Munson: Lawyer. Hero. Human. All in a day’s work

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munson-emily-mug Munson

By Emily Munson

As a new attorney, I was amazed at the power three little letters, E-S-Q, carried behind my name. My letters suddenly received prompt, apologetic replies. Policymakers began taking my suggestions seriously. When I represented a client, he or she was no longer taken for granted. Signing my title behind my name was akin to donning a superhero cape.

Yet, as Uncle Ben told Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Every Hoosier law student sits through a semester of Professional Responsibility and grinds through the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. Once passed, many of us do not seriously consider professional ethics unless we find ourselves caught in a conflict of interest or are sitting through an obligatory continuing legal education class. Nevertheless, I contend that the deference and influence afforded to attorneys necessitates better preparing new attorneys for the role they will assume.

To many new graduates, nothing is more stressful than preparing for the bar exam. I remember studying six hours a day, in addition to finishing my last semester of classes. I graduated, was sworn into the bar, and was suddenly deemed competent to practice law in Indiana. My first job was as an administrative law judge, deciding whether the state properly rescinded Medicaid and other public assistance benefits. Suddenly, basic competency seemed an insufficient standard. My decisions directly affected people’s lives.

Perhaps my terror sprung from naïveté. I went to law school straight out of college and, while I successfully completed several internships, my duties primarily encompassed research and spectating. Nonetheless, this is the situation in which many new attorneys find themselves. Some have proposed replacing the third year of law school with an apprenticeship program, affording students the opportunity to develop hands-on experience while still being supervised and mentored. But short of sweeping systemic changes, what can new attorneys do? How best to serve clients, the profession and society?

Super technology and splendid sidekicks. Remember that even if you do not have all the answers, you can find them. You did not sit through Legal Research just because it was offered online. Today’s attorneys have access to a vast range of legal resources, accessible with a few clicks of a mouse. Similarly, you did not attend networking events just for the free wine and cheese. You also have access to a fantastic community of experienced attorneys, many of whom are more than willing to offer advice and forge invaluable mentoring relationships.

Maybe you are more Batman than Spider-Man; you prefer to be holed up in your office lair and are uncomfortable revealing the need for help. Too bad. You owe it to your client to provide the best advocacy that you can muster. If that involves placing yourself in uncomfortable situations, you must take a deep breath and proceed. Fortunately, the more you place yourself in unnerving situations, the less unnerving they become. Simultaneously, confidence in competency increases exponentially.

Mega-strength requires discretion. We know that Iron Man’s advanced technologies ended up in the wrong hands, threatening fellow citizens, despite arguably more altruistic intentions. Similarly, attorneys need to be cognizant of the consequences their efforts may bring. Perhaps you genuinely want to help every client coming through the door. Perhaps you simply want to build enough wealth to buy a Professor X-style abode. Although our chief obligation is to our client, we need not accept every client that requests assistance. Frivolous lawsuits and other silly lawyering can actually hurt the client in the end. Consider that Congress is presently considering three different Americans with Disabilities Act notification bills that would diminish the rights of people with disabilities under the Act. These bills have been largely attributed to the flippant behavior of fellow lawyers.

The greater good. Maybe you are like Captain America and want to be an icon. Rather than aiding individual clients, you want to shape policy; amicus briefs, public comments and lobbying are your forte. Even though you may believe your particular proposal is worth pushing, remember that its enactment will likely have significant ramifications on others, including neutral parties. Consider that, in advocating for home health workers to gain overtime protections, labor lawyers have jeopardized the ability of many people with disabilities to keep consistent long-term care services. Instead of Hulk-ing out and leaving massive collateral damage, try reaching out to the other side and identifying common goals, if not complete compromise.

In sum, while we need look no farther than Deadpool to appreciate that acquired powers can cause one to act in strange ways, new attorneys should strive to use those powers cautiously. If properly managed, the tools of the legal profession can be more effective than the best plasma ray!•

Emily Munson, J.D., M.A., leads the employment practice group at Indiana Disability Rights. She is currently pursuing a LL.M. in Health Law, Policy, and Bioethics at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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