THE MAGAZINE      May/June 2002
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Smart Practices On Balance

Reclaiming the "Why" of Law Practice

George W. Kaufman

From what we get, we can make a living; … what we give, however, makes a life.

— Arthur Ashe

What a sea change would occur if we recaptured the qualities that attracted us to the law in the first place. Here are suggestions for orienting the profession toward a sense of service, individual values and the ties among mind, body and spirit.

Following 35 years in law practice, I now head the fund-raising department of a nonprofit organization, the Omega Institute. In reflecting on what I do, I’ve come to respect the similarities between practicing law and asking donors for money. Both require good listening skills. Both take considerable practice. And both demand a thorough understanding of the field.

When I started in fund-raising, I attended a conference where the speaker told us that his high school-age daughter had asked him to teach her how to raise lots of money for a school project. A few months later, she was thrilled because she had collected more than anyone else. But two weeks after she graduated, the school asked her for a contribution to her alma mater. Furious, she showed the letter to her dad and said, "Can you imagine their nerve? I haven’t even started college and they want money from me!" The speaker paused, and then confessed: "I realized, when my daughter was so angry, that I had taught her how to raise money. But I hadn’t taught her why."

The message of that speech isn’t limited to fund-raising. All of us know how to practice law. But many of us forget why. Let’s explore ideas for reclaiming our understanding of the "why" behind law practice.

Two Themes with Growing Support

I recently attended two retreats for lawyers on the subject of "Law and Contemplative Awareness." The first introduced the practices of meditation and yoga as part of a daily work schedule. Most attendees felt these practices changed their relationship to work, allowing them to step back from daily pressures and view their tasks in a more reflective light.

The second retreat focused on the variety of law alternatives in evidence at the gathering. Holistic law, therapeutic jurisprudence, alternative dispute resolution and collaborative law reflected just a sampling of a growing movement in this country. A bottom-up sea change is occurring. Large numbers of lawyers—unhappy with the way law is practiced today— are drawn to alternatives that seem more humane, less adversarial and devoid of arrogance.

Pressure Points for Change

Three groups have the potential to rechannel behavior for effective change: the law school that educated you; you, as practitioner; and the private law firms that hire most of those in practice.

Law schools. Our system of teaching law has gravitated toward increasingly structured programs to meet the needs of large corporate law firms. Law schools need to emphasize the teaching of other skill sets— including communication, negotiation and ADR options—and to develop values-based curriculums that involve subjects such as self-education, improving the profession and being of service.

Individual practitioners. Law firms function on profit margins that continually require lawyers to work a high number of billable hours. For their part, lawyers are distressed by the hours of work that their jobs require. Those hours, in turn, increase daily pressures and fuel the sense of isolation that lawyers feel. The support systems within firms aren’t designed to ameliorate these negative factors or to improve the work environment.

Moreover, firms do not reciprocate the sacrifices that lawyers make on the firm’s behalf. Loyalty at law firms is a misnomer. If you can’t toe the mark, you have a limited work-life expectancy. Those with star potential may be invited to stay, but even their retention is uncertain. The best are wooed away by more money, power or opportunity. Firms accept departures as a given of business.

Law firms. Firms rarely tote up the costs of replacing lawyers, or the costs of training others in the skills that have been lost. To replace a needed skill set—or to recapture business that left with a departing partner—firms must often pay premiums to attract replacement partners and rainmakers.

The rate of defections seems unimpeded by promises of more money, partly because the new employer is offering similar, or better, financial benefits. The system may work—but it does not work well.

Law firms don’t nurture their assets. They should. When firms realize that retaining talent improves the bottom line, they will at last explore what causes the defections and what internal changes could reduce departures.

Where Might We Begin?

We are too far away from solutions to respond meaningfully to the question, "What do we do?" Instead, we should ask, "Where do we start?" Here are some proposals.

Service. The sense of service that used to pervade the legal profession is no longer a dominant value. It needs to be reinstituted in law schools and in practice private. Since September 11, 2001, people have reexamined their priorities and more determinedly pursued what is important in their lives.

Many of the alternative ways in which law is being practiced are grounded in a desire to be of service, both to the client and the profession. Aggressive legal behavior often takes a toll on parties to a dispute, and it leaves an aftertaste remembered long after resolution is reached. The profession needs to have its most respected members examine the qualities that have given birth to the plethora of alternative practices. It should then find ways to incorporate the essence of those approaches into existing practice methods.

Values. The Omega Institute, where I work, is the largest residential holistic retreat center in the United States. Recently, we invited several constituents to our campus for a weekend and asked them to consider three questions: "What are my gifts? What are my priorities? What legacy do I want to leave?"

I invite you to ask these questions of yourself—and of the firm where you work. They are life questions that need to be in our consciousness. Each of us needs to wrestle with the choices we make daily and the way we want to live our lives. It is easy to be seduced into the status quo and hard to challenge the system that supports us.

You need to decide if you can carve out enough space from your work, or if the work you do can be reshaped, so that your life values are consistent with the time you devote to the practice of law. For example, many lawyers have families, and the call of work often conflicts with family demands. Aren’t there ways to bridge the gap between those competing demands (such as creating on-site day-care facilities for children, as several law firms have done)?

We need to know that the bargain we strike at work still leaves room for us to honor our gifts and live our priorities. As for the legacy we want to leave, we must find enough space and tolerance to be remembered for our beliefs—not just our accomplishments.

Mind-Body-Spirit. The two gatherings I mentioned earlier were sponsored by the Law and Contemplative Mind Society. It is just one organization that reflects a philosophy embraced by a growing number of venues, including the business community.

There is a relationship among mind, body and spirit. If one is neglected, the others suffer. Law leans a great deal toward honoring the mind. But to maximize the capacities of our minds, we need to take care of our bodies and honor our spirituality through whatever practices we embrace.

Can law organizations be asked to assume some responsibility for offering opportunities to exercise all three of these elements? Many believe the answer is yes. The Boston firm Hale and Dorr, for example, offered meditation as one potential solution for creating a more humane work environment. As respected institutions reach for unusual solutions, long-standing conflicts may start to find resolution.

Turnover. Lastly, firms should make available two pieces of data that would greatly interest law candidates: the turnover rate within the firm as a whole and the turnover rate in each department within the firm. Recruiting is likely to be in inverse proportion to turnover—providing compelling reason for firms to determine what steps they have to take to keep talented lawyers from departing the organization.

Courage and Commitment, Day to Day

A friend of mine described three kinds of people:

  • Those who make things happen
  • Those who watch things happen
  • Those who ask, "What happened?"

For seemingly countless years, lawyers have been complaining about the stresses of their work without resolving the causes of their complaints. Such passivity will not lead us to reclaim the "why" of law practice. Effective change will, instead, require the commitment of caring and courageous lawyers—people dedicated to developing practices in which the qualities that first attracted us to the profession are reflected in our daily work.

George Kaufman ( is a lawyer who writes and lectures on balancing personal life and work. He lives in Saugerties, NY and is the author of the ABA book The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work


  • The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work by George W. Kaufman. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1999.
  • "The Contemplative Lawyer: On the Potential Contributions of Mindfulness Meditation to Law Students, Lawyers and Their Clients" by Leonard Riskin. Harvard Negotiation Law Review, May 2002.
  • Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life by Steven Keeva. Contemporary Books, 2002.