Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Dear Katie column / Life

Dear Katie Column – Reconciling Motivation vs Reputation

How do I reconcile my motivation for studying law being to help people, with the reputation lawyers have for being greedy and ‘slimy’? – Cait, 22

This is a great question. I take slimy to mean cynical, aggressive, manipulative, scheming, underhanded, and possibly unethical or even corrupt. (I also take it to mean super creepy, but I’m assuming that by putting it in opposition to helping people you’re not so worried about dudes with oily hair telling you to smile.)

The simple answer to your question is, of course, that you get to decide what kind of lawyer you become, and not all lawyers are slimy. In fact, far fewer are slimy than you might expect. And lawyers do some really fundamental work in service of democracy, human rights, justice, all that nice jazz. You will recall that when The Good Place chose a “highest calling”-type job for Eleanor in season one, they chose death row defence lawyer. And that’s a show about what it means to be a good person.

But that answer’s a bit facetious, because I know what you’re getting at.

Your quandary is a real one, and it arises from some unavoidable facts. The first is that most lay people don’t know what lawyers do, so there is a persistent perception in the zeitgeist that lawyers are super slimy. The second is that if you are a lawyer who represents people, no-one’s interests but your client’s matter (subject of course to legal and ethical duties). Your job is to advocate for another, which often means advocating against a different person, or even contrary to your own values. This can get into slimy territory, even if you are extremely polite while you do it. You’re also an employee, so if you’re asked to do something you mostly have to do it. Add to that the rules in New Zealand that say you can’t drop clients just because you don’t like them and the risk of sliminess rises even more.

Some of this you will have control over, and some of it you will have less control over. You obviously won’t have control over how you’re perceived; that’s other people’s business. And if you work for a firm or other organization that represents clients you won’t have control over who those clients are or what you are asked to do by employers.

But there are two key bits to this where you do have control.

The first is your own ethical and professional code and your choices about how you do what you do (and how you interact with non-lawyers, especially at parties). At work, you can maintain these by paying attention to them and ensuring you live by them as much as you can. You can decide to cultivate compassion and empathy in your work, and brace against cynicism. You can reflect regularly on where you are doing well and not so well, and what you’d like to change. Outside of work, you can ward off lawyer creep and let your non-lawyer friends win arguments sometimes. This is the “be the change you want to see in the world” model of lawyering, and it’s a good starting point.

However, in my view, it’s insufficient on its own. You can be the most respectful and ethical person in the world but if you’re working for the mafia things will get slimy very fast.

Which brings me to the second bit: your environment. Lawyers, as I’ve said many times, are also humans, and humans are extremely subject to their environments, far more than we realise at a conscious level. This includes physical environments and social ones, and even the ones inside our own minds, as any anxious person will tell you. If you work in a slimy place, or even just a place where there are occasional slime spills that don’t get cleaned up right away, chances are you will start to get a little slimy over time. What is considered normal and acceptable in your workplace can quickly become what you think is normal and acceptable, regardless of whether you thought that when you started.

You get to choose where you apply to work and the types of jobs you seek out, including the areas of practice you pursue. This is important since it allows you to shift the risk of whether you’ll be doing much slime harvest. Slime build up is more likely when you’re working for moneyed interests, especially if those interests tend to favour money over human interests. That is an extremely broad stroke, and in New Zealand we are lucky not to have so much of the ruthlessness of bigger economies, but you get what I mean. Employers who work for powerful clients will generally end up slimier than employers that work for a range of people or for more disempowered people.

If the slime that concerns you most is the fear of working for clients you don’t want to, you could do work that doesn’t require you to work on behalf of one person at the expense of another. Government lawyers fall into this category, and inhouse counsel, assuming you like the company you work for. So do judges’ clerks, and the lawyers who work at the Law Commission or for large NGOs. There are any number of places where lawyers do important, people-serving, humanity-affirming work.

Know, here, that we’re not talking in black and white. There are not “pure” places to work and “slimy” places. There are bad people in otherwise good places and kind people in ethically-dubious places. I have worked in powerful national firms alongside kind, scrupulously ethical, compassionate lawyers. I have seen lawyers who started out wanting to serve people but got so burnt out on the lack of resourcing that they became detached from the humanity, and started to look a little slimy. There’s no 100% effective vaccine against slime, but doing non-law firm work like this is kind of like washing your hands after handling raw chicken.

It is still sad to me that lawyers as a cohort have a terrible reputation, but I get it. On TV we’re full of mental trickery and dispassionate rationalization. At parties we love to play devil’s advocate and often use terrible puns to do so. Our reputation is not unearned. But the reputation of a group says nothing about an individual in that group. If serving people is your priority, and you are less comfortable with the grey areas, try and choose an area of law or an employer whose purpose matches yours. Good luck!

If you have a query, please email, with your first name (or a pen name) and your age – these details, as well as information provided as part of your query may be published. Submissions will go directly to Katie at Symphony Law, who will review and select queries for future posts. Please keep in mind that unfortunately, Katie cannot answer every question, correspond directly with readers, or give professional advice.


Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at Check out her website for more details at: Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.

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