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Words We Often Fear, But Ought To Lawyer By

Good day, Readers…

I apologize for my recent absence.  Lately, my focus has shifted (temporarily, but necessarily) away from blogging to other aspects of my life, career and personal.  As some of you know, teaching has been my central passion for several years now.  Active law practice — at least on a full-time basis – simply fails to sustain me mentally or emotionally.  It is an unfortunate, yet ever-increasing complaint one hears from our colleagues, isn’t it?

As an aside, it is also springtime in beautiful Northern California, and frankly, it is simply too gorgeous here to spend all of one’s time sitting in front of a computer screen.  Gardening also happens to be an equal passion, which I have been indulging lately.  In fact, I am sitting in my back garden now as I write to you, and I am happier than I could ever be sitting cooped up in my law office.

That being said, don’t count me out…Because I have been focusing on advancing my teaching career, I suppose I find myself thinking a lot these days about lawyering from the standpoint of a teacher rather than litigator.  I find myself asking why it is that we lawyers wind up being so dis-satisfied with our careers?  Why do we permit such atrocious work -life balance to dominate our existence?  Economics aside, does it ever end up being worth it?  Time away from spouses, loved ones, children, friends is priceless and irreplaceable.  No case – no matter what the issue – compares.  They are not even close.  So, why do we let things get to the point where we are so burned out, many so depressed to the point of being suicidal, substance addicted?  How and where does this begin?

It does not begin at our first job as a new associate, although such positions are notorious and contribute significantly to burn out.  Like the weeds I have (until lately) neglected in my backyard, this problem of work/life dis-satisfaction begins to take root in law school.  To no small degree, it is promoted by the Legal Academy itself — by an adversarial learning atmosphere that dominates many schools, by the promotion of an unhealthy degree of competition, and — perhaps most importantly — by inculcating students with the notion that it is unacceptable to not know the answer to a question.  In my opinion, it is the nasty little by-product of the Socratic Method.

Recently, I read a most interesting article from the Harvard Business Review, a journal that I find increasingly persuasive and relevant on many topics, not just strictly business.  This article is entitled “The Words Many Managers Are Afraid To Say.”  It could have just as easily been written for lawyers, which is why I chose to mention it here today.

Of particular interest, this article lists a number of key phrases that managers are afraid to say, but should say.  These phrases are equally feared by lawyers, but ought to become words lawyers live by.  They are, with my commentary:

“I don’t know” – This could mean one doesn’t know the answer, or one needs time to reflect before committing to a course of action or decision.  What is wrong with that?  Nothing.  Unfortunately, we lawyers have been subjected to rigorous pummeling by the Socratic Method which rarely, if ever, permits “I don’t know” as a proper response to inquiry.

“I was wrong” – When I was in school, and in the months immediately following, I was told repeatedly to never say these words or any variation of it.  To do so risked ridicule, malpractice, etc.  Hogwash.  If you are wrong, admit it.  Despite what you have heard, admitting your error will cause your credibility to soar.

“I’m sorry” – I have written on this topic before.  There is nothing so dis-arming as a heartfelt apology, without qualification, waffling or passive aggressive blame.

“Would you help me?” – There are times when we, as attorneys, cannot say to our opponent, “Help me,” because it may prejudice the client’s case or otherwise cause detriment.  However, as a general proposition, I have found most people who are not sado-masochistic to be extremely willing to help, once asked.  Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, we lawyers often fail to ask for help, to ask for a referral to help our business stay afloat, etc.  Why?  I believe it is because asking for help is perceived by us to be a sign of weakness.  This is ludicrous.  In fact, there are times when asking for help is the hallmark of strength and wisdom.

“What do you think?” – Have you ever encountered a lawyer that did not want to tell you their “2 cents” about a topic, any topic?  Usually, when asked, you get about 25 cents.  Nevertheless, lawyers often become so myopic in their views about their cases that they abhor the very thought of asking opposing counsel what they think.  This is a grievous mistake.

“What would you do?” – Again, there will be times when this question would be inappropriate to ask of one’s opponent.  However, it is hard for me to think of another question that so says, “I respect you and your opinion,” as this one does.  Yet, we fail again and again to ask it.  Why?  Because for some, this question sounds a lot like a variation of “I don’t know [what to do in the situation at hand].”  So what if you don’t.  You are only human.

“Could you explain [your position] to me.  I’m not sure I get it.” – Rather than dismissing your opponent’s position, ask them to explain it to you, humbly and without verbal defensiveness.  You might just learn something.

As I said, I have my teacher hat on a lot these days, so those of you who are actively practicing might not be persuaded by what I have written.  If that is the case, I encourage you to visit Gerry Spence‘s blog, and in particular take a look at his article, “The Great Power of Ignorance.”  Having grown up myself in the sticks of Southern Illinois, I can appreciate Spence’s article a great deal.  You might as well.

I will close this post by simply saying – Learn to let yourself be fallible.  It isn’t easy, and I have not fully mastered this quality in all circumstances.  But, I am convinced that it is a quality necessary for us lawyers to at least work towards in order to achieve greater happiness in what we are called upon to do.

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