Young law

Five young lawyers discuss what it means to start a career in the 2010s

Five young lawyers discuss what it means to start a career in the 2010s - Photo by Rena Naltsas
April 2017
By David Thomas
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

They’re Big Law partners, small-firm associates, heads of their own solo shops. They’re working in legal services, civil rights law, transactions, divorces, criminal cases and every other practice area there is.

And the oldest among them is 34.

Sarah Katherine Hess, Mitchell D. Holzrichter, Alyease D. Jones, Hanan E. Van Dril and Robin V. Waters are all on different paths as lawyers. But they’re forging their way through and into a new world.

Some concerns are familiar: They’re still worried about maintaining an appropriate work/life balance and not letting their work affect them. They all want to pay off the debt they’ve acquired through law school.

But that debt is at levels previous generations of lawyers never saw. If law school tuition had kept on pace with inflation since 1985, a year of resident student tuition at an American Bar Association-approved public school would have cost about $4,300 in 2013.

Instead, that one year cost almost $24,000.

They’re also trying to build stable careers in a changing industry, particularly in the decade since the Great Recession helped shift the legal profession into a buyer’s market, a change a recent Georgetown University Law Center study called “foundational and, in all likelihood, largely irreversible.”

Five young lawyers with five different paths spoke about what it takes to start a career in the 2010s and how, even with challenges both brand new and eternal, they have no regrets — mostly.

Bringing work home

Hess’ work at the Legal Council for Health Justice brings her into contact with children who are facing a multitude of complicated health and legal issues. For instance, she might be helping the family of a child with sickle cell anemia and asthma obtain certain services from a school.

It started to affect her outside of work hours.

“I realized at one point I was working with so many kids who were experiencing homelessness that I started to assume every kid I met was homeless,” Hess said. “I started to assume that kids were just going to be in a terrible situation. So I needed to start spending time with kids where the focus is not a terrible situation.”

Hess calls it vicarious trauma. The American Bar Association calls it “compassion fatigue” and considers it different from regular burnout.

Specifically, the ABA warns that attorneys like Hess — practitioners who work in criminal, family or juvenile law — are at particular risk.

“Young lawyers in public interest work generally have a pretty steep learning curve,” said Cathy Krebs, committee director of the ABA Section of Litigation, Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. “At a firm, you might be more gradually brought into cases. In public interest work, you might be handed a full caseload.”

Krebs said the qualities that make young lawyers attractive hires — enthusiasm, passion and a willingness to put in the extra hours to prove themselves — can also push them headlong into a type of fatigue they don’t have the experience to avoid.

“It may be harder for them to stop and take care of themselves in a way that prevents compassion fatigue,” she said.

Van Dril also knows the emotional risk of taking cases personally.

As an associate at the Law Offices of Al Hofeld Jr., a firm focusing in the areas of public interest, civil rights and commercial rights, Van Dril has had to tell potential clients the statute of limitations has expired for filing suit on an injustice they allege.

“They had two years to file a lawsuit, they didn’t — literally their right to file a lawsuit has disappeared forever,” she said.

One case that stayed with Van Dril was that of a transgender woman named Tracy who killed herself after she was allegedly raped by a violent sex offender while incarcerated in an Illinois men’s prison. The guards allegedly orchestrated the rape because of Tracy’s gender identity, Van Dril said.

“I cried when I read the intake for this case. For so many reasons, but a large reason is that this woman [Tracy’s mother] is trying to do something, she is ‘bleeding’ … and she doesn’t know what to do,” Van Dril said.

Van Dril’s office ultimately declined to accept the case, but they referred Tracy’s mother to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Uptown People’s Law Center. Van Dril said the main reason they passed on her case was they felt it would have been difficult to prove what happened without Tracy’s testimony.

Krebs has coordinated several seminars teaching organizations the warning signs and ways to avoid compassion fatigue. She tries to teach lawyers that self-care isn’t just a matter of comfort, but of meeting the ethical standards of the practice. An emotionally drained lawyer cannot be a zealous advocate.

“Compassion fatigue is something that lawyers might not feel comfortable talking about,” she said. “It feels mushy and not ‘legal.’”

Both Waters, an attorney at the boutique federal criminal defense firm Durkin & Roberts, and Jones, who runs her own family law firm, The Law Office of Alyease Jones, also reported about how the work can be grueling.

“It wears on you and it is grueling and there are certain times you just have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘I need a couple of days off to recharge my batteries,’” Waters said.

The fire rises

A lawyer’s career is a marathon and not a sprint, Holzrichter warned. “You’re going to have busy times, but you have to keep a reasonable pace.”

When he started out as an associate at Mayer Brown in 2008, Holzrichter said he set reasonable expectations for himself. He wanted to succeed, but he didn’t strive to be the top biller.

“It takes some self-control,” Holzrichter said. “It’s something you practice and develop as an associate, but it’s one of the most important skill sets an associate at a large law firm can learn.”

Holzrichter said he makes it a point to be home for dinner with family and be there when his son goes to bed. Jones expressed similar sentiments, saying she keeps an eye on the clock and will use her husband’s arrival at home as a sign to slow it down.

“I make sure that when my husband gets home from work, I am not just loading everything on him about, ‘OK, I have to complete this, this and this,’” Jones said. “I carve out probably a little time so we can talk about what’s been going on throughout the day.”

Waters sticks to her calendar. The cases the Loyola University Chicago School of Law graduate works on can be endless in terms of paperwork and research. In order to give her personal life a fighting chance, Waters schedules everything in her office calendar — lunch, a concert or dinner with friends.

Meanwhile, Hess also works as a substitute teacher at Ballet Chicago, a dance studio that happens to be located in the same building. When she gets home, Hess changes out of her work clothes, signaling an almost-hard stop to any emotional heavy lifting she’ll be doing in a given day.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to answer e-mails, but it puts a punctuation point on the traumatic part,” Hess said.

Van Dril said she feels drained at work and has contemplated returning to criminal law. When she was at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Van Dril interned for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and spoke highly of the experience.

“Civil litigation is completely draining, and I don’t know if I can do it long term,” she said. “I’d like to get back into criminal law on the prosecution side, because civil litigation is … is draining. It’s very tough, and it’s hard when you’re a plaintiff’s attorney.”

Van Dril said she takes pride in some of the small victories she’s able to achieve over the course of a case. As example, she cited a case where she used physical, verifiable evidence to prove a police officer had lied.

Waters expressed similar sentiments, recounting how her and her colleagues successfully persuaded a federal judge to sentence her client to 3½ years in prison as opposed to 15.

“We have to redefine what it means to win a case in many ways,” Waters said. “If a not guilty verdict is the only way you’ve deemed to have won a case, you’ll be very unsatisfied.”

Money talks

Because she runs her own law firm, Jones has other money worries apart from the student debt that is ubiquitous with law school.

For instance, she has to pay rent for the office space she has at the offices at 208 S. Jefferson St. Her quarters are part of the Justice Entrepreneurs Project, an 18-month program that touts itself as an “incubator” for newer attorneys.

She also has to shell out money for her law license with the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission; the legal software she uses to schedule her day and communicate with her clients; and malpractice insurance.

“I would be naïve if I said I didn’t worry about it,” Jones said. “It weighs on you.”

It’s not hard to see why. In 2013, the average Illinois law student graduated with more than $100,000 in student debt, according to the Illinois State Bar Association. But that figure can increase to $200,000 when undergraduate debt, bar study loans and interest are added in.

The attorneys interviewed appear to have student debt totals that ranged from $20,000 to more than $170,000 — although two of them would not say how much they owed.

Their ability to get scholarships also varied. Hess, for instance, got a full ride for tuition and fees but still had to take out loans to pay for her living expenses. Holzrichter mainly used all student loans to finance his education at the University of Michigan Law School.

Jones’ law practice centers around family law. Not all of her clients are wealthy, so she has modest prices. But the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School graduate is feeling good after her firm’s first year and said the second year looks promising.

Holzrichter said his student debt influenced his career decision, which the ISBA found to be one of the likely outcomes of having such high debt. He also noted that, when he graduated from law school in 2008, he and his classmates were entering the job market near the height of the Great Recession.

“It did impose a sense of discipline in terms of saving and investing,” Holzrichter said, who said his debt was mostly paid off. “If I graduated three years earlier, I would have been less careful.”

For instance, Holzrichter said he and his wife saved for years before they put a down payment on a house. Going into public service at that time would have also been a bigger challenge. But Holzrichter eventually waded into that realm in late 2014, when he began working for Gov. Bruce Rauner as his deputy general counsel. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity, but said he knew at the time it likely would be a temporary foray into government work.

Holzrichter rejoined Mayer Brown in January as a partner. He said he doesn’t think he would have changed his career path had he graduated with a smaller debt, and he credited that decision to his enjoyment working at Mayer Brown.

Meanwhile, Hess said she was waiting to see if she will be getting assistance from her alma mater. The John Marshall Law School has a loan repayment assistance program that distributes checks twice a year to alumni who have at least $60,000 in outstanding debt and are working in public interest law. The checks total $5,000 a year.

Hess said she has “trimmed all the fat” from her life in order to afford her job with the Legal Council for Health Justice. She said she doesn’t know how much packing her lunch every day or cutting out the dog walker will help if she doesn’t qualify for the assistance program.

“This is my dream job,” Hess said. “If I have to make changes, this is the priority still. If I have to rejigger my household, working in public interest is absolutely the goal.”

What more changes can she make? “That’s a great question,” she said.

No regrets

Despite the hardships that have come with the practices, the five attorneys generally expressed gratitude for their current career.

Not every attorney thought they would be practicing the kind of law that they are doing now. Family law practitioner Jones, for instance, always thought she would end up practicing criminal law after school.

“I’m very comfortable with the area of law that I have chosen,” Jones said. “It just fits me.”

Ditto with Waters: “I think every lawyer will tell you that you have to take care of yourself. I don’t worry about burning out because I couldn’t do anything other than what I am doing.”

Meanwhile, Van Dril is considering moving from civil to criminal law. She said, ultimately, she wants to become a judge.

“Civil litigation … is a lot of writing and pretrial discovery and not a lot of trials or hearings,” she said. “So that’s kind of a disappointment because in law school I got into a lot of more trials with the state’s attorney’s office, and one of the reasons why I kind of want to get back to criminal.”

dthomas@lbpc.com