The Wake Up Call for Lawyers

The Perils of "Being" a Lawyer

February 17, 2022 Judi Cohen Season 6 Episode 339
The Wake Up Call for Lawyers
The Perils of "Being" a Lawyer
Show Notes Transcript

This question of identity: what does it mean to "be" a lawyer? Is it something to earn, like a degree? Or something to pass into, or be sworn into, after taking the bar?

And what does it mean to "be" a mindfulness practitioner? Is there some right of passage?Some number of hours of silence to cultivate, or endure? Some tap on the shoulder by elders, or teachers?

Or are these not identities at all, but aspirations? And if so, what sustainable forces can we bring to the moment to moment practice of law, and of mindfulness, so that someday we can feel we have truly earned the sacred title of lawyer, and mindfulness practitioner?

So many questions! And not many answers. But maybe some ideas...

Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 339. 

Today I want to talk about the perils of “Being” a lawyer. I’m drawing from Chapter 19 of the Dhamapada, which is called The Just, and talks about all the ways in which, even though we may try to look the part or even act the part, we can’t call ourselves kind, or good, or awake, if we haven’t done the work. For example, the chapter has several verses that offer reminders like…

One is not wise only because one speaks a lot...

Gray hair does not make one an elder…

Not through talk alone or by good looks does someone…become a person of good character…

Not by means of a shaven head does someone become a devoted person…

Not by silence does an ignorant fool become a sage.

And maybe we could add, not by doing well in law school, or getting a plum job, or being sworn in, does someone become a lawyer.

There’s an old joke from medical school that goes something like, what do you call the person at the very bottom of the class? “Doctor.” But graduating from medical school doesn't make someone a doctor. It's a degree, but there's also a long, long road of practice ahead.

For many years after I was sworn in as a lawyer I felt queasy about being called a lawyer. At the ripe old age of 25, I had no idea what that meant. I felt I had so far to go in terms of understanding, let alone mastery, that I was reluctant to take on the mantle, the identity. If I was at a party or a family gathering, I wouldn’t deny I was a lawyer, but it wasn’t an identity I felt like I fully owned, or even was fully entitled to.

And then by my middle 30’s, after I’d been practicing a while (a good while), and also after I’d begun teaching, it became easier. And that’s because I’d been practicing a while. 

It seems to me that in this way, practicing law is a lot like practicing mindfulness:  calling myself a lawyer wasn’t going to count for much, without the practice, in the same way that, as the Dhammapada says, speaking a lot doesn’t mean I’m wise, and spending time in silence surely doesn’t make me a sage. 

One point here, I think, is humility. 

There are times when it’s important to be able to say, “interesting, haven’t done that, let me give it a look and let you know if we can handle that.” And in the classroom - I remember that moment, when I was a few years into teaching, and was finally comfortable saying in response to a student question, “I don’t know. Let me find out for you.” To know that yes, I’m a lawyer, but I might have a ways to go, or at least on that particular topic.

This isn’t different for me than losing my temper, or having a flight/freeze moment, or saying something unkind before I realize that’s what’s about to come out of my mouth, and remembering I’m still studying mindfulness, I’m no sage, I have a little wisdom – more than when I was in my 30’s – but not so much. There’s a long way to go, and many people to learn from. 

This knowledge, or let’s call it a “re-collection” of how much there is to learn, and how far to go – and I like “recollection” since the word mindfulness comes from the Pali word “Sati,” which can be translated as recollection – recollecting that there’s a long way to go, a big mountain to climb; that in the best sense of the word, we’re not experts but beginners – this is something priceless to learn.

Of course the mountain, whether it’s a mountain of work or of learning or of practice or of all three – it can feel insurmountable, and overwhelming. And from there, anxiety and depression can take hold. 

But approaching the mountain with beginner’s mind, that treasured quality of mind that is the hallmark of a great lawyer as well as a dedicated mindfulness practitioner? That’s a different story. That points towards a dedication rather than to overwhelm, a kind of commitment rather than exhaustion.  

But that perspective does require another quality of mind: the quality of viriya, or joyful effort. 

Joyful effort might seem like a tall order to someone who’s already burning the midnight oil night after night after night. How is it possible to approach yet another night, yet another weekend, yet another case or matter, with a sense of joyful energy, viriya, when we’re dog-tired and the future looks a lot like more of the present? 

Mindfulness has a few colorful images to inspire us. Practice like your hair is on fire! I think that’s an image that works for mindfulness and for law. Practice as if there’s a snake on your lap! That works for both, too.

But also, practice with gentleness towards ourselves. Practice with joy. Practice with perseverance but also non-arrogance. Find the balance between making too little effort and too much effort, and practice right there, on that balance point.

Practice staying in the present moment so that worry and regret don’t suck up the time.

Practice without grasping when practicing mindfulness; practice without grasping for the brass ring when practicing law. 

Practice as a mode of serving clients, students, the world. Find the intrinsic rewards and let those call us forward into the hard work of the day, or night, instead of letting fear bite at our heels. 

When we remember to do these things, or even some of them, I think we are earning the right to call ourselves practitioners of mindfulness. And I also think, or at least it feels like it was true for me, that then, I had the right to call myself a lawyer.

Let’s sit.