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From Guilty Pleasures to Words of Wisdom to Live By

From Guilty Pleasures to Words of Wisdom to Live By
We all had guilty pleasures that got us through long (and sometimes dark) days during the pandemic. There were streamed shows that you could binge on, there were complete runs of old favourite TV series that you could watch from start to finish, and there were books. I admit to watching my share of Netflix shows—it was just so easy to glide to the next episode—but as spring of 2020 finally arrived, I didn’t want to be indoors with my TV. I wanted to be outside. With a book.
My favourite form of escapist reading is mystery novels and I suspect that many of us became interested in law as a career because we liked the idea of sleuthing but not being cops. I was a shy child. I couldn’t imagine me being Nancy Drew—she was daring and got into all kinds of scrapes that would terrify me—but her father was a lawyer. And then I discovered Perry Mason novels. Perry left the dirty work to Paul Drake and just did the clever courtroom stuff. He was never conked on the head and left in a locked barn (a theme on which there were infinite variations in Nancy Drew books!)
I started my mystery binge in 2020 by rereading some favourites that I had on hand since libraries were closed and it took weeks to get a delivery from online book sellers. But once bookstores opened, I stumbled into a new author and series: Louise Penny, a Canadian author who writes a mystery series set in Quebec featuring a kind and empathetic detective whose insight into human behaviour helps him solve crimes. I had picked one of the most recent books based on its title and back cover blurb before realizing that it was part of a series and that the characters that I became so fond of in one book continued in a total of eighteen books (if you don’t count the one she co-wrote with Hillary Rodham Clinton which was its own kind of romp!)
This series is called Three Pines, based on the name of the small community in the townships where repeating characters live. It is pure Canadiana, full of our nation’s favourite icons and sources of humour. And while the subject matter is serious—murder, usually—there is a spirit of fun in the books. After finishing the first one—really about number 16 in the series-- I set out on a quest to acquire the entire series so I could read them in order and understand the experience and growth of the characters, from artistic but dishevelled Clara to the Governor General’s Award winning poet who carries a pet duck around with her. I enjoyed discovering that Margaret Atwood’s poetry subs in for the work of Ruth Zardo! Over the course of the pandemic, I acquired them all and read them, more or less in order, which gave me joy.
Several weeks ago, I learned that Amazon Prime was launching its TV adaptation of the Three Pines series on Friday, December 2nd. I watched the trailers evaluating the casting (pretty good, especially Alfred Molina as Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete de Quebec) and then planned my own private screening party last Friday night: me, my dog and a bowl of popcorn. It did not disappoint, except that they are dropping episodes one by one, and I needed more of a fix.
So, I went back to my shelf of Louise Penny books, arranged in order in my den, and decided to read the series again from start to finish. The story which the producers chose for the initial episode is actually based on the second book, A Fatal Grace, but the first in the series is Still Life. As I read this introductory book, written by the author perhaps before she realized she was creating a series, I saw threads that she would ultimately weave into plot lines and character development. Chief Inspector Gamache is prone to picking junior officers who are struggling but whom he thinks he can redeem, and he teaches them four key phrases that they lead to wisdom, taught to him by his own mentor.
The four phrases are: “I’m sorry,” “I don’t know,” “I need help,” and “I was wrong” and they appear from time to time in the book series.
Louise Penny based the character of Inspector Gamache on her husband (who passed away after developing Alzheimer’s), a pediatric oncologist who she describes as the “happiest man alive ... because he understood the great gift that life is.” I suspect that Inspector Gamache’s four phrases perhaps originated with respect to educating residents. But whether they were for police officers or future medical doctors, can they help lawyers, young and old, on the path to wisdom?
In my experience, lawyers are reluctant to use any of these phrases, especially junior lawyers and articling students. We fear being seen as weak, or not smart enough, or even as admitting potential liability. Kudos to firms who have created an environment for students and juniors to admit when they don’t know, need help, erred or are sorry.
One way that senior lawyers can bridge the gap with students and juniors is to start the conversation about a work assignment with a question, like “what do you know about applications to strike?” or “what do you know about prospectuses?” If asked genuinely, it allows the student to admit that they don’t know very much about the topic and to be prepared to learn rather than trying to bluff their way through the meeting before running off to find someone they can ask questions of. It normalizes the idea that students are not hired because of their expertise in practicing law—they are there to apply their finely honed legal analysis skills to a new range of issues, many of which will be outside of their experience. Allowing students to admit what they don’t know helps create a culture of learning—and law is a lifelong learning endeavour.
I have a lot of respect for lawyers who can say “I don’t know.” I have seen many lawyers bluff their way through answers, crossing their fingers and hoping that they are right. And some senior lawyers and clients seem to like the fact that they seem confident and all-knowing. Many of these lawyers have also mastered the art of saying, “I did a bit of research after our conversation and while I think you likely can still do X, we need to make sure we dot the Is and the Ts…” I wonder how many lawyers have boxed themselves into a position they regret from giving a confident assertion when they didn’t really know, and how they deal with the stress that ensues when they realized they were wrong. How many fail to pivot and instead cover their tracks?
We have had examples in Alberta of lawyers who miss limitation periods and then fraudulently cover it by faking a litigation history where their client ultimately loses. Not only do large insurance claims result, but the lawyer is disbarred. What a horrible outcome.
But because we are lawyers and we live to wordsmith, we might want to modify “I don’t know” to be “I don’t know but will find out!”