I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the profession that you are about to enter is one of the most unhappy and unhealthy on the face of the earth — and, in the view of many, one of the most unethical. The good news is that you can join this profession and still be happy, healthy, and ethical. I am writing to tell you how.

Federal Judge Patrick Schiltz wrote this article for the Vanderbilt Law Review years before he was appointed to the bench. He was writing for lawyers in large firms, but it applies equally to lawyers in practices of any size.

Let me tell you how you will start acting unethically …

Schiltz believes that unethical lawyers often start out as unhappy and unhealthy lawyers — ethics, happiness, and health are inextricably intertwined. He traces the root of lawyers’ unhappiness and unhealthiness to money. Although it’s not quite so simple.

Lawyers, Schiltz posits, aren’t after money for its own sake, but for what it symbolizes: winning. (No, not the Charlie Sheen kind.) Lawyers aren’t necessarily after wealth, but the victory that money symbolizes — money is just the way to keep score.

Money is what tells them if they’re more successful than the lawyer in the next office — or in the next office building — or in the next town. If a lawyer’s life is dominated by the game — and if his success in the game is measured by money — then his life is dominated by money. For many, many lawyers, it’s that simple

This drive to win is a prioritization of money over happiness and, gradually, over ethics.

Unethical lawyers do not start out being unethical; they start out just like you — as perfectly decent young men or women who have every intention of practicing law ethically. They do not become unethical overnight; they become unethical just as you will (if you become unethical) — a little bit at a time. And they do not become unethical by shredding incriminating documents or bribing jurors; they become unethical just as you are likely to — by cutting a corner here, by stretching the truth a bit there.

Those little things will sneak up on you, too.

[B]ecause your life as a lawyer will be filled with the mundane, whether you practice law ethically will depend not upon how you resolve the one or two dramatic ethical dilemmas that you will confront during your entire career, but upon the hundreds of little things that you will do, almost unthinkingly, each and every day.

The only way to practice law ethically is to embrace ethical behavior, to create an ethical habit. This does not mesh well with the drive to get more money than everybody else. Here’s what it means to practice law ethically:

First, you generally have to comply with the formal disciplinary rules … complying with the formal rules will not make you an ethical lawyer, any more than complying with the criminal law will make you an ethical person.

The second thing you must do to be an ethical lawyer is to act ethically in your work, even when you aren’t required to do so by any rule.

The third thing you must do to be an ethical lawyer is to live an ethical life.

Judge Schiltz has four pieces of “little-picture advice” for lawyers who wish to have a happy, healthy, and ethical law practice:

  1. Avoid working in BigLaw — or firms that act like BigLaw (Schiltz defends this recommendation in great detail, knocking down each of the “advantages” of BigLaw)
  2. Seek alternatives to private practice
    “Without question, the attorneys I knew who seemed to be the happiest, who seemed to have the most balanced lives, and who seemed to have the most interesting, satisfying practices were those practicing in small towns (in either small firms or — another option for you — as solo practitioners).”
  3. If you go to a big firm, make a smart choice
  4. Develop the habit of acting ethically

Above all, remember this: “You cannot win the game. If you fall into the trap of measuring your worth by money, you will always feel inadequate.”

Read “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” this weekend. It’s well worth it. (via Bart Torvik)



  1. Craig says:

    Thanks, Sam. This was a great article and a great reminder. I’m only in law school, but I have looked forward, and I have seen how it would be possible to slide into unethical practices. This is a great reminder and great advice for avoiding the trap.

  2. krishnaa0205 says:

    Thanks for taking me in & for the great articles here Sam. I am a (successful) valuer-engineer businessman headed into the final year of law school at 52 & having been involved in cases & litigation both as a client & have been working as a court commissioner for property disputes find your articls ring so true & universal. Keep writing, great job sir.

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