Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Desiderata and the Practice of Law

Desiderata and the Practice of Law
Last week, if you read Assist’s newsletter carefully, you may have a noticed a theme running through the quotations in our Weekly Events section:
  • “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence” for Mindfulness,
  • "Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here” for Yoga, and
  • “Avoid the loud and aggressive persons” for Red Mug Coffee Circles.
You may have recognized these lines from the poem Desiderata—and I put a reference to the name in the RMCC, so you didn’t think that everyone at Assist had lost their minds with the idea that lawyers “avoid the loud and aggressive persons” since dealing with loud and aggressive people is basically in our job descriptions.
Desiderata seeped into popular culture in Canada in the early 1970s, when an American radio announcer read the poem against a backdrop of instrumental music and a choir and the released it as a 45 rpm record (Side A, of course). If you aren’t familiar with Desiderata, you can access it from a link in the Closing Corner below, including the 1970s recording.
The philosophy in the poem did not reflect mainstream Canada at that time, so I had assumed that Desiderata was from somewhere exotic, magical, mystical, even, especially since its name, Desiderata, clearly was not English.
But despite the mysterious backstories that circulated during this resurgence which no doubt helped sell records, “desiderata” is Latin, meaning “something that is needed or wanted,” and the poem was written by a man in Indiana. My only sibling now lives in Indiana, and I have visited that state many times. It has amazing deep caves and beautiful forests, but also lots of farmland and small cities. Indiana is not more exotic, magical, or mystical than Alberta--more Kansas than Oz.
And contrary to an urban myth that the text of the poem was found in a church in Baltimore in the late 1600s (that was the year the church was founded and not when the poem was written), written versions of the poem had a mysterious symbol –“© 1927”, not a rune but a copyright claim, for the author of the mystically wise poem was in fact a lawyer.
I didn’t know that the author was a lawyer when we picked our quotations last week when I first started thinking about how Desiderata could provide gems of wisdom to lawyers. But now that we have this essential piece of context, let’s review Desiderata and its suggestions through this lens.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
Does it sometimes seem to you that noisy and busy-making lawyers draw attention to themselves, and have you noticed that other people interpret the visible noise and busy-ness with success and working hard? It can be frustrating when you are a quiet and careful lawyer, and fewer people notice you or assume that you are not as productive.  
When your opposing counsel is making a fuss about something, can you stay quiet and be mindful in the moment of what is happening, and not rush in to contribute to the fuss? Stay quiet until the noisy lawyer winds down, and then offer your piece in a composed voice. This is actually a great strategy, for both litigators and solicitors: Nothing takes the wind out of the sails of chaotic monopolisers better than someone’s whose calm demeanor sounds like the voice of reason.
Here's an example: you are in a large meeting on a multi-party transaction. One counsel finds something objection-worthy in the draft document and proceeds, to use a legal term, to make a fuss citing all kinds of issues that could arise that would be detrimental to their client. The clause, the agreement, the entire deal—they are all in jeopardy because of this heinous drafting. Another counsel quietly redrafts the provision, and then after the objector finally simmers down, advises the meeting that they have redrafted the provision since it all it needed was a bit of wordsmithing. Be the solution, not part of the problem.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Could Mr. Ehrmann have been thinking of civility among lawyers when he wrote this line? It is valuable to be on good terms with other lawyers. Your miserable file will eventually end, but you and the other lawyer will be members of our professional community for many more years to come. Seek to maintain courteous and respectful relationships with other counsel.
However, Mr. Ehrmann imposes an important qualification on being on good terms—“without surrender.” You do not need to cede your position to remain on good terms. You must continue to fulfill your role as an advocate for your client, but you do not have to be steamrollered by an aggressive person who violates your boundaries.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
When I was a junior lawyer, my performance review one year contained a comment that I needed to learn to suffer fools better. I guess I was a bit (or a bit more than a bit) dismissive of people who clearly didn’t know what I thought they should know. I can see this issue with clarity many years later, but at the time I was too busy trying to prove that I was the smartest person in the room that I didn’t always stop to listen. Such is the arrogance of youth. As an older lawyer, I wish I had listened more.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.
We discussed this point at our Red Mug Coffee Circles and one of our lawyer volunteers told a story about a loud and aggressive counsel who kept standing up and interrupting him during a court appearance. He sat down and waited politely in his seat until the judge looked at him. He then rose, saying something along the lines of “Thank you, My Lord (or Lady), I am happy to resume if my friend has finished his interruption.” He had the higher ground and the attention of the court, and that is your goal.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
I am no Max Ehrmann, but could we alter that last phrase to include a temporal component? Sometimes we win and are on top of the world, but sometimes things don’t go as well, and it is someone else’s day in the sun. Learn to accept the good and the bad with equal grace. In law, you can do an amazing job and your client still loses because the facts are against you.
Comparing ourselves to others can negatively impact lawyer (and law student) mental health. We generally have a bit of competitive spirit to be drawn to law, and it can really rankle when someone we may think of as dull or ignorant, or perhaps noisy and creating chaos amid their busy-ness, is making more money, drawing better clients, and attracting positive commentary. We react defensively: if that person can do X, then I can do X+10 and be viewed even more positively (and make more money.)
I learned this one as a young associate as we approached salary review. There was a convention where law firm associates phoned our friends and colleagues our vintage at similarly situated firms to check compensation levels. I suspect that this is done in a more formal way now. But it reinforced the idea that we should be competitive about how we were paid and that how much we were paid was somehow determinative of our value. Some of us jumped ship to get top pay because we equated our worth with what we were being paid. We did not know that our value has to do with who we are as people and the not our compensation.
There will always be someone whose star is shining, and it is never the same person forever. Learn to be happy with who you are and what you are doing, and don’t let the external vestiges of success define you.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Celebrating successes is important. Our wells would run dry if we did not let ourselves enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done before opening the next file. But one success does not a career make—you have a lifetime where you will win and lose, so you must make sure that you are keeping yourself current, viable and ethical. A career is a terrible thing to lose.
I have practiced in prestigious environments, and I have been a sole practitioner having trouble getting lawyers from prestige firms to return my telephone calls. But I was much happier in my humble role than in my prestigious one. Don’t be afraid to like humble career paths.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
Have you read recent ALIA bulletins? There are fraud alerts and red flags. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be a prudent and careful solicitor in managing your practice.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is, many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
As lawyers, we hone our skepticism, but learning to turn your skepticism, and cynicism, off is a true gift. When we apply our lawyerly skills to our personal lives, we can lose our ability to take delight in simple pleasures. Sometimes, we need to just accept and enjoy things that are simple and good.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
A recent study of lawyer happiness found that authenticity was a primary factor linked to satisfaction: “Experiences of autonomy (including authenticity), relatedness to others, and competence most strongly predicted attorney well-being.” You do not have to be someone else’s model of what a lawyer, or a lawyer in a particular work environment, should be, and if you can’t be yourself in your role, you are in the wrong role. There is no shame in changing roles, employers, or careers.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Younger readers may struggle with this verse because you need a certain amount of life experience to know the value of life experience. And, going back to my “learn to suffer fools” comment, all of us have some valuable experience to share.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you from sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Did Mr. Ehrmann somehow conjure up how lawyers feel in the twenty-first century? We are lonely, we are tired, and we are prone to anxiety (dark imaginings). And when we encounter adversity, we struggle. We are embarrassed to need help, and some of us can never muster the strength to ask for support. This stanza sums up why Assist is here.
We advocate proactive strategies to enable you to live your life so that your tank is never empty, encouraging you to balance your demanding work life with good friends, rewarding hobbies and inner peace. And if your tank does run low, call Assist. You do not have to walk a path of loneliness and anxiety (or any other concern) alone.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
Many lawyers are hard on themselves. We beat ourselves up for what we missed, trying to hold ourselves to impossible standards of perfection, and when we inevitably fail to be perfect, we chastise ourselves and internalize a sense of inadequacy.
But we can learn to aim for excellence over perfection. You can be excellent and still miss things. If you were to be graded at 98% on an exam, would you be able to express joy at this accomplishment? Or would you ask how you could possibly have missed a couple of points?
Strive for excellence and give it your best effort. That is all we can ask of anyone, including ourselves.
And the 21st century legal community is increasingly diverse—all of us who meet the criteria for admission to the bar have a right to be here. We are children of the universe together. Period.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you perceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. 
This stanza raises one of the most uncomfortable topics in lawyer well-being: spirituality. It cannot be cross-examined, and it cannot be reduced to words on a page. In a profession of skeptics, who wants to be thought of as a flake?
But here is the thing: living in accordance with your spiritual values is important to finding fulfillment. Sure, as lawyers, we can parse theology and find potential holes in every argument, but are we selling ourselves short if we conclude that we can only exist as non-spiritual beings?
Spirituality is, at its essence, being in touch with your sense of meaning in life. It is not religion or attendance of worship services, although these can be connected to spirituality for particular individuals-- it is about connecting to meaning and purpose. Don’t be afraid to explore how you and your purpose connect to the greater world. If you believe that your purpose is to bill more hours than anyone else in your firm, then go for it. But if you are trying to bill more hours than anyone else because you need to prove that you are as good a lawyer as someone else, please stop and consider what you find meaningful and how to build components of meaning or purpose into your work (including, for example, mentoring juniors or being a peer support volunteer.)
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
As lawyers, we often don’t stop to consider what would make us happy. We have jobs to do, and sometimes (or most of the time), those jobs are demanding. We have trained our brains to focus on negative outcomes and all of the things that can go wrong. But we can learn to let go of lawyer thinking patterns during our downtime—and downtime, where we can appreciate all that is beautiful in our worlds, is essential if we want to thrive.
See beauty and give yourself permission to be happy, as lawyers and as human beings, and have a wonderful week.