Be Careful What You Wish For

By Joseph A. DeWoskin

In front of Busch Stadium in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, stands a bronze statue of baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, also known as the Wizard of Oz, fielding a baseball in a gravity-defying, larger-than-life, superhuman stretch. The baseball fan in me sees it as a metaphor for lawyers.

Lawyers in real life rarely match up to their portrayal in the popular media. Can you think of a single lawyer carrying a lead role in any novel, film, or television series who wasn’t larger than life, a dedicated warrior in the battle for justice, a master of strategy and control, or who even had some measure of balance in his or her life? I can think of exactly two: Doug Lawrence, in the ABC television drama Family, which aired from 1976 to 1980, and Amy Gray of Judging Amy, which ran from 1999 to 2005. The human side of lawyers just doesn’t make for compelling drama. Lawyers would rather live up to the image of being Übermensch and Wonder Woman, righting wrongs faster than a speeding bullet, than admit to being human.

After an out-of-state lawyer representing the father in a child-custody case deposed his client’s slow, troubled, and visibly nervous 15-year-old, he asked opposing counsel if he had anything to ask the deponent. “Just one thing,” the opposing counsel said. “Mr. Parker, would you hug your son and tell him that you love him?” Shock and silence filled the conference room, but the father did as he was told. One of the lawyers had let his human side show, and that lawyer wasn’t the one representing the father.

We all strive to be ethical. We put systems in place. We check and double-check the systems with backups. We know that we’re held to a higher standard, even though we’re human. For many of us, it’s just easier to deny that human side of our lives, insisting that dedication to the profession of law outweighs everything else.

Even though we give lip service to work-life balance, being a lawyer is one tough job. Clients expect us to be available at a moment’s notice, delivering justice like manna from heaven, and we eagerly take the bait. Our egos are fed by knowing we’re needed, and we need the money. In an effort to attract clients, it’s all too tempting to promise more than can reasonably be expected. Telling potential clients that they’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell risks never getting hired. More than a few solos and small firm lawyers spend sleepless nights, praying that something hasn’t gone so wrong as to jeopardize their licenses to practice. We really don’t have the first clue of what work-life balance is—except that it’s something like the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” perspective of pornography. We know when our lawyer lives stand in gross imbalance with our personal lives, but most of us don’t or won’t do anything about it. It’s all too easy to say, “I can’t,” letting law get in the way of living, filling ourselves with the false pride in living for the legal profession.

Lawyers who live and breathe the law 24/7/365, living a monkish existence, are not the most effective lawyers. They’re not serving their clients, the profession, or even themselves by doing that. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story came up with the quote thrown out at every law student during the first week of law school, “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship,” he wasn’t hinting in even a little way that lawyers ought to be married to the law.

Five years ago, John Macy, as chair of the GPSolo Division, exhorted members to “do something.” I’m asking you to take up one small habit to keep your work life from consuming the rest of your life. Whether it’s learning how to say “no,” exercising, managing your time, developing a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with the practice of law, playing the piano, planting a garden, camping with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or collecting sports memorabilia, it’s a matter of making time and taking it. Taking time for yourself and those you love is just as important a part of “Back to the Basics” as is learning a new billing system. It will help keep your head clear and make sure that you do not run into any ethical pitfalls. 


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