My 7-year-old daughter recently asked me, “What does a lawyer actually do?” She has been to my office many times during off-hours and gleans endless entertainment from the rotating office chairs, highlighters and binder clips. But this was her first expression of interest in the work actually going on in the office. I took the time to reflect on the best way to explain it.
I try my best to be honest and avoid sugarcoating things with her, within reason. (This includes artfully dodging fun questions like: “How does the baby get inside Mommy’s belly?”). I also try to keep things simple with her. So, on this particular subject, I simply explained, “Lawyers help people solve their problems.” That seemed to satisfy her, for the moment.
Her question led me to reflect. What do lawyers do? What do I do? We don’t build buildings or paint works of art. What we actually do is read and write and speak and argue and travel. A lot. A brief or transcript is often the most tangible thing we generate. This is no solace to my 7-year old, who would prefer to see a skyscraper or a colorful painting. So, I tried to break it down: I get to help all different types of people solve all sorts of problems every day – from solving fire loss “whodunits” to figuring out why roofs collapse or sprinkler pipes break. The days are never boring and rarely repetitive. She liked that part. Seven-year-olds, like almost everyone, don’t like to be bored.
Recently an opportunity to show her what I actually do arose during one of my children’s favorite pastimes: choosing a restaurant. My son and daughter consistently disagree on where to eat (often simply to be disagreeable). So I get to serve as a mediator. Rather than let them impose their physical will on each other, I have them solve their problem by helping them forge their own compromised solution (usually pulled over to the side of the road in open caucus). It doesn’t always work, but it keeps the peace and we all get to eat. After the most recent restaurant-choosing-mediation-session, I told my daughter, “This is what I do – I help people find a solution, peacefully, to problems between them.” I think she got it.
Lawyers are rarely portrayed in the media as noble or helpful. Calling an attorney a “bloodsucker” or “shark,” or quoting Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld gets much more of a reaction in the public domain. In some unfortunate instances, the shoe fits. But for the most part – and I would argue by a significant majority – we are mere “helpers” and “problem solvers” across a wide spectrum of industries and businesses. At least, that’s what I aspire for us to be. Hopefully, my 7-year old will eventually see that, too.