Every few days, or whenever I meet somebody new, somebody says something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you do it,” about my job. And I just sort of shrug. Because I’m uncomfortable with this idea that people have that I’m some kind of superwoman. That I’m anything but an ordinary lawyer, doing an ordinary job.
Public interest attorneys are not heroes. Nor are we slackers. There seems to be no middle ground in what people think of us. People call my organization and ask, “well, are the free attorneys real attorneys?” The simple answer is, “why don’t you go pay a real attorney $2500 and find out?” The reality is that I have more courtroom experience and more direct client experience than most “real” attorneys I know. I am probably one of the most experienced people in the general area at doing what I do. Most attorneys do 4-5 cases in my specialty a year, and I do 4-5 a week. This is not to say that I’m better than anyone, but I’m at least as real as anyone.
My classmates who work the big firm jobs say, “well, at least you probably sleep well.” Sure, I don’t have nightmares at all. I don’t wake up sometimes in a cold sweat wondering if I ever actually filed that motion that was on my desk. I don’t occasionally want to shut the door to my office and cry because my client is in a crappy situation. I make very little money but have a “fulfilling” job. Or something like that.
The only reason I feel more fulfilled at the job that I have is because I feel like I’m learning a lot, constantly being challenged, and I get to push myself to be my best self. That is fulfilling. I helped people in private practice about as much as I help people now, I think.
I have been thinking a lot lately about burnout. I’m not really sure what burnout is or how I will know when I’ve reached it. In theory, you’ll know when you get there, but I keep trying to pick out warning signs. I don’t want to be that person who just loses her mind and starts sobbing in court. It’s not inevitable either. Plenty of people work at hard jobs for 30 or 40 years without burning out. So if I burn out, or expect to burn out, am I a total failure? I don’t know.
Anyway, I think we could all do well to reduce our assumptions about our fellow attorneys or other professionals. I think it will go a long way towards helping everybody in the profession be their best selves.