Double happiness

I came across an article recently that argued against pro bono expectations for legal practitioners. Lawyers should not be obliged to “give back to the community” because, among other reasons, conscientious lawyers haven’t taken anything from it — no more so than hairdressers or mechanics, for instance.

The term “give something back to the community” probably has earned criticism — overuse has turned it into something of an empty catchphrase. So let’s think about it for a moment.

In our feature article this month about happiness in the legal profession, we list seven steps by which lawyers can achieve greater personal satisfaction. The seventh point includes the simple yet powerful prescription: “Be grateful.” Gratitude is the expression of humility. It’s the emotion generated when we recognize how immense is our good fortune and how little our contribution to it.

We were born in or immigrated to one of the finest countries in the world — a country whose medical, judicial, and educational institutions are lavish by comparison to what you’ll find on most of the planet. On top of that, we personally had sufficient resources — intellectual, financial and familial, few of them authored by us— to enter and graduate from law school. Just 0.03% of Canada’s population belongs to the legal profession; that tiny sliver is us.

And we’re lawyers. Despite what we may hear or even think in dark, cynical corners, the law is widely admired and its practitioners accorded a social status surpassed by very few. When was the last time you were ashamed to admit, at a party or other gathering, that you were a lawyer? We’re pretty proud of being lawyers, and we can hardly be blamed for that.

But it would be blameworthy if we were to grandly accept the mantle of lawyer as some kind of birthright — if we mistook our good fortune for anything more than an inheritance of grace. It’s the recognition of how lucky we are that drives the best of us to share the gifts we’ve received with those less fortunate. We’re not “giving back to the community” — we’re giving away freely that which was given freely to us.

That’s why lawyers who give of themselves — of their talent and time — are some of the happiest and most satisfied people I know. Like everyone else who donates what they have, they realize how rich they are and are compelled to enrich others — and find themselves enriched in return beyond their expectations.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the April/May 2005 issue of National magazine.