Lawyers, and Being Really Useful

Thomas the Tank Engine and corporate lawyers have a lot in common.

The highest praise for Thomas is to be a Really Useful Engine. When he does well, just like a lawyer, he is rewarded for his good behavior by being given more work.

His punishment for poor behaviour is to be forbidden to work and all of the engines live in fear of being left to rust in a siding, never to be useful again.

I can’t be the first person to be curious about whether Reverend Awdry, writing in 1945, was attempting to send a particular message to a particular social class about their appropriate station in life… However it has recently occurred to me that the good vicar might actually have been trying to teach all of us something even more profound.

Most of us, for quite some time now, have been quite certain that our primary goal in life is to be happy. However, more recently some of us have started to ask if perhaps instead what we actually need is to feel useful.

Widely attributed to Emerson but probably more likely said by a man called Leo Rosten is the following quote:

“I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be “happy.”
I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate.
It is, above all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.”

I think one of the reasons it is so difficult to be happy in law is because it is difficult to be certain that what we are doing is both useful and valued.


Lawyers are people of service. We want to be useful. We want to be of use. Like Thomas the Tank Engine, there is no higher praise and no higher purpose than being “A Really Useful Engine”.

As lawyers what we often forget that we are people who have chosen to devote our labour to others. It’s true that we are paid well and we receive some status for our jobs, but no sensible person becomes a lawyer for money and status. There are, after all, much better paying and much more prestigious jobs that a high school valedictorian could choose.

Many of us duxes, prize winners and over-achievers, made decisions about what we wanted to do with our lives because we thought we would be putting our greatest asset, our mind, towards the service of others. Most of us wanted to save the world. All of us wanted to make a difference.

We thought we could be useful. We felt that we would be valued. Ultimately, we hoped that would lead to fulfilment.

Those of us who survived law school did so because we understood what we were learning could be put to use in the service of others. Those of us who survive practice believe we have something to give, and something of value to offer. Not because we have something to take.


For those of us who survived the first 5 years of practice, who ploughed on and are still here 10, 15, 20 years later, we are at the pinnacle of our careers. We are well blooded, well trained, competent and confident. We have conquered most of the professional goals we have set for ourselves. We can hold our own with CEOs, Ministers, and even engineers. So why are we unhappy?

Why do we feel so uneasy when we look ahead at another 20 years of practice, and quietly ask ourselves, is this really it?

I believe it is because we don’t feel useful. We don’t feel valued.

We are a polished and well-oiled tank engine that is only used occasionally to our full abilities.

We have gained extraordinary experience and skills.

We are so much more than ‘just a lawyer’.

But there is no clear place for us where everything extra we can do is truly valued.

Our choices are to move to management or try for the thankless task of partnership, where we must be all things to all people but feel we never have the time to do anything truly well.

Or we just keep going, doing what we are doing now, maybe in a new place with a new hot desk or a new cubicle or a new window, but fundamentally, the same job.

It’s hard to feel like we are making a difference this way – to our own lives or to anyone else’s.


What if we could find a new way of organising ourselves with other like-minded lawyers, to be more than lawyers, together? What if all those aspects of ourselves that have grown with us as we have grown as lawyers were able to be put to use? What if we could be our full professional selves, doing exactly what we are good at and exactly what we love?

Not just a project lawyer, a deal lawyer, a telco lawyer, a tax lawyer. But a negotiator, a project manager, a strategist, a client whisperer? Maybe even a nurturer, a coach, a marketer, a politician, an organiser, a leader, a social litmus test?

If we can understand ourselves as more than lawyers, we can recognise those parts of ourselves that are unfulfilled.

If we can find others with complementary skills, we can work together to feel useful, to be useful, and to find our pleasure in practice again.

And perhaps it will be our turn to grin from buffer to boiler, a really useful engine once more.


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