Sonia Sotomayor Debate: Should Unhappy Lawyers Blame Themselves?

The U.S. Supreme Court justice shows a lack of empathy for her less fortunate colleagues

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alex Wong / Getty Images

Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor answers questions during the second day of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill July 14, 2009 in Washington, DC

In an interview with Oprah for her memoir My Beloved Life, U.S. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor said she believes that “being a lawyer is one of the best jobs in the whole wide world, because every lawyer, no matter whom they represent, is trying to help someone … To me, lawyering is the height of service — and being involved in this profession is a gift. Any lawyer who is unhappy should go back to square one and start again.”

I hear judges and law professors say similar things all the time. What such people have in common is that they’re not practicing law. Sotomayor, who did practice law for a dozen years before becoming a federal judge, should know better, and at one time did: in a televised interview in 1986, two years after she left the Manhattan district attorney’s office to join a law firm, she said that “the vast majority of lawyering is drudgery work. It’s sitting in a library; it’s banging out a brief; it’s talking to clients for endless hours, not necessarily on interesting topics.”

(MORE: From the Archive: Sonia Sotomayor: A Justice Like No Other)

Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved Life, is largely bereft of such insights, although she does reveal that she left her job at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, in part, because she found herself “hardened” by “a certain sense of futility” about her work, and by the effects a case load she describes as “crushing” was having on her personal life. But twenty years as a federal judge seem to have detached Sotomayor from any sense of the increasingly severe problems faced by so many members of the legal profession. For young law graduates, especially, Sotomayor’s words about service and happiness are likely to ring hollow.

(MORE: Why We Still Need Affirmative Action)

Here is part of a letter I received this fall from a “lucky” law graduate — lucky in that, unlike half of all recent law graduates, she actually has a legal job. The writer graduated six years ago with $150,000 in student loans. Her salary as a public interest lawyer has not allowed her to pay down any of the principal, and the monthly loan payments she makes on the interest have her living barely above the poverty line:

Over the last six years, I have discovered that I hate our system of justice, our courts, our law and everyone remotely connected to them. I hate the actual work of being a lawyer and having to deal with other lawyers. Being chained to this computer and phone every day feels like torture. It has affected my physical and mental health negatively. I don’t want to talk or interact with people, and the anger and rage I feel every day has swallowed up my sense of humor. It doesn’t help that most of my clients are extremely vulnerable, mentally unstable and treated with the utmost contempt by every human being they come in contact with (including other poor people who assume that they are the deserving poor and everyone else is a malingering parasite).

Luckily in our small office I can close the door and sob hysterically without anyone much noticing. I feel terrible taking up a scarce job that someone else may be able to love and run with and really work the hell out of, while I hang on and avoid work as much as possible. The people I work for/with are the best people in the world and I feel like I’m taking advantage of them. But I don’t feel like I have any choice but to keep going on due to the debt and lack of other employment options, especially options that would pay enough for me to make the debt payments I have to make and still be able to afford to keep a roof over my head.

The amount of contempt I feel for myself for getting in this situation is killing me….Is there any hope?

I receive letters like this one regularly. I don’t think it’s especially helpful to tell this person to go back to square one, especially given that she, like so many other young lawyers, tells me that if she could return her degree in exchange for her debts being wiped out, she “would do so in a heartbeat.”

The crisis of the American legal profession is just part of a much larger crisis in America — one in which people who followed all the rules and did everything right have ended up in some pretty terrible places. Sonia Sotomayor’s journey from growing up in the housing projects in the Bronx to Princeton and Yale Law School and eventually to the Supreme Court is impressive indeed. But I would have thought that it would also have made her more empathetic to her colleagues who are less fortunate.

MORE: Consumers Finally Figure out that Law School Is Overrated

17 comments
alankwellsmsmba
alankwellsmsmba

I've been looking for an honest lawyer for a long time.  Haven't been able to find that married bachelor either.  

karennouri
karennouri

As a recovery lawyer, I feel it is an individual decision and each person's money, values and intentions are different and at different stages of our lives.  I was happy for 7 years, then I started to see the dark side and i got out two years later.  It's a very personal decision and complex in and of itself, just like the law is.   Follow me on twitter if you are interested in learning more as I have written a book about my story in and out of law and the 10 year old Indian boy who helped me to see the innocence and light.   @karennouri

babycheeks
babycheeks

Sotomayor's words in her book are simply an effort to put forth an image of her as the happy advocate, fulfilled "helping people". It is calculated to sell the book and enhance her as a role model. Other words, it is a lie. The earlier words she expressed are closer to reality. I have been a lawyer for 39 years, made a lot of money and have helped a lot of people. Nevertheless it is a knife fight every day and misery. The adversarial nature of the process allows few opportunities for positive experiences. It is a daily grind that drains you of any real enthusiasm after the first few years. A terrible profession.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

Of course Sotomayor's words are mostly a glorification of a profession. Advocay, as many careers, has its glory, its purpose and its backstage hardtimes. Of course again not every lawyer lives his or her profession the same. But the conclussion from the author about today's America has nothing to do with advocacy or Sotomayor. Please TIME select better what you publish.

WarrantBrackle
WarrantBrackle

I would hate myself too, using the flawed concept of legalism to try break apart families and "win" at the expense of the children.

N369RM
N369RM

As a lawyer who deals every day with a Federal Agency (National Labor Relations Board) that is extremely bias against Companies, I am amazed that I enjoy my work as much as I do.  Just getting one company at a time through this mess and getting them to the other side is worth it.  But I can see where most lawyers would not be happy doing this work. 

DavidPagel
DavidPagel

Not so mention all the MBAs out there...not worth a dime.

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

Lawyers are the scourage of society.

They talk about "giving back" but they take and take and take.

Lawyers misrepresent the truth.

Lawyers are cruel and selfish.

robwoh
robwoh

This article is slightly unfair. It notes how even Justice Sotomayor quit her job after feeling discouraged with her work.....which is exactly what her original quote said to do- start at square one again if one as a lawyer is unhappy. 

JoeJones
JoeJones

"let them eat cake," is the wisdom from Queen Sonia, it would seem.


Hey, Queen Sonia, can I please go back to square one, back to 2005, when I researched the job and salary stats put out by the law schools and decided that going to law school at the age of 48 was a good decision. Graduated near the top of my class, but could not get an interview. Went solo and lost my life savings. 


What about me, Queen Sonia? How can I be made whole after losing everything to the law school scammers?

By the way, Queen Sonia, have you ever taken money from a law school for, saying, an appearance or for teaching classes? If so, then you are a hypocrite, in addition to being an unelected imperial queen (one of 9) that rules america without having to care about the needs and desires and opinions of us proles.

Let us scammed law grads eat cake, eh. Go back to your palace, Queen Sonia. But I hope someday the crowds will gather outside and give the washington elite what they deserve.

 

conservaslayer
conservaslayer

Seriously? We're supposed to feel sorry for lawyers now? Oh my, the humanity!

SarahJT
SarahJT

This is part of a a large bubble that is bursting: the promise of higher education "paying off in the end," and ultimately providing a living that is both personally and financially fulfilling. The unexamined American Dream skews the cost-benefit analysis made by many young students/ those returning to school for a second or third career.

roknsteve
roknsteve

Paul Campos, If you're wanted to make a soap opera out of an Oprah interview you've succeeded.     

alankwellsmsmba
alankwellsmsmba

@DavidPagel I disagree.  Training as an MBA allows many career paths.  Mine was as a computer scientist, not in finance (what your're probably thinking of).  I can think of no effective crossovers for law school.  It's barely an education at all.

alankwellsmsmba
alankwellsmsmba

@JoeJones You don't find the best and brightest - no to mention the honest - in the practice - or the pursuit of the practice of law.

john971
john971

If it makes you feel any better, most of these people you are supposed to feel sorry will never actually get to practice law.  We currently graduate around 45,000 new law grads every year, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will only be around half that number of new lawyer jobs (20-22,000) each year.  Add to that the fact that these people are graduating with around $125-150,000 in law school debt (on top of whatever undergrad debt they have), and the fact that they were goaded into this decision by law schools that put out misleading or outright false statistics, and yes, you should feel sorry for these people.

But if empathy isn't your thing, there is also a perfectly selfish reason to want to reform this whole law school mess: Income Based Repayment.  Google IBR to get all the details, but the gist of it is it's a kind of slow bankruptcy that will leave you, as a taxpayer, on the hook for most of this malinvested financial aid loan money that is being funnelled through students into the law schools.