Public Service Voices

The Gratitude-Driven Practice

By Jason Vail

From time to time we all face moments of personal reflection where we question our career choices and wonder how we ended up doing the work we do. This is particularly true for attorneys, in part because of the significant amounts of time and money we have invested to reach our chosen vocation. I have seen many of my colleagues experience this kind of uncertainty, and I have even had these thoughts myself. As a civil legal aid attorney for the poor, this may not be surprising; my work is often challenging, the law is frequently not on my side, and the clients can be very difficult. On top of it all, the remuneration for my efforts compares unfavorably to that of my fellow young lawyers working in private practice. Consequently, not only do I occasionally ask myself why I have chosen this work, but many people I meet – attorneys and non-attorneys alike – ask me the same question, with everything from admiration to complete bewilderment. When confronted with this type of forced self-analysis, we all respond in our own individual ways. For myself, I ultimately conclude that I do this work out of a sense of gratitude for my opportunity to be a lawyer, and this feeling is what motivates me to share my skills with those in need.

Like many who do work like mine, my natural tendency when forced to elaborate on the sources of my career choice is to focus on my personal experiences. However, I find that viewing my motivation solely through this lens is incomplete and unsatisfying because the reasons I chose to become a legal services attorney are myriad and complicated. There are many individual factors and life experiences that have driven me to do this work. The combination of growing up in a relatively poor and fairly isolated rural community with a childhood steeped in the social justice teachings of Catholicism led me, at an early age, to become particularly sensitive to the misfortune of poverty and my own responsibility to help those in need. In addition, I feel a special empathy with the clients I serve because I have personally experienced many of their struggles in my own life. I understand in a firsthand way the challenges and injustices faced by those at the bottom of the economic ladder and the feelings of inferiority and lack of self-worth intrinsic to that position. I also understand the tremendous need for those in positions of power to reach out and offer assistance without condescension, drawing upon commonly shared experiences. In short, the depth of my awareness of existing societal needs makes my choice of this work almost inevitable; even if I were doing something else professionally, I would likely be driven to distraction by the constant burning to do this work and provide help where help is needed.

Nevertheless, I also understand that the life experiences feeding my passion for this work are highly personalized and may or may not resonate with those of differing backgrounds. So while drawing on my own life story and how it relates to the clients I serve may strengthen my resolve internally to carry on my work, it may not adequately answer the question for some who ask why I have chosen this career path. Indeed, there may be some who can never comprehend my reasons because they are simply unable to see the self-evident nature of the answer: Where tremendous need exists, why wouldn’t I consider using my skills to fill that need? To me, this seems the obvious response, but I understand not all share this view. Thus, when seeking to understand my motivation, whether to myself or in response to another, I try to explain myself in a more universal way. My personal experiences are only a threshold matter, because they serve to inform the deeper, more commonly understood sense of gratitude that fundamentally guides the course of my career and is reinforced regularly by the work I do.

In a larger way, I believe a healthy sense of genuine gratitude is sorely missing from our culture today. We have become a society of believers in entitlement. We have come to believe that we are entitled to make as much money as possible while the nature of our work or its value to society is irrelevant. We believe we are entitled to have the biggest houses and the biggest cars irrespective of our needs. We believe we are entitled to consume as much as possible, from material goods to food to land to energy, regardless of the cost to the larger world community or to the environment. This belief in entitlement is seen throughout our nation’s public policy priorities: The wealthy of today borrow heavily from future generations to subsidize their lifestyles, and we seek to remake the world in our own political image in order to support an imagined sense of security at any cost, whether measured in dollars or in lives lost. While wallowing in this sense of self-entitlement, we hear voices self-righteously decrying the relatively meager assistance provided to those with so little of their own as an unnecessary and wasteful expenditure. This shameless attitude of privilege, which in more modest times in our recent history would be disparaged as unchecked gluttony, many now view as a virtue; some even have the audacity to justify this worldview by claiming that a life of excess is a sign of God’s grace. Simply put, we have become a society in which we believe we are entitled to everything and owe nothing to anyone in return.

This attitude has infiltrated our law schools and infects the practice of law. Many attorneys conduct themselves with a feeling of superiority borne of the belief that a bar license entitles them to a special place of hierarchical privilege without a corresponding sense of responsibility, much less humility. How can it be that, despite the best efforts of law schools and the bar, there continues a decline in professionalism among attorneys? How can it be that while the ranks of attorneys continue to swell, pro bono participation rates remain stagnant? I believe that one explanation lies in the failure of attorneys to appreciate their hard-earned skills as a gift that allows them to be of service to the public, and they do not recognize the important responsibilities inherent in such power. When attorneys project an outward image of self-centered materialism rather than one of humble service, it is not hard to understand why the public takes such a dim view of the practice of law and our system of justice.

I reject this pervasive sense of entitlement, instead choosing to embrace gratitude and allowing it to drive my work. Though I would like to believe that everyone is entitled to have the benefits of a good family, a quality public school education, and the opportunity for higher education and a resulting modicum of financial comfort, I know this is not the reality for many. Further, I know that while I had no more entitlement to these things than anyone else, I was lucky enough to have received them. Out of a sense of gratitude for my good fortune comes a sense of responsibility to put these abilities into service on behalf of those who perhaps lacked similar advantages in their own lives and who currently have the need for help that they cannot afford. Most remarkable is that this sense of gratefulness is constantly renewing; by working with those in need, I am constantly reminded of how blessed I have been in my own life, thereby strengthening my sense of gratitude and driving me to carry on my work.

My hope is that my fellow attorneys will join me in choosing to practice law out of a sense of gratitude instead of entitlement. This does not require wholesale career changes; I am not suggesting one must become a full-time public interest attorney in order to accomplish this goal. The approach is far simpler, requiring only that we all recognize that as attorneys we have extremely valuable problem-solving capabilities that are desperately needed every day by many who cannot obtain them. These skills have come to us not as a matter of right; though we certainly earned them, the opportunity to obtain our legal aptitude is, in large part, the product of good fortune in our individual lives. There are so many ways we can share our expertise with those who have been not so fortunate. All it takes is giving of our time in some way, whether to a charity, a pro bono program, a community organization, a non-profit board, a bar association project, a legal services office, or simply taking a case without charging a fee. Through the giving of our talents, we discover their true value and thereby can experience a stronger sense of appreciation for what we have received. We may then ultimately be less inclined to question why we became lawyers and instead find satisfaction in work motivated by an authentic sense of thankfulness and gratitude.

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