Law Life: Living deliberately as a lawyer

By Sybil Dunlop
The Daily Record Newswire

Many children have irrational worries or fears. I had an overabundance of them. I remember learning about cemeteries, but not realizing that most folks in them died of natural causes. Thinking that cemeteries might want to drum up business, I was scared to approach them for fear I might be killed. After learning that the sun would die one day, I spent the next five years throwing pennies into fountains and wishing that the sun would live forever.

My freshman year in high school, I read “Walden Pond.” Thoreau’s musings threw me for another loop. Famously, of course, Thoreau wrote that he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I spent my high school and college years worrying that I too might discover I had not lived when it came time to die.

This obsession manifested in several ways. Mostly, however, I worried about finding fulfilling and meaningful life work.

At the time, my mother worked a 9-to-5 job (that she didn’t love) because it paid the bills. Her job enabled her to find fulfillment outside of work: she enjoyed spending time with her family and volunteering with our church. My father was an artist. He spent his days teaching and painting. His work was an expression of himself, and his work was meaningful.

My mother taught me that one’s sense of purpose need not derive from one’s job. But I liked the idea of finding meaning through work. For several years, however, I resisted the idea that a career in the law would provide such an opportunity.

I had always thought about being a lawyer. I loved playing the role of a war crimes prosecutor in our high school mock trial. In college, I spent my weekends participating in debate tournaments. Law school seemed a perfect fit for my interests. But after college, instead of applying to law school, I moved to D.C. to work in politics.

Over the next several years, I kept returning to the idea of attending law school. I took the LSATs. I attended law school fairs, picking up brochures and applications. I even applied to (and was accepted at) a few law schools. But I still held back — I couldn’t quite bring myself to send in the deposit check.

I had seen too many friends enter law school, eager and excited to practice law, only to see them depressed and overworked a few years later. I knew folks who were billing 300 hours a month; they were tired. But it was more than just the hours. Brilliant friends recounted horror stories about their work—after spending three years in law school, they spent the next few years reviewing documents, searching for a single word or phrase and highlighting it in yellow. I heard tales of unpleasant partners, yelling at folks for no reason. I knew people who started drinking too much, citing the stress of their work.

For several years, I didn’t know any happy lawyers among my peers, let alone folks who were finding meaning in their work.

In 2003, however, I had a wake-up call. My grandfather died. I traveled to St. Louis for his memorial service. After serving in World War II, my grandfather attended law school on the G.I. bill. After graduating, he developed his own practice and worked as a lawyer in St. Louis for his entire career. Growing up in Connecticut, I saw him during holidays and on vacations. I knew him as a doting grandfather, a lover of sail boats, and an entertaining story teller. I knew he was an attorney, but I never saw him doing his work. And, as a navel-gazing youth, I never asked him about it.

At his funeral, however, I gained a fuller picture. Hundreds of clients and colleagues attended the service and spoke at length about his professionalism, service, and love of the law. For the first time, I learned about his work as a court-appointed guardian in the St. Louis County Family Court. At my grandfather’s memorial service, I realized my grandfather had a career that I would be honored to emulate.

I felt pretty stupid of course. Like Dorothy, if I had looked in my own backyard, I would have found what I was looking for. And, I had opened my eyes too late to have a conversation about the practice of law with my grandfather.

I returned to D.C. and applied to law school.

Any career, of course, is what you make of it. I know bakers, writers, artists, doctors, and accountants that find meaning and purpose in their work. And I now know several lawyers who do too, myself included. And, lucky for me, I didn’t have to go to the woods to find it.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at


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