Sonia Sotomayor Debate: Should Unhappy Lawyers Blame Themselves?

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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