A very dear friend and colleague of mine in Macomb County has for several years been the “Captain” of our local swearing-in ceremonies, and, among other things, he loves the Beatles. After the bailiff calls the courtroom to order, the Captain welcomes those gathered wearing his latest Fab Four specialty tie. I start to wonder if he’s wearing the “Sgt. Pepper” one or maybe the “Revolver” one until my daydreaming expands into a full-blown “Ally McBeal” Broadway thought bubble where I’m up there with a baton conducting the crowd in singing a resounding chorus of “I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends.” Until ... POP! The daydream is over, and I’m back in the courtroom.
As we all know, what really happens at these swearing-in ceremonies is each motioning leader-type lawyer takes a turn to introduce the new lawyer being admitted to the community, and the presiding judge asks questions about each new lawyer’s experiences, hopes, and dreams — like what employment has been procured and who’s clerked for whom. Then, of course, the judge acknowledges family members in attendance and grants each and every motion to admit each new lawyer into practice. The new lawyer then can enjoy a brief celebration and hopefully a dinner with family and friends before reality sets in: Work as a lawyer begins the next day.
In larger firms, associates typically are tasked with doing lots of things, sometimes less-than-glamorous tasks like extensive research and writing, filing pleadings, and shadowing and supporting senior partners at trials and motion calls — all with the intention that this type of working model is how a newer lawyer hones her skills. Further, whether in a firm or in a solo/small firm setting, we all know it’s essential for new attorneys to network and rain-make to develop new client relationships as well as become competent and effective in their chosen areas of expertise.
And everyone works, and works, and works, and works, and works some more. This top-down mode of training and mentoring has come to be the dominant way the profession thinks about how to succeed in the practice of law.
As it has been, so it shall always be. “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” right?
Enter COVID-19. It takes the lives of colleagues, friends, and loved ones. It places unprecedented stresses on working families with school-age children. We aren’t able to freely accompany one another to in-person events. God forbid an elderly parent needs medical treatment and we are not able to personally visit them in care facilities. Even our own health is put on hold. Out of (not irrational) fear, we put off getting routine annual medical checkups. Meanwhile, our court system struggles to find a way to fulfill its duties to the public in delivering justice without putting the public it serves, as well as the staff and professionals working within the system, at risk.
And so we all, judges and lawyers alike, begin the adventure of Zooming together. And day by day, change by change, it becomes clear that the new generation of legal professionals — who pre-COVID had to wait, stay in their lanes, and work their way up the ladder — might just be uniquely poised, right now, to move up to the front of the pack in shaping new ways to practice law using new practices that will improve our profession and society, so long as we do not abandon the bedrock ethics of our profession.
No matter how much and how fast things change, I am counting on all of us, old and new lawyers alike, to maintain our tradition of collegiality and professionalism. I hope and believe that our new lawyers will be as generous as the prior generation of lawyers has been in bringing the next wave into the practice.
I say this selfishly, because I fully acknowledge that as I age, I am likely to fall back into traditional top-down thinking. I will have to work harder to learn how to effectively use new technology or communication platforms or have the best software to protect my clients’ privacy. I will need the energy and conviction of youthful people to inspire me to be true to the promises I made when I took the Lawyer’s Oath 25 years ago. I also encourage more experienced lawyers, like myself, to keep an open mind and help inform and shape the innovation that may be coming with our collective wisdom.
The profound disruption that COVID-19 wreaked throughout the world has brought a profound reexamination of everything we do, including how we work and live our lives. Our Chief Justice, Bridget Mary McCormack, is being quoted everywhere for her observation that the pandemic may not be the disruption we wanted but could very well be the disruption we need to bring more access and transparency to our justice system. I think the same could be true about how we practice law. Our profession has long struggled with wellness and work-life balance, and that struggle was reaching epidemic proportions even before COVID-19. Let’s make this a breakthrough moment in attorney wellness by focusing on the lessons the pandemic taught us about mental health and the practice of law.
I have no clue what internal music will be going on in the minds of future motioning lawyers as they attend swearing-in ceremonies and welcome the newest members of our profession, but whatever the beat or rhyme, I hope the lyrics in their minds are as affirming and optimistic as the sampling from the Captain at my Macomb swearing-in:
“Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.”
“You know we’d all love to change the world.”
“Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.”
“It’s going to be alright."