MICHAEL GROSS REMEMBERS low as a lawyer: Sitting in his firm's conference room overlooking Dupont Circle, drinking a Coke and, as always, going through law books, doing research. "I was thinking, 'This is driving me crazy. It's not bad work, I know how to do it, but emotionally it's very unsatisfying.'
Even today, while describing that scene nine years ago, Gross wraps his hand around an imaginary bottle and says, "I remember looking at the Coke bottle in my hand and thinking I'd like to throw it through those glass windows . . ."
Schooled in the consequences, Gross, 39, did not sprinkle the sidewalk below with shards of glass. He went back to his books. But if he and others like him were less worried about committing torts, Coke bottles would be flying through windows all over Washington. EVEN THE STAID seems to understand that something is amiss in the profession. In response to what it calls the "increasing discussion among lawyers, particularly young lawyers . . . concerning growing dissatisfactions . . . with their work," the ABA this year has conducted a national survey to measure just how miserable lawyers are about being lawyers.
In the survey results, 15 percent of all lawyers admitted to being "dissatisfied" with their jobs; the lower the lawyers were in the legal pecking order, the unhappier they were. Fifty-two percent of the junior associates at small firms (two or three lawyers) said they were dissatisfied as did 32 percent of the juniors at very large (more than 90 lawyers) firms. Forty percent of those at big firms were distressed by the "political intrigue and backbiting" they found.
Getting the answers, though, might not have required a complicated survey. (The ABA questionnaire has 85 items on it ranging from "How good do you think you are at the kind of work you are doing?" to querying whether the respondent has experienced "loss of sexual interest or pleasure?") Someone might simply have asked Jacquelyn Finn, a legal recruiter in Washington who sees dissatisfied lawyers every day.
"Being a lawyer means you're somebody who reads documents carefully," Finn says. "There is a lot of drudgery." All of which means Washington, with one lawyer for every 65 people -- about six times the national ratio -- leads the country in billable hours of boredom.
In a speech last year, Derek Bok, president of Harvard and former dean of its law school, said law has become "the refuge of able, ambitious college seniors who can't think of anything else they want to do . . . The law may seem enlightened and humane, but its constant stream of rules will leave a wake strewn with the disappointed hopes of those who find the legal system too complicated to understand, too quixotic to command respect and too expensive to be of much practical use . . . "
Despite such warnings, many ambitious students try to convince themselves they'll come out untouched by the system. One Harvard Law graduate who lives in Washington recalls a speech by the dean on his first day of classes. "He said, 'A lot of you think you won't be lawyers. Ninety-nine percent of you will.'
Of the 99 percent who did, many are now saying that the legal system, designed by lawyers to grind up those who get caught in it, is grinding them up as well.
The nobler impulses that may have attracted people to law -- defending justice, vanquishing evildoers or delivering orations to packed courtrooms -- rarely, if ever, have anything to do with life as a lawyer. Much of private practice is tedious paper-shuffling, or trying to wear down an opponent. Worst of all, sometimes none of it seems to matter.
"After a while you begin to ask a lot of questions about what you're doing," says a young partner at one of Washington's larger firms. "In some of these cases you think: Does it really make a difference to society who wins or loses -- or even to your client?"
That society itself chooses to make the payoff for such unproductivity so lucrative, can make anyone who isn't a lawyer pretty unhappy too. Often the real pity of unhappy lawyers is that they, more so than many, are perfectly capable of shifting career gears.
Nevertheless, the dilemma is very human. Their own training teaches lawyers to think narrowly about the issue at hand. A closer look at some individuals suggests how lawyers got where they are, and why it's not good enough.
At the time Michael Gross almost chucked the Coke bottle, he was an associate working on antitrust cases at a medium-size firm here. Today the boyish-looking, curly-haired Gross is the Gross of Grove, Engelberg & Gross, where his specialty is real estate transactions and incorporating small businesses. Gross says he is satisfied now: "I like to set up the deal."
Unlike many of his frustrated colleagues who want to do something else but don't have the nerve to quit, Gross stared down a likely partnership offer and became an artist for a while.
"I didn't want to go through life feeling I'm a frustrated artist suffering as a lawyer," he says. So he started with Saturday painting lessons, under Washington artist William Christenberry. Gross felt liberated. He liked having "emotions moving down my arm and coming out on paper."
During the week he continued writing wearying memos. He recalls a typical example: a 40-pager on whether the Federal Trade Commission could subpoena a particular group of documents from one of the firm's corporate clients. "It's a fight about what you have to give away, and you try to give away the least. I could work for weeks on that one narrow issue."
The legal term for this is discovery. It is the pretrial proc in which each side obtains documents and other information from the other in order to make its case. The theory is that by the time a case comes to trial there should be no surprises. In actuality the surprise is if a case does come to trial, because discovery proceedings can take years.
Gross subsequently was assigned to a case involving a disgruntled Datsun dealer in Alexandria who claimed he hadn't gotten his fair share of 240-Z sportscars. Gross' firm represented the manufacturer, and in the course of the case he got to do something lawyers rarely do anymore: he went to court.
During the trial Gross became friendly with the then-president of Nissan Motor's U.S. division, Yutaka Katayama. "He seemed like a very wise older man," Gross says. "He painted watercolors and took his paints all over the world. Here was a successful businessman who had the touch and feel for something as sensitive as watercolors. You can't labor over watercolors. It's spontaneous. It's not like researching one question for six months."
And Katayama had some observations about the American legal system. "He said to me, he had a tear in his eye, 'This litigation is so destructive, such a waste of people's energies. It's not doing anything productive.' I feel that way about litigation. I do very little of it now."
Gross quit his firm and became an art student at the Corcoran. "I had such a sense of freedom," he says. "It was not principles of law, the notion of an arrangement of words in perfect order. Whatever I wanted to create inside of me had intrinsic value."
Although he had planned to return to law at the end of the summer, he couldn't. "I got an art studio on Connecticut Avenue. I learned how to stretch canvas and started making big paintings. I was pretending I was a real artist. I had a show at the Corcoran School . . . But after six months I began to think that I wasn't sure I was capable for the rest of my life of being that isolated and introspective. I wasn't sure about paying the price economically to live like this forever."
He began doing some part-time work for a firm that eventually became Grove, Engelberg & Gross. It wasn't long before Gross was toting a briefcase instead of paint brushes.
He still paints, and he selects the art work that decorates his firm, a collection including a few of his own brightly colored abstracts, one of which incorporates dollar signs. Gross calls the work "money dream." IRVING YOUNGER, 51, recently left a partnership at Williams & Connolly to write two books, teach at the University of Minnesota Law School and practice part-time.
"When word got out that I was leaving full-time practice," he says," an awful lot of people who called or wrote said, 'I envy you.' They meant, 'I wish I had the guts or wherewithal to do it.'
He says of his envious contemporaries: "You're talking about people who made it. Let's say you've been doing corporate work. You reach a point where the money loses its sex appeal. The fact that you're making $400,000 to $500,000 a year doesn't mean anything. You begin to get intimations of mortality. You look at the bound volumes of registrations you've filed with the SEC, and for a corporate lawyer practicing 20 to 30 years there could be 40 or 50 bound volumes, and you think, that's what I've
Continued on page 10 Lawyers, from page 7 done with my life."
And what's wrong with 50 bound volumes of SEC registrations -- which contain the information a company must supply before it can issue stocks and bonds -- summing up your life? "It's paper- shuffling, that's all," says Younger. "The question is, Was it worth doing? What is eating away at people and what very few are willing to say is that in the long run it was not worth it. The only way to keep cheerful about it is to put out of your mind any notion of social utility and regard it as a game."
That it not the way it starts, Younger says: "A very large fraction of the number of people who go to law school are motivated by a sense of idealism . . . they want to help. Well, people need lots of help. But pretty low on the list is what lawyers can do for you."
Younger is not the first to discover that. In 1911 the late Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that private practice was nothing more than "putting one's time to put money in other people's pockets . . . the intellectual process involved does not sufficiently appeal to me to make me forget the ultimate end." ter's open midwestern face -- he resembles comedian David Letterman -- and his three- piece suit gives no hint of what he has chosen as his escape from law. Winter, 33, writes horror fiction. The main character in his most recent story is a lawyer. He sees lawyers as ideal for treatment in horror fiction because they are so "concerned with ordering the world. There is so much chaos in the world that most of what lawyers do is create the illusion of order."
Even after seven years at Covington & Burling, Washington's biggest law firm, Winter leaves the impression that he'd prefer to think of the whole experience as fiction: "I'm still not sure I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a writer." But he doesn't want to live like one.
Winter, who makes more than $60,000 a year, talks about a friend, a short story writer who pumps gas. "I'm fortunate," the lawyer says. "I can pump very high octane gas."
As a student at Harvard Law School from 1972 to 1975, Winter caught the tail end of the era of law students who looked upon their degrees as passports to social activism.
"I thought in the naive way one had in the late '60s and early '70s, that I would advance myself personally and morally. I didn't have in the back of my mind, as is so painfully obvious, that one advances oneself economically."
Nevertheless, once out in the real world, Winter says his classmates found "it was a very short step from shelters for the homeless to tax shelters."
Most of his practice has been in litigation, and he has not liked that part of the law much or those who practice it. "One of the unfortunate elements of the practice of law is that you must deal with other lawyers," he says. "Particularly in a litigation context, lawyers are not the sort of people you would want to have babysit your children.
"In a recent antitrust action I was involved in, the partners collectively filed with the court pleadings approximately three feet high concerning the question of what types of documents should initially be produced by one side to the other in discovery . . .
"Quite often in litigation you feel you are going through an existential exercise. You become a cog in a wheel and you have to do the job or the wheel gets stuck. There is a certain inevitability to all large case litigation. I've literally felt like I've been in the trenches several years. It's easy to compare big case litigation to World War I trench warfare. It's a war of attrition."
Seven years is the standard length of apprenticeship before being chosen -- if one is going to be chosen -- partner. Winter will not be chosen. He does not know what he will do next. IF THEY EVER make a sequel to the movie "The Big Chill," Richard Cotton could probably play himself. He is craggily handsome, just turned 40 ("That is causing some psychic unhappiness") and is partner in the Washington office of New York's Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood. Cotton avoided the drudgery of working his way up the associate ladder and began in private practice as a partner 11 years after graduating from Yale Law School in 1969.
Prior to that he was a left- wing good cause junkie: Supreme Court clerk for liberal Justice William J. Brennan Jr.; a Legal Services lawyer; counsel to the Natural Resources Defense Council; a top aide in Jerry Brown's 1976 presidential campaign; work at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under Joseph Califano; and special counsel at the Department of Energy.
When Reagan was elected, Cotton followed the script and joined his former boss, Califano, to work for paying clients. He declines to say what he makes at Dewey, Ballantine. "I find it embarrassing how much I make. I think partners in large firms make an absurd amount of money.
" . . . Why am I doing this? is for me a very serious question," Cotton says. "There are people in Washington who've answered the question of why be a lawyer in private practice by saying it's the best thing to do between interesting jobs. I can understand that."
Cotton says he is able to get the kind of restricted pleasure law school trains people to get: "The basic practice of private law has its reward in feeling you've done a good job in narrowly defined limits . . . You are crafting a brief, a strategy, solving a problem, doing an assignment well, coming up with clever theories, the best argument, seeing a way through a counter-argument."
But it's not enough. "I'm more interested in what I felt as a public interest lawyer and a public official: advancing a larger issue, sorting out in society's terms what's in its best interest, what's most important."
Jerold S. Auerbach, professor of history at Wellesley College and author of a book on lawyers and society, says many lawyers are unhappy precisely because of what law school does to them.
"It's tunnel vision. The training excludes the broader learning that came out in college. They are taught to read a massive amount of factual material and order it in certain categories . . . They realize how much they are giving up, how narrow their perspective has become."
But Auerbach's sympathy has its limits. "They give up a lot on one hand because they aspire to the goodies that are offered."
To reap the goodies that now embarrass him, Cotton has had to do some moral fine-tuning: he is the former activist who helped get Alexander Haig confirmed as Ronald Reagan's secretary of state.
Did he have qualms about acting as counsel to a man whose policies he once opposed? Cotton smiles, looks away, takes a sip from a cup of tea, looks away again. "This tests my discretion a little bit," he says. He pauses again, then says, "I didn't have any problem representing him as a lawyer. He and I unquestionably disagreed over policy in Vietnam, but that was not the issue in the confirmation hearings."
Cotton says he has been fortunate in his practice -- there has been only one case (he won't say which) that made him feel uncomfortable. But at 40, he says, "I find myself thinking of the question of what over the long term gives me the most satisfaction. I have a question whether private practice will." LAW HAS BECOME big business and many lawyers complain that they may as well have gotten an MBA as a JD. Learning that the practice of law is primarily a business is something that Birch Bayh, 56, has found to be an adjustment. Bayh lost his senate seat in 1980 and is practicing law -- he says he likes it -- for the first time in his life.
"The two most difficult things for me, and they're closely related to the regimentation and economics of a law firm, is the sale of one's personal services and registration of those services in time," he says. "You have to force yourself to keep track -- after working my whole life, I could work 20 hours a day. On the farm you work all night. In the Senate we never had enough time. In law practice you have to keep track of every part of an hour. Then to send a bill out for it is totally foreign." GARY SLAIMAN, an associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, is an affable young man who demonstrates his lawyerly organization by coming to an interview with a list of reasons lawyers are dissatisfied.
He is one of the "able ambitious" college graduates Derek Bok talked about. Slaiman says he went to law school because,"I had done well as an undergraduate, so I thought my grades were something of value. The next logical step was law school, not necessarily because I wanted to be a lawyer."
A lot of people join law firms out of laziness and lack of creativity," Slaiman says. "The interviewers are there. You send a letter and you've got a job. If you want a public interest job, or one on the Hill, you've got to look for it."
Slaiman, 27, is a Washington native. His father is an official with the AFL-CIO, his mother a costume designer at Arena Stage. After graduation he joined the Washington office of a New York firm. "Unfortunately, the work there was not what I would have chosen," he says. "It was litigation, regulatory work, memo-writing, legal research. I need human contact."
Slaiman also did some work on a huge antitrust case. "Every interoffice memo in a certain period has to be reviewed . . . there were cartons and cartons of purchase records of whatever the company bought . . . I don't know anybody who will tell you they enjoyed going though a box of documents. You just do it."
Just before boxes with two million documents in the cases were scheduled to arrive, Slaiman turned to Washington headhunter Susan Miller, who placed him with his current firm where he represents the Home Recording Rights Coalition, which lobbies Congress on legislation concerning video cassette recorders and tapes. "I love this work," he says. "I get out and speak to people . . . I go to coalition meetings to develop strategy . . . In nine months I have spent three hours in the library." IN THE WAITING room of the offices of headhunters Jacquelyn Finn and Susan Schneider, on top of the waiting room table, is a copy of The Yuppie Handbook. Finn and Schneider could write an additional chapter to the book on unhappy yuppie lawyers.
"We deal with the cr,eme de la cr,eme," says Finn. "The top five percent in credentials: Harvard, Yale and Stanford law school graduates. People on the fast track." But that is so often not enough."Anyone viewing them would say they have the ultimate success before them . . . They've started the practice of law and all of a sudden they find the practice of law boring. They are working on a big case, spending a lot of time in the library, and they think, 'My God, what have I done?' They've reached a goal and then they find they're not even sure they want it."
They come to Finn and Schneider hoping a different firm will make it all better. "This is the '80s," says Finn. "People don't feel committed to a firm the way they did before, and firms aren't offering commitment."
Headhunter Susan Miller works in a small office surrounded by files containing the r,esum,es of lawyers who hope she can find a solution for them. One group she gets a lot of r,esum,es from are those caught up in a behemoth case involving millions of documents and years of litigation.
These young lawyers on the bottom are somewhat akin to the artisans who created medieval tapestries. They are bent over putting tiny little stitches in a large canvas. Some of them could drop dead before it's finished. Miller has gotten several letters from associates working on such cases. "They describe themselves very professionally. And then the last line says, 'Please get me out of here.'
Gary Slaiman's success came through a headhunter. Now he makes $54,500 a year, he's happy, and he just bought a house in Alexandria. Still, he is hedging his bets. "I put off buying a house for a long time because I didn't want to be locked in," he says. "If I move to a $20,000- a-year job, I can always sell the house."
Although he has a practice he enjoys, Slaiman warns his peers they are unlikely to be so lucky. "I tell my friends who are considering law school not to go unless they have a real good reason. I don't know what a real good reason is."