Give up on anything but yourself

A thought-provoking post by Seth Godin today that isn’t really about politics, even though it asks whether Hillary Clinton should quit the Democratic race. What it’s really about is quitting, which Seth endorses in a book (that I endorse) called The Dip, and the danger of changing who you are in order to achieve your goal. Here’s the ending:

For a long time, we’ve created a myth in our culture that it’s worth any price to reach your goal, especially if your ego tells you that you’re the best solution. We’ve created legends of people and organizations that pursued transformative long shots to achieve great results.

I need to be really clear: pushing through the Dip and becoming the best in the world at what you do is in fact the key to success. But (and it’s a big but), if you’re required to become someone you’re not, or required to mutate your brand into one that’s ultimately a failure in order to do so, you’re way better off quitting instead.

This got me thinking about lawyers. Many lawyers are happy with their working lives — or at least they’re content, having decided happiness was too high a target to aim for. But a lot of lawyers are unhappy, sometimes deeply, with their job or career. A lot of them talk about quitting, and a growing number of them do — either to find another job in a more fulfilling environment, or to keep looking until they eventually leave the profession altogether. Neither the law, nor every job in the law, is for everyone.

But many others stay where they are and grow more unhappy by the day. Some do it out of financial necessity, especially recent graduates with mountains of debt or a family to support. Some stick it out in the stubborn hope that things will improve, despite the absence of supporting evidence. Some convince themselves that the intangible benefits (social status, professional prestige, family pride) cancel out the misery. And some subscribe to the fallacy of “sunk costs,” that they’ve invested so much time, money and soul into a legal career that they can’t give up now.

One way or another, the unhappy lawyers in this second group are going to wind up in the same place as the unhappy ones in the first group: in a different job or out of the profession. They don’t have a strategy for finding fulfillment where they are, and they probably don’t have the motivation to execute such a strategy if they had one. Sooner or later, they’ll have to give it up; from my perspective, it might as well be sooner, and I recommend The Dip for more on that subject.

But there are worse things than being in a career that goes against your grain; there’s changing your grain to go with your career. Continue Reading

Page 123, and More

It’s a holiday in many North American jurisdictions today (including mine — someone decided that a day off in mid-February needed the patronizing label “Family Day”), and I’m at home working on a couple of projects anyway, so this seemed like a good day for something a little lighter. From Michel-Adrien Sheppard at SLAW comes this neat meme about random wisdom: open the nearest book, turn to page 123, read down five lines and write out the three sentences that appear next.

As it happens, the book on top of the pile I’m consulting for my projects is The Lawyer’s Calling: Christian Faith and Legal Practice, a 1996 work by Joseph G. Allegretti. Page 123 finds Allegretti discussing the character of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons :

Part of the reason for More’s appeal to lawyers is his legalistic (in the good sense of the word!) approach to the problem of the oath [More had refused to sign one attesting to the legality of the king’s divorce]. An oath is composed of words, he says, and he will sign it if he can, if the words permit him. He is no plastic saint: he very much wants to live, and he will use his mind to escape punishment if it is possible to do so.

Allegretti likes that part of the play because it points up More’s humanity: he has no wish to become a martyr and will use his God-given legal skills to avoid that fate, so long as doing so does not interfere with his primary loyalty to God. That, of course, does not turn out to be possible, and More suffers accordingly. There’s a lot to chew over there about a lawyer’s duty to a client conflicting with his duty to his conscience, a subject we should talk about more than we do.

I’m partial to the real Thomas More for a host of personal and professional reasons, but the literary More in Bolt’s play makes a fascinating study in lawyers’ moral responsibilities. He’s one of two fictional professionals who I think really illuminate lawyers’ lives in this regard: the other is More’s opposite number, Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who represents the consequences of allowing your employer’s judgment to substitute for your own (if you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favour and read the book, too — it focuses less on the thwarted romance and more on the moral obligations of servanthood).

For all I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, I never actually found Atticus Finch to be that intriguing a character as a lawyer. He’s too idealized and heroic to serve as a realistic role model for lawyers — never makes a mistake, always does the right thing. For my money, he’s a far more compelling figure, and a better role model, when viewed solely as a father (and that’s as far as I’ll go to mark Family Day).

So: what’s on the nearest page 123 to you today?

Offshore reflections

It’s a few weeks late, but this article about offshore legal services published early last month in The Hindu is worth a read, although it’s not offered on the basis that all its contents should necessarily be taken at face value. It comes across rather as a corporate Q-and-A for SDD Global Solutions, an Indian legal services PKO, and some might differ with company president Russell Smith’s uncompromising opinions on the state of Western law practice. In fairness, not every shot he fires is accurate — but a lot of them sure are.

What’s particularly interesting about this article, however, is the unattractive picture of the Western legal profession that comes through — this is the image the profession has managed to develop for itself throughout the rest of the world. If your North American or European firm wants to be a global player in the law, you should be aware that your reputation is now preceding you.

Some highlights: Continue Reading

21st-century legal education

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 28th, 2006.

I wasn’t much of an articling student. I worked hard, but not smart: my learning curves were more like sheer cliff faces. I’m sure I wasted a lot of clients’ money and lawyers’ time during my year of service, and the firm was right not to ask me back.

In retrospect, I can see many things I should have done differently. But at the time, I was seriously peeved that no one had prepared me for this, that I hadn’t the first clue of what the practising Bar required. That’s been a pretty common experience for many new lawyers before and since.

Many lawyers blame the law schools, using overworn clichés like “ivory towers” and “here in the real world.” But law schools aren’t trade schools, and I don’t think they ought to be. A good legal education teaches students that the law has a history, a purpose and a soul, that law matters; it’s an incredibly rich and fulfilling experience that gives us the right to call ourselves “professionals.”

But law schools will have to adapt to changing circumstances in the years to come; they won’t really have much choice. Continue Reading