Keeva on Life and Practice

Listen Well

Posted Sep 29, 2005 2:30 AM CDT
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Some time back—I’d bet it was about five years ago—I gave myself a peculiar challenge, the results of which a California legal weekly was willing to publish.

The challenge was this: to describe in a few hundred words what that particular moment in the legal profession looked like. And so I tried to summon an image that conveyed the current professional zeitgeist. But as much as I tried, nothing came to me.

What did come to mind, however, was an aural image—that is, what the profession sounded like at the time.

Why go to the trouble? Well, at some level I believed, and still do, that as a legal journalist one of my jobs is to listen to, and evaluate, the legal culture’s health. Allow me to quote from the earlier piece:

“What I found was revealing—and troubling. Nearly all that is audible is shrill, frenetic and in the upper registers. The bass line seems to be missing.

“And I’ve come to realize that the problem isn’t only in the bass line. There’s something wrong with the rhythm too. There are too few rests. Music without silence grows tedious and exhausting; it gives the imagination no room to breathe.”

And so, I am revisiting that piece. Why? Because I’ve been impressed lately with developments that suggest a more sonorous legal environment, at least in some places and at some times. I’m not suggesting that the overall tone has changed significantly—some would say that things only get inexorably worse—but I see some good things bubbling up.

How else to explain a recent California Lawyer magazine poll that shows 86 percent of that state’s 139,000 lawyers to be extremely or very satisfied with their jobs? There may be reasons to be skeptical about those numbers, but it’s hard to imagine they’re that much off the mark. Maybe California lawyers are dancing to their own kind of music. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Staying In Key

But consider a handful of other developments, each of which appeals to my ear:

The growth of collaborative practices. The International Academy of Collaborative Professionals—best known for its work in bringing humanity and compassion to the divorce process—has expanded into other areas. Its upcoming October forum in Atlanta will feature a three-tier program, including a civil/commercial track. With more than 1,500 members, and a record of success in the family law domain, we can look forward to growth in other practice areas and, I hope, more sonorous music generally.

Interest in restorative justice. This alternative to our retribution-based criminal justice system has garnered a lot of attention of late. And why not? With its emphasis on restoring relationships and repairing the harm caused by crime, restorative justice offers affected parties a chance to move toward healing. Nothing comparable tends to happen in our criminal justice system, in which lessons are often lost and victims are left at loose ends.

These days, even some big-city prosecutors have set their sights on the benefits of RJ. A great example is Ronnie Earle, the district attorney in Austin, Texas, who had this to say about restorative justice: RJ “builds the house on rock. It’s what the future holds.”

Apology rising. The recent proliferation of statutes legalizing expressions of contrition or apology is a development that puts the accent on the humane expression of natural human feeling. Some of these laws require that the apologizer speak within certain parameters, while others are more or less wide open in terms of the language allowed.

Of course these statutes are primarily invoked in the medical domain, most often when procedures have gone awry. In Illinois, for example, there is a pilot program in which several participating hospitals have agreed that, in the case of error, hospital staffs will give full apologies to patients and their families and admit their mistakes.

Tilting toward the inner life. I’ve long complained that lawyers are overwhelmingly outer-oriented people, the kind who tend to neglect their inner needs.

But here, too, there are indications that things are changing. For example, it’s no longer shocking to hear of lawyers learning to meditate right in their offices, even among their colleagues. At 170-lawyer Leonard, Street and Deinard in Minneapolis—to name one such firm—about 45 lawyers along with 17 support staff have learned to meditate from an experienced partner.

One partner described the benefits this way: “It’s not as if practicing [meditation] can make you a good trial lawyer if you’re not one, or make you feel like a different person. It’s more like you’ve never been in shape before and suddenly you are, and you think, ‘My God, this really enhances me.’ ” Last summer, the firm even put on a half-day program for its summer associates to get them thinking about good health and balance. I will end where I did the first time round: “There are clearly practitioners who have found ways to bring an awareness of their depths into their work and have come to enjoy that work beyond what most had thought possible.

“As the numbers of such lawyers grow—and they are growing—there will come a time when even the tone- deaf will realize that things are changing. The rhythm of legal life will become more amenable to pleasure and satisfaction, and the lower registers will pulse audibly, providing emotional and even spiritual support for the profession.”

Steven Keeva is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.

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