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Big Dream

Midlife Career Transitions

Advice for the restless from lawyers who have reimagined and retooled their careers.

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October/November 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 7 | Page 50
Features

Midlife Career Transistions

You and Me and Our Life Passions

What about you, Ms. or Mr. Age 30- to 40-something and ambitious for a life full of law and love? A senior advocate offers eloquent advice on how to refresh and enrich the days with difference—from delegating well, to being good to yourself, and so much more.

Fifteen years ago when I read Philip Roth’s Patrimony: A True Story, I was numbed by Roth’s aged, tough, Jersey salesman father who, as cancer closed in, was outraged, livid, that his mind still loved its own ideas and passions and yet his damned body was going to quit on him. “Should a man die at all?…” “It is a good question….” “What I am demanding is only what I deserve—another 86 years.”

Facing the undeniable that one day in the next 10 to 15 years my immortal boyhood will inevitably end occasionally makes me grumpy. How to be robust while adjusting to a life imposed by aging, injury and lowered will—most probably in imperfect sync?

By custom, bar association publications catch lawyers up on the latest trends, those essential forgettable nuances of our craft. What about for you, Ms. or Mr. Age 30- to 40-something and ambitious for a full life of law and love? In a variation on custom, this issue of Law Practice hears from experienced lawyers who at a certain age have decided to try something “different.” I counsel early attention to different. Enrich with different at least 3,000 of your 10,000 days between 40 and 70. Surely 7,000 days as a refreshed, alert advocate is a worthwhile life.

In late August in my greenhouse in my comfortable old home in Hamilton, Ontario, I am still a couple of weeks south of 70 as I write this. As you are reading it in mid-fall, I expect Patsy and I to be hiking, picnicking and bouncing from mountain inns to valley lodges in Alberto Duran’s truck in the high Andes of northeast Argentina. (Of course, no cell phone. I believe clients love lawyers who care about vigorous self-nurture and then provide focused and thoughtful counsel. No one needs a civil advocate 24-7, except those so self-absorbed that a touch of firm, cool indifference can do nothing but heal bad character.)

Between my writing and your reading, unless the case settles, there will be a three-week trial defending a lawyer on a claim that she should have sued someone she did not. The jury will decide challenging causation issues about whether obsessive-compulsive disorder is trauma induced or an unrelated natural disease. After that the civil side of the attorney general’s office will take a few days to try to strike our claim against the Ontario police for failing to protect a family during a siege by First Nations.

Do I feel weary at the thought of it? Not at all. It is not that crossword puzzles are not wit sharpening and, apparently, a force against age dementia, but for me it is better to keep on solving people’s problems for significant fees—and loving the relevance, the respect, even affection in the community I have chosen.

Law school reunions are now a montage of retirement, Florida, golf and disease. “You know,” they say, “I am so relaxed at my condo in Ft. Lauderdale.” Well, so am I—for three cottage weeks each summer. So am I—for three April weeks on a bike in Tuscany. So am I—for a long January week in Tulum, Mexico, or on a Caribbean island. Travel seems to extend my education—that nurturing bed for any fertile thought I have had since school.

The single truth that most makes me free is a partner in life who is actively creative while I am absorbed in my work. For me it works to have a life partner who is as self-absorbed in painting exceptional watercolors as I am in planning a cross-examination.

Probably my voice does not speak to most professionals. Many are strangled by cautions and fears. Social status, wealth and its display, all-consuming child nurturing, so many things can limit imagination for one’s own life. However, after all that introductory self-aggrandizement, I do have a couple of themes that may, perhaps, help you in opening up your own life in the law: Delegate well, and be good to yourself.

Delegating to Your Trusted Juniors

Having spent three and a half decades in commercial litigation, I can tell you that if you expect to take on complex, interesting, profitable cases, you will inevitably have acquired the fundamental skills of the topflight advocate. You will speak well, you will analyze problems astutely, you will be attractive to clients, you will write and plead well using compelling language, and cases will be referred to you.

Your first years you probably worked with a senior partner who is your mentor. Slowly, in your late 30s, you then start to develop your own practice, your own cases, and to some large extent you do everything. You may get some help with document discovery but the pleadings and the motions will rest with you. Everything will be done to your standard, to your satisfaction, and you will have success using that model. Then, at some point in your 40s, you start to lose control, you have too much work, you can’t get everything done, you haven’t taken a holiday for what seems like forever. This is when you need to practice delegation. This is when you will wish you had started delegating five years sooner.

In my considered opinion, and on this I am an expert, the step of learning how to delegate, to respect your juniors, to trust your juniors, to train them and help them build a career is as important as any other step you will take to developing a practice that leads you to the top of the profession.

I practice with six lawyers whose principal job over the years has been to make me look good. I have had a lot of fun building that group. Now at least three of them have their own practices and they are going through this period in their careers where they have to learn to delegate. Every one of those six people can research law better than I can. They prepare motions. They draft pleadings. They do opinions to clients. I supervise that work. I edit it. I bring my analysis to bear on every case where my name stays on the documents and I am obliged, in my view, to return the favor. To make them look good. To make sure the judges and our clients know that I trust them. When called into a courtroom, I trust them to perform at a superior level by comparison to their peers in Ontario.

Delegation is not abdication, be clear on this. Clients, properly informed, are pleased to work with smart 35-year-old lawyers whose rates are better than the senior partners and who are seen to have time and energy for that client’s case. I believe judges listen to and are ready to be persuaded by clever young advocates. So try to learn to let go, to trust as you wanted to be trusted, to mentor as you wanted to be mentored.

Being Good to Yourself

My second theme is make sure you look after yourself. There is eternal wisdom in the adage that no one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at the office. Knowing what that entails for you is something of a lifework. So while you are burning candles at both ends like a penitent on a retreat, keep one eye on the faraway oasis where sounder judgment and deeper wisdom are to be found.

When a woman or man has the capacity to organize and present a quality case, then a wide spectrum of adaptable skills is inherent in that woman or man. A first step is to promise not to give a damn about justifying, in professional terms, the way you live your life. I have a good friend in a profession who loves to travel all over the United States wherever a particular indie country musical group is playing. It seems crazy to me, but she loves it and it makes her the character she is. By contrast, my late friend Jack Sullivan never took more than a couple of days away from the office. More Irish than Danny Boy, I told him that his shamrock heart would be nurtured and enriched by a trip to the old sod. He agreed with me. He promised me. He never went.

For me what works is an eclectic range of amateur interests: a bit of opera, a bit of funk, a few novels, a bicycle trip through French villages, a rendezvous with odd and interesting friends. Enjoying all those things, in my opinion, gives me the depth to enjoy my family, to enjoy the practice of law, my clients and life itself.

Crafting Your Life’s Tale

For most of you, your career is at a different stage than mine. Like David, you are still picking up the five smooth stones—and if you pick those smooth stones that best fit the slingshot for you, then you will take Goliath out. Choose your stones with care but choose them, use them, and then sling them.

As you do so, keep close hese words of Michael Ondaatje, from his 2007 book Divisadero: “We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”

About the Author

John F. Evans , QC is a principal of Evans Sweeney Bordin in Hamilton, ON, and is a senior counsel, having practiced advocacy for over 40 years. He was selected as a Queen’s Counsel in 1980, has been certified as a Specialist in Civil Litigation by the Law Society of Upper Canada, and is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

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