GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2005

Practicing Your Passion

About five years ago, I got a call from a lawyer in Seattle who was clearly troubled. Exhausted and demoralized, he admitted that he needed help (not exactly a common thing for a lawyer to do). He called me because someone had told him about a book I’d written on a topic that piqued his interest: finding pleasure and meaning in law practice.

“What busy lawyers like me need,” he told me, “is someone to walk them through the steps” to a more satisfying practice.

I’ll tell you what I told him: There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for a fulfilling law practice. However, and I’ve learned a lot more about this since that call there are attitudes, practices, and exercises that can help.

What follows is something of a grab bag, a varied collection of concepts, recommendations, and exercises designed to expand your horizons and broaden your chances of creating the law practice of your dreams. Some of it may sound strange, but that’s only because of the legal culture’s preference for stare decisis, rather than the novel or the adventurous. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, you can choose to rethink your relationship with the legal culture and in so doing start to enjoy your own freedom right away.

Choose Your Own Culture

A very good, albeit unusual, place to get started is with the messages we all hear in our minds, the ones we tend to take for granted. I’m talking about the way the legal culture sends out what can only be called negative messages. Consider a few:

  • Almost anything is acceptable in the service of zealous advocacy.
  • It is unacceptable to be wrong.
  • Lawyers who work in certain practice areas or settings—say, personal injury law or small-town practice, rather than doing “prestigious” corporate work in big-city law firms—are, by definition, wanting.

Are your ideas about law practice your own, or have you simply internalized what the legal culture has thrown at you? In truth, the number of messages that circulate through the air we breathe many of them quite subtle is huge, particularly when you include those from the larger, hyper-acquisitive culture in which we live.

Does time really equal money? Is taking life at a moderate pace really for losers? You need to ask if it’s the culture talking, or if the message comes from a more solid source—say your own gut; the thoughts and feelings of people you know, trust, and admire; or your spiritual beliefs?

If you want to find passion in your law practice but seem to be having difficulty, take some quiet time and make a list of such cultural messages. Although it may be challenging to identify the many “givens” in your life, it is well worth the effort. This exercise will get you ready for a true transformation in your work: Instead of responding reflexively to situations, you can consciously choose to act—or not act. Once you’re able to do that, you will be able to choose your own culture.

The possibilities are, if not endless, much more varied than most lawyers imagine. See the sidebar “Four Success Stories” on page 13 for some examples of how this can be done. Every law practice can be personalized so that the heart, as well as the head, is satisfied and more at peace.

Practice Gratitude

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years trying to figure out what, if anything, happy lawyers have in common. It wasn’t easy. As we well know, lawyers are an extraordinarily diverse group of people, with attitudes, opinions, and mindsets that run the gamut. Still, one thing stands out as being closest to universal: a sense of gratitude.

What are these happy lawyers grateful for? All kinds of things: their work, their nimble minds, and their clients. Also their families and friends, the lifestyles their law practices make possible, and, for some, the opportunities work provides for personal growth and inner deepening, even in the face of unpleasant or trying situations.

Although it may not at first be clear how practicing gratitude fits into the concept of finding passion in your law practice, it’s really rather simple. Making a habit of being aware of what matters most in your life—the people, places, activities, and so on puts you in immediate touch with the very things that you feel passionate about. Connecting with that feeling is enlivening and clarifying. It cuts right through the dross in the practice of law. It also is a counterbalance to less charitable mindsets that seem to be endemic in the legal profession.

When you think about, and let yourself feel, what you’re truly grateful for, a number of things happen:

  • You come wholly into the present moment (you can’t find the feeling of gratitude except in that moment maybe the thought, but not the feeling).
  • You come to see the ways in which you are connected to your life, to other people, and to your work. This brings your passions to the fore.
  • You get to know yourself better, which runs counter to the pace and culture of law practice. Stopping to feel real gratitude frees your deeper self from the entanglements of the moment.
  • You become aware of your own uniqueness what matters to you, what makes you who you are.
  • You discover some surprises: You may even find that you’re grateful for some of your problems. Gratitude lets you see your problems with curiosity and an open mind.

One of the happiest, most passionate, and successful lawyers I know begins each morning with a gratitude ritual while in the shower. Mindful that daily hot water is an unimaginable luxury in many parts of the world, he lingers on the feeling of gratefulness for that gift. From there, he brings to mind whatever evokes thankfulness, usually visiting in his mind a wonderful comment by Thoreau, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” Gratitude certainly does that.

One more thing worth noting about gratitude. If you find the concept too, well, touchy-feely, consider the fact that researchers at the University of California at Davis have demonstrated quite persuasively that gratitude is good for you. People who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week in comparison to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.

Learn to Downshift

We all know that in good lawyering preparation is everything. Whether before trial, a negotiation, an important firm meeting, or an appointment with a client, being ready can make all the difference in the world.

But there is one area in which proper preparation is almost always overlooked. It has to do with mentally preparing to go home after work.

Here the discussion turns to another kind of passion: the passion we feel for our loved ones. In order to keep your most important relationships strong, it’s imperative that you learn how to re-enter the fold after stressful workdays. It tends to be extraordinarily difficult for lawyers to do and requires creativity and commitment to be successful.

According to best-selling author/psychologist Leonard Felder, failing to decompress sufficiently is one of the leading contributors to the high levels of divorce among lawyers.

Home life and work life typically operate at drastically different rhythms. We’re accustomed to the dense information flow of law practice, and it can be tough for us to take in the sparser communication style of children, spouses, friends, or significant others. As a consequence, we tend to tune them out. Making a conscious transition can redress the imbalance. Your happiness and family harmony may depend on it.

It’s helpful to look at what gets in the way of your relaxing or getting involved with others when you get home. For many of us, it has a lot to do with a perceived need to keep “important” thoughts percolating in our minds. We’re afraid we’ll lose a valuable idea or forget to do something crucial for a project or client. So, write it down, either before you leave the office or on your way home. Be exhaustive. List every detail that might detract from home and hearth.

As a lawyer, you already know how to craft complex strategies to help clients reach their goals. There’s no reason you can’t tailor a plan for yourself, one that allows you to bring your best to those you love.

One lawyer I wrote about some time ago had an agreement with his wife and children by which he spent his first 20 minutes at home alone in his bedroom. There, he slowly and deliberately changed his clothes, mentally casting off his lawyer persona, along with his suit. This had the effect of changing his internal tempo. Then he simply sat quietly, immersing himself in the sounds, smells, and feelings of home.

Such a practice, of course, will depend on a particular family’s needs. I know another lawyer who tried something similar and found that her kids couldn’t get past the idea that she was snubbing them by choosing not to greet them immediately.

The truth is that there are as many ways to make the work-home transition as there are busy lawyers who need to make it. The important thing is to be aware that you do need to make it, and your family, friends, and significant others need it, too.

Four Success Stories

Looking to create a new, more positive culture in your practice? Here are the stories of four lawyers who have succeeded in doing just that.

  • A Memphis lawyer who practices construction law and litigation has created a culture of balance, achieving a much a more satisfying law practice by acknowledging that he—like most lawyers—needs boundaries around his time. The fact that the principles on which he built a more satisfying law practice were based on the seventh-century Rule of St. Benedict only supports the notion that personal cultures can be built around whatever calls to you.
  • A New Mexico lawyer has built a law practice on a culture of deep and compassionate listening. He takes only a small percentage of the cases that come into his office, but he spends time with each prospective client, without pushing him or her to reach a result. His feeling is that if you push too quickly, without getting to the feelings and the underlying issues, the case will often fall apart down the line. That benefits no one. Instead, he encourages potential clients to “talk themselves out.” That, he says, “is where the gold is.” He asks questions that help them express themselves and allows them to explore how they feel about what they are saying.
    The truth is that people need to feel heard to be happy. We know this not only through common sense, but also from research that shows that when we feel heard, our blood pressure decreases. Understanding this connection can be of great help to lawyers who really care for their clients.
  • A Michigan trial lawyer’s personal and firm culture is all about bringing healing to clients who have suffered from catastrophic injuries. Both he and his partners take far fewer cases than most personal injury lawyers because their definition of healing encompasses so much more than merely the physical and financial aspects of suffering. Instead, he works with the whole person, devoting enormous amounts of time to his or her emotional, psychological, and even spiritual challenges. And in groups that tend to shun lawyers as members—organizations for burn victims, for example—this lawyer is not only invited but is adored for his compassion and commitment to other members’ well-being. He is as happy and as passionate a lawyer as any I know.
  • A Massachusetts lawyer is founder and director of a public service law firm that represents the interests of people with mental illnesses. Because the civil commitment rate in the state is 92 percent, he points out, “you have a more than 90 percent loss rate. This has led to a firm culture with an unusual overriding theme.” He says, “one cannot look to outcomes; one must look to how one is in the moment, how much compassion and care one can give the client in the face of a difficult situation.”
    “It’s not winning that matters, it’s how you practice law,” he says. For example, staff lawyers are encouraged to examine how they perform in a hearing. For a lawyer who has just appeared at a hearing representing a client for the second time, the relevant question is, were you as skillfully present for the client in this hearing as you were the first time?
    And while big-firm lawyers jump from firm to firm looking for, well, something, the lawyers at this public interest shop have been there, on the average, for 20 years. They stay not because of money and winning, but instead for meaning and relationships.

All of these lawyers are passionate about their work. And why not? By choosing their own cultures, they have grounded their practices in their own values and passions.


Steven Keeva is Assistant Managing Editor of the ABA Journal and the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary). He can be reached at


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