Denver Bar Association
January 2004
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A Recovering Lawyer's Path from the Abyss

by Michael Sweig

Nearly seven years ago, I exited my dissolving law firm for the last time. I had not yet relinquished my law license or pled guilty to a felony for trust account mismanagement, but I knew these tasks were imminent. I also knew, as I literally left my law practice behind me, that I was facing the more formidable task of reinventing myself, so I could earn a living and succeed in parenthood. Moving forward from that day has been my most rewarding challenge. Since then, I have learned what I suspect many lawyers understandably overlook: we all have more gifts to give the world than just being good lawyers, and far more resources than we realize to live a fulfilling life.

To give charity anonymously is the most righteous method of giving. When I left my law practice, other than gifts to my law school and some pro bono legal work, I had not given much to charity. When I began my recovery, I had to learn to accept charity. A few neighbors, I suspect, who knew what tough times these were for me and my family delivered several months’ worth of frozen meats to my distressed upper middle-class doorstep. The anonymity of this gift allowed me dignity that would have been lost had I known the benefactor’s identity. This inspiring gift was among the earliest inoculations of hope that propelled me toward recovery.

Later, as part of my probation sentence, I was required to perform five hundred hours of community service. For four years, I delivered food weekly to poor people, an endeavor that became among my greatest pleasures. These deliveries were not just about food, but more about the delivery of hope. My children still do not know why I began doing this, and they have never asked. Now, as a family, we deliver food to poor people several times annually. Without parental prompting, our oldest son gave some of his inheritance from his grandfather to a local food pantry, and he volunteers weekly at a local soup kitchen.

Community service should not be simply a punishment for lawyers; it should be a pleasure. Indeed, it is a privilege all lawyers should allow themselves. Don’t wait to get in trouble before you try community service. If every lawyer would perform one act of community service annually, not only would the world be better off, but perhaps the public will stop assuming the only reason a lawyer would perform community service is because he or she has done something wrong.

When I was a boy, my Dad was considered for a federal judgeship. "Why do you want to be a judge?" I asked. "Because the legal profession would be terrific without clients," he quipped. Throughout my legal career, I thought this cynical remark was funny. But when challenged with a search for a vocation I could pursue with a felony, I came to realize that my clients had been my students, and that I had already logged many hours of student teaching in my role as a lawyer. Today, I am grateful for the gift of each and every one of my former clients.

Most lawyers are natural teachers; this is an enormous but overlooked element of the attorney-client relationship. I teach primarily because I love it (it helps pay bills, too). But, also, I teach because I see the contribution I make, and I love the feeling. Try teaching as a form of community service. The world needs more teachers and always will. There are many teaching possibilities on college faculties for adjuncts who have limited time.

When I lost my time-consuming law practice, I gained control of my time, even if by default. One new endeavor I undertook with my newly found time allotment was to pick my children up at school twice weekly. I have been doing this now for many years, and I will never stop.

For those of you with school-age children: pick up your kids at school once weekly for a month and see if you become addicted to this practice. I predict you will. There is no greater gift you can give your children than time with them, and time with you will always be your children’s greatest gift to you (once you stop embarrassing your teenagers). Surely you have heard this, but in the practice of law it is difficult to live this simple bit of age-old wisdom. Your children need you more than your clients or your partners. They are more important.

I would have been such a better lawyer if I had understood this component of life while I was still practicing law: get on the lifelong path of becoming a better person, and stay on it. Practicing law alone will not keep you on this path.

Copyright 2004. Michael Sweig All Rights Reserved. October 2003 Michael Sweig is President of Sweig Family Venture, LLC, and Adjunct Professor of Legal Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

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