I write this post on the heels of ending a week-long silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, West Marin. The theme was Awakening Joy, also the title of James Baraz’s now famous book on how to live a happier life. What in the world does this have in common with lawyering, you might wonder? For a lucky, too few lawyers like myself, the answer is: a lot. Generally when you think of lawyers, you think of contentious, money-oriented professionals who like to muscle their way through most every situation. You might be surprised at how many lawyers there are like myself who went to law school to perform direct service work for individuals (to “help people,” the aphorism goes), and thought the legal system would be a powerful forum in which to do that work. I admit that after three and a half years as a public defender, I was disillusioned about pursuing that goal in a system that seemed more interested in recrimination than reform. I also found that as a 30-something single woman who was eager to have a family, I probably needed to find a career that wasn’t quite so emotionally consuming.
Over the years, the law has graciously allowed me to reinvent myself over and over again. When I left criminal defense, a career that truly felt like a calling, I pursued plaintiff employment work with the idea that I’d prosecute sexual harassment cases and advance the cause of women’s rights. When I found that California employers were, by and large, way too savvy or enlightened to violate the law in the ways I had envisioned, I decided to switch to defense-side work. I found that doing defense work helped me switch my focus from litigation, a lose-lose proposition, to preventative employment work. I enjoyed working with companies that created conscientious workplaces. I also found, surprisingly, that I was more okay defending employers in lawsuits then being the source of yet more lawsuits as a plaintiff’s attorney. I shudder when I look at how our society has come to think that a lawsuit or the threat of one is the answer to all our problems, when the truth is that litigation is an emotionally unsatisfying (for both parties), incredibly expensive, and often virtually never-ending process.
Over the 18 years that I’ve been practicing law, I have found that a law degree (and, admittedly, the Stanford Law School diploma) opened all kinds of doors for me and allowed me to pursue my passions as those passions evolved. Now that I have young children in whose lives I want to be very involved (but also continue to carry most of the financial burden of our family), having a small law practice has allowed me to work less than full-time hours while making a full-time salary. As the “boss,” I’ve been able to hire employees with whom I really connect and share the same vision of effective lawyering. Like me, my employees are very idealistic people who don’t want to create a more fractious society by throwing their legal weight around. Instead, we’ve been able to find clients with whom we are doing meaningful work.
And that brings me back to my original point. My leading a joyful professional life, or finding meaning in how I earn an income, has been possible through the law. What’s even better, over the 27 years that I’ve been practicing meditation, I’ve been able to increasingly integrate the principles of mindfulness and kindness into my legal work. It is, admittedly, not an easy thing to do in a profession that prides itself on being aggressive and confrontational, but it is possible. For me, it means working with clients whose values match mine, or when they don’t, trying to hold the space of calmness, rationality, and big-picture thinking for clients dealing with intense anger and confusion.
This is not to say that I’m perfect. Along with my passionate side comes a hot-headed portion of my personality that has no problem lambasting opposing counsel or even wayward clients when my sense of justice is trampled on. However, I inevitably find that such outbursts really don’t serve my clients or me, and I often end up making amends for such diatribes.
This is not to say that the message I deliver to people always needs to be pleasant or easy to swallow. I pride myself on having a lot of emotional intelligence and quickly seeing patterns with clients that aren’t working for them. When it comes time to tell them, it’s not always easy. And sometimes it means I’ll take myself off a case when the goal that a client has so fundamentally conflicts with mine that I can’t in good conscience continue to represent her or him.
But, you see, pursuing a very unusual path after law school has made all this possible. I’ve found creative ways to live my passions and have had enough autonomy to follow my conscience the vast majority of the time.
Many other lawyers are not that lucky. They are in corporate environments where the goals of the firm don’t match their own, or they are struggling enough financially that taking themselves off a soul-sucking case doesn’t seem possible. My vision, however, is that all lawyers can and should expect more. They can find work that makes them happy most of the time, if not every minute, and a professional life that squares with their values and their priorities, whether that’s making millions or having a modest salary but lots more time with their families.
In making that transition, I identify two things that are required: willingness to compromise in earning/spending goals (at least temporarily) and mindfulness of how current choices are impacting them. Without the former, the choices for attorneys may be very limited, and without the latter, attorneys lose out on the critical feedback they need to see what about their job is making them unhappy. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to paying attention to how our actions make us feel, and by that I mean really feel in our bodies v. how we think we feel in our heads. They help us feel, for example, how pursuing an unwholesome course of action usually creates a stressful response in our system that, over time, might convince us that the allure of an easier or more lucrative path really isn’t worth the way it makes us feel when it means compromising our values.
Of course, anything I can do to help other attorneys find meaning or joy in their legal work makes me even more joyful and fulfilled in mine. It also helps convince me that the law and lawyers can be the source of more happiness and clarity in the world.