Keeva on Life and Practice
What Tears May Tell
Posted Feb 21, 2006 6:38 AM CDT
By Steven Keeva
I know a lot of lawyers in a lot of cities and towns, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I saw a lawyer cry.
It happened at a meeting in a medium-size Midwestern town, where about 12 local lawyers and a couple of judges had come together to discuss some of the ups and downs of practicing in their part of the world.
One by one, the attendees took their turns, describing the good and the bad, the gratifying and the grating.
But the tone of the gathering changed markedly when the lawyer in question I’ll call him John took his turn. Graying and in his mid-50s, John was a litigator, highly regarded in legal circles and in the larger community as well.
Unlike his colleagues at the gathering, he told the group a story of something that happened during his earliest days in practice.
It concerned a child who had been institutionalized for behavioral problems and after many months was desperate to go home. His parents were ready to have him back, so John was hired to handle the legalities. He did so, he recalled, with great passion and commitment.
But then he turned inward, as he described the moment when the child was reunited with his parents: “He was so excited, so emotional,” John recalled. “He asked me, ‘Do you mean I really get to go home?’ I told him, ‘Yes, that’s right,’ and he smiled and said, ‘You are the greatest lawyer in the whole world.’ ”
That’s when John’s voice broke, the tears began to flow, and it became clear to me that despite all his professional plaudits, something was more important—the personal contact and a feeling of having made a clear difference in someone else’s life.
The fact is, allowing yourself to show genuine emotion in others’ presence is to communicate in a special way, one that acknowledges your humanity and opens the door to deeper connections. In John’s case, for example, it appeared to have been a way of saying that he trusted his colleagues in the room—something that mattered deeply to him.
Still, a question hangs in the air: Is the ability to mask one’s emotions a critical aspect of the lawyer’s job description? Of course, but only in certain circumstances. (Trying a case in a courtroom comes to mind.)
Not, for example, if the emotion happens to be anger, which seems to come quite easily to a large sector of the bar for whom more delicate feelings can be challenging.
Too often, lawyers sense there are roles to play that preclude real human-to-human contact with clients. This can be particularly uncomfortable when clients are clearly suffering, as they so often are when they seek a lawyer’s help.
But again, what about the emotions that make us feel connected to clients and colleagues? This is crucial, partly because nonlawyers seem to have a sense that lawyers put process above people.
In fact, this complaint appears to be emblematic of a whole range of grievances that describe a profession populated by practitioners who are more concerned with the case—that is, an artificial construct—than the person sitting across the desk.
We think that if we cry, people will think we’re unstable and weak. But lawyers need to know there are other lawyers who feel that way too, and they can take solace from a story like John’s.
Personal injury lawyer Rick Halpert of Kalamazoo, Mich., has spent most of his career assuming that his clients want to be in the hands of powerful people, knights on steeds and such—certainly not the kind that cry. But that assumption was dashed one day when he talked to the mother of a child who had recently died in an accident. As she described her son, Halpert found himself taken by how much the boy sounded like his son. When she began to cry, Halpert found himself crying too, something he had not previously allowed himself to do in such cases because he thought it might imply weakness to the client. But later on, the client told him that his tears made her feel that she had been heard.
From then on, in child death cases, Halpert has allowed himself to do what feels natural—he cries when listening to parents of deceased children.
We live in a culture that militates against our natural capacity to be aware of our feelings. The density of information that ceaselessly bathes and assaults us makes it more challenging than ever to feel what is delicate and evanescent, as is so much that makes life meaningful.
A metaphor I particularly like for describing many practitioners’ obsession with thinking like a lawyer comes from Saki Santorelli, executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “The linear, discursive mind has come loose from its moorings—its proper place,” he has written.
“We have built a boat and mistaken it for the sea. Yet beyond the labels of patient or practitioner [read ‘client and lawyer’] we are all in the same boat thirsting for the same living water.”
Steven Keeva is the author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life.