YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Conscience and clients

By Kathryn E. Brown | Oct 25, 2007

The film "Michael Clayton" may be yet another cinematic example of art imitating life, or more appropriately, art imitating law.

The film "Michael Clayton" may be yet another cinematic example of art imitating life, or more appropriately, art imitating law.

To summarize, Clayton (played by George Clooney) is an attorney in one of the largest corporate defense firms in New York. Clayton's primary responsibility is to get clients out of disastrous situations, a job that the 45-year old attorney refers to as janitorial work.

However, Clayton's next matter strays from clients' political scandals and hit-and-run accidents, to that of his law partner who suffers a violent emotional breakdown while in the middle of a deposition. The firm's reputation and future are in Clayton's hands; there is the threat of losing a major client and $9 million in legal fees, the threat of killing the managing partner's merger with an international firm, and the threat of losing his own job, which he needs to fund a gambling addiction.

Numerous themes emerge from the plot, the most forceful being the pressure to perform miracles for clients who are rotten to the core. While a law firm and its equity partnership fear for their financial livelihoods, Clayton fights moral bankruptcy.

If this particular film were a book, the title might read, "Lunatic Lawyers (and the clients who made them)." As one movie critic wrote in a review, magnificently intelligent maniacs are able to convince anyone to drop or settle a case. This ability is what makes them famous and wealthy, but at the end of the day, what is the real cost of doing so?

The quest for personal transformation stems from the profession's dark side. Research posted on various Web sites reveal that one-third to two-thirds of lawyers claim to want to leave the practice of law, while at least one in five lawyers exhibit symptoms of clinical depression. Even more surprising may be that one in eleven lawyers contemplates suicide on a regular basis. While attorney Michael Clayton eventually discovers what is important in life, lawyers in the real world are implementing a new strategy: A spiritual approach to the practice of law.

Business consultant and author Pat McHenry Sullivan is the founder of the Spirit and Work Resource Center in Berkeley, Calif. In her book, "Work with Meaning, Work with Joy," Sullivan redefines the traditional terms of working and offers practical tools that help people discover their true vocations.

The legal profession is familiar to Sullivan because she has worked for more than 500 lawyers in the past thirty years as a paralegal and secretary.

While she assisted firms, lawyers felt comfortable enough with her to admit raw feelings about their lives and jobs. Those candid discussions may have given life to her current crusade of bringing faith and integrity into the workplace, creating balance, and achieving work-life excellence.

"During a bragging contest about who was the toughest and most loyal to the firm, a senior partner said he had missed the births of all four of his children. According to the female associate who reported this to me, the other associates applauded him while also looking shocked, as if the bar for their expected efforts had just been raised another notch. She soon quit that firm," Sullivan said.

Sullivan went on to explain that in bigger corporate defense firms as well as in insurance defense firms, there's an incredible demand to win, to look good, to cut costs, and to sacrifice personal interests and integrity for the "cause." She stated that this challenge could be even higher for solo or small group practitioners, who can easily plunge into serious debt by losing a case, or not earning enough after a win because of the time and money invested.

"Under the most competitive attorney mask lies a human heart that longs for justice and the satisfaction of serving well," Sullivan continued. "I would pass on the wisdom from the carpentry field, where the level and plumb have been used for 5000 years to structure integrity into buildings. I would say, use these ancient principles. Use the wisdom of your own faith, feed yourself whatever you need to cherish your true self, so you can stay on true within yourself and on the level with others. Then, when you face the daily ethical storm, you've got the tools and the wisdom you need to make the most of it."

Whether the drama unfolds on the big screen or in a litigation war room, the leading man or woman in a case handles the same types of issues ... matters of principle.

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word, LLC, a writing and editing agency based in Charleston.

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