September 2011 Volume 8 Number 1

Chair's Column: Fire on the Mountain

By David H. Johnson, Bannerman & Johnson, P.A., Albuquerque, NM

AuthorOne night in late July I drove home to our house on the northern flank of the Sandia mountain range, which forms the eastern border of Albuquerque. As I stepped out of our car, I was greeted by striking cloud formations drifting eastward illuminated by a full moon. Magnificent skies, night and day, are part of what draws people to move to New Mexico and part of, as well, what has kept Sheila and me in the same house at the end of a dirt road for the past twenty-two years. This night, however, was to be different from all previous nights.

After musing for a minute or two on how lucky we are to be in a place where you can still see the Milky Way and other celestial treats night after night, I turned and looked northward toward the Jemez Mountains and Los Alamos, some fifty miles away. What I saw caused me to stop—dead in my tracks—and almost cease breathing. A line of fire, approximately eight to ten miles long, was burning along a ridge top in the southern Jemez.

You probably read about this fire, the largest (over 160,000 acres) in New Mexico history. It skirted dangerously close to the city of Los Alamos and the National Labs, thereby raising concerns of potential contamination by nuclear wastes incinerated by the fire and spread in the giant plume of smoke rising from the flames.

And yet, what I felt from the sight of the advancing line of fire was not fear, but rather awe, for at the western edge of the fire, where a canyon no doubt drew high winds directly into the line, was an explosion of flames hundreds of feet into the air. The explosion danced upward into the night sky, undulating, as wind converged with flame. I stood transfixed for minutes, unable to take my eyes off the flames.

The English guitarist and student of eastern religion, John McLaughlin, referred to this kind of experience as the “dance of Maya” or the interplay between the imposed duality of “reality” (the fire) and “perception” (my experience of the fire).

What does all this meandering have to do with health law, you ask? Just this:

As lawyers we function in a world characterized by “actions”, those of ourselves and others (and particularly other lawyers). We believe we are hired by clients to take some type of legal action (filing a motion, drafting a contract) that advances our client’s interest. Generally, ours are solo actions, although we may also be functioning in a team comprised of other lawyers from our firm or organization. Often we, as well as our clients, view the outcome of our efforts in terms of their perceived immediate effects, typically as resulting in success or failure.

All too often our actions tend to be rote and reflexive. We use approaches that appeared to have worked in similar situations, failing to appreciate that the “context” of the underlying facts is significantly different from our prior experiences. Just as the configuration of the flames changes from moment to moment in response to variation in wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, the problem we have been asked to address also evolves over time in response to a multiplicity of factors, many of which we will never be aware of, and which may dictate a modification of our approach.

Thinking about the fire lead me to several further observations relevant to my practice of law:

  • Look for and pay particular attention to variations from the norm.
  • Be prepared to change how I address similar problems in the future.
  • Don’t stop thinking about the “facts” when I think I’ve mastered them. Be sure I understand the context of the issues/problems I’ve been asked to address.
  • “Putting out fires” is a group effort. Assemble a good team.
  • Be prepared for setbacks. At some point, the fire will likely break through any containment line I have created.
  • Like the fire line itself, disruptive events can have their own form of order and beauty. Look for that and learn.

Until next time,


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