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Bar News - August 11, 2006

Opinions: I Hope It’s Not Too Late To Be a Lawyer


At the age of 53, I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I have given up my dream of being a cowboy or a movie star or playing second base for the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve even cancelled my plans to sing “Feelings” on American Idol. I think I know what I really want to be. I’d like to be a lawyer.


Now at this point, you are no doubt thinking, “Uh, Bill…you already are a lawyer.”

Bill Haltom
Bill Haltom

I realize there is an awful lot of evidence to support the charge. Yes, it’s true that I graduated from law school and passed the Tennessee Bar Exam some 28 years ago. And, yes, I’ve been showing up at the office every morning since Jimmy Carter lived in the White House, and, yes, every day I’ve been going through all of the motions (not to mention the depositions, conferences, and occasional trials) of practicing law. And, yes, I have a law license framed and hanging on my office wall, and, fortunately, [it] has not yet been taken away. And, yes, on my income tax form my occupation is listed as “Attorney.” But I’m still not sure I’m really a lawyer, and I think I might like to become one.


A good friend of mine at my church addresses me as “counselor.” “Good morning, counselor,” he greets me when I see him on Sunday morning. I like that. I wish I deserved that wonderful title, but I’m not sure I do.


More and more these days I ask myself, “What is a lawyer, anyway?” Is he or she a counselor? An advocate? A verbal gunslinger?


Sometimes when I come home from work in the evening, I have trouble explaining to my 10-year-old daughter exactly what it is Daddy did all day. I take her to the office from time to time, and so she actually gets to see what I am doing, though I am not sure she really understands it. When she was five, a friend of mine asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”


The Princess replied, “I’m either going to be a judge like my mommy or a lawyer like my daddy.”


The friend then asked, “What does a judge do?”


The Princess responded, “She sits in a big room, talks to people who are having problems, and tries to help them.”


The friend then asked, “Well, what does a lawyer do?”


“He sits in a small room, drinks coffee, and talks on the telephone,” explained the Princess.


The Princess was accurately describing what she had seen me do. While I call myself a trial lawyer, I spend more time talking on the phone than I do talking before a judge or jury. I spend most of my days talking on the phone, sipping coffee, checking e-mails, scheduling meetings, opening the snail mail, and directing letters. Not exactly the sort of stuff that would make me a hero in the next Grisham novel.


Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about what I do. I make a good living, and while the hours are long, law practice is (to borrow a line from Bob Dole) indoor work with no heavy lifting.


But I do grow weary from time to time of 10-hour days spent fighting about money. Sometimes I feel like a contestant on a really bad quiz show. And it is during those moments that I dream of being a lawyer.


I dream of being a lawyer who does not measure life in tenths of an hour or contingency fees.


I dream of being a lawyer who is ready, willing, and able to go to battle for a client, but more often than not, will tell the client that going to battle in a lawsuit is not a very good idea. (Lawsuits are like surgery. Don’t have one unless you really need it.)


I dream of being a lawyer who sometimes counsels a client to resolve a conflict simply by telling everyone involved that he is really, really sorry.


I dream of being a lawyer for someone on death row, even though I feel totally unqualified to be such a lawyer and the prospect of taking on such a client terrifies me.


I dream of being a lawyer who never takes a cheap shot at another lawyer, even if that other lawyer deserves it.


I dream of being a lawyer who is always friendly to opposing counsel even when my client is standing beside me and may not understand.


I dream of being a lawyer who has the courage to represent someone who is despised in the community, maybe even someone I can’t stand but who needs my help because nobody else will help him.


I dream of being a lawyer who advocates a position that will make my friends ask, “Bill said what?”


I dream of being a lawyer who will take on a case he knows he can’t possibly win, but will do it because, by golly, it’s the right thing to do.


I dream of being a lawyer who is so secure that he laughs at a judge’s joke only when the joke is really funny.


I dream of being a lawyer who is a peacemaker. (After all, somebody once said they are blessed.)


I dream of being a lawyer who never forgets why he went to law school and why he wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.


I dream of being a lawyer who is not afraid to admit to his clients, his colleagues, his adversaries, and even to a judge that he has no idea what to do, and he really needs their help.


I dream of being a lawyer who is always ready to laugh…at himself.


I dream of being a lawyer who never takes for granted what a blessing it is to have a law license and to be an advocate for someone whose life is in conflict.


That’s the kind of lawyer I’d like to be when I grow up. I hope it’s not too late.


Bill Haltom is immediate past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a partner in the Memphis law firm of Thomason Hendrix Harvey Johnson & Mitchell. He is also the Tennessee Bar Journal’s monthly humor columnist, a professional speaker and author of two humor books on the practice of law with sales proceeds going to the Tennessee Legal Community Foundation. (For more information, go to and click on Humor from Bill Haltom).


This article was reprinted with permission of the Tennessee Bar Journal, a publication of the Tennessee Bar Association.



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