Most lawyers would probably admit that not only are the times “achangin”, but chaos is trying to take the upper hand. It seems that the deck is being reshuffled and everything we used to take for granted is undergoing complete and utter restructuring. Never in our history has our country needed us more to bring sanity back into the world. Constitutional norms are being exploded, jurisprudence is getting a bat to the head, and trying to anticipate what may or may not happen in the coming year is truly difficult if not downright ugly. I am only 65, so I say this with a bit of misgiving, but it seems to me that the division between states and the republic has never been so contentious with individual freedoms and rights at stake. The hidden underbelly of our traditional institutions has turned upside down and we are disgusted with what we see. The nature of the practice of law is dramatically changing due to computers and the internet. We no longer sit in an ivory tower dispensing justice like a Pez dispenser. What to do, what to do?
We have to do it better. When we became lawyers, we implicitly agreed that we had to conduct our legal and business affairs with integrity and honesty. We took an oath to uphold the laws of the land. Ironically, in today’s legal environment there are a lot of conflicting laws that make that oath more complicated. We forget sometimes that we are human beings and prone to all of the vices and temptations that everyone else has in this society. We have one of the highest addiction rates of all of the learned professions due to the stress and anxiety of being a lawyer. I attribute that primarily to the struggle between our altruism and the business of practicing law. We all wanted to make the world a better place when we went to law school, but the reality of making a living as a lawyer was more problematic. I think of lawyers as “warrior monks” who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of spiritual justice and then find out that the lines between right and wrong are often dictated by money and power. No wonder we are so confused. The trick is to remember that we are here to serve our clients the best we can and be satisfied with that.
Remember to Be an Example. I was a general civil trial lawyer for decades and often had to tell myself that the only reason I was there was to help people through the worst time of their lives. That included hundreds of divorce cases which impressed upon me how wicked people could be. It took me many years to realize that I did not have to win every case, I just needed to stand tall and hold my client’s hand during what I am sure was a very traumatic experience for them. I think I had a good reputation for honesty and integrity, at least my peers rated me AV in Martindale Hubbell. It is ironic that in some of the cases which I felt I had lost, and irrationally blamed myself for, the clients came back years later and thanked me for putting my heart and soul into their case. They did not blame me for the result, they actually felt that the result was generally fair. They were grateful for my compassion and commitment for their case. It was my ego that convinced me that we should have done better. It was very rewarding for those clients to tell me that they just wanted someone to stand up for them, regardless of how it turned out.
Be Kind to Yourself. I remember my father, who the Wall Street Journal once described as a “legendary trial attorney” (try living up to that), once told me that one of his biggest regrets was losing the defense of a criminal trial when he was an officer in the US Army in Germany just after WWII. The details of the case would lead one to believe that the charges were politically motivated, but my father had no legal training and was the only officer the defendant knew. The thing that struck me the most was he still blamed himself for the outcome, fifty years later. That is a lot of baggage to be carrying around. As lawyers, we need to remember that the outcome is sometimes beyond our control and if we do the best we can, then we can rest easy. The biggest problem we all have with regret is we are judging the past by what we know now, not what we knew then. We all become better lawyers through our learning experiences, and our biggest learning experiences usually aren’t very pleasant. That is the nature of life. I carried every “loss” around with me in my baggage compartment. It is good to remember our learning experiences; however, it is not helpful to regret or blame ourselves for them. We become better lawyers with every case we handle, regardless of the outcome.
Get a Sense of Humor. Life is short enough without knowing some good jokes. My favorite lawyer joke goes something like this: “A lawyer gets a divorce from his wife and decides to start dating again. He joins a ‘speed dating’ club and goes out for a trial run. He meets a gorgeous woman who he is very interested in. As they only had a few minutes to talk, he says, ‘I am a successful lawyer but I need to make a confession. I love to play golf. I play on Saturdays and Sundays and practice a couple of times a week. I think you are incredibly beautiful and want to see you again, but if you have a problem with me playing golf let’s not waste each other’s time.’ The woman said, ‘I appreciate your honesty. I have a confession to make too. I am a hooker.’ The lawyer thought about it for a second and responded, “If you straighten your left arm, that should straighten that right out.” My point is lawyers often take themselves too seriously. When was the last time you had a good belly laugh? When was the last time you had a fun time at work or at home? Loosen up, get a grip, get a life and learn a few good jokes.
You Are Not a Lawyer. Who you are has nothing to do with what you do. What you do is practice law. Who you are is a human being doing the best you can. You may also be a spouse, a parent, a teacher, an athlete, a scholar, a friend, pet owner, gardener, singer, a son/daughter, volunteer and many other things. Do not limit yourself to being “a lawyer”. I suspect that if you were good enough to get into law school and pass the bar exam you are pretty intelligent, more than the average bear. Give yourself some credit. You are god’s gift to the world.