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News & Press: Montana Lawyer

Is it time to move on?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018  
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By Jay Lansing

In April of last year, I returned home to Billings after an oral argument before the Ninth Circuit in Seattle and told my wife that I just did not want to do this any longer. I had practiced law for over 33 years and was only 59 years old. While I did not have the money to retire and did not know what I wanted to do for the rest of my working career, I knew what I did not want to do.

Over the past few years, I found myself writing in my daily journal that I did not know if I could do another trial, complaining about a particularly difficult client, and wishing for it to be Saturday. Often I would wake up at 3 a.m. thinking and worrying about cases and clients and being unable to go back to sleep. An unhealthy cynicism about the criminal justice system was creeping into my thinking, and I was just generally unhappy at work. The same unhappiness tempered the happiness that I felt in other parts of my life. I did not want to become so unhappy that I would start abusing alcohol or begin not caring about my clients or the outcome of their cases.

If my practice of law was causing my unhappiness, then I needed to do something about it and fix it. The practice of law is not a profession that lends itself to being a part-time job. Our schedule is oftentimes determined by others, such as the court or the client. I had practiced almost exclusively in the area of criminal defense, and I did not think that changing my area of practice at this point in my legal career made any sense – and I did not think that such a change would result in newfound happiness.

I decided that the best course of action was to close my practice, and the quicker the better. I was concerned if I slowly closed my practice that I would be creating more problems and really changing nothing. The first task was telling my clients what I intended to do and a general explanation why. No doubt this was the hardest thing to do – hard for me and my client. 
Before meeting with each client, I determined which cases I could realistically complete in the next 60 to 90 days and which cases I could not.

As to those clients whose cases I would not be able to complete, I informed them that I would do my best to assist them in securing new counsel; that I would be returning the unused portion of any retainers; and that I would do my best to make sure that I did not charge them for work which would need to be duplicated by their new attorneys. I accepted no new cases.

Admittedly, there were some sad days, such as when I had my last court appearance before Judge Susan Watters or taking off of the office walls the certificates I worked so hard for. By the end of July, I had no active cases.

This is not the solution for everyone, and please understand that I am not talking about being down in the dumps after an adverse verdict or decision. But if you are continually unhappy, if you feel trapped by the practice of law, if you are drinking too much, or if you are depressed, then you owe it to yourself, your loved ones, your clients, and the profession to examine whether your unhappiness and all that comes with it are directly related to what you do for a living. We attend seminars about attorney wellness where we are informed about our rates for depression, alcoholism, and suicide as compared to other professions. I am keenly aware of the lasting effects of suicide as both of my parents suffered through the death of each of their fathers by suicide. And while we discuss the different resources, including counseling and treatment, available to attorneys, very little is said about simply getting out of the practice of law. I know that in some ways I felt trapped in my profession – it provided me with a level of income that I enjoyed; I did not know what other kind of work I could do; and I worried I would be considered a failure if I quit.

My wife and I have now moved to Florida where my wife is working and I am looking for my new career. I do not know how the rest of my life will play out, but I’ll figure it out. If I wake up now in the middle of the night it’s because I have to use the bathroom again. I have no regrets. I am proud of what I have done in my legal career, the people I have helped over the years, and the reputation I worked hard to earn. There are some attorneys who can do hundreds of trials in their career and others who want to practice into their 70s and 80s. That is not me and that may not be you. I did my best for as long as I could.

There is a poem by Ms. Saxon N. White Kessinger titled “There Is No Indispensable Man,” who at one point lived in Montana. The poem is an exercise in understanding your humble position in the world, and she suggests taking a bucket and filling it with water and

“Put your hand in it up to the wrist, 
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you will be missed.”

She concludes the poem by recommending that one should just do the best that they can and be proud of themselves, recognizing that no one is indispensable.

In August, I closed the office door behind me and pulled my hand out of the bucket of water. On Sept. 26, the State Bar of Montana welcomed 67 new members at the swearing-in ceremony at the Montana Capitol. Wishing happiness for everyone.

Jay Lansing practiced law in Billings from 1984 to 2017, primarily in the area of criminal defense. In March, he began his new career as a Guest Coordinator with The Villages in Florida.