The Time for Transformation Has Come
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. - Mahatma Gandhi
I regard it as a duty which I owed, not just to my people, but also to my profession, to the practice of law, and to the justice for all mankind, to cry out against this discrimination which is essentially unjust and opposed to the whole basis of the attitude towards justice which is part of the tradition of legal training in this country. I believed that in taking up a stand against this injustice I was upholding the dignity of what should be an honorable profession. -Nelson Mandela
Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb. - Sir Winston Churchill
For over ten years, I've been talking about the transformation of the legal profession. Those words are shorthand for a bigger conversation which I sometimes express as an inquiry: What if lawyers were peacemakers, problem-solvers and healers of conflicts?
Take a moment and imagine the paradigm shift of lawyers being peacemakers, problem-solvers and healers of conflicts. The world is facing a lot of problems these days. Many of them seem critical to the survival of the species or at least to the quality of life, peace and security of our country. A friend of mine with interests in both conflict resolution and environmental issues grew up with the goal of saving the world. After law school, she told me that she was torn about where to put her energies. Would the world be destroyed first by conflict or by environmental disaster? We need our best and brightest minds and most passionate hearts to be engaged in solutions, in finding common ground, healing polarization, in addressing the critical problems of the day with reason and compassion.
Lawyers occupy a large percentage of the leadership positions in our country. About half of all the members of Congress have law degrees and we all know that lawyers hold a lot of other political offices from local city councils to a high percentage in the executive and judicial branches of all levels of government. Lawyers are community leaders in many ways other than politics, on boards of directors of corporations, for-profit and not-for-profit. In many kinds of crises, lawyers are the ones who are called upon for advice. We are the protectors of human rights, the defenders of the Constitution. We have a lot of power to resolve or escalate conflict. We have the potential to be the problem-solvers or the problem-exacerbators. What if we took on being the problem-solvers?
The adversarial system was a big improvement over armed combat but I believe our society is evolving beyond that. I've seen evidence that the legal recession is actually part of a longer term shift away from adversarialism. Healthy people are exploring better ways to resolve their conflicts. One judge lamented that the majority of his cases now involve one party with personality disorder since everyone else settles out of court. In the business world, corporations can no longer afford the luxury of enemy-making through litigation.
Noting the trends toward a decrease in litigation, the ABA recently predicted that alternative dispute resolution is an area of growth in the profession. Those in the ADR profession haven't yet seen that shift in an increase of business and we are challenged to find ways of educating the public to the value of peacemaking attorneys rather than just avoiding the conflict or filing pro se.
Change is Urgent
Several studies and my own interviews have supported the idea that beginning law students have altruistic motives. In dozens of interviews, I've heard “I went to law school to change the world.”[If viewing from home page, click Read More or the title for rest.]
Somewhere along the way, many of us have gotten lost from those early goals. We've convinced ourselves that we were idealistic and therefore foolish. As we've fed our cynicism, our profession has lost the confidence of the people and, some would say, many lawyers have lost their own souls. Addiction, suicide, depression and cynicism are rampant among lawyers.
I don't need to go on about what isn't working in the world. You see it in your own life. You're either watching the news and seeing it every day or have retreated into avoiding the news and are hiding from what's happening. Some think it is easier to just turn off, numb down, focus on our own To Do list. But the problems aren't going away. It is time to wake up! This is why we were born. This is why you went to law school. The world needs saving and you're the one!
Several years ago, I found myself in the buffet line next to Dean David Hall. Dean Hall is a very tall, quiet man who exudes spiritual peace. I thanked him for the work he was doing in the legal profession, on behalf of all of us who benefited from that work. Humbly, he dismissed my praise and said he was called to do it. “Yes, but you answered the call,” I reminded him. So often, we hear the call and ignore it. It eats away at us. We know it is there. We feel it when we get up in the morning. We self-medicate to quiet it.
Your Purpose is Calling
This is your call. The time has come for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their country, their world, for the benefit of all sentient beings.
What does your heart yearn to do? What cause or action would fulfill on the promises you made yourself before cynicism and despair took over? What difference were you born to make?
Answering that question can be frightening. My own answer had me give up my home and office and be an itinerant person for the last eighteen months. It had me spend every dollar I had and seek more to fulfill on my mission. It gets me up in the morning, hungry for more opportunities to transform the legal profession, to tell the stories of others who are doing that work.
Answering that question can be freeing. THIS is what I was born to do. THIS is the world I want for my children. I no longer have the burden of doing work that isn't fulfilling my deepest purpose. All my time, attention, and resources are aligned for one purpose.
As I interview the pioneers and heroes of this movement, I am encouraged and inspired by their bravery and creativity. There was no therapeutic jurisprudence until Bruce Winick and David Wexler spoke it into being. Judge Ginger Lerner Wren started her mental health court on her lunch hour because she saw that it was a critical human rights issue that mentally ill people not be locked up in jail because they were sick. Judge Tracy McCooey spends every Saturday morning at a quilting circle with drug court defendants because it is the way she can make the biggest difference in helping their recovery. Week after week, I read about problem-solving court graduates who say “it saved my life” so often it could be cliche. Judges like Peggy Hora, Cindy Lederman, Steve Leifman and Jeri Beth Cohen made those courts possible. There was no consensus, generally no funding at the beginning, no acceptance for new ideas. They took a stand for the evolution of our culture, for what they were called to do. They took a stand for their own integrity, doing what they knew was right, what they were called to do, what their position as judge allowed them to do.
Over the last eighteen months, we've done over a hundred interviews, heard over a hundred stories of transformation and going against the mainstream because their hearts and minds called them to make a difference. My purpose is fulfilled in sharing the stories, in giving attention to the courageous and creative lawyers who stepped forward as pioneers in a movement that has the potential to save the world.
Where to start
Professor Susan Daicoff talks about how we're all part of a whole and she is the little pinky finger on one hand, getting her part of the work done. Like Susan, I believe that if everyone did their part, whether it is the pinky finger on the other hand, the little toe nail or something big like the heart, the whole system would come into balance and would work for everyone.
Not everyone has to close their office and become a nomad to fulfill their purpose. Some will find that they can tweak their lives a little and improve their quality of life dramatically. Sometimes making small changes can lead to bigger ones later on. Rather than finding the right place to start, it is most important to just start. Take the next step. Move into action.
Here are some ideas to start with.
Create peace within. Be in contemplation for twenty minutes a day. Choose your own favorite flavor of contemplation. Try meditation. Someone once told me that teaching a lawyer to meditate was a revolutionary act. Quiet your mind. Breathe. Write in a journal. Walk in the woods. Reflect. (Doug Chermak's interview on CuttingEdgeLaw.com includes a link to a chart of the many approaches to contemplative practice.)
Invite opposing counsel out to lunch and get to know each other. Don't talk about the case. In the early days of collaborative law, Stu Webb started having potlucks with other lawyers. I've heard him say that it was hard to break bread with someone and then tear them up in court the next day.
Hire a coach to help you get control of your life and practice and to align it with your purpose. A coach can help you get from where you are to where you want to be on your time schedule. I always recommend that lawyers hire coaches who have also been lawyers. It is important that your coach understand the pressures you experience and that he or she can guide you out of the woods from the experience of having been there. I got started on my path by creating my life purpose with the help of a coach and have trued myself up (or refined my purpose) ever since. My coaching clients are often amazed at how quickly they can shift their lives toward joy and fulfillment.
Sign up for a continuing ed program that improves your skills as a peacemaker, problem-solver or healer. Professor Susan Daicoff discovered that lawyers practicing comprehensive law tend to suffer less of the negative effects of law practice and more job satisfaction. It is important to really get the paradigm shift that these approaches offer. Many are likely to be life-changing. When I do training, I often see the light bulbs begin to come on when participants get that they can actually be open, vulnerable and honest in a collaborative process.
Become a more holistic person with interests outside of law. Maybe you could even take a non-legal course or join a book group. There are dozens of lawyers out there who have been trained in massage therapy, reiki, healing touch, energy medicine, etc. Not only did the training help in their own healing process, often they also were able to incorporate that healing energy into their law practices.
Start a book group, quilting circle, or community garden. I recently read about one lawyer who started a book group for homeless people. He bought books for them and they met to discuss them, adding to the quality of everyone's life.
Leave the office and do something physical every day. Get out of your chair. Take a walk. Take a yoga class. Even get a massage. The stress of practicing law has to go somewhere. Give your body a way to ground it.
Be ethical, professional and gracious to everyone you encounter. Even if everyone around you seems to be a jerk, you don't have to be. There has some research that indicates that you'll be a more effective lawyer and negotiator if you don't fall into the trap of being Rambo.
Do community service in an area that is important to you. Take a pro bono case....or two. Coach your son's soccer team. Allow yourself to open up to the possibility of making a profound difference in someone's life.
Discern when to litigate and fight and when to seek a settlement. Peace doesn't mean rolling over and playing dead. If someone is pouring toxic waste in the stream above my house, there is no compromise. It must stop! If I am unjustly accused of a crime and my rights have been violated, I want a defense lawyer who will fight hard. However, if my son is arrested because he has an addiction, locking him up for several years won't do as much good as helping him get clean and sober, employed, and stable. And, if the issue is whether to have time with my daughter on Wednesday night or Thursday night, going to court to fight about it is going to do more harm than good to the relationship with my co-parent and may traumatize my child. It is far more important to be able to enjoy a dance at my daughter's wedding than it is to win any particular battle.
There is the old cliche that no one on their death bed ever says they wish that they'd have worked more. What do you want to do more of? Time with family? A trip around the world? I think that doing those things that we dream of makes us a better person and therefore a better lawyer. In his interview, Barry Fernold talks about creating a sabbatical program at his law firm. He got to pursue the artistic part of him and bring that creativity back to the office.
Speak up. Take a stand about something that is important to you. Do you see an injustice that is being ignored? Whether it is needing a speed bump on your street or saving the whales, what is waiting there for you to do? What is calling you? Choose something that looks impossible to do and do it. Or choose something easy and do that. What is easy for you may be really difficult for someone not as bright as you are.
If you're not where you think you can give time, give money. Make a micro-loan or fund a scholarship. Give to something near and dear to your heart. I knew one lawyer who was well-known in his niche for practicing in a very adversarial manner. With a daughter to support and high overhead, he thought he couldn't yet make the shift to a more peacemaking approach so he contributed a portion of his expert witness and litigation income to an organization that was aligned with his higher values. If everyone reading this gave even $5, we'd have funds to finish the year.
Pay attention to what you eat and where it came from. Fresh strawberries in January probably aren't local in many places. A popular healthy-looking chicken sandwich at one fast food restaurant contains as many calories as some people should eat in a day. Will that plastic water bottle still be around in 500 years? Does that water bottle raise your risk of cancer?
You are not alone.
Since I began this work in the late 1990's, I've talked to thousands of lawyers. The most common refrain: “I thought that I was alone.” I talked to two lawyers at one large law firm who told me that no one there would understand. They worked down the hall from each other and, luckily, finally gave me permission to share that with them. We all went to law school to make a difference. We all get frustrated with endless discovery, moving money from one corporate balance sheet to another, clients who just want to be right, and the stress of everyday practice. We all want more from life and doing something different against the mass of the legal system has seemed impossible. We've been jerks and we've had jerks on the other side of a case. It is time for us to talk about all this. It is time to bring integrity, balance and peace to the profession and give us the gift of our Selves. It is time to wake up, consciously live our lives and create our legacies. And maybe your calling is to share this article with someone else.
J. Kim Wright is the publisher of CuttingEdgeLaw.com. With videographer, Michael Matthews, she has been on the road since Spring, 2008, conducting the interviews you see on this site (and a number of others which are in the editing process.) Sometimes calling herself "high end homeless" or "location independent", she supports herself and pays Michael [not what he is worth] with part-time legal work, collaborative law training, and coaching income. She is currently writing a book on this movement to be published by the American Bar Association in 2010. Her personal web site is www.consciouscoach.com. All donations and sponsorships go to support the transformation of the legal profession.