GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2006

The Zelinsky Code

Our plucky explorers were just about to uncover a secret that had been hidden away for centuries, one that, if revealed, would shake the very foundation of the legal profession. They had determined the seven-letter word that made up the combination necessary to open the ancient vessel’s lock. The letters were lining up on the lock, and the last one clicked into place with a sound that would usher in a new day.

Our heroes in this story are two solo attorneys, Melissa Dorf, with a practice in a small town in northern Minnesota, and Jim Mayhere, who maintained a practice in a neighboring state. They had pursued their quest to crack the Zelinsky Code ever since they stumbled across the first clue more than nine years ago (I must humbly apologize to my loyal readers that I am not at liberty to reveal here this first clue and the circumstances of its discovery).

This is what led them to where they were now, in a cramped basement of the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, New York. Built in 1652, it is the oldest structure still standing in New York City.

I could go on about the fascinating details of how Ms. Dorf and Mr. Mayhere made their discovery and the incredible dangers they experienced along the way, but I would need far more space than has been allotted to me here by my Editor, though I am sure that if I took the trouble to do so one day, someone would turn it into a movie and I would make lots of money.

The only detail that I need to add now is that one Max Zelinsky, a local Dutch lawyer, took refuge in the Wyckoff House sometime in the late 1600s when control of the New York colony was being bounced back and forth between the Dutch and the English like a tennis ball at the U.S. Open. Max played a vital role in the early history of New York City, but that is a story for another time. What is important is that the Wyckoff House is where he hid his secret, which remained undiscovered for more than three centuries until found by our adventurous attorneys.

They slowly unscrolled the parchment from the vessel that had been hidden in a secret compartment in a basement wall of the Wyckoff House. In a script that clearly indicated that this was written a really long time ago, it said . . . something in Dutch, which they did not understand. They were quick to find a translator, which is remarkable even for a large city like New York because the message was written in an old form of Dutch not easily understood today, even by someone born speaking the language. Here is the translation of the message, which is not entirely precise owing to the difficulty of translating certain seventeenth-century Dutch colloquialisms:

Welcome my fellow lawyer, for that is what you must be to have followed my clues and determined the code to open its hiding place. What I document here and hide for a more tolerant and understanding generation is a belief considered heretical by the standards of my day: The concept of being a member of the legal profession and still having a life. [Note: The Dutch words used for this last phrase are untranslatable into English, so the translator did the best that she could.] What seems to be even more threatening to the legal community is that I have developed a method that a lawyer can use to create such a life. I just hinted at this one evening with some colleagues at a tavern (I confess that we had done our fair share of drinking by then), and they quickly reached for their pistols and daggers. And so I go to these extraordinary measures to keep my secret safe and hopefully pass it on to a future generation of lawyers that will be more receptive to its principles.

At this point I must interrupt because the measures that Zelinsky laid out were presented within a seventeenth-century context. What value is it to say, “Be sure to keep your horse well fed and have water for it available at all times”? However, there are modern corollaries that will do just as well, and in this case one can merely substitute “Take care of your staff.”

So, without further ado, here, revised only as much as needed to be relevant to twenty-first-century lawyers, are the six principles by which lawyers can have their own lives, as were set down more that three centuries ago by a lawyer who surely was ahead of his time. They are followed by the best interpretations that can be given from Zelinsky’s annotations, which followed in a somewhat random and confusing fashion.

I. Support first that cause which is the most important cause for any man.

In creating goals and direction in one’s life, each person must start with his or her own goals and concerns first. You should be the first cause that you support, or else all others will be incomplete, no matter how noble.

II. Encourage the quiet inspirations that lodge in your heart.

Most people have made a lifetime habit of suppressing their dreams and aspirations. It takes a lot of work to pull out thoughts that were banished long ago for being impractical or immature. But they never go away. They are still there, waiting to be realized. If you feel that there is simply no opportunity to follow principles I and II, then read on to the principles that follow.

III. Reduce life to its simplest components.

This might be one of the toughest challenges for a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to see complexity and nuance in everything. But think of the benefits if you could reduce your complicated life to a set of simple goals and priorities. Life would be much more manageable. Most lawyers won’t have a clue of where to start—which leads us to the next principle.

IV. Know what is important and what is not.

A person will often grow concerned and anxious about a situation, whether business or personal. How often has it happened that after some thought one realizes that all of this energy is directed at something that is not so important after all? Sometimes it takes a great personal tragedy for people to realize what is really important and what is not. But one doesn’t have to wait for tragedy to gain this wisdom.

V. Keep the good; discard the bad.

Once you know what is important and what is not, if there are things in your life that are causing you grief that are not important to you, many times you can take measures to remove them from your life. A troubling client is one example. Lawyers may feel they must hold tightly onto every client, but after realizing that a pleasant day is more important than the income derived from a particularly bothersome client, then the decision to get rid of that client becomes an easy one.

VI. Foolishness has its place; sadly, lawyers are usually the last to know this.

Perhaps it is not wise to be silly in front of a judge, although that may not always be the case. However, one always should have some foolishness in one’s life and maintain the ability to laugh at oneself. Even kings had court jesters. Do not wear that serious lawyer’s face all of the time. Don’t always attempt to be logical. And remember to get foolish not just with children but with adults as well. You’ll find the world a happier place if you do.

After reading these principles, Ms. Dorf and Mr. Mayhere took them to heart. Ms. Dorf has reduced her hours at her law practice and is now running for public office. Mr. Mayhere has made more time in his day to take care of a favorite elderly aunt who lives nearby.

For those of you who wondered what the seven-letter word combination was that opened the lock, it is a word that every lawyer should know, as it forms the core of what every lawyer does in his or her practice: “service.”


David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. You can write to him at


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