must believe in something, care about something, so that when the culture of greed presses in on them from all sides, there will be something inside of them pushing back. They must make the decision now that they will be the ones who define success for themselves — not their classmates, not law firms, not clients of law firms, not the National Law Journal. They will be happier, healthier and more ethical attorneys as a result.

As Judge Fuentes says, take the time to know yourself and then go out there and make your law practice reflect your values.  If those values don’t jibe with being a passionate, diligent, and honest lawyer, find another line of work — you, your clients and your family will be happier in the end.

  • If you’re a law student wondering what can be done with a law degree that best fits your personality or values, or a lawyer wondering about a change in career (within or without the legal profession), you can find some very useful information and exercises at the Decision Books website, and also on the Resources Page of Hindi Greenberg’s Lawyers in Transition website. 


  1. I feel Jose L. Fuentes has got the right message for law students. The lines he has mentioned are not meant for the law students of a specific region. Rather it’s a line for worldwide students who have decided to become a law practitioner.

    Comment by Daniel — August 28, 2007 @ 2:37 am

  2. Hey hang on! This post has got some unique lines. “Do not allow life to catch you from behind, one day when you least expected and are least capable of resisting”. check out this one… Amazing! These are the thought of a noble mind. Surely…

    Comment by Santana — August 28, 2007 @ 2:42 am

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