|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2009|
By Ronald Talney
First there is law school and then there is the practice of law. Two very different worlds. I went to night law school at the old Northwestern College of Law, which became Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College the year I graduated, 1966. Working full-time and supporting a family, I was anxious to get out of school and into the real world of lawyering.
When I first hung out my shingle, which is how it was mostly done in those days, especially for graduates of Northwestern, it was on a hope and a prayer. My mother, bless her soul, was my first client. I did her will. She overpaid me, $125. I survived on court appointments and overflow from my fellow attorneys. Eventually I developed enough clientele to pay the bills and take something home to the family. It was an exhilarating time.
When you first start facing clients across your desk it is all new and exciting. You suddenly realize, however, that you know nothing about practicing law, despite those years in law school. In my case, I at least knew where the courthouse in Multnomah County was, as I had worked there during my law school years. Beyond that, I knew very little. Thankfully, with a lot of time on my hands and benevolent fellow lawyers willing to mentor me, I worked my way through those early criminal trials, those first divorce cases, the first juvenile court hearings and the like.
After about five years, I actually began to feel like I knew what I was doing. And over the next 10 to 15 years, I became, to some extent, an expert in certain areas of the law and could answer most, if not all, the common questions from clients without having to run to the library. It was very rewarding to have people consult me and to feel them hanging on my every word. Some of them even followed my advice.
Eventually, however, a certain boredom began to quietly settle in. I was hearing the same questions time and again. I was giving basically the same answers time and again. The clients were different but the problems and issues remained the same. In short, I was running in place. I knew more and more about less and less. At the same time I felt a certain entrapment, as this was how I earned my living. I didn’t know how to do anything else that would allow me to do that. And I enjoyed the sense of status that went with being a lawyer. I became a bored expert.
At about the same time I, fortuitously, connected with the local volunteer lawyers project and began volunteering my time to free legal clinics set up to aid the indigent. Suddenly, I was again doing legal work I had never dealt with before. The world was new again. I then became involved with a project to assist refugees fleeing persecution in their homelands, such as Haiti, resettling in Oregon and seeking political asylum. These efforts morphed into doing work with similar projects in the Rio Grande Valley and South Florida. Little by little I was doing more and more pro bono work. I soon realized, however, this could not continue. I could not afford to work for nothing, no matter how rewarding the work. And it was very rewarding. It gave me a sense that I was meeting the needs of those who needed my legal services the most.
My solution, finally, with my children raised and out of the house, was to accept a position with a legal aid program in Salem, where I coordinated the volunteer lawyer project and the Senior Law project. The pay was minimal but the rewards were great. I continued there until retirement, after which I remained for another 10 years doing pro bono work, there and elsewhere.
What I discovered is that one must take risks at every point along the way in a career, be it law or some other discipline, in order to maintain the passion that is essential to a true sense of fulfillment in one’s professional life. I have met too many colleagues who have expressed utter boredom with their work, despite considerable success and material reward. Some simply burned out and left the profession entirely, disillusioned with it. A common joke among former attorneys is to say one is a “recovering lawyer.”
I have never had to feel that way. I have always found a niche for my professional talents that allowed me to maintain my passion for the law and the practice of law. My particular journey may not be one that others would find satisfying. But it allowed me to sustain a sense of the law serving the needs of others, and my being a valued part of that. I am convinced there is a fulfilling path out there for every lawyer willing to seek it, just waiting to be found. There need be no end to the passion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of four books of poems. A fifth book, a collection of new and selected poems, will be published in early 2010 by Plain View Press, Texas. He has also published a juvenile mystery novel, as well as numerous articles and essays.
© 2009 Ronald Talney