Beyond Titles – Claiming the Essence of What You Do

Have you ever hesitated telling someone what you do for a living?

I have. And for longer than I care to admit.

In fact, for a number of years I wouldn’t ask the simple question “What do you do for a living?”, because it meant the other person would reciprocate with a nice polite “And what do YOU do?”

When my youngest daughter was a sophomore in high school, she heard some of her friends talking negatively about lawyers.  She was honestly shocked to hear anyone talk that way about what her dad does for a living. When she came home later that day, she said, “Dad, did you know that people don’t like lawyers?” (I loved the fact that she see’s all the the good in what I do.)

Then there was the time my wife was out to lunch with a group of her mom’s best friends and several of them started trash talking lawyers. Jan was shocked and angry that they would talk this way in front of her. Every attorney she knows works hard and even loses sleep over their work.

Jan said to the group “Hey there, my husband’s an attorney.” One person said “Well, he’s one of the few good ones.” Another person just kept on with her diatribe against all attorneys.

Hiding what I do for a living drives my wife crazy. She’s proud of the work that I do. She sees lawyers as a critical part of our society. And she wants me to get over my obsession with keeping things on the down low.

So, how is it that I can so love the work I do, see all the ways I help my clients, the wrongs I right and the protection I provide — yet I’m hesitant to answer a simple question?

I wonder if there’s a type of law I could practice that I wouldn’t be reluctant to tell people about? Maybe if I worked for the district attorney, helped with adoptions, elder law, or estate planning, I’d feel a bit more confident. Who knows?

I do know there are people who are injured who will never contact a personal injury lawyer — no matter how bad they need to — because they are “not one of those people.” What’s most bothersome is that there’s a part of me that’s afraid of being seen as “one of those attorneys.”

When I do answer that I’m a lawyer — the next question is, “What type of law do you practice?”

I’ve been known to answer, “consumer protection law,” or “I help protect people against insurance companies.” I don’t want them to think “Oh, he’s one of those attorneys.”

This avoidance tactic got me thinking about how I see myself as a personal injury lawyer.

Two years ago, someone I’d just met asked me, “What single word captures the essence of how you see yourself as a personal injury lawyer?”

It didn’t take me long to find that one word. And it didn’t come from my head.

It was a heartfelt answer that connected deeply with my being. My answer was ‘Healer.’ And it was a powerful realization for me.

I help my clients heal from physical and emotional injuries. I help them heal personal issues that are getting in the way of them seeing their doctor and  following through with their providers recommendations. I help make sure they have a doctor that believes in them and they believe will get them better. I help them confront thoughts and behaviors that at times make them their own worst enemy. 

And that is something that I am proud to say.

Now, I don’t go around announcing that I’m a healer. In fact, this is the first time I’ve publicly said it.

And this knowing hasn’t completely stopped my hesitancy to discuss what I do for a living with perfect strangers.

What it has done is provide me with the strongest connection to what being a personal injury lawyer means for me.

I wish other’s opinions meant nothing to me, but the cultural attitude about attorneys is impossible for me to ignore. It’s when I understand what being a personal injury attorney means to ME as a life’s work that the word healer is a balm to the public wound I’ve carried.

What one word captures the essence of what the specific area of law you practice means to you?

Are you, or have you been, hesitant to tell someone what you do for a living?

Getting to the place where I could embrace the essence and inherent value of my work came from those early conversations. If you do hesitate sharing about what you do with others, use the comments section below as a way to begin your own discovery about what is unique in your work that’s beneficial and meaningful to others.

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  • Scott M. Hutchinson
    Reply

    I practice bankruptcy law. What I tell people who ask what area of law I practice I say “bankruptcy law… I help people and small business get a fresh financial start.” That’s my one line pitch. One word to describe the essence of what I do is “liberator.” Or described another way “freedom.” I help people get their freedom back, their lives back. When a person is buried in debt, can’t provide for their family, is being harassed by bill collectors, and has the stress and anxiety of that, a bankruptcy is a life-line for that person. Instead of continuing to be an economic indentured servant to creditors, with bankruptcy, that person has a fresh start to financial freedom and security for he and his family.

    The other thing I tell people socially is that “lawyers are the foot soldiers of the Constitution.” That is quote from Thomas Jefferson. I also state that “lawyers are peoples’ access to justice.” Saying these things immediately puts in perspective, for the person or people I’m talking with, lawyers’ essential and pivotal role in our society without having to go to any extended explanation or discussion.

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      Liberator and Freedom, great words Scott. Knowing how my working personally impacts my clients at an emotional level is incredibly rewarding. I love the Jefferson quotes.

  • Jason Posner
    Reply

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for a great post. I definitely share your feelings and thoughts and have struggled the same way. I don’t know what my one word description would be, but I liked yours (“healer”) and Scott’s (“liberator”). I also like Scott’s adage that “lawyers are peoples’ access to justice.” There is a ton of truth in that saying. Almost universally, my personal injury clients feel great relief knowing that I handle communication with the insurance companies and courts. They are often worn down, tired, confused, and frustrated when they see me. When I take over the paperwork and communication, and thereby help give them “access to justice,” their stress is alleviated.

  • Jim Dwyer
    Jim Dwyer
    Reply

    Being there for clients who are worn down, tired, confused and frustrated is amazingly rewarding. Your representation putts them on a level playing field with the adjuster who is not only a professional negotiator, but it’s their job to take care of the financial interest of the insurance company, not the injured person.

    It’s interesting how we each see the core value that we give out clients that has nothing to do with money- which is the vast majority of what our work is about.

  • Jim Vogele
    Reply

    This is an excellent and thought-provoking essay. I practice employment law, which for me is an approximately equal mix of civil rights, contract law, and wage & hour work. With a bit of tort law, constitutional law, and administrative law in the mix. But I almost always say that I am a civil rights lawyer. Title VII — the federal law banning employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin — originated as the “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Civil rights law is sometimes conceived more narrowly as involving §1983 and §1981 and voting rights cases. Over the years, I have worked in those areas a bit as well. But employment law practiced on behalf of employees is civil rights law. I love President Obama, of course, who frequently mentions his background as a civil rights lawyer, and I noticed recently that in the 4 years he spent fully engaged in civil rights work with a firm in Chicago, the firm notes that he logged about 3,723 billable hours in voting rights and employment cases. I smiled. One reason I took a lengthy sabbatical in Montana — before moving to Oregon (happily) to re-immerse myself in the practice of employment law — is that I over a decade ago I billed nearly 3,000 hours in one year as we worked up a class action for trial in California. That case eventually took 10 years to complete, after a trial and many appeals, but our 2,600 employee clients (insurance adjusters, ironically, who are people trying to make a living) finally got paid for the work they had done. The question of one word to describe my job is difficult. I can’t say civil rights. That’s two. “Survival” might work. Albeit that wouldn’t be on the tip of one’s tongue to describe an employment lawyer. But the people I represent nearly always have to work for a living. To survive. A job and an income allows them to afford shelter, to provide food on the table and an education for their children. In the end, I suppose we have to begrudgingly relate to the unsettling number of people who have a negative view of “lawyers.” Hey, there are a lot of lawyers doing work that I don’t respect. I respect these lawyers as human beings, but I don’t respect the work they do in representing primarily corporations and other large companies that deny prompt and full compensation for injuries they cause or deny fair and complete compensation for the honest, hard work of their employees. It’s always a little disappointing when people do not distinguish the good work lawyers do from the work that is less good. We’d all be happier if the good lawyers weren’t needed. But we are.

    Jim, as apparent, I found your blog to be tremendously inspiring. Keep up the good work with “Tipping the Scales” and in your office. You are needed!

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. It is greatly appreciated. You were on quite a journey for 10 years. It says a lot about who you are that you stepped back to take care of yourself in order to return to the practice as a whole functioning person that continues to love and value the work they do. Civil rights lawyers are truly at forefront of our cultures evolution. Thank you for your sharing your experiences.

  • Dave Hurst
    Reply

    Great post, Jim. My sister practices family law, and sometimes in conversations about her, when I’m feeling cantankerous, I might use the words “divorce lawyer,” just to see the reaction it will get. Then I’ll follow that up with some of the casework she’s done advocating for children and spouses that are trapped in a personal hell, and how she has helped to liberate and heal them (words intentionally taken from your post and others’ comments). When I was going through my divorce, having her in my corner as an adviser was invaluable (she did not represent me since she lives in another state). Her wisdom was hard won over years of experience, and often helped me dampen the emotional distress I was feeling and helped me focus on what was in the long term interest of both me and my kids. The lawyer I did hire, was also a huge help, and helped us get to a place where we could heal and move forward. I’m so grateful for the contributions both made in my life and the lives of others.

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      Your comments Dave are an incredible reminder of the powerfully positive impact lawyers can have on their clients lives when they set their minds to it. Each area of the low is a complex set of rules, regulations and laws that are designed to make life better. When we too rule based in our practice and not enough person based- problems arise. I’m so glad you had both your sister and lawyer to help you in so meaningfully.

  • Brian Moskowitz
    Reply

    Great post Jim. In the past when asked “What do you?” I would respond “I’m an attorney.” No more. Now I say “I practice law, it’s what I do…not who I am.” Then when they ask about the practice area, I used to say “I help rearrange families.” Now, I hit it head on and say “I practice family law.” Which leads to interesting facial expressions and comments about divorce, alimony, etc. Sometimes I’ll share stories about the lives I’ve changed and helped practicing family law, other times I’ll acknowledge their feelings and move on, and sometimes their comments are so outrageous and derogatory towards lawyers that they need a lecture and I give it to them.

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      It’s fairly amazing what some will say about lawyers. When there is no response to what someone does for a living, lawyer or not, is when I find myself wondering what they really think. I’m curious what responses have been when you’ve responded to an outrageous/derogatory comment. Thank you Brian.

    • Kacy
      Reply

      My hat is off to your astute command over this topco-bravi!

  • Brian Moskowitz
    Reply

    Most people change their tune at that point and either apologize or change the subject. Others are just looking for an argument and it doesn’t matter what I say…sort of like a Trump supporter and Clinton supporter having a debate. Lol

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