Section Review

If Esq. ain't happy, ain't nobody happy

Let's face it. Try as we may to practice preventive law and stave off crises with fine print, more often than not, clients show up only when a problem or concern has gotten the better of them. As a last resort, maybe after trying to handle things on their own, they come to us discouraged, afraid, angry, confused and not knowing what to do next.

To be fully effective as lawyers, we need to believe that our clients' emotional needs are every bit as real as their legal needs, even though our training focuses primarily on the law. But it's only when we ourselves already possess what our clients need emotionally that we can give it to them - be it strength, confidence, information, energy, patience or whatever else the situation demands.

A typical family-law scenario illustrates this point. Jane and Tom own their house and are having marital problems. Tom has moved out but refuses to relinquish the house keys, choosing instead to come and go when he pleases, removing clothing, food, mail and anything else as he sees fit. Jane finds these random visits by Tom stressful. Legally, Tom has the right to come and go in his own house, but the effect it's having on Jane is making it impossible for her to function.

Jane sees a lawyer to find out how to keep Tom out of the house. The lawyer tells Jane there's not much that can be done to stop Tom because, legally, it's his house, too.

Fortunately for her, Jane sees another lawyer, who lays out various options to stop Tom from entering at will. Although the first lawyer may have been technically correct, he did nothing to solve Jane's problem.

According to him, "Look, she wanted to know what she could do. I told her, 'Nothing, it's his house. That's the law.' What does she want me to do about it?"

Even if correct, how effective was this lawyer? The second lawyer had a different perspective.

"Jane did not care so much about Tom's access to the house so much as she needed a secure place to live. What was really bothering her was not knowing who was coming and going. There are a couple of ways to address this. My job is to find out what's troubling Jane the most and give her options for how to solve that problem."

This lawyer was operating with a healthy emotional balance and was therefore able to focus on what Jane needed, unlike the first lawyer, who lobbed the problem right back to her.

Airlines tell you that if the cabin should lose pressure, put your own mask on first before helping others. The first lawyer forgot to do this, and his ability to help Jane was severely impaired. He had no energy, no creativity, no desire to go the extra mile to find a way to help. He took a narrow view that was supremely unhelpful.

We all know how it feels, being pecked to death by an endless onslaught of other people's problems. With clients besieging us with demands each day, how can we reach and maintain the balance needed so that a helping attitude and a generous outlook come naturally?


The Full-Belly Solution

I remember one day listening to Ira Glass's radio program This American Life. Family businesses were under the microscope. A nephew in a family business, who had been brought in and mentored by his Uncle Mo, called a meeting, presumably to fire Mo's brother. Outraged, Mo and his brother summarily quit the business without attending the meeting. Mo's brother suffered a heart attack from the stress, was unemployed for two years and had to start life over again at 50.

The family became so polarized that when the nephew invited Mo to his son's bar mitzvah, Mo scrawled "Judas" in red ink across the R.S.V.P. and mailed it back. He never attended the bar mitzvah, and didn't speak to his nephew or his sister (the young man's mother) for 35 years. Finally, when his sister was 90 and about to have heart surgery, Mo had an epiphany and decided to reconcile.

The story had a happy ending, but there was a postscript: "In self-analysis, in self-evaluation," Mo said, "I ask myself this question: if I had not done as well financially as I have in the past three or four years, would I have reconciled? Would I not have remembered the bitterness? It was easier to reconcile with a full stomach."

It has been a long time since I listened to Mo that day, but the full-stomach metaphor has stuck with me. In fact, it has become a mantra. Each day I try to be mindful of how much more effective I can be when my stomach is full. Not just at reconciling, but at doing almost everything, including running my law practice, interacting with clients and raising children.


The Full-Body Solution

This is the same principle described in the family law example, which also applies to my law practice and probably to yours as well. If Jane's first lawyer hadn't already been feeling in some way needy or deprived, if his stomach instead had been full, he might not have been so stingy with the help he gave Jane.

When I neglect to feed my whole self, it's so much harder to be an effective advisor or advocate. Feeding my whole self does not only mean attending CLE, trying cases, and participating in bar activities. It means doing whatever I need to do in order to be happy and satisfied - including banishing feelings of scarcity, or at least keeping them safely at bay.

This is not esoteric psychobabble. It's a very simple technique that can be easily employed throughout any day, week, month or lifetime. Even the smallest things, like turning on the space heater under my desk instead of trying to ignore the chill in the air, go a long way to filling me up. When I'm feeling warm, it's much easier for my personality to follow suit.

If I can shift my focus from - or, better yet, eliminate - stress and distractions, such as how cold my fingers are or how much money a particular client owes me, I can put more energy into being a more civil and contented communicator and advocate. When time and energy become more abundant for Jane's first lawyer, he will be more comfortable sharing them with his clients, and he will be a more effective lawyer. To accomplish this, he may need to learn to manage his time better, jettison some of his "dog" cases or shed activities that drain his time and energy.


The Stake and Garlic Approach

One of the biggest energy vampires in our practices is the repetition of tasks we do not enjoy and are not good at. Yet we keep getting drawn into projects requiring skills we don't have or don't want to develop. If you dislike the protracted pretrial activity of civil litigation, then get out of it. Switch to criminal law, where the right to a speedy trial means you won't keep wrangling for years over discovery disputes. If you abhor writing, hire someone to do your writing for you, or move into a practice area that is more form-intensive. If you procrastinate over calling your clients about past-due bills, hire someone to do it for you. The solutions are simple. What's more challenging is pinpointing exactly what it is you don't like about your practice and then retooling to get rid of it. It takes time and introspection.


Finding Your Most Admirable Self

Introspection is easier when you remove yourself from the legal environment. While elbow-deep in the moist soil of a garden, for example, you may be more likely to gain insight into what really makes you happy than when you're in courtroom nine marking trial exhibits and churning stomach acid as you wonder why your expert witness is late for court. It's when anxiety recedes from your consciousness and is replaced by the pleasure you take in making something beautiful and intricate with your hands, or while cooking a meal and savoring the aroma of the herbs, that you begin to nourish your spirit. Activities outside the law that we pursue just for the sheer pleasure of doing them help us get to know who we really are. When that happens, we can create a life that includes what we need to be happy.

As the little sign in the knick-knack store proclaims, "If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." Contrary to what our culture teaches us, making mama (and ourselves) happy may not require retooling a practice, making a lot of money or even making any external changes whatsoever.

It's easy to pin our hopes and dreams on the future acquisition of material things. David Brooks observes in his book, On Paradise Drive (2004), that Americans construct


Fantasies of what their lives might be like, using the goods and images they see in … magazines. They are not there yet, and in truth they may never get there, but they get pleasure from bathing in the possibility of what might be, of sloshing about in the golden waters of some future happiness. They achieve a transubstantiation of goods, using products and gear to create a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment, in which they can finally relax, in which their best and most admirable self will emerge at last.


But nothing is stopping you or me from taking a new approach and finding that elusive harmony, happiness and contentment today, by making changes from within. It takes only adjusting our perspectives and finding ways to be satisfied with who we are now and to delight in what we already have. What Matthew Arnold wrote in his 1852 poem, "Empedocles on Etna," still resonates:


Is it so small a thing

To have enjoy'd the sun,

To have lived light in the spring,

To have loved, to have thought, to have done;

To have advanc'd true friends, and beat down baffling foes;


That we must feign a bliss

Of doubtful future date,

And, while we dream on this,

Lose all our present state,

And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?


It is by no means a small thing. If we adopt the attitude that we deserve to be happy; if we can focus on the pleasurable moments in our daily routines; if we can eliminate, not just tolerate, some of the things that drive us crazy; and if we can create a life that purposely devotes time on a regular, ongoing basis to what gives us pleasure, we will be well on our way to finding our "most admirable self." Being a more effective lawyer will follow effortlessly.

©2017 Massachusetts Bar Association