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Keeva on Life and Practice

Judge Not


Folks we work with, people we think we know, often get hidden behind a scrim of our own assumptions and projections. Tran­si­tory thoughts harden into established fact, so that what began as a fleeting notion takes on the character of reality.

We simply know that a colleague is “difficult,” a certain client is “emotional” or a friend is “petty.” But are they? Day by day, minute by minute, we judge others and ourselves—much of it occurring beneath the threshold of awareness.

And so our relationships suffer because we come to see the judgments, rather than the people we’re judging, as the reality. The judgments take up tremendous mental energy and space, while bringing little value to our lives.

Yes, judging others is normal. We all do it all the time. It’s not, per se, a bad thing—but only if we learn to see it as it’s happening.

It is extremely helpful to practice recognizing judgments as they arise in your awareness. Al­though it is not easy to do at first, it is certainly satisfying and can improve both personal and professional relationships.

Of course, lawyers exercise judgment in their law practices every day. Essential legal decisions, after all, require good judgment. But here we are talking about the judgmental tendencies that can put other people—and ourselves—into rigid boxes.

For a variety of reasons, self-judgment is an occupational hazard for lawyers as well.

Many tend to judge themselves harshly, which is easy to do in a culture that rewards and values winning above all else. Second-best just isn’t good enough, and there is always something else that could have been done: another issue researched, another witness called, another theory considered. But if you consider winning the hallmark of a “good” lawyer, then all lawyers frequently fall short.

A DEAFENING ROAR

In addition to causing inner turmoil, self-judging inhibits a lawyer’s ability to listen to others. It can be hard to hear someone else’s voice over the negative chatter in your own head.

Another drawback is that people who judge them­selves harshly are often hard on others, too. And if your goal is to hear what a client is really saying, being judgmental toward that person can be rather counter­productive.

An overly judgmental disposition is deadening because it makes your world smaller. It forecloses possi­bilities. How can you truly determine what your client needs if you’ve already judged her to be too stubborn to reason with?

Step back and think about the basis for your judgment. Is it possible that what you perceive as stubbornness is actually caused by fear?

What might happen if you set aside your judgment and, instead, approached your client as someone who fears losing something dear to her? Perhaps you could then hear what she needs. Peo­­ple are far more complex than any single judgment can capture.

Some lawyers are quite willing to discuss the ways they judge others, including colleagues, opponents and clients.

But these are people who have come to understand that an overly judgmental disposition can harm them and who now work to move beyond those tendencies. As a result, they approach their work with more energy and passion, and they are able to impart a sense of calm and openness to their clients.

AN EXERCISE IN AWARENESS

When I become aware that I’m judging someone and can then let go of that judgment, I find doing so significantly changes my state of mind.

It’s as if I’ve emerged from a cramped, airless consciousness into a more open, embracing and less fearful mental place. I feel more in control of the way I relate to the world and to other people. I know lawyers who do the same and find it helpful.

Try this. Think of a client, friend or work colleague. What judgments have you made about this person? Try your best to flush them out. Make a list. Be ruthlessly honest. (No one but you will know.) Now answer these questions:

• If I didn’t believe that I knew this about this person—if I hadn’t already judged him to have or to lack a particular quality—what might I be able to see that I am currently missing?

• What new possibilities might arise in our relationship?

• What would it feel like if the next time I saw this per­son I made an effort simply to let go of this judgment?

You might be surprised.

You can also try to sensitize yourself to judgmental tendencies by pausing for a few minutes in advance of meeting a client, friend or loved one. Remind yourself that the person you are about to see is unique, sui generis, if you will. She is wondrous and unfathomable—someone capable of surprising you again and again, if you let it happen.


Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the auth­or of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfac­tion in the Legal Life.


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