GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2005

If ESQ. Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

Let’s face it: Try as we may to practice preventive law and stave off crises with prophylactic fine print, advance health-care directives, and prenuptial agreements, more often than not, our clients show up only when a problem or concern has gotten the better of them. As a last resort, after trying to handle things on their own, they come to us, discouraged, afraid, beaten down, angry, confused, and not knowing what to do next—or perhaps knowing what to do, but not how to do it.

Our clients’ emotional needs are every bit as real as their legal needs; to be fully effective as lawyers, we need to understand and address those issues, even though our formal training focuses primarily on the law. Interestingly, it’s only when we already have what our clients need emotionally that we can reflect it back to them, be it strength, confidence, information, energy, follow-through, patience, comfort, or whatever else the situation demands.

A typical family law scenario illustrates this point. Jane and Tom own their house jointly and are having marital problems. Tom has moved out but refuses to relinquish the keys to the family home, choosing instead to come and go when he pleases, removing clothing, furniture, food, mail, and other items as he sees fit. Jane finds these random visits by Tom stressful. One day she came home and the kitchen table was gone, presumably taken by Tom. Legally, Tom has the right to come and go in his own house, and to remove his own possessions, but the effect it’s having on Jane is making it impossible for her to function.

Jane sees a lawyer to find out how to keep Tom out of the house. After collecting a $1,500 retainer, the lawyer tells Jane there’s not much that can be done to stop Tom because, legally, it’s his house—and not only that, Jane’s the one who married him so she needs to own her role in the problem. Fortunately for her, Jane sees another lawyer, who lays out various options for her having a place to live that Tom cannot enter at will. Although the first lawyer may have been technically correct, he did nothing to solve Jane’s problem. According to him, “Look, she wanted to know what she could do to stop him from coming in, and I told her, nothing, it’s his house. That’s the law; what does she want me to do about it?”

Even if correct, how effective was this lawyer?

The second lawyer had a different perspective. “Jane did not care about Tom’s access to the house so much as she needed a secure place to live. What was really bothering her was not knowing who was coming and going in her house. There are a couple of ways to address this, such as a separation agreement setting out ground rules for access to the house, or Jane getting her own apartment. My job is to find out what’s troubling Jane the most and give her options for how to solve that problem.” This lawyer had mastered her own issues and was therefore able to focus on what Jane needed, unlike the first lawyer, who lobbed the problem right back to her—and charged her for it.

Airlines tell you, “in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, put on your own mask before helping others.” The first lawyer forgot to do this, and consequently, his ability to help his client was severely impaired. He had no energy, no creativity, and no desire to go the extra mile to find a way to help the client. He took a narrow view that, although accurate, was supremely unhelpful.

We all know how it feels, being pecked to death by an endless onslaught of other people’s problems, problems, problems. When clients making demands on our time and resources besiege us every day, just how can we arrive and stay at a place where a helping attitude and a generous outlook come naturally?

The Full-Belly Solution

My ritual weekend trek to the gym found me once again behind the wheel, listening to Ira Glass’s This American Life on Baltimore’s public radio station, WYPR. This day, episode #140, family businesses were under the microscope. A nephew in a family business, who had been brought in and mentored by his uncle Mo, called a meeting, presumably to fire Mo’s brother. Outraged, Mo and his brother summarily quit the business without attending the meeting. Mo’s brother suffered a heart attack from the stress, was unemployed for two years, and had to start life over again at age 50, which meant the free city college instead of the Ivy League for his daughter.

According to this daughter, “For years, there was a direct connection between what we couldn’t afford and whose fault it was.” The family was so polarized that when the nephew invited Mo to his son’s bar mitzvah, Mo scrawled “Judas” in red ink across the RSVP card and mailed it back. He never attended the bar mitzvah and didn’t speak to his nephew or sister (the young man’s mother) for 35 years. Finally, when his sister was 90 and about to have heart surgery, Mo had an epiphany and decided to reconcile.

The story had a happy ending, but there was a postscript: “In self-analysis, in self-evaluation,” Mo said, “I ask myself this question: If I had not done as well financially as I have in the past three or four years, would I have reconciled? Would I not have remembered the bitterness? It was easier to reconcile with a full stomach.

It’s been a long time since I listened to Mo that day, but the full-stomach metaphor has stuck with me. In fact, it’s become a mantra. Each day I try to be mindful of how much more effective I can be when my stomach is full. Not just at reconciling, but at doing almost everything, including running my law practice, interacting with clients, and raising children (which is why I’m always on the lookout for new recipes).

My 13-year-old daughter and I spent a memorable ten days vacationing, bonding, and trying to learn a little about history and culture last year at the home of a friend in Mexico. One day our host took us to the local street market and pointed out the brilliantly green nopales, the finely diced gaspachos, and the unbelievably salty, greasy cicerone. She suggested we buy a bag of small brown cones she called piloncillo—unrefined Mexican sugar with a strong molasses flavor.

When my daughter and I got home, we tasted it, wrinkled our noses, and not knowing what else to do with this sugar like no other we had ever tasted, stuck it in the freezer. It stayed there until a whole wheat bread recipe called for two tablespoons of packed brown sugar, and I remembered the little cones. I learned that if you don’t mash the cone completely before adding it to the ingredients, little clumps remain throughout the kneading, rising, and baking process that explode with unexpected sweetness when you eat the bread. Each time we baked the bread, it evoked pleasant memories of our Mexico trip. Definitely one of those little rituals that, if you’re paying attention, remind you what life is really all about.

But one night, my daughter ate a whole loaf without saving me any. I said nothing and made another loaf in the morning. She demanded to know when I was going to slice it. I should have been happy to see her engaged and enthusiastic, but all I could think about was whether I was going to get a piece this time. Regrettably, I hissed through clenched teeth, “Not yet. Just wait a minute!” My empty stomach squelched the warm fuzzies right out of me, and the negativity spilled over onto my daughter. I knew better than to snap at her, but I did.

The Full-Body Solution

Had I made sure my stomach was full, had I not been craving a mouthful of the molasses-laced whole wheat bread for myself, had I not already felt deprived by what I missed out on the night before, I wouldn’t have been so chippy. But my stomach was running on empty.

This is the same principle described in the family law example, which also applies to my law practice and probably yours as well. If Jane’s first lawyer hadn’t already been feeling in some way needy or deprived, he might not have been so stingy with the help he gave Jane. When I neglect to feed my whole self, it’s so much harder to be an effective advocate. Feeding my whole self does not mean attending CLE, trying cases, participating in bar activities, and reading cases and treatises. It means doing whatever I need to do in order to be happy and satisfied—including banishing feelings of scarcity, or at least keeping them safely at bay.

This is not esoteric psychobabble. It’s a very simple technique that can be successfully, and often easily, employed on a continuous basis throughout any given day, week, month, or lifetime. Even the smallest things, like turning on the space heater under my desk instead of trying to ignore the chill in the air, go a long way to fill me up. When I’m feeling warm, it’s much easier for my personality to follow suit.

If I can shift my focus from—or, better yet, eliminate—stress and distractions, such as how cold my fingers are or how much money a particular client owes me, I can put more energy into being a more civil and well-behaved communicator and advocate. When time and energy become more abundant for Jane’s first lawyer, he will be more comfortable sharing them with his clients, and he, too, will be a more effective lawyer. To accomplish this he may need to learn to manage his time better, jettison some of his “dog” cases, or shed activities that drain his time and energy.

The Stake and Garlic Approach

One of the biggest energy vampires in a lawyer’s practice is the repetition of tasks we do not enjoy and are not good at. Yet we keep getting drawn into projects requiring skills we don’t have or don’t want to develop. If you dislike the protracted pretrial activity endemic to civil litigation, then get out of it. Switch to criminal law, where the right to a speedy trial means you won’t keep wrangling for years over discovery disputes. If you abhor writing, hire someone to do your writing for you, or move into a practice area that is more form-intensive. If you procrastinate over calling your clients about past-due bills, hire someone to do this for you one day a week. The solutions are simple. What’s more challenging is pinpointing exactly what it is you don’t like about your practice and then retooling to get rid of it. It takes time and introspection.

Finding Your Most Admirable Self

Introspection is easier when you remove yourself from the legal environment. Elbow-deep in the moist soil of an English cottage garden, selecting a location for the new dwarf buddleia, you may be more likely to gain insight about what really makes you happy than when you’re in Courtroom 9 premarking trial exhibits and churning stomach acid as you wonder why your expert witness is late for court. It’s when the anxiety over meeting payroll recedes from your consciousness and is replaced, if only momentarily, by the pleasure you take in making something beautiful and intricate with your hands, or while cooking a meal for loved ones and savoring the aroma of the herbs, that you begin to learn how to nourish your spirit. Activities outside the law that we pursue just for the sheer pleasure of doing them help us get to know who we really are, and when that happens, we can create a permanent environment that includes what we need to be happy.

As the little sign in the knick-knack store proclaims, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Contrary to what our culture teaches us, though, making mama (and ourselves) happy may not require retooling a practice, making a lot of money, or even making any external changes whatsoever. It’s easy to pin our hopes and dreams on the future acquisition of material things. David Brooks observes in his book, On Paradise Drive (2004), that Americans construct

fantasies of what their lives might be like, using the goods and images they see in . . . magazines. They are not there yet, and in truth they may never get there, but they get pleasure from bathing in the possibility of what might be, of sloshing about in the golden waters of some future happiness. They achieve a transubstantiation of goods, using products and gear to create a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment, in which they can finally relax, in which their best and most admirable self will emerge at last.

But nothing is stopping you, or me, from taking a new approach and finding that elusive harmony, happiness, and contentment today, by making changes from within. It takes only adjusting our perspectives and finding ways to be satisfied with who we are now and to delight in what we already have. What Matthew Arnold wrote in his 1852 poem, “Empedocles on Etna,” still resonates:

Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanc’d true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And, while we dream on this,
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

It is by no means a small thing. If we adopt the attitude that we deserve to be happy; if we can focus on the pleasurable moments in our daily routines (even the very small ones); if we can eliminate (rather than tolerate) some of the things that drive us crazy; and if we can create a life that purposely devotes time on a regular, ongoing basis, regardless of how busy things become at work, to what gives us pleasure, we will be well on our way to finding our “most admirable self.” Being a more effective advocate will follow effortlessly.

Robin Page West is a principal in Cohan & West, P.C., in Baltimore, Maryland, where she maintains a complex civil litigation practice. She is also the author of Advising the Qui Tam Whistleblower and co-author of Letters for Litigators , both of which are published by the ABA. She can be reached at



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