Help the helpless, but always remain ultimately selfish. . . .
Twist and turn ’til you’ve got it right. — Depeche Mode, “Get the Balance Right”
The flight attendant has just announced, “Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.” Flyover country spreads out beneath me on my return from the GPSolo Division Fall Meeting and Fifth Annual National Solo and Small Firm Conference held last October in Austin, Texas. This meeting, one of our most successful, boasted a record number of attendees who took time away from their law practices and private lives to contribute to the profession, sharing their talents with others.
Lawyers are always all about helping—helping others, helping the profession, helping society, helping further the rule of law—but in their race to help everyone, oftentimes they forget about helping themselves. Lawyers have been known to toil away in surroundings that third-world coal miners wouldn’t put up with, putting the needs of clients and society ahead of their own lives, some of them leaving their families to fend for themselves. While they’re off slaying dragons and garnering fame and fortune, their home front is left unprotected. All of the court victories, medals and accolades, bar association offices, and professional prestige mean nothing if the lawyer hasn’t tended the home fires. You’ve known lawyers who neglect their own health, who let client crises eat away at them like cancer, who forget about their own financial future, and who died without an estate plan. Please don’t let yourself be one of them. Take the time to help yourself.
There’s no question that the legal profession would cease to exist if lawyers quit helping, but creating and maintaining solid footing for themselves remains at the core. It’s all a matter of balance.
Ryan Bingham, the smarmy but oddly likeable protagonist of the film Up in the Air, was on his way to the 10 million-miler club as he jaunted across the country firing people for employers who were unwilling or unable to do so. Living in the cloud, he was a master at his game, and, like a lawyer, he did the dirty work in the guise of helping others. And as he terminated one stranger after another, his own empty foundation and lack of responsibility for himself became more and more evident. In the end, he had nothing except those frequent flier miles. It was almost predictable: He was ready to fall.
We give a lot of lip service to work/life balance, but how many of us really apply it to our lives? Is it just a catch phrase like quality time, teachable moment, and thinking outside the box—something that’s all too easy to put off while we’re marketing to clients and figuring out billable hours and how to get paid? Take a moment to stop and think about the life you’re leading. And make the changes that are within reach to make your life better. You’ll make yourself a more effective lawyer by doing just that.
Lawyers whose lives are defined by clients, opposing counsel, and judges risk becoming less dimensional than the cardboard cutout character Flat Stanley. I may bear the titles of lawyer, military officer, husband, father, son, and GPSolo Chair, but my life encompasses more than that. A scouting trip with my son spells considerable time away from the practice of law, but it delivers more to me than just a father-son bonding opportunity in the great outdoors. There’s no question that I’m passionate about baseball, but the game is more than a diversion for me. Like a scouting trip, it helps me put the practice of law into focus, and, more than a few times, I’ve put into practicing law what I’ve learned from helping coach my daughter’s softball team, helping my children with homweork, or watching them play sports or act in a school play. And you just never know—someday my sports memorabilia and autograph collection may be worth more than my law practice.
Plans are already underway for the GPSolo Spring Meeting in St. Louis—birthplace of Yogi Berra and where most of Up in the Air was filmed—some 25 years after the first time the Division, then known as the General Practice Section, held its debut Spring Meeting. This is going to be a special meeting. Besides celebrating the 25th anniversary of our first Spring Meeting when my father, Alan DeWoskin, was Chair of the General Practice Section, we are planning some fantastic events. The meeting will be held from May 12 to May 14, 2011, at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis. We are looking forward to seeing more solo, small firm, and general practice lawyers than ever. You are the GPSolo Division, and we want to see you there. We want you to be an active part of who we are and what we want to be. At the meeting we are going to take a good look at where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’re headed. And some of us might take in a sporting event to balance out the weekend.