January/February 2003  Volume 29, Issue 1
January/February 2003
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The Choice Is Yours
by Steven Keeva

Satisfaction, meaning, pleasure, even joy. How do you find them in a life in the law?

This article is excerpted and updated with permission from Steven Keeva's book Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life, published by McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2002.

Lawyers get paid good money to make the right choices. From a menu of options for accomplishing a given goal, they zero in on the best one, the one that will lead to a marginally-sometimes infinitesimally -better result than the others. And yet, when it comes to their careers, they tend to have blind spots where choice is concerned. They can choose to leave one firm and work for another, or to expand their bankruptcy practice and scale back their M & A work without much trouble. But talk to them about choosing how they practice-how they can embody who they are in their work as lawyers-and they tend to glaze over or stare back uncomprehendingly.

It's the fashion these days to throw up your hands and run from the really tough choices. The profession-and our world, for that matter-seems so unmoored, and so fraught with change, that it looks easier to batten down the hatches, work as hard as you can and let circumstance seal off your options. After all, how much leeway do you really have, even in your own life?

Choosing to Choose
Until recently, Bruce Wagman was a happy associate at a 25-lawyer San Francisco firm, where he had practiced employment litigation and insurance law since 1993. Then something happened. He was asked to make a decision that, for 99.9 percent of associates, would have been the easiest of their lives. But Wagman, always a .01 percent kind of guy, found the choice to be fiendishly difficult: He didn't know whether he wanted to accept an offer of partnership.

At first, he made it known that he would refuse outright, even though there was nowhere else he would rather work. He loved his practice, and the firm had always been more than generous in funding the pro bono cases he was passionate about taking.

The problem was elsewhere. Even though the partners assured him that little would change if he accepted their offer, there was a sticking point. It was the meeting. Once a month, on a Thursday night, the firm held a partnership meeting. "Even that to me was too much," Wagman recalls. "Just thinking of missing one night a month on Stinson Beach is hard, and twelve a year seemed like it might be enough to make me choose not to do it."

Wagman loves his home on the beach north of San Francisco with an unusual intensity. The partners knew this, and they promised him that he wouldn't have to travel if he joined their ranks. That was crucial, because his daily 4 a.m. runs along the Pacific with his three dogs are sacred to him. He arrives at work in the city by 6 a.m. and he works hard and long. But he returns every night-right after work-to the beach house he shares with his wife.

It may seem odd, if not willfully perverse, that any lawyer would allow a 12-night-a-year commitment to tip the scales against becoming a partner- particularly in a world where partnership is far from the given that it once was. But there is another way to look at it.

Wagman came to the law later than most, after working as an operating room nurse for six years. He brought to law practice a clearer sense of who he is and what he wants from life-and from the law-than all but the rarest of younger lawyers. Those who know him will attest to his clarity about what makes him happy. He knows, and jealously guards, the sources of his vitality-which have everything to do with sand and sea and the special sense of place he feels at home. He refuses to cut himself off from that, or to cede his right to choose what works for him as a human being and as a lawyer. Too many lawyers, somehow unaware that they have a choice, make such sacrifices. Many end up feeling helpless and demoralized.

In the end, after putting off his decision as long as he could, Wagman decided to take the partnership offer. He doesn't enjoy the meetings much, but he likes having more of a say about the kind of work he handles. And he particularly enjoys being able to write down an outstanding bill for a nearly destitute client.

Still, he continues to hold on to his options. "I told them I'd try it," Wagman says. "But I made it clear that if I don't like it, I'll go back to doing what I did before."

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?
Arnold Kanter, a former large firm partner who has consulted with Chicago law firms for the past 17 years, is only too familiar with the sense of futility so many lawyers experience. "They seem to feel such a lack of control to do anything about the things that are bothering them," Kanter says. "It's as if it has all been imposed by outside forces and there is nothing they can do."

There happens to be a lot they can do, if only they were clearer about what is at stake, according to the late Peter Cicchino. Cicchino was a former Jesuit who decided that law school held out an opportunity to better pursue the kind of social justice work on which he thrived. He was the founder and head of the Lesbian and Gay Youth Project of the Urban Justice Center in New York City and, at the time of his death, in July 2000, was a faculty member of the American University Washington College of Law. Mr. Cicchino says: "The kind of life we make is the most important work, the single most important project we will ever undertake. One of the things that makes me saddest when I talk to law students and lawyers is the recurring impression I get that they have lost a sense of their own agency, the sense that their lives are theirs to make of what they will. So people who are among the most gifted and privileged in the world instead live with a sense of drastically constricted possibilities for what they can do with their lives."

At some level, what disaffected lawyers appear to be feeling is that the law has grown deaf to their needs. Thus, they feel helpless. They want to work in an environment that offers an opportunity to awaken to deeper levels of who they are, one that provides a way to express what matters most to them and allows them to make the contributions that only they can make, and still provides a comfortable standard of living. They want their work to be part of their search for-and ultimately an expression of-what they feel to be an authentic life.

But how will that come about? Certainly not by waiting for some ill-defined "perfect" moment when the institutional problems that plague the profession suddenly vanish and a paradisiacal Eden replaces them. Even those most troubled by what the practice of law has become retain an inner awareness of its potential greatness. But to get there, lawyers must meet the status quo halfway, bringing their own transformative powers to bear, so that what is potentially sacred in the profession-those qualities that make people feel a calling to the law-becomes its raison d'être, and the headlong rush to ever-increasing levels of wealth and power that has so gummed up the works begins to recede.

Regardless of profession, everyone has plenty to wake up to, greater depths to plumb. We live in a vortex of sights and sounds, demands and obligations, beauty and dross. It's up to you to take active measures to find out what really matters-no one else will do it for you. Unless you control where you put your attention and your devotion, you will succumb to the usual distractions.

And it will become easy to make excuses, beginning with some version of the ever-popular "The client made me do it." In The Soul of the Law (Harper Collins), psychologist-lawyer Benjamin Sells remarks on how, even though lawyers can be tough and articulate advocates for other people's positions, they often behave like children when it comes to standing up to what they perceive as their clients' unreasonable demands:

I don't believe clients want lawyers to work too hard or act brutishly. And if they do? Well, then they must be reminded that they will get better representation from lawyers who are enjoying more of life's fullness than work alone can provide .... Adults … don't have to work themselves to death in their own profession. We don't have to retain outmoded systems that favor litigation over peacemaking. And adults don't have to treat other people shabbily just because somebody else tells us to.

For lawyers who work at cultivating awareness, the options that every moment presents to make a satisfying choice will become clearer all the time. It may mean discovering a new practice area or setting, one better suited to your particular emotional and, yes, spiritual needs. Occasionally-probably less often than you might think-it may mean leaving the profession. But often people come to see that they can blossom right where they're standing, finding deeper meaning in the material at hand or discovering other sources of sustenance that are more readily available than was at first apparent. If you have a spiritual bent, those possibilities are nearly endless.

There are many ways you can exercise your own sense of agency within a law practice and make the work an expression of who you are. The following five options are among those available to you.

One: Choose Clients Carefully
One of the first choices you can make is one lawyers often don't realize they have: Whether or not to represent whoever walks through the door. Only you can decide if "No!" is the appropriate response when a would-be client comes knocking. But it is essential to realize the choice is yours to make.

After many years as a personal injury lawyer, New York City solo practitioner Sheldon Tashman will not take a case he doesn't believe in. "My feeling is that everything you do because you think you're supposed to is a chip off your self-image. The more whole your self-image is, the easier it is to make money the right way. It's so easy to take small cases and build them up to make them look more serious than they are. I won't do that."

In a culture that labels him an "ambulance chaser," Tashman has had to find his own standard of success. He is no longer troubled when he meets people who suggest that his work is less than honorable. He knows differently. "I don't subscribe to the pervasive judgment that what I do isn't right, that it is somehow unclean," he says. "I take injury cases. And I help people. I know that what I do is looked down on, but I also know that I just got a guy money to help him cope with his paraplegia. I feel good about that. I'm satisfied with the work I do. And the truth is, there are shoddy people in every field."

"The law," Tashman says, "has many temptations that lack integrity. There's the temptation to make a case out of nothing, to make a living out of situations that aren't real, to not be ethical. It's hard for me to live with doing things that don't feel right. In the past, when I did-and I'm not saying I broke any rules, just that certain things weren't really right-I had trouble sleeping. I'd think about someone catching me and my son seeing me in the newspaper. It wasn't good to live with. Everything you do that's not kosher, every shortcut, makes things easier. But if you choose to live with integrity and not be uncomfortable with what you do, you have to care more, be more diligent, refuse cases that don't bear bringing, even though the culture says you'd be stupid not to-after all, money is money."

Stephen Chakwin, a New York City litigator who met Tashman when they opposed one another in a personal injury case, was inspired by his former opponent's example to make a significant transformation in his own practice. Early in 1998, Chakwin gave up his partnership at a midsize New York law firm to go out on his own. He now works in a two-lawyer practice and spends time coaching unhappy lawyers toward finding more satisfying paths.

"What Shelly did was show me that even after a time in a very arid practice of law, it's possible to continue to be a human being, treat others as human beings and still take good care of your clients," Chakwin says. "My 14-year-old daughter would say, 'Duh, Dad,' to that, but when for years you've been where everything is mind over matter-I don't mind and you don't matter-it's easy to lose sight of things. In that environment, everyone seems to think that it's okay; they take it for granted, so you start to wonder if it's just you. In hindsight, I see that it wasn't just me and it's not that I'm temperamentally unsuited to practice law, as I had begun to think maybe I was.

"Shelly showed me that the cost of practicing law was not as high as I thought it was. It doesn't have to be the dehumanizing chase for money or ego gratification that so many practitioners on both sides of the personal injury bar had turned it into," Chakwin says.

Two: Try Treating People Differently
Once you have decided to represent a client, remaining mindful of the spiritual opportunities as the relationship unfolds can lead to real fulfillment-on the creative, ethical, moral and human levels. Consider just a few of the junctures where opportunities exist to enhance the interaction for you and for your client. The following list gets the point across: Your choices are limited only by your imagination. Look at your interactions and see where you can open them up, illuminate motivation, seek direction or find common ground.

Certain questions may bring key issues to the fore:

At the Initial Meeting

  • Why has the client come? Is he driven by anger? A sense of having been victimized? A desire to heal?
  • What does the client expect of me?
  • What role does he want me to take?
  • What are my first impressions?
  • Am I listening as though he is the only other person on earth at the moment?
  • Have I turned off the phone or made arrangements for someone else to answer it?
  • Am I seeing the whole person or focusing narrowly on the possible legal issues?
  • Am I saying what I need to say to the client or am I avoiding something?
  • Are my words consistent with my values?
  • Have I made clear what I see his and my own roles to be in this relationship?
  • Have I made clear where my loyalties lie-to the client, yes, but perhaps also to conflict minimization, to the other side or to the community?
  • Have I been clear about the range of options, both legal and nonlegal, that may be available?
  • Have I withheld information that may be relevant? If so, why, and whose interests am I serving by doing so?

After the Initial Interview

  • Have I been clear thus far about what I see as the merits and deficiencies in the case the client thinks he has?
  • Does the client seem open to striving for a win-win solution? What might such a solution look like in this case?
    Is the client willing to take any responsibility for the problem? If he is willing to forgo the role of victim, what opportunities does that open up?
  • Can he admit that there were things he could have done that might have prevented the problem? If so, can he take an active role in resolving it?
  • Does the client appear to need permission to let go of his anger, and would he accept that permission from me?
  • How attached is the client to winning, and would anything short of winning be interpreted as success?
  • What would it mean to me to win this case?
  • Is the client deluding himself about any aspect of the case?
  • What might be the best way to start a dialogue?
  • What ways of looking at this case might locate deeper meanings and broader implications? For example, are there family implications that may at first not be apparent? Community issues? Spiritual issues for the client? How might these implications matter?
  • Have I made it clear enough that I consider this relationship important? Worthy of my time? Not just a legal but also a human partnership? A collaboration in which we each have much to contribute?

With Opposing Counsel

  • Am I being honest and forthright?
  • Am I letting her words or behaviors get the better of me? Serve as an excuse for behaving without integrity? Make me react unmindfully-that is, reflexively and unconsciously?
  • Am I taking her words or tactics personally?
  • Am I behaving with integrity?

If the Case Goes to Court

  • Am I doing all I can to minimize harm to my client?
  • Am I showing respect for the humanity of the participants on the other side, regardless of their incivilities, even their brutishness?
  • Am I striving to help my client maintain the highest degree of consciousness regarding both the legal and the psychological-emotional dimensions of the case?
  • Am I being sensitive to opportunities to minimize suffering or to heal?

This list of questions is not meant to be exhaustive, only to suggest that you have many choices to make that, in the aggregate, can reflect deeply held spiritual as well as intellectual and ethical values. This can make your relationships much richer and more fulfilling than you might have thought possible.

"I find that clients are very often looking for a practical reason for doing the right thing," says Michael Leech, a partner with a large Chicago law firm. "In many cases, I hold out options, explaining the positives and negatives of each. I'll show them that there is a mean thing to do and a classy thing to do. I find that people will gravitate toward the classy thing and grab on to how doing something mean will haunt them in the courtroom, either because the judge won't look kindly on it or because it could hamper settlement."

More often than not, it is the lawyer, not the client, who sets the tone for the relationship. The average client is not particularly sophisticated where the law is concerned, is often overwrought and wants to feel confident in her lawyer's abilities and commitment to her cause. The form that commitment takes-whether it is to obtaining the least costly, most amicable solution possible or, conversely, to rubbing the opponent's nose in his perceived misdeeds-can make all the difference in the tenor of the entire case.

"Often people will call and ask, 'Can you stand up to my wife's lawyer?' or 'Are you tough enough to handle this?'" says Rita Pollack, a family relations lawyer in Brookline, Massachusetts. "It is possible to transform that situation, but you've got to get them in the door first," she says. "My answer to their question is always, 'Yes, I can do that,' because I know I can. It's the way I used to practice. But my question to them then becomes, 'Is that the best approach? Let's talk about some other things we might do.'"

Three: Seek the Joy in Your Craft
Meaning and pleasure are present when your work can be savored. For Kenji Kanazawa of Honolulu, that realization came rather late. At 82 years of age, he is retired but still takes on legal work occasionally to keep his mind sharp. "A document that I would have drafted in a morning now takes me quite a while," Kanazawa says. "But I get to enjoy the intricacies of it. I see the different issues, the ramifications. I enjoy thinking about it and the very different ways you can do it. When you're practicing, you choose the best way, and bingo, you finish it up. If you have more time, you can really enjoy it."

For too many lawyers, the pleasure of craft is overlooked. Ronald Kessel, former managing partner of Boston's Palmer & Dodge, thinks today's large firm lawyers are a lot like 19th-century New England mill workers. "We have taken the long mill buildings in Lawrence and Lowell, stood them on end, moved them to Boston and replaced their workers with lawyers. We have become 19th-century pieceworkers with harbor rather than river views."

Kessel is on to something crucial here. When we begin to feel that work is imposed on us, we begin to lose ourselves. Before the advent of the 19th-century mills, workers' days were centered on the demands of their craft, dictated not by someone else, but by the workers' own investment of themselves, through their hands into the raw materials before them. Kessel mourns the passing of a time when lawyers did the same, fretting over details of draftsmanship, for example, that mattered to them even if they would likely be the only ones ever to know the difference.

You can still see the hunger for the pure pleasure of craft on Saturdays, when so many lawyers spend at least part of the day in the office. Some-perhaps most-do it simply because they have to, there being too little time during the week to get everything done. But others go in for a different reason: It's quieter, phones rarely ring, and the work feels different in that atmosphere. During the week, time pressures tend to squeeze out what joy may be found in immersing yourself in the peculiarities and nuances of a case. But on Saturdays, time seems somehow to be more forgiving. You can play with your materials, turn things over and consider them from different angles, then go at the work like a carpenter or a sculptor, taking satisfaction in the mysterious interplay of your tools and your talent.

You need to realize that it isn't necessary to retire or to spend all your free time at the office to get the Saturday high that many lawyers seek. You can bring it into your weekdays as well. By first using strategies such as brief meditations to clear your mind, for example, you can then sustain your awareness of the moment through mindful breathing, thereby putting yourself there, in the office, present and clear, to delight in the subtle shades and textures of lawyering.

Four: Shift Your Focus
Too many lawyers suffer from what Benjamin Sells calls the "Quit or Cope" syndrome. They are miserable at work, yet they can often think of only two ways to deal with the problem: quit or cope (that is, talk themselves into believing it's not really so bad).

But that doesn't have to be the case. You can begin to see alternatives by opening your mind through practices such as mindfulness, contemplation and attentive listening-these can help make clear the spectrum of choices available to you, not just at any given moment, but at every point in your life.

Not atypical is the lawyer who was in such great pain that he told his wife he was quitting the law to become a social worker. Panicking, his wife asked Barbara Reinhold, director of career development at Smith College, to meet with him. "He told me he'd been making money by seeing relationships come unglued," Reinhold recalls. "Now, he said, he knew enough about bad relationships that he could help people form good ones, and so he wanted to give up his six-figure salary." As it turned out, his commitments were such that he couldn't just pick up and leave. And it was a good thing, too, because it forced him to look for a way to stay where he was and find spiritual nourishment. With Reinhold's help, he decided to switch gears by taking part-time courses in mediation, counseling and family work. Much to his delight, his colleagues supported him.

Five: Find a Mentor
Finding a mentor is truly an act of will-nobody's going to do it for you, at least not these days. Surveys show that well over half of all lawyers lack a mentor who shows interest in their careers. Yet every lawyer, particularly younger ones, could use such a person, someone whose strength of character and years in the law have enabled that person to see through the soul-squashing elements of practice.

In this day and age, with all the pressures that impinge on people in the profession, it may be unrealistic to think you'll find a mentor who can coach you in the development of necessary skills and dispense sage advice on living a life in the law. Instead, you might try for two mentors-or more. Jon Levy, formerly a solo practitioner and now a member of the Maine Supreme Court, says that the best way he knows to learn the "hows" of practicing law is to find lawyers you respect and watch them work. That may take the form of going to the courthouse or, if you're a real estate lawyer, going to closings. It's a way of establishing a relationship with someone whose work you admire.

But there is another, underused way to do it: If you occasionally refer matters to other lawyers, either because the cases are too complicated or because they fall outside of your practice area, refer them to the best lawyers you can and make it known that you come with the case. This will cost you some, since you get the same referral fee whether or not you tag along with your client, but you'll learn a great deal, from the master of your choosing. For Levy, this approach led to several ongoing relationships with senior lawyers whose friendship and advice have proved invaluable.

Awakening to a More Meaningful Whole
Transcendent meaning can be found in every life, but only if you are willing to look for it and to recognize in your joys and sorrows, your frustrations and yearnings, opportunities for inner growth. It's an ancient message, common to all the great religious traditions. And it has been the source of hope and a sense of significance for millennia. Consider the following two scenarios.

A lawyer begins his day dreading the head banging that he knows awaits him in a divorce settlement conference. With his first cup of coffee and the morning paper, he begins pulling himself together, gradually steeling himself for battle. "It's a living," he says to himself as he gets in his car.

A second lawyer, facing a similar challenge, sees an opportunity to learn something about herself by doing everything she can to avoid dehumanizing the other side. Failing to do so, she has found, has the effect of flattening her world, draining away from her work the possibility of fun, surprise or even, on occasion, the experience of joy. After breakfast, she sits quietly for 15 minutes, doing nothing but being aware of the importance of keeping an open heart as she begins her workday.

The first lawyer is merely coping. The second has found a spiritual path and a way to express it in her practice. It's a matter of choice. You can choose the lens through which to view your work, keeping in mind that the choices you make as an individual lawyer will have an impact on the larger legal culture. Ideas, actions and attitudes create ripples that ultimately affect everyone.

The legal profession has begun, in a small way, to open itself to the wholeness imperative that is now very much in evidence in the nonlegal world. Doing so on a wider level may be the ticket to hastening the journey to a new, more satisfying professional reality. As a society-one in which lawyers play a key and potentially transformative role-we are starting to realize that pain really is part of the human condition, and that we can't buy, work or fight our way into a trouble-free existence. That being so, maybe it's time to determine the why of your predicament, why you-with your unique history, gifts, strengths and weaknesses-are where you are now, where you want your story to go from here and how your legal career can be part of a move in the right direction.

The bottom line is this: You can have an awakened inner life, one that can nourish your professional life so that what you do becomes more of an expression of who you are. It can be a kind of homecoming, a return to a place that feels familiar yet utterly new. It can bring excitement back to your law practice.

Transforming Your Practice: The Clarity of Relevance
There isn't a lawyer in practice who hasn't had to work hard to get where he or she is today. Focused, determined effort is part of the path. But many lawyers' capacity for applying themselves to a problem and working hard to solve it deserts them when the problem is their own unhappiness. Maybe it's because that problem is more amorphous than the ones on the bar exam, or those you face when you set out to build a career with all the trappings of success. In those instances, the road is pretty well marked.

The road to happiness in law practice is not so clear. But that's because lawyers tend to see it as separate from the rest of their lives, so that the resources available for gaining some kind of inner peace appear to have little relevance in the office. Once you see through that delusion and come to realize that your own sense of what really matters in life is totally relevant in your practice, you will have the handle you need. You can then begin to make choices that will bring you satisfaction, perhaps even joy.

Steven Keeva (skeeva@staff.abanet.org) is Assistant Managing Editor of the ABA Journal and founder of the Web site transformingpractices.com.