[The Obiter Truth] Lawyers of quiet desperation

The Obiter Truth is a catalogue of everyday experiences in the life of a young lawyer hoping to find humour in the bizarre and sense in the chaos.
Manini Brar
Manini Brar

What bothers me sometimes is the disdain I harbour for successful non-law folks my age. Not unlike a President who skips the oath-taking ceremony of his competitor, I act like a child robbed of his candy. Show me a successful business woman, I will show you some rich-relative or right-place-right-time reason behind her success. Show me a popular fashion designer, I will show you a political hot-topic she has no clue about, and parade my knowledge about the legal nuances of the thing. Don’t show me a social media influencer, it is almost too easy. Frivolity has no chance before the nobility of service I offer to society as a lawyer.

I like to believe that other lawyers my age do the same thing. A journalist friend recently told me she thought all lawyers were obnoxious. I threw her a carefully careless, “really?”. My way of saying I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care. She persisted: they just go on and on about themselves, what they know about such and such, how they feel about this and that. It is so annoying, the way they impose themselves on the world.

That sounds a lot more like journalists than lawyers, I shot back, but it was no use. She’d hit where it hurt, and I knew exactly what she meant. I sympathised with Trump for the first time that day. Must be hell, to be surrounded by media people who pretend to be your friends but never tire of telling you ugly truths about yourself.

I was moping about this conversation, scratching my head over the phenomena of our unfortunate obnoxiousness, when a law school buddy accidentally unearthed a vital clue. I called him to deliver customary congratulations upon his promotion to partnership at a law firm. As I was lauding his hard work - good-on-you-chap, knew-you-had-it-in-you-all-along - he laid bare the problem with lucid eloquence. Theek hai yaar. I mean, it is cool to be appreciated for hard work and all, but ab kya? I am quite lost. I don’t even know if this is what I really want to do.

This knowing what you really want to do, I tell you. I don’t know if it’s the cult-phrase of our times or what, but everybody seems stuck in the same quagmire. A senior associate doesn’t know if he really wants to be a partner, hell, a partner doesn’t know if he really wants to be a partner either, but both have spent precious time toiling away like their life depends on it.

It’s not their fault either. A middle-class teenager at the turn of the millennium was incubated with largely homogenous values. Career options were ranked in order of pre-determined priorities: respectability or what will the nameless neighbours say, job security or will you survive if all your bosses hate you, income-earning ability which is self-explanatory, and ‘quality of life’ – the residuary power of parents to veto what they didn’t like.

Law, like engineering, ticked all the boxes.

By the time we grew up, however, the world had changed. Suddenly, all the focus was on the individual. Everyone was trying to be different, creative, visible, thanks to the internet and social media. While young lawyers lay burrowed in their offices and courts, the rest of the world discovered success doing unexpected things – baking, writing, and – who can deny it – social media influencing. Old school middle-class values went up like pieces of nonchalantly torn-up paper.

The result: a generation of lawyers ‘quite lost’, to borrow my friend’s eloquence. Carrying a strange anxiety within itself, a lack of conviction recouped by discrediting those who don’t share in its circumstances. Bent on projecting more professionalism than the business folks, more intellectualism than the creative folks, and more societal purpose than the social media folks.

In the end, journalists must never be taken lightly, as Trump and I have both painfully come to discover. Of course, that’s not the moral of the story. The moral is that we need to find a way to make peace with our multiple ambitions. To accept the vast greyness of our disposition instead of dichotomising everything into the black and white, petitioner and respondent, of the first part and of the second part, of our professional lives.

Is it so bad that a lawyer should bake in her spare time, or have too many followers on Instagram, or write a non-legal column every other Sunday? Does that really make her less of a serious lawyer, as we would like to believe, or just more of a happy one?

This column will be the last of the Obiter Truth series.

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