Why Thinking Lawyers Leave the Law

“Shortly after the article [in the New York Times, about murder convict Gary Gilmore] caught his eye, almost immediately in fact, Susskind’s old friend and associate Stanley Greenberg called, and they had a good conversation. Stanley had written a TV story fifteen years ago about a man awaiting execution. The man had been so long on Death Row that he changed in character, and the question became, “Who was being executed?” Metamorphosis the play had been called, and Susskind always felt that it had had some effect on the end of capital punishment in New York State, and maybe even a little to do with the Supreme Court decision that saved a lot of men’s lives on Death Row.”

From The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer.

Intelligent lawyers leave the law because they know art produces social change, not legal arguments.


  1. Too many lawyers make simple solutions inaccessible and prevent the parties from solving their own problems. While their are many good lawyers and many smart ones, most, it seems are in service to corporations and others who see the justice system in terms of dollar settlements.

    Too many lawyers and the justice system is broken.

  2. In my experience, it’s not the lawyers, it’s the conservative judges who don’t budge until public opinion basically compels them to re-think things.

  3. Tonya, you can’t saw that the legal system is COMPLETELY broken, right?? I mean it does SOME good, like a kid I knew who was recently saved from a violent home. It made all the difference for that little kid. I know there’s huge problems in the legal system but I do know that it has helped some people.

    I sort of relate recently where I’ve really questioned the line of work I’m in. I know that I’m good at what I do, but I definitely won’t be finding my ultimate joy in life from it. And then I read NY Times articles like how 97% of doctors are frustrated with their job ( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/health/views/17essa.html?ex=1371528000&en=68fc7d81aa444219&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink ) and job satisfaction is really low, not to mention the 40 hour shifts I’ll be pulling next year every three days while paying them to do that to me. And then pulling the same hours for lower than minimum hourly wage for four+ years after I graduate. It’s so clear that my passion clearly lies elsewhere in theater and dance.

    Hang in there, Tonya. I’m sure playwrights don’t always feel like they produce as much social change as they’d like. That is a nice story though.

  4. Wow, Tonya, that’s a pretty incisive comment. Some lawyers stay in the law because they have to feed their families.
    In any case, I’m not sure what the connection is between the quote and your comment. It isn’t the lawyers who legislate the laws providing for capital punishment and in it’s the judges who pass down the sentences. I personally don’t understand how a democratic state can countenance capital punishment, but what’s that got to do with being a lawyer?

  5. Many forward-looking lawyers lose their passion for law because things never seem to change no matter how hard they work. Many come to the conclusion that law is driven more by external forces, like change in public sentiment, often produced by investigative journalism, art, pop culture, etc. I was kind of being tongue in cheek with the word “intelligent” – meaning I was equating intelligent lawyers with those who are in it to help people and instigate social change, as opposed to those who are more money-oriented. Funny, I really didn’t think it was that surprising a statement!

    Jolene, that’s sad about doctors… I always wonder why they must work such long hours, especially in emergency rooms, etc. I had a friend in college who became a nurse, and she’d work like three days straight, and then have three days off. She said the doctors’ schedules were similar (and I think I read something in the New Yorker to that effect too). I always wondered how she didn’t fall asleep, and why she didn’t just work 8 hours, then go home, then come back the next day, etc.

  6. I know, it IS sad, but it’s an instance of where tradition trumps all logic. It’s how it’s always done, and now the older doctors (who head administrations) see it more as a rite of passage, and how only the strong survive. I mean if your child was undergoing a really serious surgery, wouldn’t you want to ask your surgeon if he got a good night’s sleep last night? Chances are, maybe not, especially if he’s a surgeon.

    Anyways, not looking forward to it. I don’t even know how I’d function staying up for 30 hours in a row, with a 10 minute nap snuck in somewhere (hopefully not taken in the operating room :).

  7. tonya, just to explain why I was so taken aback by your post – your blog and your dance writing in general is so engaging precisely because you suceed in conveying the message that ballet and dance are for everyone, not just for some elite group of people who know all about it. And you show us readers that you don’t have to like just one kind of dance – I am continually impressed with your catholic tastes and your willingness to try anything and everything.

    However, when it comes to something that many people in the ‘real world’ (i.e. the world outside Manhattan, the world where people do struggle to earn money and bring up their children and also try to find the energy to be good people) deal with all the time; here, you made a snappy ‘sound byte’ comment that really stung for me and quite clearly excluded me and every other practicing lawyer from the group of ‘intelligent lawyers’. Oh, sorry, we must be more ‘money-oriented’…

    More to the point, obviously it is difficult to effect social change through the practice of law. What we are not taught at law school is that a lawyer truly is an advocate for someone else – you can only represent the client you have, you don’t talk on behalf of a right – and therefore it is primarily a reactive and not a proactive profession. Many lawyers, including those who are in it for the money thing, are frustrated by this. On the other hand, incremental change or at least the prevention of further deterioration in rights can be achieved by lawyers. I heard radio interviews with two of the lawyers who represented Guantanamo Bay detainees in the recent Superme Court decision to enable detainees to challenge their detention in civil coiurt, and they sounded pretty pleased. 🙂

  8. Civil rights and constitutional lawyers certainly make a different in people’s lives and can effect positive change.

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