Outside Counsel: Choosing happiness, day by day

Issue November 2015 By Jeffrey N. Catalano

I looked down on my new friend as he gave me a rubber bracelet that read "Veselie. Zi de Zi." "What does it mean, Claudio?" I asked the 10-year-old Romanian orphan.

He looked up at me with big eyes and a bright smile -- "Happy. Day by day."

When he said this, a question immediately came to mind that I wanted to posit to all of the children here at the Pro Vita orphanage in a tiny village in Romania, the remotest place on earth I have ever been in my life.

Like the other 200 orphans here, Claudio has no parents to love him. Others are with their mothers who fled here as victims of abuse, with nowhere else to turn. Here, there are none of the simple luxuries we have become accustomed to - no TVs, no iPhones. They have no sports teams or dance companies to join. They eat nearly the same meal every day with no fruits or vegetables. They live in sparse, crowded houses on a dirt road. They walk two miles to school every day, but their chances of going to college and leading a successful life (as we define it) are slim to none.

And so, I wanted to ask them, "How are you all so happy when you have so little?" I didn't ask that question, of course, but I pondered it long enough while I was there to discover the answer.

My wife and I had decided to take our two children (ages 14 and 11) to this neglected section of the world in July to volunteer at this orphanage through United Planet. We were doing this for various reasons: to give back, to teach our children to be empathetic and engaged citizens of the world, and for some adventure. But upon arriving, we instantly thought to ourselves, "what have we done?" We don't speak the language and everyone is a stranger. There are no hospitals or police stations for hundreds of miles, and, God help me, no Starbucks! We didn't even have cell phone service or email access. I felt the opposite of claustrophobic -- we were too remote, too detached and too vulnerable. Even the beautiful Carpathian Mountain range that surrounded us was not enough to ease my initial anxiety.

But as the days progressed, the world slowly became smaller and more familiar to us. We immersed ourselves in projects like painting a house, helping feed the farm animals and loading wood onto trucks. But the most rewarding and comforting experience was with the orphans. We learned that you don't need language or modern conveniences to engage children. They are truly the same everywhere. We enjoyed playing board games, chess, arts and crafts and tag. We arranged a soccer match with a ball we brought (sadly, they didn't even have that). We broke bread with them every day and exchanged stories. The orphanage is religiously affiliated and run with a firm but loving hand. We saw that the staff and children are kind, thankful - and relentlessly happy. They open their arms wide to joy. They have not given in to despair. They don't fight it, but seem to ignore it or are unconscious of its existence.

As lawyers, we all are trained to be pessimistic. We anticipate how we could lose a trial, how a contract could fail or how a divorce could end up hurting our client. Our clients come to us carrying sadness, stress or anger. We also consistently deal with adversity, contentiousness and sometimes failure. Moreover, we start out with huge law school debt, and sometimes feel overworked, or underworked, or uncertain about our career or firm.

So, when my practice presents emotional options, including frustration or discontent, I remember that we are the voice of our clients who look to us with nowhere to turn. We have the ability to make right what went wrong. We can make a tremendous difference in their lives and, in so doing, maybe make the world a little better place. I remain resolute that we belong to an honorable profession that advocates for justice, equality and fairness. In other words, in trying times, I am thankful for the wisdom of a bright-eyed orphan who finds happiness in a desolate village far away in Romania. He taught me that you find happiness by choosing it, relentlessly -- day by day.

Jeffrey N. Catalano, the MBA's president-elect, is a partner at Todd & Weld LLP in Boston, where he represents victims of catastrophic injuries in the areas of medical negligence, product liability, auto accident, class action and other personal injury cases.