Life lessons in the law following a life lost
It was a crisp fall day, the great window in the gathering space framing skeletal trees outside. I sat in the audience, listening to the memorial service. People got up and told stories about the man who had passed, and the man’s contributions to the community. That community included family, friends, the legal world, and the spiritual one. It made me think about one person’s impact. The man had not craved the spotlight, was not a national household name. But he had a passion for knowledge – gathering it, simplifying complex concepts, and teaching others. I started writing a letter to this man earlier this year, to let the man know how his approach to the law impacted my own approach, what I had learned. But the man passed away before I finished the letter. Since the man loved teaching and mentoring, it seems fitting to share his qualities with others.
Lawyers sometimes find themselves stagnating in the law. The man was more likely to source the Restatement of Torts than a form book for legal concepts. I remembered working on a second amended complaint for him and being told to cite case law within the cause of action as the legal foundation for the elements. That novel cause of action survived the demurrer, the motion for summary judgment, and led to a favorable settlement. The takeaway: form books will get formulaic results. Think about ways to make the law work for a client – perhaps in ways the law has not been used before.
The man also loved to know how things work. Many lawyers rely on experts. He preferred the grease-under-the-fingernails method. This meant more detailed questioning during expert depositions and person-most-knowledgeable depositions than those individuals were expecting. A law professor long ago put this another way. One can watch tennis for years, but watching is not doing. The person who plays tennis for years will demonstrate far greater understanding than the person who only watches it.
Organizing and simplifying
About once a year – it seemed typically at the beginning of summer when summer clerks came in – the man would present his Lifecycle of a Case seminar, from incident to post-appeal resolution. His accompanying flow chart was laid out on several sheets of butcher block paper. In the space of about an hour, the audience was guided visually and audibly through the sometimes-circuitous litigation path. By the end, someone without any litigation background (most of the summer clerks) had a very solid grasp of how a case moved through the system.
Similar methods were employed on his complex cases – making concepts easy to grasp for those without subject matter expertise. Before animations were common (and affordable), he used storyboards to illustrate concepts. They helped the decision-makers in his cases understand his point of view. Pro tip: storyboards still have their place in cases.
A man in full
There is a tendency today to worship workaholic behavior. “That person doesn’t know his children’s names, is on his sixth marriage, and spends 90 hours a week in the office. I want to be just like him!” Our job as lawyers is to tell stories. What happened, why, and its significance. We must know ourselves first to know and relate to others. And that cannot happen when one is unbalanced – so weighted with work that it sinks one’s soul. Work hard, and work smart while working, to leave time for other matters.
Balance also involves giving back. The man taught the importance of helping those less fortunate. The man gave back through his church involvement. I got involved in pro bono programs, primarily helping low-income and homeless folks. The work gives me an opportunity to help others and to regularly remind me how fortunate I am.
Not without fault
One popular interview technique is to ask job candidates not only about strengths, but weaknesses. To reach the end without noting that the man, too, had weaknesses would be unfair. If you, dear reader, finish this column and conclude, “I could never be like that guy – he was perfect. I have flaws,” then this piece has failed. Everyone has flaws. Our goal should be to keep trying to improve so that our good qualities surpass our flaws.
It was a bittersweet affair, the memorial. I saw lots of people I had worked with over the years. I heard funny, sad, and heartfelt stories. Does every lawyer need to practice in exactly the same fashion as the man who passed? No. But can we learn something from others, in how they tackled this profession called the law? Yes. By constantly learning, adjusting, and changing based on the inputs around us, we keep our practices vigorous. We can all do the best possible job for our clients, for ourselves, and for our field.